RECESSION SEX WORKERS #9: The Refined Tyranny of Mistress Marzanna Katorga

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“The early messages in my family were that women are the source of power. They made the household decisions, held the purse strings, and if the woman of the house was not happy, no one was happy.”

In High school, Marzanna hung out with the geeky new wave crowd who smoked cloves, cut class and drank vodka. I was a blonde cheerleader who dated sexually ambiguous Mormon surfers. She was a year older so our social circles clashed, but I remember Marzanna’s black eyeliner, vintage coats and her hearty laugh. Marzanna and I’ve known each other our whole lives. We went to ballet together when we were five. Our Dads, both staunch Republicans, attend Rotary meetings in our small town. Hungry to escape the insulation of Humboldt County, Marzanna and I were both foreign exchange students. I found her twenty years later on Facebook and she agreed to do this interview about her career as a sadist, her personal relationships and her life as an ex-pat.

The Rumpus: You’ve always been a bright, theatrical person. Did you always know you would live a subversive lifestyle? How does a nice girl from Eureka, CA become a Pro Domme in Berlin?

Mme Marzanna Katorga: I didn’t know I would be a subversive person at all.  I was raised to be such a good girl. I had no real desires to be a particular thing when I grew up but I was instilled with a feeling that I was special and therefore something special would happen for me.  So, talk about a shattered illusion when I got out into the real world. I really feel like I was raised to be some sort of exiled aristocrat in a world where formality and aristocracy are mostly dead. I mostly wanted to be elegant and artistic and lauded for my creativity and loved. Either that or a veterinarian.  So I guess in a way I have become what I wanted. Without the animal doctor part, although I do use vet wrap and needles and I do enjoy treating men like dogs or pigs so maybe I got the best of both worlds. I knew the world was far larger than the few miles radius a small town offers.  Mostly I just kept pushing beyond those boundaries I felt in my household growing up.  I find fulfillment at the border or near the edge of society.

Rumpus: What were some messages you received about sex in your family and in our small town?

Katorga: The early messages in my family were that women are the source of power. They made the household decisions, held the purse strings, and if the woman of the house was not happy, no one was happy.  Things were done to assure the woman of the house was happy, comfortably situated, and she had the things around her just so.  Being raised that way and on ballet, opera, theater, and art as well as performing these things in the family living room for guests so that I could be praised for these skills raised me to understand a sense of power and control and femininity.  Feminine cruelty and fetishism came later. The messages I received early on were so deeply coded and hidden it was like trying to unravel the human genome.  Every hint of sexuality took on a spark for me, and those things that aren’t considered “sex” by most became my codex.  High heels that caught the eye of someone and made them double take, lipstick, the barest touch of one hand to another’s arm – these felt like “sex” because I was hyper-alert to human connection and like all young people I was seeking information I filled the gap in my knowledge with fantasy. I believe this has something to do with fetishism and fetishism has everything to do with my personal and professional life. Intimacy was a secret message to be decoded. Touch was electric.

Rumpus: What messages did you receive about beauty and desire? When did you discover you were sexually different than other people?

Katorga: Beauty was when my mother and my grandmother got dressed up to go out or had a dinner party with the table perfectly set and everything had a quality of elegance that masked any hostility or imperfections. There were conversations that were not about what was being said. True desire was hidden and finery replaced deeper urges. Beauty was a certain public appearance of being put together, of being comely.  Beauty was something classic and never garish.  Beauty was in control; out of control was bad. I spent hours and hours looking at records and photos of ladies in heels and hats and gloves and lipstick, at the heightened femininity of the 1950s. I took every kind of “lady” class imaginable. I was also playing baseball, mowed the lawn and was left to my own devices with mostly male playmates. I hated dolls; I loved army men. I was different from my friends.  I spoke using proper English for a start, I wore vintage clothing and I really didn’t know how to fit in very well so I often directed “we are going there” and “we are doing that”.  I discovered the power of fishnet stockings and high heels very young. When I was barely a teenager, my first experience with the reality of sexual intercourse was through an act of violence. This is where the strongest message about sex I have carried into my work came right through me, an undeniable message that sex was better as subtlety and under my control and that the act of being fucked lacked grace or complexity.

