In an erotic story I’ll probably never find the time to write, the submissive protagonist – let’s call him, say, Rupert – will come across an ornate, obviously antique mirror in a neglected corner of a house he inherited from an eccentric aunt. Rupert will be contemplating his own reflection, thinking it looks wrong in some subtle way he can’t quite pinpoint, when the man on the other side of the glass will step casually out of the mirror and begin giving him commands. Subservient to his own long-suppressed dominant side, which the power of the mirror will have captured and imbued with physical reality, Rupert will bow his head and begin to obey without a word of argument. As he sheds his clothes and sinks to his knees in front of his new master, it will occur to him that his aunt used to spend surprising amounts of time behind closed doors in this same wing of the house, doing heaven knows what.
Like Lewis Carroll and many other writers, I find mirrors evocative, but my submissive side is also intrigued by the idea of being dominated by someone very like myself – if not a doppelganger out of a magic mirror, than another straight, white male academic on the verge of middle age. His background, experiences and sensibilities would all be similar to mine, except of course that he’d be dominant and sadistic rather than submissive and ambivalently masochistic. In some ways, all that common ground would be reassuring. My doppelganger and I would rarely misunderstand each other, and our shared attitudes and cultural reference points would give us plenty to talk about when he wasn’t actively bossing me around or standing over my naked, writhing body with riding crop in hand. Perhaps he’d share enough of my foibles and shortcomings that he wouldn’t be inclined to discipline me too harshly for them, and enough of my vices to be lenient about letting me partake. To the extant that humans naturally identify and sympathise with people similar to themselves, my dominant doppelganger might be a relatively gentle master, careful not to push too hard and quick to extend mercy.
When he did choose to get tough with me, though, or to indulge his sadistic side at my expense, he’d have a formidable hand to play. Our similarities would make it easy for him to get inside my head and push my buttons, and he’d have little trouble figuring out what rewards to offer when he wanted to motivate me and what deprivations and discomforts to impose when he wanted to torment or punish. He’d know just what to say and how to behave in order to keep me on my toes, lull me into complacency, put frenzied butterflies in my stomach, or elicit any number of other reactions. He’d be able to read me like an open book, play me like a fiddle, or reduce me to trembling submissive jelly any time he wanted. He’d know all about the kinds of suffering I could easily withstand, and also the kinds I couldn’t. The other side of that coin is that I’d also have some intuitive understanding of how to push his buttons, which might be useful when I wanted to beg a favour or plead for lenience. But given the power imbalance between dominant and submissive, I expect the advantages of our mutual familiarity would lie mostly on his end of the whip.
Another kind of magic mirror might summon up a dominant who was the unsuspecting victim’s polar opposite, a mysterious figure that insinuated itself like a ghost into the background of the reflected image but then announced its all-too-real physical presence by tapping the victim sharply on the shoulder and issuing some first instructions in a firm, authoritarian voice. In my case this kind of mirror-dominant would have to be a woman, to contrast with me as much as possible, and she’d have to be rather old or rather young (the former, to my way of thinking, would mesh more easily with her authority, but I have to admit it would be interesting to take orders from a woman who was barely legal). She’d be from a different culture and country, perhaps from the other side of the world, and her upbringing and perspective would be vastly divergent from my own. My values, loyalties and deepest ideals would seem ludicrous to her, possibly even incomprehensible. Hers might strike me about the same way, if I dared to judge.
Such a dominant would probably have a little more difficulty figuring me out than the doppelganger from the first kind of magic mirror. She’d know that she could make me suffer by beating or starving me, because those things are pretty much human universals, and she’d probably understand intuitively that she could reward or indulge me with orgasms, alcohol, free time, or a few other obvious pleasures. The more nuanced and individual aspects of my personality, though, might take her a good while to understand and work out how to manipulate.
Nevertheless, she probably would learn all about me in time, given a touch of intelligence, mental flexibility and motivation. I’d be obliged to answer any questions she might think to ask, and of course she could experiment with different rules, regimens, torments and communication styles until she figured out how to make me respond in the ways she found most pleasing and advantageous. Meanwhile, I’d be in the hands of a dominant who regarded me as a barbarian, a misguided fool, a silly young boy or deluded old man, perhaps even a natural enemy. I couldn’t expect much in the way of empathy, sympathy or even understanding. Rather than enjoying relatively comfortable interaction with someone I saw eye-to-eye with, I’d find myself dealing with a taskmistress who had little reason to think of me as a reasonable human being. Equally, I’d have to get used to serving and obeying a dominant whose priorities and preferences seemed almost alien, and whose wishes were difficult to anticipate. Perhaps I’d slowly develop a better grasp of what made her tick, and perhaps she’d eventually come to appreciate and value me, but on the whole I think she’d seem enigmatic and inhuman till death (or some other eventuality) did us part. When I really think about it, that sort of dominant seems much more intimidating – and therefore, I must admit, more thrilling to my submissive side – than a doppelganger could ever be.
