Directions to the Logan Square Dungeon were very specific. Park here, call this number when you arrive, don’t ring the bell. As instructed, I called Ms. Chase upon my arrival. I was early. She let me know they were finishing with a photo shoot, but she would be out shortly to greet me.
In the gravel alley alongside the Dungeon, a father tossed around a baseball with his elementary school aged sons as a Blue Line train trudged by. An affable mutt who answered to the name of Emerson, wandered the grounds, leash-free. An older gent carted out of the Dungeon what I assumed was photographic equipment and soon after, Sophia appeared: petite, black-framed glasses, not a hair out of place. She welcomed me in and asked me to remove my shoes. I obliged and asked her not to judge the condition of my paws; she assured me there was “no judgement here.” I believed her, but I’m always suspect, especially when my claws are legit in need a fresh layer of a polish.
The first room she walked me through was the Red Room which featured a black, padded bondage table with speed hooks and eyebolts on its side, a St. Andrew’s cross in one corner, a padded spanking horse and paddles in the other. The walls were painted red – hence, the Red Room – with mirrors here and there, and rich Lyptus wood cabinets with handcuffs, chains, and floggers stored behind them, as well as needles, hydrogen peroxide, and Band-Aids.
The next room was the The Chamber. This is where “the scary stuff is more out in the open.” A similar bondage table, but with speed hooks and a wooden cage beneath. A St. Andrew’s cross, but also an 8’ by 10’ suspension rack. Chains for a love swing, masks for fetish and bondage play, and all of the other accoutrements “out in the open.” I’m no schoolgirl, but there was definitely a lot of information to process.
The final area Sophia walked me through was the Domestic Space, which consists of a Bedroom, Living Room, and Kitchen with kink incorporated throughout: light bondage cuffs and a small flogger in the Bedroom, a Liberator Esse Bondage Chaise Lounge and stripper pole in the Living Room. There’s also a small consignment rack in the Living Room to rent costumes and a glass case with sex toys and other equipment for (honor system) purchase in the Kitchen.
We sat down in the Living Room, where I was much less distracted – and Sophia was gracious and generous in answering my questions.
When did the Chicago Dungeon Rentals (CDR) open? How did it come about?
As a professional dominatrix, you need to have a place to work from and I started out as an independent. There are independent dominatrices and there are people who work for an employer and those [spaces they provide] are usually called commercial dungeons. As an independent domme, I rented from a woman who owned a dungeon by the hour. When I traveled, I rented other places. There are a handful of independent dungeons in Chicago that you can rent from. But you have to be a professional. You have to know who to contact. It’s not something there’s a big directory of online, for privacy reasons… I rented at other places for three years and then had an opportunity to purchase a friend’s space so I took over the lease, bought all of the equipment that she wasn’t going to keep with her, and then restructured the business and redid the space. Prior to this, this space was only open to a handful of dommes, about five people who rented her, and that was it.
You mentioned there really aren’t other spaces like this in the area. Can you say something about spaces similar, maybe across the country or other countries?
There’s a website called KinkBnB that has kink-friendly spaces for rent. A lot of them are dungeons. And frequently, you can spend the night. Some of them, you can rent by the hour as well.
What kind of educational programming is offered here?
That’s just me. People can hire me to teach them one-on-one or couples can hire me or small groups even. A few times a year, I present workshops at conferences. But for the most part, it’s just one-on-one and then people have the privacy to talk about exactly what they’re interested in. If they have any issues or things that they want to problem solve, we can do that then and they don’t have to worry about being in a big group of people. It can also be a little more hands on. Frequently for the instruction, there will be maybe twenty minutes [of the hour] where we’re talking, I get to understand the folks’ relationships, what they’re ultimately seeking, go over logistical things, safety, areas they’re interested in – whether it’s bondage, spanking, needle play, whatever it is – we go over all of that, and once all of those questions are answered, usually in a less distracting environment like this [referring to the Living Room], then we can go into the playroom where it’s very distracting and people can actually pick things up, talk about them, try things, stuff like that.
You’ve got a BA from DePaul and an MA in Clinical Social Work at the University of Chicago. Can you tell me a little more about your journey – how you wound up being a dominatrix who owns her own dungeon? That’s pretty impressive.
