"Just because we like to do dirty things doesn’t mean we like to do it in a dirty space.”
Each month, Sex-ist looks at topics relating to sex and sexuality in and around the GTA.
The Ritual Chamber doesn’t look like much from the outside. Located in a nondescript strip mall in Toronto’s West End, its frosted glass windows and signless exteriour reveal nothing about the business inside. It could be a boutique architecture firm, or a web-design collective. The building’s facade is sleek, modern, and entirely without personality, which is just the way Headmistress Shahrazad likes it.
The Ritual Chamber is a dungeon, and Shahrazad is its owner.
Inside, the dungeon is immaculate. The kitchen looks like a condo showroom, with modernist light fixtures hanging above a tastefully tiled backsplash. Shahrazad designed four rooms for the dungeon: a medical room, complete with an X-ray lightbox and four-point restraints; a “torture chamber,” featuring a large cage topped with a black-leather bondage bed and a full complement of artfully displayed floggers and paddles; and a teeny-tiny classroom, barely big enough for a desk and a chalkboard. The fourth, a Victorian boudoir, looks like the lobby of an artsy hotel: a glossy white stag head head, perched above the fireplace, overlooks velvet couches and black leather chairs. “These themes are the most versatile and the most asked for in the context of a fantasy,” explains Shahrazad after a quick tour. If she had more space, she would include an adult nursery for her clients who like Adult Diaper Play.
Shahrazad, who has worked as a professional dominant for 13 years, opened the Ritual Chamber in December of last year. “I had been looking for a space for a very long time,” she says. “I worked as an independent dominatrix out of various different locations in the city. Most of the time I was working in the same place that I was living, which obviously had its cons.” When we meet, she’s in civilian mufti: with her messy ponytail, black cowboy boots, and thick-rimmed glasses, she could be a grad student or a paralegal out for brunch. But, as she explains, “I have all kinds of outfits. Leather catsuits, leather mini-dresses, PVC catsuits. Uniforms, and business attire, and school teacher outfit. Or something more motherly or matronly for certain types of scenes. We can basically do most of your standard stuff.”
Of course, “most of your standard stuff” varies wildly in the BDSM business. She does impact play, like spanking and flogging. She plays with fetishes and paraphilias like stockings and boots. She’ll tickle a client, or demand that they don lipstick and dresses. “I will not take on clients whose interests do not interest me…but I have a lot of interests,” she says with a laugh. “BDSM is a healing practice. There’s a therapeutic benefit in its exploration.” Shahrazad has seen clients so affected by their time with her that they’ve walked into mailboxes after they leave the dungeon.
“I have all kinds of outfits. We can basically do most of your standard stuff.”
Shahrazad works with a team of eight women—seven dominants and one professional submissive. “When I hired people, I hired people with a genuine interest in BDSM, who either play extensively in their personal life, or who have been professionals. I want the people who work here to love working here. It creates a very different kind of experience.” She also rents the space to professional dommes outside of her collective, as well as to couples who want all the amenities of a fully equipped dungeon without the hassle of explaining why their new bed has built-in handcuffs. A good week will see about 18 to 25 one- to two-hour bookings for the dungeon; about half are clients there to see Shahrazad.
Part of the client glut is because Shahrazad has been practicing the art and science of BDSM for so long. The other members of the collective are relatively new. “I can promote this place all I want, but because the price point is an investment, clients usually want to see that a domme has been around for a while before they drop the money.” Facilitated sessions with a professional dominant or submissive start at $250 for one hour, and many of the newer practitioners don’t offer the breadth of experience that Shahrazad does. “Some of us have more experience than others, and the ones with less experience are working with a narrower range of offerings,” she says.
No matter what they’re looking for, all Ritual Chamber clients undergo the same rigorous intake process. Prospective clients can browse the website, where each of the practitioners has a bio, photos, and a list of things they will and won’t do with clients. Once they’ve found a suitable dominant, clients use the website’s contact form to get in touch. Shahrazad screens the men (and it is almost always men—she estimates her client pool to be “97 percent male”), weeding out the ones whose overeagerness demonstrates a poor understanding of boundaries. “A lot of times people have a hard time discerning between fantasy and reality when they’re inquiring. We are still equal adults having a conversation. You are not my slave. I am not your mistress.”
She adds: “I’m never 100 percent sure, but by the time someone’s made it in here, I’m 80 to 90 percent sure that they’re a decent human.”
Her client pool includes “high-ranking professionals, doctors, lawyers, business people.” She says many of them have families. “They’re not scuzzy, weird people.”
“I’m never 100 percent sure, but by the time someone’s made it in here, I’m 80 to 90 percent sure that they’re a decent human.”
The space reflects her commitment to her clients. She only books one session at a time; there’s no chance of someone crossing paths with a neighbour or a boss at the Ritual Chamber. “People need to feel safe in order go deeply into the parts of themselves that make them feel vulnerable, and they cannot do that if they’re worried about somebody walking in on them, or listening in on their conversation.” She keeps the dungeon clean, comparing it to a doctor’s office, where the standard of care means people can expect sterile equipment and confidentiality. She doesn’t press clients with feedback forms, instead allowing them to come to her. “I have people who will go through a complete personality change. They walk in the door and they’re in one mode, totally psyched up, and the second the session is over, it’s like, “don’t talk to me anymore.’”
Shahrazad first got into domination more than a decade ago. “I have always been fascinated by the complex workings of what we come to eroticize as adults. From my teen years, figuring out what turned me on, and then why it did, helped me to learn a lot about myself and I am a more confident, calm, happy, and non-judgmental person as a result.” She worked in a dungeon for about nine months before striking out on her own. Now, about 65 percent of the The Ritual Chamber’s clients are repeat customers.
“People approach this differently,” she says. “Some people have a lot of disposable income, and some people treat themselves—for example, on their birthday. Some people can be a regular client and they only come once a year.”
She saw an uptick in one-time clients after the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, which helped bring kink into mainstream conversation. “So many people watched that movie and went home to try it, but didn’t realize that what was depicted was not a good example of how to do risk-aware consensual kink. It promoted a lot of misinformation about power exchange fantasies and what they look like.” What professional dominants bring to the table is the ability to “do these kinds of edgy activities in a sane and safe way.”
Shahrazad seems to view the Ritual Chamber as a place of healing. (It’s only ironic when you take in her collection of spanking implements.) “People can have an outlet for the parts of themselves that don’t get a lot of airtime in the rest of their lives. It’s the equivalent impact of yoga or meditation or anything that one would do to come back into one’s body and relax. For some people it’s yoga, and for some people, it’s getting a beating.” Just as in yoga, a session with a BDSM practitioner can lead to a serious endorphin rush; just like in therapy, it can create a safe place to work through trauma. “I have a message to share with people and that is one of the power of erotic self-acceptance.”
As for how she keeps the dungeon so clean? “We have a service slave, who does an excellent job of cleaning. It’s his thing to clean and be of service to mistresses and pro dommes,” Shahrazad explains with a laugh. Kink, it seems, is built into every element of the business, but that doesn’t mean it’s dirty.