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WORK ON THE WILD SIDE : A Job in the Underground Helped Her Meet Expenses, but She Still Needed Moral Support

August 08, 1993|Jonathan Gold

My friend June is a bright, well-adjusted college student in her mid-20s, with a straight-A average, a boyfriend in a band and a quick, self-deprecating wit. Someday, she'd like to be a doctor; she's the quiet one you've seen, with her nose in a biology text, sitting in the corner of some dark Hollywood club.

For the time being, June practices another sort of craft: For the last several weeks, she has been working in a popular Los Angeles dungeon, where men, some rich and important, pay $200 an hour for the privilege of being humiliated, shackled or wrapped in Saran Wrap by her. House policy may prevent her from actually touching her clients, but she can tell you stories that would curl your nostril hairs, and I'm usually happier when she doesn't. The best part, she says, is that the job gives her plenty of time for studying.

Madonna's into S&M. Hollywood's into bondage. Images of sadomasochism saturate movie houses, MTV and perfumed ads in magazines. In Los Angeles, the cultural cutting-edge has been honed by fetish-oriented underground dance clubs for a couple of years now, the kind at which piercing rituals dominate the floor shows and droning techno music dominates the turntables. You can walk into almost any department store and buy fetish clothing that would have been hard to find even in sex stores a decade ago.

S & M has gone mainstream; its iconography has almost become sort of ordinary, the stuff you might see teen-age girls wearing in the mall. And where a sex-industry gig might recently have been unthinkable for a woman like June, becoming a dominatrix these days can, for a moment, seem almost as rational a career choice as nursing or teaching high school.

Look at any Nine Inch Nails video; look at a Calvin Klein spread in Vanity Fair: The line between the sex underground and the cultural underground has become impossibly blurred.

June, her face bright and flushed with wine, announced her new job at the dinner table a couple of months ago. The rest of us nodded, our mouths too full of mushroom risotto to register anything but surprise.

The owner of the dungeon thought she had potential, June said, and already had begun to train her. June's therapist, a strict Jungian, thought the job was a good idea, might give her more confidence in dealing with people, help make her less shy.

And it wasn't as though she'd gone out looking for work like this; she'd driven a pal to a job interview and been "discovered," like the Lana Turner-at-Schwab's thing, though she was disappointed that her friend didn't get a job, too. June's muscular, groovy torn-fishnet look--a la Russ Meyer film starlet Tura Satana--marked her as a natural, the stuff of perverts' dreams. The consensus around the table, not that June was looking for one, was pretty much that this was a cool thing.

Etiquette is difficult these days, and social custom mutates at the speed of light. "Are you sure about this?" I wanted to scream. "Are you sane?"

This is what I said instead: "I can probably get you some part-time work."

"Doing what?" she sneered, " typing ?"

I reddened and nodded mutely. It was none of my business.

June wasn't asking for our approval, anyway, but for our support, which is different, and for our understanding--for the feeling that we would still be her friends while she did this thing, and that we would be her friends when she moved on to something else. She hoped that we wouldn't be too judgmental, and she hoped that we wouldn't smirk.

Although June was too smart to try to persuade us that she helps people to come to terms with their primal selves--or that some of the performance artists we knew did stuff that was far more public and degrading, or that what she did was like a stylized Kabuki of the senses--she probably hoped we'd come to some of those conclusions ourselves. What I hoped, I guess, was that she wouldn't be caught up in the "glamour" of the trade. The world is full of secrets, and she was about to learn some of the most jealously kept.

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