It was a long journey with lots of incremental stuff. But, out of DePaul, I started working at Early to Bed, which is a feminist sex toy store and worked there at least part-time until last October (for thirteen years). That was a wonderful education. I got to help people daily, answering questions about sexual pleasure or problem solving when people had sexual issues and then also teaching classes there. That’s where I got my start. That was in 2003 and about three or four years later, I decided to go back to school. At the same time I was working for Early to Bed, I was also working for Rape Victim Advocates. I was the intake coordinator. Sadly, they lost funding for the position. So that’s when I started doing this full-time. I was looking big picture at other jobs I’d like to have in the future and pretty much everything I was looking at, you’d need an MSW, so I decided to go back to school. I did a Google search for best MSW programs, University of Chicago was at the top, and I was like, “oh, that’s nearby; cool” and applied there. It was during that time that I did sex advice over the phone and then also under a different persona, did phone sex. So I got a lot more private time talking to people about their sexual issues, dating questions, things like that and that’s when I found that I really enjoyed some of the dominant and submissive phone calls and turned out to be pretty good at them. So I had about three years while I was in grad school where I was dominating people without ever touching them. And you learn a lot that way. With BDSM, there’s a hell of a lot of it that’s psychological. That’s the type of thing you don’t see in movies or even reading books because it’s not visually exciting when it’s just the way somebody is looking at the other person.
You had mentioned in email how Fifty Shades of Gray and online porn has made BDSM a little more accessible or maybe a little more common. What would you say is the status of BDSM currently in terms of its popularity, its acceptance? Do you really see it as having improved? Do you think these things have put kink in an altogether new or different space? Or do these things further mystify or complicate peoples’ understanding of BDSM?
There’s definitely more visibility, so people are talking about it. Whether or not the conversations are quality ones, ones that are educating or promoting acceptance, that’s a whole other question. I get journalists all the time wanting to talk to me about being a dominatrix and dungeons because it’s a salacious topic. And while Fifty Shades of Gray certainly is bigger than anything that’s come before it, when Secretary came out, people were talking about kink. I talk to other dommes and it doesn’t matter what year it is or how long ago it was, people are having the conversation, “God, everyone wants to be a dominatrix right now.” People were saying that in the ‘90s, people were saying that in the 2000s, people are saying that now. It’s a thing. People see [being a dominatrix] as something kind of glamorous and an easy way to make money. “You get to hit people for money? Wow!” It really is not quite that simple.
So, what would you say to those people, the ones who think that it’s so easy? Would you say it can be grueling sometimes?
Absolutely. There is a strong stigma against being a sex worker. The majority of my colleagues aren’t out to everybody – all of their friends, all of their family – because people don’t see it as legitimate employment. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not an easy way to make a lot of money. If you’re an independent domme, you’re running your own business. You’re handling your own marketing, all the internet content, your own branding. It’s a very big job. The majority of people who enter into professional domination don’t last a year. People think, “oh, that’ll be fun and easy.” But the industry is tough, as it should be. I mean, clients are going to be paying a fair amount of money and they want to have a good, quality experience. Also, we’re only as good as our reputations, so we have to work very hard to maintain that because that does travel around. It’s definitely not easy. I love my job, just like many people who have difficult jobs.
Who are your colleagues, how do you know them?
Other independent dominatrices. They rent from me. They come to me. I mean, you certainly know people you meet from local parties and the scene, FetLife, which is like Facebook for kinky people. People connect through FetLife from cities all over the world. And then social media. I mean, we all connect with each other that way. There’s a conference that happens twice a year in the United States called DomCon [once in LA and again, in New Orleans]. And there are women who I only met online, through Twitter or Facebook, who I finally saw in person at DomCon. So there’s lots of connections that get made on the web. LA has a lot of very large dungeons and the woman who started DomCon resides in LA.
What kind of rules or parameters are pretty common in the world of BDSM? I mean most people know about safewords, but what kinds of other rules are there that someone vanilla, like myself would be totally oblivious to?
Well, I’d say a structure to a healthy BDSM interaction, when you’re going to be playing with someone–-whether you’ve been playing with for a long time or a brand new person you just met-–having a pre-scene negotiation would be the first step. That’s an opportunity for both the dominant and the submissive to communicate to each other about their level of experience, what their interests are in general, what their interests are for that particular day, where their limits are, establish that safeword, and then also there’s typically an interview conducted by the dominant of the submissive. You’re doing information gathering so you understand exactly what they’re seeking out so that in the moment, in the scene, you can make educated decisions about what you want to do, how best to read their nonverbal signals. It’s also a time to answer any questions so you’re not having to pause the scene and go, “hey, was that ok for you? Did you really like that? I wasn’t quite sure what you were saying there.” Because, that can really take you out of the moment, unless that’s what you’re seeking somehow. Most people are not.
Personally, I think vanilla sex would be a lot better if people had pre-scene negotiations with that too. “Do you want oral today?” “No, I’m not really into it. Anal would be great though.” “Ok, let’s go there.” That would be super helpful.
