SHOW AND TELL

Whip It: Secrets of a Dominatrix

In a dramatic life that has included a police raid and prosecution, Dr. Charlayne Grenci has made delivering pain and pleasure into both a business and area of study.

11.25.14 10:50 AM ET

“Take off your clothes,” was the first thing I heard.

The voice was deep, husky, and stern. My heart palpitated. My whole body shook. I had no idea what was happening, or what to expect.

I was in a fifth-floor apartment in New York’s East Village. For the next hour and half I was the willing sex slave of a semi-professional Master I had met through a friend. The role-play began as soon as he opened the door.

A few minutes after arriving, I stood, stripped of everything, my clothes neatly folded on the floor next to me.

“Now get on your knees and crawl,” he demanded with the slap of a leather horse crop against the palm of his hand. I made my way, on hands and knees, to a bed near the dictating voice.

Inside a box I could see a pile of whips, chains, ball gags, and hoods. He pulled one out and slipped it over my head, zipping the mouth closed to muffle my voice. I was blinded when the teasing began.

The experience I had was an escape from everyday life—from responsibilities, worries, and problems—the sexologist and former dominatrix Dr. Charlayne Grenci told me during a Skype interview while discussing her recent memoir Queen of Domination: My Secret Life.

“It’s a way for people to express themselves in an alter ego that is so unlike the dominant personality in their typical life,” she said. “It’s a mind vacation and it’s very therapeutic in that way.”

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Courtesy of Dr. Charlayne Grenci

Today, she stands out much like she has her entire life, though her confidence has grown immensely. Her neon blue hair is teased high with a gray stripe emerging from the front. Her make-up includes two tattoo-like designs on both temples. Her nails are long and blunt. The sharply tailored blazer and weighty jewelry that cling to her body hints at the dominant personality she possesses.

Dr. Grenci opened Florida’s first sex dungeon in her home in Pompano Beach in 1980. She spent decades dominating clients for their wildest fantasies as Mistress Carla while simultaneously conducting personal research on kinky, or non-traditional, fetishes and desires.

Throughout her life, she faced public ridicule, legal persecution and, eventually, redemption through a PhD in clinical sexology. She’s now an expert on the subject.

What I had experienced was similar to numerous sessions she had given. It was also my first bittersweet taste of the world of “kink”—better known as BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism).

“Kink” acts as an umbrella term for a variety of erotic practices and role-playing, ranging from feather play and light spanking to orgasm and breath control. The deeper you get, the more hardcore the acts, both physically and psychologically. At times, it’s not for the fainthearted.

“I thought it was quite bizarre and kind of sick,” Dr. Grenci said of being introduced to the subculture in 1979. She was helping out a friend who was in desperate need of a new dominatrix for her clients. The one-hour sessions paid well—around $100 each. She didn’t have to remove her clothes—or perform directly sexual acts—just be the dominating persona the client wished.

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One of her first sessions included a man with a shoe and boot fetish. She arrived at his hotel to a seemingly empty room. As she began walking out, a whimper came from the closet. Inside, sat at a man on all fours, one high-heeled shoe in his mouth, the other protruding from his ass. For the next hour, she verbally humiliated him while he licked her boots and feet until they were completely cleaned. That was his sexual desire.

“I understood why people were turned off by it,” she said, “because I was as well.”

***

Growing up, Dr. Grenci was your typical suburban kid from an upper-middle class family. While her parents were strict and devoutly Protestant, she was afforded many advantages, including an elite boarding school education. But her mother, who was committed several times, suffered from depression and frequent nervous breakdowns, for which her father blamed her and her brother.

As a result, the young Grenci lived between her hometown in Maine and with her grandmother in South Florida for many years, never feeling like she truly belonged to either. She questioned her sexuality and battled abiding by societal norms alongside acting out her own deeper sexual interests, a dynamic that followed her throughout most of her life.

Lovers, both male and female, came and went. The ones who could handle her profession stuck around for many years. Others lasted only a few days. Dr. Grenci’s fascination with sex and the human condition fueled her dedication to learn more about being a dominatrix through personal experience.

This uniqueness is a trait that she attributes to her early success as a dominatrix. She began operating out of her home garage in 1980, slowly acquiring the many props and tools that would decorate her dungeon.

Through word of mouth and advertisements placed in underground publications such as Corporal Punishment and Wicked Women, clients arrived at her doorstep from all corners of the globe.

Based on a pre-session interview conducted by her assistant, each meeting ranged from light play, like teasing and humiliation, to intense multi-hour sessions that bordered on the extreme, each tailored to the client’s wishes.

