WhatiLearned.com - What I Learned
We took turns peeing on Moishe’s face while he lay face up in the tub, lapping at our urine. A middle-aged Haredi Jewish man whom we only addressed by a dog name, Moishe (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy) was nearing the end of his two-hour session. We had started by tying him up and making him eat an entire bag of Takis off the floor while we scratched his back with moose antlers, and now we were here, in the basement bathroom of a duplex and part-time sex dungeon in Bushwick, Brooklyn, pissing into his mouth.
“Are you Jewish?” Moishe asked me after he’d showered off and we all sat upstairs, him smoking a bowl of weed, the other doms and I sharing the Dr Peppers he’d brought for us. I told him I was — Reform. He paid us and left.
That night four years ago, when I was 19, was my introduction to the BDSM scene through a high school friend deeply enmeshed in the world of kink on both a personal and professional level. After that memorable evening with Moishe, I was invited back to the dungeon a number of times to help out with other clients’ sessions; my friend would periodically shoot me a last-minute text requesting my presence and I’d subway across the city for a quick few hundred dollars and the experience.
One client liked it when we electrocuted his nipples and used him as a footstool; he’d lick our feet while we read to him from Venus in Furs. Everyone had their preferences, and all received similar treatment: “Don’t make them feel embarrassed” was the only real direction I was ever given, besides very specific instructions, like how to use the high-tech sex toys. Consent was verbally communicated — “The rope is too tight on my throat, mistress” — but the rest was implied.
The interactions were so human, the clients (all men) so vulnerable, the money easy, the setup already in place — I had no idea sex work had the potential to be so safe and comfortable. I’d leave the sessions and walk to the J train feeling energized, empowered by this previously untapped, lucrative ability I had to provide sexual satisfaction while fully clothed.
Recent years have seen a mainstream destigmatization of kink: Bondage is on the runway, BDSM is on cable TV, and Fifty Shades of Grey is on the bathroom book rack next to the floral hand towel. The stigma persists, however. Editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, author of The Big Book of Submission: 69 Kinky Tales, told me that because of society’s lack of openness to BDSM, “it can be hard for anyone to know where to turn for advice or sensible practices, especially someone in a religious or insular community who has to be secretive about their interest. If someone’s been taught that BDSM is always wrong, that it’s deviant, and that it’s not holy, that’s likely to make them feel especially conflicted if that desire persists despite all those negative messages.”
In conversations I’ve had with Moishe more recently, he told me that for years he’s seen dominatrixes frequently, to the point that some consider him both client and friend. He once drove a mistress home from the airport; he is always generous, bringing kosher sweets and gifts he’s bought online to sessions. Through his doms, it seems to me, he has been able to keep one foot in the secular world of his sexual fantasies and another at home with his wife.
While Moishe spoke candidly about his life and place in the secular and religious worlds he inhabits, he always emphasized the fact that he is one man — who is still grappling to understand his own psyche — and not a representative for a larger sect or for anyone else’s desires. He is not alone, however, as someone at the intersection of New York’s dominatrixes and the city’s most devout Jewish communities.
In New York City and elsewhere, Haredi (sometimes called “ultra-Orthodox” or just “Orthodox”) Jews often live in tight-knit communities, insulated from secular culture. Their lifestyle is governed by tradition and devotion, with strict dietary rules, dress codes, and gender roles. Those who reject this religious way of life and go “off the derech” (Hebrew for “path”) may be shunned, often permanently losing custody of their children and forced to face the world beyond their community as adults lacking the social skills or resources needed to easily adjust.
It is common knowledge in the NYC dominatrix community that many clients are Haredi men. “My first dungeon was by the Williamsburg Bridge, so like 75% of my clients were Hasids then,” a New York–based dominatrix who asked to be identified as Mistress Rose, 28, told me.
“If someone’s been taught that BDSM is always wrong, that it’s deviant, and that it’s not holy, that’s likely to make them feel especially conflicted.”
Most of the people within the Haredi community whom I reached out to for this article — including Orthodox lifestyle experts, counselors, and Jewish feminists — said they weren’t aware that so many clients of New York dominatrixes are Orthodox.
“I am personally surprised by how commonly you and your colleagues see this,” Talli Rosenbaum, a therapist and academic adviser for Merkaz Yahel: The Center for Jewish Intimacy, told me. While she was not familiar with the dominatrix side of Orthodox kink, she had insight into counseling kink-oriented couples. Married Orthodox people who are into BDSM likely have, she told me, “more shame about it and certainly more of a tendency to pathologize it, so there is less openness and exposure, and discussion of expectations.”