The one major spanner in the works of that analysis, though, is the issue of gender. To a point, I think gender would work like anything else – age, national origin, basic philosophical commitments – in that similarity and difference would each have their hazards and their compensating silver linings. A male dominant would find my body and my sexuality to be familiar territory, and could use that knowledge against me in all kinds of ways. If a male dominant either caressed my balls or gave them a smack, he’d have a pretty good idea of what kind of sensation I’d experience as a result, and if he imposed a period of chastity then he’d know what sort of frustration and discomfort he was condemning me to. On the bright side, perhaps he’d be relatively permissive about “guy things” like masturbation, pornography and alcohol consumption, since they’d probably be as basic to his life as they are to mine. A woman might be stricter on those fronts, and less forgiving of lapses, but she’d probably also have a harder time working out how to exploit my body’s specifically male vulnerabilities and how she could make use of my sexual needs to control, reward and punish me.
In the special case of gender, though, there are important complications, some of which are a product of my fundamental heterosexuality. When I’m being worked over by a woman, the eroticism engendered by my helplessness and suffering coexists with the straightforward sexiness that flows from her proximity. Even if I’m hooded or blindfolded so that I can’t steal glances, I can still appreciate her scent, her voice, the intimacy of her hands on my body. All those things tend to make the experience seem softer and less oppressive, and give me something to think about besides pain and fear. If the person holding the flogger is a man, on the other hand, proximity and intimacy are if anything a bit distasteful, just one more small torment to be endured. The whole interaction ends up feeling starker and harsher, which is exciting but also somewhat unnerving.
Quite apart from my lack of sexual attraction to dominant men, I find them especially daunting because I simply perceive them as more imposing in some subtle way than their female equivalents. It’s deeply ironic, considering how much I appreciate female dominance and strong women in general, but there’s an unreconstructed circuit buried somewhere in the depths of my brain that associates authority and toughness – not to mention lust and sadism, and the rougher, more dramatic side of life in general – with masculinity. Fantasising about female tyrants who delight in having trembling victims of both sexes hauled off to dark dungeons and well-stocked torture chambers somehow doesn’t stop me from instinctively expecting real women to be gentler than men, and more inclined to mercy and sympathy. My polar opposite might be more frightening than my doppelganger in most respects, but her femaleness would at least make submission to her feel a little safer and sexier.
In fact, one reason I find sadistic female dominants so compelling is precisely because their very existence flies in the face of the stereotypes about feminine kindness and compassion that cast an unwanted shadow over my perceptions. I’m practically awestruck by My Lady’s penchant for inflicting pain and other forms of suffering on willing victims like myself, and almost equally appreciative of her capacity for being hard with me – setting firm rules, holding me accountable, unapologetically ordering me to do things that please and benefit her regardless of how I might feel about them. To be fair, she’s often willing to be a bit flexible, and she makes allowances for the fact that I’m only human and sometimes mess up or find myself hopelessly overcommitted. In a lot of ways, despite the difference in gender, she’s more of a doppelganger than a polar opposite; My Lady and I are both thoughtful, rather introverted people, in love with the written word and prone to analysing things to death before making up our minds about them. However, the rapport and mutual understanding that exist between us don’t seem to soften her treatment of her boy, which is all to the good considering that softness is the last thing I need or want from her. Perhaps another few years of her firm hand and stinging cane will even erase the insidious tendency to link femaleness to fuzzy pink sweetness that I’ve either absorbed from the surrounding culture or inherited as evolutionary baggage. I’ve already learned a healthy respect for her authority and a thoroughly erotic fear of her flights of sadism, but for the moment I can’t help finding her enthusiasm for witnessing BDSM action (and, gulp, sex) between dominant and submissive men to be one of the most fear-inducing things about her. If my doppelganger ever did step out of a magic mirror, blazing with sadistic intensity and eager to get his hands on my subservient body, she’d probably hand me over to him in a second – as long as she got to stick around and watch the show.