In her memoir, she writes of specific clients like T.J., who was into heavy bondage and severe torture. The single session Dr. Grenci had with him was one of her most intense. His stamina in enduring the constant waves of pain she inflicted on him with bison crops and a cat of nine tails left her with tendonitis to her right shoulder.

“That was the longest, most severe S/M session I have experienced in my thirty-four-year tenure,” she writes in the book.

Another client, a professor at Georgetown University, submitted requests for scenarios that she had yet to even imagine. He wished for Dr. Grenci to thread a needle through his ear lobes and nose down to his nipples and scrotum during, an act she couldn’t perform. “I can’t stomach needles,” she confessed after recounting the memory during our interview. So, she had her assistant do it.

Acts like scat (play involving human feces), fisting (the inserting of the entire hand into the rectum or vagina), and needle-play became strictly off limits in her dungeon. “I had this feminine, classical image [of myself] that would have totally been destroyed,” she said. So, she refused to partake in them.

However, not every kink is painful. Chances are, we’ve all experienced some facet of the lifestyle without even realizing it. Hickies, for instance, or being held down by a partner. Even dressing up and acting out scenarios as part of foreplay can be considered kinky. “A lot of this has been going on, but it was never identified as kinky play,” Dr. Grenci said. “Now we put it all under one umbrella.”

Out of her large clientele of professors, lawyers, and CEOs, “professors are the kinkiest,” she said of her experience. And for some clients, money was no object in getting their fantasies fulfilled.

One wealthy businessman from London made arrangements to fly Dr. Grenci to visit him across the Atlantic for a session. She flew first class, stayed in a luxury penthouse suite and was given money for shopping along with her pay. It sounds very Pretty Woman meets 50 Shades of Gray. But, as soon as she started her session, he realized being dominated wasn’t a fantasy he was willing to follow through with. Dr. Grenci enjoyed the remainder of her vacation.

On top of the pleasure (or pain), the clients who saw Mistress Carla received their own additional perks. After each session, she would sit with those who obliged and speak to them about their past, problems and desires.

Many of the clients viewed it as a form of therapy. Dr. Grenci, who agrees, also saw it as a way to expand her own knowledge on the subculture and what makes it so appealing. In total, she had expansive files on over 500 people.

That was before the raid.

***

The flashing of blue and red lights lit up the entire neighborhood like the Fourth of July.

On the evening of February 4, 1983, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and Pompano Beach police department busted down the front door of her home, which she shared with her then-lover, Jean.

It was unexpected and anything but low profile. Neighbors watched as dozens of uniformed men ripped apart her dungeon and carried out boxes of play toys, pornographic paraphernalia and the hundreds of files that she kept with her research.

Dr. Grenci was charged with five counts of felony prostitution. She faced up to twenty-five years in prison and was portrayed as a sadistic sexual deviant by local media.

“It was one of the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life,” she remembered. “It’s inexplicable, the feeling.” She lost control of her bladder as she crouched in a corner, shaking, and unable to move her body due to the shock.

“The whole ordeal gave me a thicker skin,” she said, reflecting on the incident. “It really allows you to understand our society, people in general, and what law enforcement is permitted to do and get away with. It gives you a totally different perspective and opened up a whole different world that I was naïve to.”

Prostitution is defined as “sex for money,” she explained. But the specifics of “sex” were, and in many states still are, loosely defined. Administering pain, for instance, for pleasure and orgasm can still fall under prostitution, if money is exchanged.

“When you go to a dominatrix, you are supposed to go for role-play, fetish and fantasy. Yes, there is a huge erotic component with a lot of those men,” but sexual acts were never carried out by Dr. Grenci.

In her mind, the entire ordeal was a witch-hunt led by the local authorities.

In an affidavit she filed on March 9, 1983, Dr. Grenci detailed the research she was conducting through her sessions, linking her findings as an extension to previous data gathered by Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, who were all revolutionary pioneers in sex studies that are still referenced today.

“I provided the service of professional domination to clients for the purpose of exploring alternative male sexuality,” Dr. Grenci wrote in the affidavit. “I performed my sessions in a professional and scientific manner, which was necessary for the purpose of the sex research I was collecting.” All money received was considered funding for the research.

The files she kept added to her legitimacy.

This, along with other testimonies and the occasional mistrial which prolonged the trial for over three years, helped Dr. Grenci walk away with a 90-day jail sentence and five years probation. Yet the entire ordeal opened up so many new possibilities, both for Dr. Grenci and those who followed her case.

She began writing her book, opened Florida’s first public dungeon club in 1991 (Command Performance), and began teaching curious minds, while also speaking at universities and conventions across the country.