Rumpus: When and why did you begin doing sex work? What do you do now?

Katorga: People seem to think that if women spank someone or tie some boy up then, voila!  We became a Dominatrix!!  But that’s not true for me everything around me slowly alchemized to make me who I am.

I’m what I call a Lifestyle Professional Dominatrix.  This is what I consider my life’s work – this is my personal sexuality and also my trade.  In 1989, when I was 19, my dance instructor and I spoke about how we needed some extra money.  The conversation turned to stripping. This was in Portland, Oregon after all which was the strip club capital. Mostly, it was a bonding experience with this woman that I really thought was just the coolest person I’d ever met.  We practiced in her living room, drinking wine. This was the first time I had encountered a woman who was independent and empowered in her body.

She was about 15 years older than me.  This woman blew me away because she could say and do what she decided she wanted without worrying what others thought. We talked about sexuality and what men wanted and how to move our bodies. We went into “EJ’s” for an audition. I made the mistake of putting the 15 minute long dance mix of “Fascination Street” by the Cure on for my audition and had the longest and most wretched striptease of my life.  I really had no desire to get naked, let alone hustle, let alone dance that long to little praise or acclaim. There were about 6 guys in the bar and one of them maybe glanced my way.  She did a lot better, but the bartender told her she was too old.  Rather than it being a crushing experience, we had a great laugh. It was terrible; we weren’t strippers.  I’ve had respect for strippers ever since, it’s an artful skill. I discovered phone sex work in the back of a newspaper. In 1989 you could make some good money on the telephone.  I had a line at home and a switchboard sent calls to me.  I learned I was in control of their orgasm. I had an excellent memory for voices so I started making cards with details about each client that called me.  I learned how to keep them on the phone, how to get them confessing their secret lusts, to build the sexual tension to get to the release.  I paid for my apartment and bills this way while going to college. It was more than a little empowering.

Rumpus: How did you learn about BDSM?

Katorga: About this time, I began to think about power, control, sex, and it keyed into some of my interests in leather and I began seeking information about domination.  Thanks to some glorious leather men – the real Tom of Finland types – and an era where if you were into leather, it didn’t matter if you were queer or a heterosexual femme. I was just another person into leather and these men took me in. I was so fortunate.  I learned a great deal about bondage, sado-masochism, and the details that a skilled top needs to know. Leathermen became my family. I was able to fulfill my tomboyish side once again learning about whip throwing and leather bondage, hanging out with daddies and their boys.

Rumpus: How does Pro Domme work differ from other types of sex work? What do you hope to accomplish during a session?

Katorga: Professional Domination requires a lot of up front negotiation. I have to find out if there is chemistry and if my skill set matches the clients’ interests. One skill I possess is an ability to get into the mind of the person I’m about to see in a session, especially if they can’t articulate their desires very clearly. Dominatrices who have a name for themselves and good reputation and a history in the field don’t suffer the pinch of the economy so much; this is something that’s a difference in Pro Domme work from other forms of sex work. As you gain skill and stature as a Domme you put your hourly tribute up at a place that indicates you’re top of the line in all cities and countries.  It’s commensurate with the region, it has to do with how much you pay to keep your dungeon open so rents or mortgages have an affect, and it has to do with your skill set.  When you’ve been doing this for a number of years, your skill set is strong and often you begin to specialize.  Sexuality is complicated and men can have a tendency to change their minds, change their interests, or just shop around and receive enough titillation from the mere act of a telephone conversation about their interests without going through the actual session.  That’s the nature of sexuality and the BDSM landscape is a very mental one. That moment as a dominatrix, where you craft this worship and submission related session (or other versions of that ideal), where you find this connection that can at times not be just about “doing something to them they’ve asked for” but creating a relationship with them where they give up their power to you and you guide them to something emotional and mental, you get them through something pretty difficult or highly intimate or that point no one else can bring them to because they can’t/won’t articulate to their partners, where you are the keeper of their mental and physical safety, where you bring them somewhere they’ve never been and you feel that gratitude or worship or total submission to you – that moment is gold.

