I was definitely at the right address. Tara Indiana, a professional dominatrix, emailed it to me earlier that day. Yet all I could see was the back entrance to a Japanese restaurant and some kitchen workers on their smoke break. There was no way that the sex dungeon I was looking for was in a sushi restaurant…right? Then again, what did I know about sex dungeons? I’d only started exploring kink two weeks earlier, and now here I was searching the back of a sushi restaurant for the sign of the class I’d signed up for, “Secrets of the World’s Greatest Dominatrix.”

“You looking for Cyn Studios?” asked one of the men, startling me. I nodded, and felt my confidence increase just a tiny bit; if this stranger could possibly imagine me in a room filled with whips and floggers, maybe I wasn’t so lost after all.

The man directed me up eight flights of stairs, and as I began my ascent up I awkwardly sidled past another man who glanced at me quickly and then stared, hard, at the floor. Did he think that I was a dominatrix on my way to work? To my surprise, the way he looked at me, with utter submission, made me feel powerful. And sexy. When I arrived at the top of the stairs, I felt less shaken than I had on the street, albeit out of breath.

After a woman in a business-casual outfit signed me in at the front desk, I peered into one of the studio’s rooms. It was surprisingly classy, lavishly decorated in black leather and red velvet. If you forgot about all the men that had been tied up and whipped in there, the room could almost pass for a fancy hotel lobby.

I was led into a large, open room. Behind a pillar I could spot hidden toys that must be used in some of the dominatrices’ scenes: St. Andrew’s crosses, chains, and what looked like an operating table. (I would later learn that medical play is a fetish.) On a table in the front of the room were props that I tried to pretend I’d seen a million times before — spiky collars, leather cuffs, paddles and whips to name a few. Ever the diligent student, I sat on a hard folding chair in the front row and took a deep breath, ready to begin.

There were a few other women in the class. We all smiled awkwardly at each other and made small talk while we sat in folding chairs. We pretended we weren’t about to take a class that promised to teach the psychology of a submissive male, how to manage a stable of men, and, my personal favorite, how to harness your pussy power.

I was there to finally change the pattern of my love — and sex — life.

* * *

Growing up, my sister was six years older than me and as many times cooler. She dated Calvin Klein underwear models and went on free trips to the Hamptons with handsome men. Meanwhile, I wore blue cummerbunds and ruffled white shirts in choir and quoted Harry Potter like it was my job. My sister had to deal with the “stress” of three men vying for her attention at once, while I desperately hoped that someone would ask me out.

My first kiss came painfully late, at sixteen. I didn’t even like him. He enjoyed storm chasing, football, and dirt bikes — everything that I couldn’t care less about. But I went out with him anyway because I didn’t know when another boy would show interest in me. Later in high school I asked Andrew, a boy I’d liked for over a year, to a dance. He said yes, only to back out the next day because he was hoping that somebody better would ask him. Two years later, I would fill Tim’s locker with his favorite candy to ask him to Sadie Hawkins — and be rejected again.

My freshman year of college, I lost my virginity to one of the school’s coveted a cappella stars. We got dinner together and I visited him at work. The only catch was, he didn’t really like me. A week after my deflowering — which was at a party where I had been drinking — I saw him kissing a girl at another party that he had invited me to. The worst part was, I never stood up for myself. I never told men how much they hurt me. I got stepped on, and I never said anything because I thought that was the best I could get.

And the bad luck continued in college: There was the depressive actor who was great in bed but could only talk about how much he hated himself; the sexy Australian composer who conveniently forgot to tell me that he had a girlfriend; the game designer in London who I trusted and told my secrets to, and never heard from again after I slept with him; the filmmaker who pushed me to be more creative, and happened to live with his mom who has the same name as me. There was the sports lover whom I had nothing in common with, who published a series of love letters to me after I told him we shouldn’t see each other; the singer from my writing class who held and kissed me in the street, then pretended I didn’t exist the following day; and the friend who got drunk and told me he was in love with me, only to ignore me the following day.

By the time I was twenty, I had no confidence in my romantic life. I thought no one would stay with me. When it came to men, I was broken. I was sure that the universe was going to keep throwing damaging relationships at me, no matter how hard I tried to avoid them.