***

At that time of Dr. Grenci’s trial, kinky sex—or paraphilias as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—was still considered a mental disorder according to the DSM-4, which practically serves as a doctor’s bible (though, some definitions can still be debated).

Thanks to the updated DSM-5, paraphilas have been dissolved into a two sets of acts, which distinguish between consensual kink and acts which cause direct distress or harm. The modification allows doctors, lawyers, judges, and others, to differentiate sexual fetishes from mental illnesses.

In the three decades she’s worked as both a dominatrix and a sexologist, she’s dealt with a variety of clients—gay and straight, male and female, singles and couples.

Men who seek submissive roles, she says, typically are looking for a role reversal to relieve tension and responsibility from their everyday lives. “Actually, a lot of women are in the same position [as men] today,” Dr. Grenci said. “Women have become more professional and independent, so a lot of them are looking at role revisal to relieve similar tensions.” It’s also an alternate form of entertainment and mental exercise for everyone.

“Now, it’s so above ground,” Dr. Grenci added, “that even psychologists and sexologists are starting to introduce the option of role play and BDSM activities—or a very mild, stimulating aspect of it—to clients with relationships problems.”

Kinky culture has begun to permeate mainstream media. Once attributed to creepy perverts and the religiously damned is now quasi-respectable, safe, and fashionably chic.

Pop starlets have followed in the steps of Madonna, who began enlightening the masses on kink culture with over-the-top music videos and live performances in the 1980s. Earlier this year, she appeared in tight leather alongside Katy Perry for a V magazine cover shoot in which the two participated in some playful bondage action.

In 2011, Rihanna vocalized her own taste for kink in her hit single S&M. “’Cause I may be bad but I’m perfectly good at it / Sex in the air I don’t care I love the smell of it,” she sings. “Sticks and stones may break my bones / but chains and whips excite me.”

While the video is seen as a critique on the masochistic feeling of being in the spotlight, it reveals all the props needed for some good, kinky fun: ball-gagged journalists, a harnessed Perez Hilton being walked on a leash, a cohort of bondage-clad dancers with whips, and the Caribbean singer hog-tied on a mattress.

The biggest phenomenon as of late to thrust the lifestyle of BDSM directly into the mainstream spotlight is E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey literary series, now becoming a blockbuster movie franchise.

In 50 Shades, a female journalist, Anastasia Steele, is unsuspectingly seduced by the very rich and devilishly handsome Christian Grey, who introduces Steele to his deepest desires and fantasies of BDSM culture. The acts Grey performs on Steele are all popular among BDSM enthusiasts.

But it might not be a hit among some of those enthusiasts, like Dr. Grenci: “It bored me to tears, because that’s fantasy and I’ve lived the life.” However, she’s grateful for its stratospheric commercial success as it “gives women the permission to explore and experiment with their own diverse sexual desires,” something she hopes her book allows as well—a freedom from stigma.

As mentioned in a recent Daily Beast article, a nationwide survey is set for 2015 with hopes to destigmatize kink among all medical providers in order to provide better healthcare for patients, both mentally and superficially.

In this aspect, Dr. Grenci has been far ahead of her peers.

***

Dr. Grenci opened Command Performance in 1991 to allow singles and couples a safe environment to play. She operated it for 16 years before putting it in the hands of one of her mistresses. She had enrolled at Maimonides University in North Miami Beach in order to work towards a degree in clinical sexology.

During her time as a dominatrix, she dealt with a variety of people—the disabled, veterans, men who suffered sexual dysfunctions and those whose desires stemmed from childhood.

Most had a hard time performing outside of the dungeon and Dr. Grenci, through her sessions and one-on-one discussions, helped clients work through some of their issues, even before her certification.

Dr. Grenci obtained her doctorate in clinical sexology in 2007. She currently operates as a sexologist, sex educator through her speeches and lectures at universities and workshops, and a clinical professor with the American Academy of Clinical Sexology.

“If I can’t help a relationship, it can’t be helped,” she said with a confident demeanor as we ended our conversation. “I can relate to people on levels that others cant because of my experiences. I can see out of their eyes and feel what they are feeling.”

Aside from the emotional stress the court case inflicted on her family, she has no regrets. She “absolutely” would do it all over again. She stays true to her convictions, Dr. Grenci says, and true to what she believes in—sexual liberation and a freedom to express desires.

“I learned so much about human sexual behavior and attitude through it all,” she says. “No matter how much I went through and how hard it was, something very good came out of it.” Indeed--she has helped educate the world on the titillating culture of kink.