Rumpus: How has the current recession affected your ability to support yourself as a Pro Domme?

Katorga: If you want to talk about recession and sex work, let me tell you that in the professional domination world, things have been in a steady decline for some time.  In 2009 I had more cancellations than I’ve had in the 11+ years I’ve been working as a Pro Domme. Even my best regulars cancelled appointments. There was one month where I didn’t work at all. I am very careful about how I budget my life because this isn’t a 40-hour a week job, there are no guarantees and I work within that construct. But wow was 2009 scary.  Clients who professed their worship of me a month earlier disappeared without an email or phone call. I know we all have our financial concerns, but it’s a big old naked shift between sessions and the reality. I realized then that if I got sick or injured that I was alone, there is no support for sex workers who aren’t working. I realized that my clients were only invested in the version of the relationship they played at in the hours they were in session with me.  No matter how mind blowing a session or connection, they weren’t going to help me in a financial pinch. Clients ask me for discounts while my overhead has never gone down & I haven’t raised my fees in the years I’ve been doing this. The strained economy makes me look at it all too pragmatically and I can start to lose my love for it, the sexual thrill wanes, if it becomes strictly commercial- I feel sick and sad. When you’re seeking someone who plugs perfectly into your sexual identity in a NSA exchange with the skill to keep you safe in the process, shopping for a discount is a bit tacky.  I’ve seen professional BDSM change for the worse, where everyone wants a more commercial exchange. I favor mystery, a little formality, and a little fantasy. Dommes put their leather pants on one leg at a time and we all know it can feel expensive to see a sex worker, but have a little class and don’t make every sex worker feel cheap.  We are all experiencing the economic downturn.  When the economy rears its head I worry not just because I make less money, but because it means I’m going to have to hear a lot more finagling and a lot less fantasy. My solution is to do with less in my life to preserve the sense of value for my time, my energy and my skills.  I’m in this for keeps and hope I’m doing this into my 60s. I respect my clients and I understand times are tough but I don’t want to lose my love of the work by burning out.

Rumpus: How has the BDSM business changed in the eleven years you have been a Pro Domme?

Katorga: This is where we’re at: when the economy is tough there is always an influx of stupid news stories saying that you can be a Dominatrix at any age and that it’s just about tying people up, as though that isn’t a skill that takes education and practice, and spanking them, as though that isn’t a skill that takes education and practice. There’s a sense that you can set up shop if you just say you’re a mistress. It’s complicated because sex work is how many women find the means to make ends meet.  But I know from experience that domination is not easy sex work. Nevertheless there are a lot more women working in the field.  It’s easy to create a false persona and to be a really half-assed Dominatrix. There are a lot of them out there.  Because of this, men have a more difficult time getting what they want from those sessions while still paying what they’d offer someone with experience and investment in their career.  Clients have a harder time relying on the word “Dominatrix” or “Mistress” being anything other than a parroted marketing tag and so they commit to fewer sessions because it is an expensive hobby.  They shop around. They look for a deal instead of the right chemistry. It’s a lot more difficult to get someone to trust you are who you say you, to follow through and come in for a session than it was in the past. It creates tension and suspicion for everyone.  Dominatrices don’t want to waste their time when people are shopping for ‘just anyone’ and clients don’t want to waste time and money on an experience with someone who lies about their interests or skill level just to make the rent. Dishonesty creates broad distrust. The cycle creates a messed up feedback loop for everyone.

Rumpus: I’ve heard that there’s a thriving BDSM community in Berlin. Is that why you moved there? What was it like to work as a Pro Domme in Germany? How is it different than working in SF?

Katorga: I decided to go Berlin where professional domination is legal and people accept kink to a degree that’s difficult to put into words.  I went for work, I went for open play parties where I could separate my work from my local relationships, I went to eat some bratwurst, and hoped that the stronger Euro would be more meaningful than the US Dollar.  I got all that and more.

