The Dominatrix

Long before sado-masochism received its formal name, there has been the domina (also known as dominatrix). Although the term originally applied to the female head of a nunnery, it has since gained a more modern meaning. According to some sources, practitioners of erotic flagellation have offered their services to customers whose tastes ran to pain and humiliation since at least the beginning of the 18th century. Long dubbed "the English vice", erotic flagellation first gained popularity in England (possibly due to the common use of corporal punishment in English schools) but has since spread around the world. Despite a long list of names for those with an interest in this exotic area of history there was none more famous than Mrs. Theresa Berkley of 28 Charlotte Street in London.

While little i known about Mrs. Berkley's early history, contemporary accounts describe her early 19th century brothel with great detail (and a little awe).  As one writer described it: "At her shop, whosoever went with plenty of money could be birched, whipped, fustigated (cudgeled), scourged, needle-pricked, half-hung, holly-brushed, furse brushed, butcher-brushed, stinging-nettled, curry-combed, phlebotomized, and tortured until he had a belly full".  The extensive array of instruments in her establishment exceeded the imagination and she even pioneered in developing new forms of erotic pain.

As one source described, ""She had a dozen tapering whip thongs, a dozen cat-o'-nine-tails studded with needle points, various kinds of thin supple switches, leather straps as thick as traces, currycombs and oxhide straps studded with nails, which had become tough and hard from constant use, also holly and gorse and a prickly evergreen called 'butcher's bush.'  During the summer, glass and Chinese vases were kept filled with green nettles."

Her clients included men and women from all classes of society (providing they could afford her services) and she was absolutely discreet. For those clients who preferred to carry out the abuse, Mrs. Berkley and the numerous girls employed in her establishment allowed themselves to be whipped (customers paid extra, of course). One of her most notorious inventions (now known as Pober[1] the Berkley Horse) was an adjustable whipping table on which the naked client could be secured and placed in various positions for maximum erotic pleasure. She also maintained a hook and pulley for hanging up the clients for their whipping pleasure.

Given the nature of her clientele, Mrs. Berkley had little fear of being imprisoned or transported like so many other brothel keepers of her time. There were certainly no police raids such as the one that doomed poor Margaret Clapp. The prices that she charged her highly placed clients made her extremely well off.  In one surviving letter, a customer hearing about her "famous apparatus" offered her the following pricing: "a pound sterling for the first blood drawn, two pounds sterling if the blood runs down to my heels, three pounds sterling if my heels are bathed in blood, four pounds sterling if the blood reaches the floor, and five pounds sterling if you succeed in making me lose consciousness."

Theresa Berkley continued to reign as the queen of her profession until her death in 1836. Which is when things got a little strange...

Mrs. Berkley's brother, a very proper missionary who had been living in Australia for the previous 30 years, returned to England to settle his sister's estate. Whatever his plans had been, he was horrified to discover how his sister had made her money (his reaction to the various instruments in her establishment can only be imagined). He renounced any claim to her estate and returned to Australia.

The only other possible heir to her estate was her physician, Dr. Vance, but he wasn't interested either. The Crown took everything in the end (what happened to her extensive array of erotic instruments doesn't seem to be recorded). As for Theresa Berkley's numerous letters and files, including names of her prominent clients (and their preferences), Dr. Vance burned them all.

Which was a pity really.  While Dr. Vance was mainly worried about the blackmail potential, there's no questioning the historical value of those letters. After Theresa Berkley's death, other women were quick to take her place.  In an era when women weren't allowed to own property, the sense of power that some women found in using a whip on men doesn't seem that hard to understand.

Even today, dominatrixes (dominatrices?) can be found in many countries with numerous paying customers.  Their legal status varies from place to place but the BDSM subculture continues to flourish despite the devastating impact that public exposure can have for its participants (as demonstrated by certain recent incidents). 

Estimated incidence of BDSM-related sexual behaviours vary according to methodology and definition but Janus and Janus placed it at 11-14% in their 1994 nationwide survey.  Other estimates have ranged from 5 to 25 percent. While most clinicians don't consider BDSM as pathological (providing it isn't taken to extremes, of course), current prejudices ensure that women following in Mrs. Berkley's footsteps must continue to work in secret.

           

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