“I have more leadership experience than Donald Trump and less skeletons in my closet than Hillary Clinton,” said Tara Indiana, as she announced her run for president last May in Los Angeles at Dom Com, an annual dominatrix convention. Her campaign slogan was “Whipping American Back Into Shape 1 Middle-Aged White Man at a Time,” and the delivery of her speech included a man with a Trump mask who stood before her as she flogged him and beat him with a paddle, among other things.
Indiana did not, as you may have heard, win the presidency, although she ran as a write-in candidate in three states—West Virginia, Colorado, and New Jersey—on the Female Supremacy Party. As we near the inauguration of the man who defeated her in the race for the White House, Indiana can reflect on her loss. “The problem in the world is old and middle-aged white men have been running the planet for the past 6,000 years, and they botched it,” Indiana said in a phone interview last month. “And it was time for women to be in charge.”
Of course, being “in charge” is the usual profession of “Mistress” Tara Indiana, a Yiddish-speaking dominatrix who is proud to say that she “grew up in the Bronx, the third generation of Russian Jewish immigrants.” A leading New York dominatrix in the 1990s, Indiana relocated to Los Angeles in 2010, and she says that she has trained and managed more than 80 mistresses in three states—a strong qualification for the job that Donald J. Trump snatched from her. “Being a leader of women is much harder,” Indiana said, “than being a leader of men.”
This was the premise of her campaign: leadership experience. “You may ask yourself, what qualifications does a dominatrix like me have for public office? Well,” she said in her campaign speech, “in my many years in the scene, I’ve dominated over 10,000 men, and the one thing I can promise you is Donald Trump is not the only redhead that hits hard.”
Tara Indiana, as she calls herself—she does not divulge her given name—was born in New York in 1968. She spent a childhood on the run, living in 13 countries by the time she was 6. “I was told the reason was because my parents were musicians,” she said. And it’s true, they were. “But I found out later they were trying to escape my biological father, who never gave me up for adoption.” Indiana reunited with her biological father, an Orthodox rabbi and government engineer, when she was 26 years old. She refers to him as “Tata,” in Yiddish, while the man who raised her is “Dad.” Both fathers have since passed away.
Jewish on both sides, Indiana learned Yiddish around the house in the Bronx. “The public school in my area was bad so my parents sent me to yeshiva, even though they were atheists,” she explained. Her parents were lefty Jews who marched for civil rights and her grandparents were blacklisted, card-carrying Communists. “My attending yeshiva created a lot of conflict and mixed messages as far as what Judaism is,” Indiana said. “At home I was hearing [one thing] and at school I was hearing something different. I got in a lot of debates about the existence of God.” For her bat mitzvah, her grandmother took her to Israel, and for high school she switched from yeshiva to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, the same school her jazz musician “dad” attended. She majored in visual art.
By 16 she was already proprietor of Pretentious Skies, an artist-management company through which she booked bands at clubs like The Dive, Limelight, and CBGB. “I left home as soon as I was legally able to,” she said, “and I moved into the city, got my first apartment on 10th, between 1st and 2nd in the East Village. Mostly I was a bartender.”
To earn more money, she began working for escort services, an idea that had piqued her curiosity when, as a young girl, she’d seen a documentary about sex work. “I never felt guilty or shameful,” she said. “What was difficult was having a double life, and lying to your friends and your family.” Ten years later she came out to her sister, who was, she said, accepting, and then to a close aunt, who shamed her, revealed her secret to her mother, and left Indiana estranged from her family. She would not provide contact information of any relatives for interviews.
Soon she learned about S&M clubs, where consensual sexual sadism and masochism were practiced with strict rules, boundaries, and safety precautions, and no sex was allowed. She liked the sound of that. In 1989, she did her first session as a dominatrix, during an out-call in a man’s home, and “it just sort of took root,” she said. She was 22. The S&M community—anti-shame, with its own set of rules, ideals, and codes of conduct—became the center of both her work and her private world.