I left the US in a kind of “fuck it, what do I have to lose?” moment, gave up my loft, had someone take care of my pets. I packed everything up. I did well in Berlin. But that has a lot more to do with my reputation as a Dominatrix than anything else.  Berlin has been hit hard by the recession. Anyway, my friends in Berlin are at the top levels of professional domination and known throughout the world for their skills, so it’s lucrative for us.  Sex work is far more acceptable in Berlin as is BDSM.   It’s so open and accepting, it’s pretty fantastic.  People are far more comfortable with their sexuality when they call for a session, it seems.  Not everyone of course, for some there is always a stigma attached.  However, the person who wants to be bound and submissive and undertake the basic elements of SM and fetishism seem far more confident and comfortable in Europe in general, especially in Berlin where there are SM nights every week in a number of different clubs. The German Dominatrix has a pretty serious reputation and a specific appearance and is often older.  A lot of people compare me to this style in the U.S., the seriousness, the leather, the control, the command. One thing that was nice was the inherent respect the Dominatrix commands still in Germany. I felt there was a comfort with the idea that a Dominatrix could be sincere and a professional at the same time.  I feel like in the U.S. many treat you with just a touch of suspicion because it is your profession, because you’re asking for money.  I don’t blame them but many subs have had really poor experiences with lifestyle people basically taking them for money non-consensually.  Some people get uptight if you make money at being a Dominatrix in the “lifestyle scene” and all kinds of silliness.  I don’t exactly get rich on this kind of work, in fact, what I make as a professional has dramatically reduced, almost exponentially over the last several years.  That people begrudge the financial exchange in the U.S. and often in the U.K. as though you’re less sincere for requesting and negotiating that up front can be a bit of a drag.

Rumpus: Is prostitution legal in Berlin? I heard there were vending machines that carry condoms on the street. Is this true?

Katorga: Legalized prostitution can be fantastic.  There is a street in particular that I just love in Berlin where the prostitutes all wear a very similar style of clothing, like a uniform, to distinguish them from pedestrians.  They all wear a waist cincher and platform boots. They line up and talk to the men as they walk by. My impression was they don’t have pimps that own the streets. The women appeared clean and well groomed. They didn’t seem stoned or stressed. They joked with the guys in an easy way. They weren’t aggressive. In Berlin there are brothels that give discounts if you show that you took public transportation to get there or rode your bike because they want to be “green” conscious. The legality of prostitution seems to beget a lot healthier, happier sex worker and therefore a relaxed experience for the client. I’ve spoken to Pro Dommes who used to escort and they mentioned a tax that they paid to the government. If you’re a German citizen, you’re part of the socialized health care system, which means escorts are card carrying union members eligible for health care. There are condom vending machines on the street.

Rumpus: You mentioned the standard of beauty in the sex industry was limited here in California, but in Berlin, the hot chick aesthetic was less critical to your success. Can you say more about that?

Katorga: The beauty ideal as advertised culturally in California in the sex industry is the big breasted, small-wasted, physically un-intimidating woman. In the past, the Pro Domme was an alternative to that ideal.  The Internet goes towards a fetish model ideal/porn type naturally. There’s more lingerie, there’s less leather. I decided to go to the other extreme.  I express my body type exactly how I appear, I accentuate with fetish clothing rather than wearing less clothing.  To me, the Dominatrix is not about objectification and so I present myself as someone who may be worshipped or fetishized but not objectified. There’s nothing girl-next-door about me. A lot of men go for a traditional hot girl aesthetic initially. However, serious or more seasoned BDSM clients want to see me because they’ve been disappointed by the girls who embody one sexually idealized appearance but may not have the studied skill set, the devious mind, the investment. As men mature in their kink, it’s more about a mental ideal or emotional location, the hint of sex against the stark denial of access to it.  Also, you don’t have to age out of the Pro Domme industry, like strippers or escorts. The older Dommes have a leg up and a mystique, especially in Berlin.

