AS MISTRESS MATISSE turns a crank attached to an enormous, black padded chair, the seat splits in two and spreads into a V shape. Each half of the seat has its own set of black restraints, so that the client's thighs can be strapped to the separate halves and the client's groin can be as exposed as Matisse (and the client) desires. "I can remember being a little kid, tying up my dolls," she says casually as she points out the pulley system at the top of the chair. "I'm lucky that when I was 18 or 19 I realized that people do this, that it has a name. There are people who do this as an activity and there are people who hold this as their identity. For me, it's an identity; it's part of who I am. It's always in me, even when I'm at the grocery store -- not just when I have a whip in my hand."

The activity to which Matisse refers is BDSM: Bondage, Dominance, Sado-Masochism -- also referred to as S/M or D&S (Dominance & Submission) by practitioners. Though generally erotic in nature, BDSM doesn't necessarily focus on the usual sexual parts for satisfaction -- if you're going to repeatedly smack someone with, say, a three-foot leather strap, it's best to focus on the meatier areas, which can take more punishment.

But back to Matisse, who's now showing me a black padded sawhorse with an open gap along the middle. "I like to have the discomfort under control. People's fantasies run much further than their bodies will ever go. And that's okay; I can verbally engage that fantasy with you while I'm just tapping your bottom. Frequently, the physical things that I do are a symbol and a suggestion more than an actuality."

Matisse is a professional dominatrix, or pro dom; she makes her living by binding, dominating, and hurting people who pay handsomely for the service. "Ninety-five percent of my clients are men in their 40s, white, educated, upper middle class, very much in control in their nine-to-five workday. Wanting to say 'I don't want to be in charge of things for a while' is so taboo that it has to be acted out in this stylized manner. That it has to be an eroticized manner, or else it's way too scary to contemplate, is interesting to me. There's no way of knowing why someone feels good getting spanked, why being dressed in women's lingerie is what it takes to make someone else feel out of control. Who knows why people have their symbols -- but they do." Matisse has little patience for psychoanalysis. "It's a favorite table topic for many of the people I know, but... it just is what I am. Why ask why?"

Her medical room features an examination table with stirrups and one of those shiny metal trays so familiar from a billion hospital dramas. The tray contains a number of syringes and needles. "For the full effect I should have my clients sit here in the cold for half an hour, but I don't think that degree of realism would be appreciated," she speculates. "I see a lot of people who are new. Ads can [depict you as] a cold, forbidding woman, and that's a style, but it's not my style. Not to dis women who choose that style, but dominant people don't need to walk around barking orders at people. I've always stayed away from the image of the cold-hearted bitch who doesn't care anything about you, because I do care. It's important that I create something I can be proud of, that my client has a positive experience. I like that they give me control over their minds and bodies for a while; that's an honor to me. So I don't have any respect for doms who think, 'You are just a worm; you shouldn't be breathing the same air as me.' Sister, if he's not there with you, you're just a chick in a room full of toys and some costumes."

"Is that your nurse's uniform?" I ask.

"DOCTOR Matisse, thank you very much," she snaps, then continues: "Besides, people here do have control over what I do. There is always a safe word. I [was] appalled when this story described a mistress ignoring someone's safe word."

"This story" is the recent cover story "Top to Bottom," by Kiku Shuji, which appeared in the March 23 Seattle Weekly. The writer of that piece went "undercover" to experience life as a dominatrix, and ended up on her hands and knees, puking. Matisse was dismayed not only by the writer's naiveté, but by inappropriate practices she described and the inaccurate statements she made: ignoring safe words, stomping on people, using a whip without training, citing per-hour prices that haven't existed for years, and switching between dominant and submissive positions. "There is no place I know of that makes anyone be both dominant and submissive," Matisse says. "It's bad business; it ruins the client's fantasy." And participating in dangerous practices, she adds, can lead to legal trouble and clients who don't come back. In fact, Matisse wonders whether the article was fabricated. "There's nothing in this story that couldn't have been pulled from bad novels, bad movies, bad TV shows, websites, or porn movies. I would really like to know what kind of checking the Weekly did on this."

At this point, Matisse throws open the doors to a black armoire, revealing dozens of paddles, manacles, dildos, clips, and just about anything else you could want. "These long wooden clothespins look impressive," she comments, "but they're actually less painful than those small plastic ones. It takes time to learn all this. It's not just instant cuffs and water and poof! You're a mistress! You're taking someone's safety in your hands; their physical safety, their emotional well-being, their psychological well-being -- you can't just say, 'Okay, I'm a dom now,' and mess around. It's a responsibility."

Matisse says the Weekly article seemed like nothing more than bathroom reading, designed to "turn people on and make them feel superior at the same time -- you have these sexy photos and this juicy, salacious story, and yet everyone in the story is either a victim or so one-dimensional they're not really a person."

The fact that the author said in the story that she wanted to be a dom because it would teach her to be more assertive -- and then was disgusted by the whole experience -- sends a terrible message, Matisse adds. "What we have is this [story that says] stepping outside the norm is bad for women. It will damage you; so just go home, missy, and make babies. Some people want to feel strong and powerful, so they get this forbidden, sexy job being a pro dom -- but gee, it didn't make them feel powerful.

"That feeling doesn't come from outside."

Mistress Matisse can be reached through her website at www.mistressmatisse.com.

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