That’s how I ended up sitting on a folding chair in a dungeon, hoping to find my pussy power and my inner domme. I’d met some women within the BDSM community in New York City, including professional dominatrices, and was blown away by their self-confidence. Heads turned when they walked into a room, but they didn’t care. These women didn’t need the approval of others to tell them they were amazing and desirable. They knew it, and had made a career out of it. I was hoping to get an inkling of that sense of self-love. I wanted to feel dominant and powerful, not just sexually, but in my life.

In front of me stood Tara Indiana, a woman who looked innocuous in her jeans and t-shirt, though my earlier Google search proved otherwise. On Fetlife, the online community for fetishes, she has over 950 followers. An excerpt from her profile reads:

“Have no doubt in your mind – you will be My human hand puppet and you will learn to like it… ALL play is EARNED. And it will be earned through domestic service and or financial exploitation. If you don’t know Who I am, it is a RARE honor and opportunity.”

If you look at her porn, you’ll see her using people as human ashtrays, binding their bodies with rope, spanking them, flogging them, and caning them. She even owns her own dungeon and mentors dominatrices. In short, she is a true sadist.

And there she was, in person, standing in front of a whiteboard.

As I waited for the other women to arrive, I noticed an obese cat that sat, perched above me, on a stool. I looked at the furry blob, and it stared back with a “Bitch, what you know?” kind of look. I laughed. “I can only imagine the things this cat has seen,” I said out loud. To my surprise, Tara laughed, too. I started to relax.

And then the class began. We talked about the difference between pro and lifestyle dommes, how to be irresistible, and the importance of seeing yourself as a goddess. I’d seen talk shows and magazines encourage women to find their “inner goddess,” but never knew how exactly I was supposed to go about that. Take a Zumba class? Get a facial? Eat some kale salads? As much as I would like to think that a personal transformation is that simple, it isn’t. That’s bullshit. For me, true change came from learning from a community of people, both online and off, who decide to honor their true desires. For some men, that comes in the form of a submission that is often frowned upon because it’s deemed un-masculine. For some women, that means finding the dominance within them that society has worked so hard to crush.

The psychology element of the class was great, but I was still curious about how dommes do their job behind closed doors. As we were wrapping up, Tara pulled me aside and told me that there would be a slave-training class immediately afterwards, and that there would be a particular man in attendance who she thought would be the perfect match for me.

* * *

So I stayed. Still sitting in the sex dungeon two hours after I’d nervously searched the alley for the entrance, as a group of volunteer slaves entered, I was a little uncomfortable with the idea that these men were aroused by essentially being reduced to human objects. But I knew how much I wanted to experience being dominant myself, and this was the perfect time to learn how. I was not about to ask one of the men I was casually dating if we could break into BDSM — at least without knowing a little bit about what I was doing first.

The crowd in this class was completely different from the last one. Gone were the nervous women who wanted to spice things up in the bedroom. In their place were femme fatales who simply oozed the aura of “I don’t give a flying fuck what you think about me.” I fell into a conversation with the woman next to me — a pro domme — about some inexpensive sex education classes. We were laughing, and, surprising myself, I felt comfortable again. I had to admit that it didn’t hurt that there was a wall of men behind me who, the second they walked in, had essentially acknowledged that I was their superior.

Tara asked for a volunteer. A man in a Hawaiian shirt eagerly raised his hand and went to the front of the room. He looked like he could have been one of my friend’s dads. With a glint in her eye, Tara ordered the man to look at the floor. Gazing upon her was a gift, after all. Then, softly — Tara told us to always speak softly, so that the man could be lured into a submissive state — Tara told her subject that he was no different than the chairs around him. He was only an object until he proved himself to be useful to her. Then, she ordered him to take off his clothes and fold them neatly at his feet. Amazed, I saw this average-looking man strip down and present his ankles and wrists to be cuffed. A leather collar was placed around his neck. At this point, the domme deemed that the man’s folding was not sufficient, and she bent him over to deal ten hard canings. After each one he gazed at the floor and called out, “Thank you, Mistress!”

As hard as I tried, I don’t think I masked the horror on my face very well. Over and over I reminded myself that this was consensual, what this man wanted, and it was actually giving him pleasure. But this man’s ass was covered in red marks. There were even other bruises and scars on his body that were clearly from previous sessions.