Rumpus: Are you emotionally invested in any of your submissives? If so, how does this complicate your life?

Katorga: When I’m diving deep into the abyss of sexual masochism and submission, things are emotional. I am involved. When money changes hands we want to pretend that isn’t true because it feels safer. I’m honest about that, although I rarely get a chance to talk about it with others. People come back to see me a number of times or quite regularly for years. I try to balance their expectations and romanticism. I fall in and out of love every minute with someone’s submission. Also, a submissive can be something I find disgusting one moment and find beautiful and amazing in the next. It’s part of the dynamic. No matter how my boundaries are around my professional life, my romantic life is complicated. My personal life is inherently tied to my professional life.  I do have a life outside the dungeon but as the years roll by I find myself wanting to invest more into being a lifestyle Dominatrix. I thought I’d want to settle down and simplify things as I matured, but 11 years later, my life is richer and more complex than ever. I’m fulfilled by real experiences and depth of encounter and I’m not performing a role at this point in my life and career. There are times I desire to be less invested emotionally in my domination sessions, times I wish I could just come into the studio, do the work and leave it at the door and go home.  But the tendrils of this kind of work have gripped my personal life completely.  Nevertheless, I make the transition when I put on my make up and my leather and my boots and my gloves and I try to use the removal of these talismans to balance my life. Having my personal dungeon makes it clear as I walk out the door. Unlike some Pro Dommes, I’ve never submitted. I have no interest in submitting, and most of the things I put on and do to my clients I would never do myself.  I’ve tried in a very controlled and antiseptic way as a safety measure, but not in any fashion where I’ve given up control. We talk about submissives falling for their Domme but rarely touch on the dominant feeling strong emotions for the submissive.  I’m probably blowing my dominant cover by saying this, but what happens for me is a deep and profound respect for my clients that often feels like love. I can’t imagine doing what they do, from booking the appointment to showing up and getting naked in front of a stranger, to submitting to such things.  I love what I do and there’s always that small part of me that loves them for doing it for me because I ask it of them.

Rumpus: Where do you hope this career will lead you in the future? Any projects here in SF? Will you return to Berlin?

Katorga: I would like to see it lead me well into my 60s and hopefully I can find a happy place as a mentor for those interested in becoming professional lifestyle Dommes. At the moment, I have writing in the works and maintain a Femdom forum online. I’m creating video content for sale that tries to encapsulate my particular style of domination, fetishism, and sadism.  I’m in the editing stages now and should be live soon. I’d love to live in both cities but I think I’ll keep San Francisco as my main base. I plan to travel in 2010 and 2011 and Berlin is definitely my number one location, London is on that list, as well as New York and Los Angeles. I’ve recently created a private studio built for my own personal style of domination. This is very exciting and within it I have an overnight cell for those coming from out of the area and those who can’t get their head around the financing of hotel stays on top of the plane ticket.  Now, I can house them overnight in either comfort or discomfort, based upon what we work out in advance.  Beyond that, I would like so much to see women empowered in their sexuality and in their bodies.  For me, being a dominatrix and doing this professionally is one of the most fulfilling and complex creative endeavors I’ve ever undertaken.  It has become my life’s work. My desire is to maintain a space in the world where a little formality, a little SM tradition, leather, and a lot of control reign. I plan to maintain a space in the world where I can act as a kind of beacon for those seeking my refined application of tyranny.


Antonia Crane is a performer, 2-time Moth Story Slam Winner and writing instructor in Los Angeles. She has written for the New York Times, The Believer, The Toast, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Salon.com, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, DAME, the Los Angeles Review, Quartz: The Atlantic Media, Medium.com, Buzzfeed, and dozens of other places. Her screenplay “The Lusty” (co-written by Transparent director, writer Silas Howard), based on the true story of the exotic dancer’s labor union, is a recipient of the 2015 San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Grant in screenwriting. She is at work on an essay collection and a feature film. More from this author →