In the Orthodox community there is also stigma against using the internet, which is, with some nuance, generally discouraged, or done through a filter. But “ultra-Orthodox Jews are definitely accessing internet content, albeit surreptitiously,” said Ayo Oppenheimer, the New Jersey–born and Jerusalem-based founder of the online community and blog Jewrotica. Her site does not feature porn or nudity, and does have Haredi members. “With the advent of the internet, there has definitely been an uptick in all manner of kink in ultra-Orthodox communities,” said Oppenheimer, “including and definitely not limited to BDSM.”
There is an entire genre of “frum” (meaning Orthodox) erotica online and in print, which blends elements of sex, God, and kink while keeping it kosher. “Just because Orthodox Jews live what appear to be more culturally conforming existences, doesn’t mean that there isn’t passion and play in their intimate lives,” said Shosha Pearl, a frum erotica novelist. “It makes sense that there are observant Jews who are into BDSM,” she told me, although this was referring to BDSM only within a heterosexual marriage. “For ultra-Orthodox people who want to explore this side of themselves, it may be more difficult to find understanding or acceptance of their interest — not so much because there are conflicts with Jewish law but because it is outside of the cultural scope of their more sheltered communities.”
There are Orthodox groups on FetLife (which describes itself as “the Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community”), as well as on Jewrotica and countless other sites; online access points to view the world of kink are plentiful, and the internet has paved a quick path from website to sex dungeon.
“I did have the thought that if I lost my platform for advertisement, I would just walk around Williamsburg in leather and hand out flyers.”
All of the doms I spoke with had met their Haredi clients through the internet. Mistress Rose said that many of hers had found her through an ad she posted on Backpage. “Some of them could tell I was a little Jewish-looking,” she said, “and they liked that.” But now, with Craigslist’s personals section and Backpage gone following the passage of the SESTA/FOSTA legislation, it’s unclear how any Haredi not already connected with a dom will seek out the service. Following SESTA/FOSTA’s passage, Mistress Danielle Blunt, 28, half-joked to me, “I did have the thought that if I lost my platform for advertisement, I would just walk around Williamsburg in leather and hand out flyers.”
Mistress Rose told me that her Haredi clients were generally the most extreme in their desires to be dominated — although every client’s requests are unique. One man just wanted to be caned for an hour while he smoked weed and drank Red Bull, and then at the end of his sessions, she’d push a Wartenberg wheel into his balls and he’d say, “You’re cuttin’ me like a pizza,” every single time.
Before domming professionally, Mistress Rose worked as a waitress. “When you’re a waitress, [Orthodox Jews] don’t want to touch you. They throw the money and ignore you,” she told me. “And then, all of a sudden, they’re calling you goddess and wanting to drink your spit. It’s surreal.”
At a recent session another dom and I conducted with Moishe in a Chelsea apartment, he agreed to speak on the record for this article; we framed my interview as an interrogation.
Tied up in hot-pink rope while the other dom pushed a stiletto heel into his chest, Moishe volunteered a slew of personal information before I even began asking. He’s lived in Brooklyn almost all of his life; he’s a businessman; he’s married; he believes his father likely also had a life hidden from his family; he considers his doms his friends; he never had therapy as a child but he sees a therapist now, at his dom’s suggestion.
Moishe describes himself as an “optimal thinker” and says he struggled to connect with people on online BDSM forums. He rarely attended local kink parties out of fear of being caught. Moishe is not sure how he got into kink, nor is he sure what about it he is attracted to, beyond the fact that, he says, “I like that challenge.” He likes to gamble for the same reason.
“I lost my religion,” he told me as I flogged his back. “This is my fate now. It gives you a very similar high.” He maintains appearances, attending services, but his soul has disconnected. It is the people he has met through kink who offer him insight into himself, whom he’s most open with. His family and religious friends remain, but in a world apart.
He is no longer sure that his religious community is important to him. “I don’t feel guilty,” he said later, while bound to a table as I dragged an electric wand up his legs. “Life is pain and love. I feel like a child again.” His voice is monotone, his accent ever-present. Beads of sweat are streaming down his face. “I don’t blame my past, but I explain my past. I’m in the middle of discovering myself.”
“Hasids are outsiders in New York, and so are sex workers. So, I think they maybe see us in a weird way as outlaws, like them.”
To Mistress Rose, Haredi clients seem to live intensely compartmentalized lives. The animosity they often face for their different dress and hygiene is undeserved, she said. Her Haredi clients have not been, on the whole, notably better or worse at respecting her and her boundaries than any other client demographic; and indeed, as they’re coming from a place that’s more difficult to understand, she has more empathy.
On the streets in New York, there is a tangible cultural resentment toward Haredim. They are often seen through stereotypes based on those who make headlines for being bad landlords, racists, and the proprietors of troubled private social services. Coverage of the infamous 1991 Crown Heights riots serves as a good example of the usual narratives that still manifest in the media about the community, while stories of those who’ve left give more insight into the intensity of its insularity.