I watched Tara put the man through various slave positions, hitting him if he messed up, and learned that I am most definitely not a sadist. I couldn’t get over the visceral, physical beating he was getting. Unfortunately, this realization couldn’t have come at a worse time. Tara handed each of the women a script, which I soon realized contained the exact words she had spoken. A wave of shock hit me, which I again failed to hide.

“What the fuck are you waiting for? Grab yourself a slave!” called Tara. All of the dommes snatched someone without hesitation. The one man who I was hoping for — a muscular doctor who had introduced himself to the room earlier — was taken first. I stood there helplessly, left with the only man who remained. He was roughly sixty years old, a recent immigrant who barely spoke English. I wondered how the hell he had found his way into this class.

Nevertheless, I knew I had to perform. I ordered him to look at the floor, take off his clothes, and fold them neatly. Thank God he only stripped down to his underwear. Unlike everyone else there, I was not comfortable touching a strange man’s naked body in front of an audience. I followed the script, using my best soft-yet-threatening voice. I even paddled him, well aware of Tara’s gaze on my back. She knew that I was inexperienced. After I finished with the Russian man, Tara brought me to the front of the room. Again, I tried to hide my nerves. She informed the class that she was going to teach me how to properly spank. My subject was the Hawaiian shirt man. He was still cuffed and bent over in the front of the room. The trick, I learned, is to hit hard and then leave your hand on the butt — it makes more of an impact than pulling away quickly. And, while I didn’t want to cause someone lasting physical damage, I did like the sense of power that I got from taking control.

Still, when the class was over, I bolted down the stairs so quickly that I left my script behind. Once outside I collapsed against the brick wall of the building, barely able to breathe. For the past four hours I had been pretending I was totally fine, when in reality I was in the middle of the most intimidating situation of my life, and the stress of it hit me all at once.

Then, just as I was collecting myself, preparing to go eat some falafel and pretend I was having a normal day, one of the volunteer slaves from the class approached me, and said that he wanted to serve me. He saw me in the class, and liked how I presented myself. It was the ripped doctor. While I was unsure of how to respond, I immediately felt a heady sense of power. Apparently I’d proven that I could be dominant, after all.

Later that week I had the man travel all the way across town to give me a foot massage. Just like I learned in class, I had him face away from me and sit on the floor. I sat on my bed and wrapped my legs around his neck. That way, he could massage my feet and legs, without the gift of looking at me. While I was nervous at first, I started to get into it quickly. I told him all the things that I thought only men were allowed to say in sexual situations: “I own you now. You’re my toy. You exist to serve me. Only my pleasure matters, not yours.”

At first I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t laughing at me. I felt ridiculous. But after ten minutes I found myself completely in character. I even told him that he had to get my permission to masturbate from then on, and that he could only call me “Goddess.” Before he left I granted him permission to kiss my legs, which he had been begging to do. After I sent him away — without letting him look at me — I collapsed into a fit of giggles. What the fuck had I just done? How did it feel so good? Could I ever tell anyone about this?

* * *

Before this summer, sex had never been an empowering experience for me. While I was confident in the fact that I was smart, funny and mildly attractive, I didn’t think that I was desirable enough to make people stick around. I had to learn that I’m a “Goddess-with-a-capital-G,” and meet other people who would acknowledge that. The shift in how I view myself didn’t just come from within — it also came from learning about the mindset and honesty of others.

Without kink, I would still be struggling to believe that about myself. I would still feel like I didn’t have a hold over men — I would feel like men have a hold over me.

For the rest of the summer I continued my sexual exploration. I went to a polyamory meet-up to learn about different types of relationships. The people I met ended up becoming great friends, who would help introduce me to the world of kink, while also ensuring that I felt safe and was happy. I went to my first “play party,” also known as an orgy, at one of their apartments. I got involved with a British dom, who would practice his rope art on me. Later in the same night we would switch roles and I would be the dominant one. I watched people shock themselves for pleasure. I saw fire play. I met men who identified as sissies. I met women who identified as mermaids. I went on a date with an HBO actor who spent over $400 on dinner. All he got was a kiss. And I even got an offer for a trip to the Hamptons.

* * *

Jillian Richardson is a freelance writer and comedian. If you shout her name three times, she’ll appear in your mirror. Otherwise, you can stalk her on Twitter @thatjillian and email her at jrichardson256@gmail.com.

Alabaster Pizzo is a cartoonist and illustrator who lives in Queens.