Pre-scene negotiation helps [prevent] miscommunications, helps reestablish consent. It also reestablishes the responsibilities of both parties. The dominant is responsible for the submissive’s safety and well-being, both physical and mental, throughout all of this – [as well as] their own. [The dominant] should only be playing within their own skillset, and not try to do things they don’t know how to do yet. And the submissive is responsible for being a very clear communicator and when they are in the scene, speaking up if something is going wrong. Whether that’s saying, “this position is giving me a cramp in the neck” or calling their safeword because something has crossed a personal threshold, that’s super important. Then, at the pre-scene negotiation, when everybody is on the same page, you get to have the actual scene, where you have play time. That structure is usually maintained by the dominant who controls the rise and fall of the scene, how it concludes, and they’re reading the submissive throughout. Typically, there is talking back and forth. Sometimes, scenes are very light-hearted and people are joking and laughing. I smile a lot in my scenes. Other times, it could be complete silence and super intense, and you’re just reading the other person’s body language. Similar to vanilla sex: if you see their breath increasing, “oh, they like what I’m doing to them right now.” That type of thing. Then, whenever the scene concludes, there’s aftercare. So that would be the time, if there is anything physical that needs to be tended to. If skin was broken, that would be the time to clean and put Band-Aids on things. But also, that’s a good time for emotional aftercare. Because it can be a bit of a mind altering experience, you want to make sure somebody is fully present and back to earth before they go in their car and drive home. You want to make sure they’re in good shape. And that again, is the responsibility of the dominant, to make sure the submissive is back to their self before they let them go anywhere.
Ok, so this sounds ideal, but…what about the not-so-ideal?
Things like having a pre-scene negotiation, doing aftercare and having a safeword aren’t just best practices, people tend to do them. I would say there are definitely exceptions to that, people who see rules as things to be broken, or it’s more exciting if they don’t do x, y, or z. But people tend to [use best practices] because people tend to want to play with you again. If you’re a good communicator, you’re going to have a killer scene, and people are going to want to come back to you versus somebody who doesn’t ask the right questions and ends up crossing the line. [If something is] uncomfortable, you don’t want to play with them again. So it really is positive reinforcement. But there are people who are going to do irresponsible things regardless. For folks who come to rent here, there is a fair amount of financial investment in it. It’s not super cheap to do it, so they have to be serious to a certain extent and value their own time. So, I feel like folks in general have a pretty responsible outlook. That’s also the tone I set when people are here. I’m not saying, “Hey, this is a party, go have fun!” I am serious about this. Is it fun? Yes, it’s super fun. I have a great time doing this. But it’s only fun when you have all of the safety protocols in place so you don’t have to worry–-and then you can be carefree and do all of these things when you already know that there’s a First Aid cabinet over there and a fire extinguisher over there. You’ve got all of these things covered for worse case scenarios.
For those who may be a bit sheepish but would like to get a glimpse into the world of kink, do you have any reading and/or viewing recommendations that feature it in sex positive ways?
Playing Well With Others [by Lee Harrington and Mollena Williams] would be a fantastic start. Itanswers everything. It has a nice big list of vocab. It also breaks down what the different types of social events are: what a play party is versus what a BDSM conference is versus what a munch is, which is a social event where there’s no play involved; it’s just socializing with other kinky people with food. If it’s drinks, it’s a slosh. It also tells you, “this is commonly what people wear to things,” because that’s a big question for people. When you go to your first party, you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb. It is completely ok to observe at most BDSM parties. Lots of people do not play and they just watch. It answers lots of those questions.
Who are your idols or mentors in kink, living or throughout history?
Oh, wow! That’s a big question. Um… hm. Well, some people I have taken classes or intensives with, that I’ve learned a lot from, one is Midori. She’s a kink educator and a rope expert, and just a phenomenal educator. So, I’ve taken her workshops and weekend long intensives with her that are fantastic, and I would highly recommend her to anybody else who wants to learn. Besides that, I did attend Cleo Debois’ Academy of SM Arts in San Francisco. She and the instructors there are fantastic. And there are really so many amazing educators who end up teaching at conferences who I think are fantastic. One is Lochai. He does primarily rope instruction… Also Gray Dancer, he’s one of the folks who runs Ropecraft, which is a newer BDSM conference that’s happening twice a year now. It’s happening in Chicago at the end of May. Wonderful attitude towards things, really embraces diversity in the community and really emphasizes consent culture.
To learn more about Sophia Chase, educational programming, or space rental at the Chicago Dungeon Rentals, visit: www.chicagodungeonrentals.com.
Places in Chicago that host workshops:
Early to Bed (education-focused sex toy store)
The Pleasure Chest (sex toy store)
G Boutique (sex toy and lingerie store)
Taboo Tabou (sex toy & lingerie store)
Galleria Domain (private BDSM club; workshops open to public)