“I’ve done some bloodplay with Hasidic clients,” Mistress Rose told me. “There’s something symbolic about breaking down the boundaries of your skin and having your blood be what separates you from the rest of the world. Fluid bonding. Hasids are outsiders in New York, and so are sex workers. So, I think they maybe see us in a weird way as outlaws, like them. We’re all outside of society. We’re someone they can bond to.”
Even in a place as diverse as New York City, some people remain set apart. For both sex workers and Haredim, society has come up with its own imagined narratives of their lives and motivations, often working without enough information or understanding to piece together a realistic portrait. As a Reform Jew, I have never been associated with the Haredim by any but the most ignorant out-of-staters, and until I met Moishe I had spent my entire life in Brooklyn adjacent to, yet never fully knowing, the experience of any of my Orthodox borough-mates — let alone their sex lives.
Masturbation is not allowed by traditional Jewish laws, as sperm (and sexual intimacy more broadly) is considered sacred. But while the hole in the sheet myth persists, many people will tell you that religious Judaism is actually quite open-minded when it comes to married sex.
“Judaism teaches that sex within marriage is a wonderful way to bring couples together and leaves the details of that sex up to couples,” said Joseph Dunsay, a writer for Jewrotica. In some ways, Dunsay argued, “when it comes to tolerating diverse sexual lifestyles such as BDSM, Orthodox Judaism can be more progressive than medical science.” (He referenced the fact that until 2013, American doctors classified participating in BDSM as a form of mental illness.)
Kink and traditional faith at large, including Christianity, may be a more intuitive match than many might assume. “I think that the Hasidic community is primed for submission,” Mistress Blunt told me, noting that her Orthodox and Catholic clients are the ones who most often bring religion to the forefront of their sessions. Their faith can endow certain acts and objects with a power, Mistress Blunt said, which she can then use for the purpose of sexual pleasure. “It’s a pathway that’s already been carved, so it’s less work to get it.”
Mistress Blunt told me that on numerous occasions she’s bound her Orthodox clients with tefillin (black leather boxes, containing verses of the Torah, that are worn during prayer), and once made a kind of mikvah (a ritual bath) in a watering hole, said a prayer, and then, with Mistress Blunt wearing her client’s tallit katan (a fringed undershirt), had a wet T-shirt contest of sorts. Mistress Rose recalled a session near Passover when she forced an Orthodox client to cook her two pounds of bacon: “He had no idea how to cook it — he was rolling it like a Fruit Roll-Up.” She ended up making him eat it off the floor as she stepped on it and spat on him.
“These objects have deep reverence with the community, so playing with them becomes more powerful,” says Mistress Blunt, who believes using such totems so sacrilegiously enables her clients “to take power over something they might feel constrained by, utilizing it in a way that serves them. They’re consensually surrendering rather than conforming to some community obligation.”
“I think because their religion is so strict, sexually they’re more likely to step out of bounds,” Pittsburgh-based Snapchat sensation Mandy O’Mallie, 24, who goes by Rim Goddess, told me of her Orthodox clients. “Everything is sexier when it’s forbidden.” O’Mallie, like Blunt and Mistress Rose, also told me that her Orthodox clients were notably more submissive than most.
“They were more into the humiliation side of it,” she said, “kind of acting more like dogs would. They wouldn’t eat at the table; I’d feed them on the ground.” All the doms I spoke with reported that Orthodox Jews, compared to other devoutly religious clients, still stand out. “I’ve had a lot of people from all different beliefs,” O’Mallie said. “The Orthodox Jews were the most into submission.”
After my interview with Moishe, as he showered off the other dom’s piss, he told me, in so many words, that BDSM is his religion now. “All the devotion I had as a kid…” he began. He opened the shower curtain and quickly grabbed for a towel to cover himself, then locked eyes with me. “It’s not that I’m smart enough to know if there is or isn’t a God, but I don’t need God. I saw kink in God. I found my God physical, in the form of a mistress.”
He also sees Judaism in kink. The ritual closing of the eyes during prayer is not so different from being blindfolded. “The power and the dynamics and the worshipping,” he said, are tenets of both Judaism and BDSM.
As I left the apartment, I was struck predominantly by Moishe’s poetic level of self-analysis and the gift of his story. Being able to see the most vulnerable inner workings of another human’s mind, especially one with deeply different life experiences, should be a universal craving — the chance to, if not walk, look closely inside another’s shoes — or, in this case, the heap of entangled themes and desires that form a fetish. Walking through Chelsea, I glowed with the weight and the beauty of the glimpse he’d offered me. Domming Moishe was not only empowering — in some ways, it was transcendent.
Hannah Frishberg is a fourth-generation Brooklynite and freelance reporter. Her work has appeared in the New York Post, CityLab, and the Columbia Journalism Review. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.