In 1993, Indiana was running an occasional S&M party at the Paradise Club. In 1994, she opened her first “dungeon,” a professional space in which dominatrixes hold professional sessions. With her name on the lease, she called the dungeon The Den of Iniquity, and it soon became the go-to set for the S&M porn industry in New York. Indiana said that between 1997 and 2006, close to 1,000 films were shot there.
“I remember thinking if the people at my day job knew what I did at night that they would judge me,” said Indiana, “but the people in the S&M industry didn’t judge me for doing artist management.”
Indiana’s background helped her develop another niche. She soon found herself working with a lot of Jewish clients, including Orthodox clients, many of whom wanted her to dominate them in Yiddish. “I definitely marketed the fact that I was a Jewish dominatrix,” she said. “It was a big appeal. A big portion of the business in New York is Jews and Catholics, because, you know, we have the guilt. We did holiday ads, Christmas and Hanukkah ads in big S&M magazines, like Vault, Black and Blue, and Dominant Mystique. We did a photo shoot where we had two of the mistresses playing dreidel and then the loser had hot wax dripped on her from a menorah.”
“Some people got really offended by that. It was interesting that the Christmas ads didn’t [offend people],” she said, “but the Hanukkah ads did.”
As for her Hasidic clients, of whom there were plenty in New York, they wanted to be ordered around in Yiddish—but only five days a week. “They never came on a Friday or Saturday,” she said.
Indiana first learned that her biological father was not the man who raised her when she found her birth certificate at 26. She later learned that her biological father was a Hasidic rabbi and an engineer who had worked on nuclear warheads for the government. When they finally met, she said, he was mentally unwell, and it was difficult. “He was a Talmudic scholar and a cantor, he could quote anything, and was really a genius that way,” she recalled. “They used to call him the unorthodox rabbi. He was kind of eccentric.” She said much of what she learned about her now-deceased father’s life she’d heard from relatives or came in the form of articles from his town of origin.
The Orthodox engineer and Indiana’s mother—who had become a baal tshuvah, newly religious, when she’d fallen for the rabbi—split soon after she was born. “Somewhere into the marriage she realized she didn’t want to be this religious,” Indiana said. “My biological father was the one who had suggested she get guitar lessons, and actually found my father, and set up these lessons. And that’s how she met the father that raised me.” She said she has a picture of herself as a baby in a guitar case in her stepdad’s office, 2 months old. “My mother used to bring me to her lessons.”
In 1998, Indiana began commuting from New York to Los Angeles for opportunities in the adult-film industry but not until 2010 did she sign a lease and make L.A. home. She was a working dominatrix and adult-film star, as well as a public speaker and teacher. She now lives in a loft in downtown L.A., where she teaches classes on the practice and psyche of being a dominatrix, as well as more heady classes on the science, business, and philosophy of BDSM. Her at-home dungeon is called—of course—The Den of Iniquity.
One of her classes, “BDSM and God,” which she will be teaching again in February, explores “what the Old Testament actually does say about sexuality, because most people have a really twisted sense of what is in the Bible.” Another class, “The Science of S&M,” looks at what Indiana terms “the neurology of the kinky brain.” Her next project is to start a regular play party for kinky Jewish singles in Los Angeles.
“People who have this orientation,” she explained, “the thing that makes them different—we sexualize fear, trauma, and shame.” Which brings her back to her run for president. “He ran a campaign based on fear, trauma, and shame,” she said of Trump. And what’s the antidote to trauma, fear, and shame? For some, consensual sadism and masochism.
When asked what exactly concerns her about Trump, Indiana drew in a breath, and there was silence for a long time. “It’s kind of overwhelming to even describe that,” she said. “Much like his run for president started as a joke, mine did, too. It’s just not funny anymore. Our reproductive rights are in jeopardy. Even though I am past that age, it is still terrifying. The thing that’s the scariest is that he will single out people and come at them personally. Women in the adult business don’t have great support systems. If he comes after us, any of us, he can really wreak havoc with our lives in a way that has never been possible before.”
Mistress Tara Indiana, however, works at dominating powerful men for a living. It’s just what she does.
“I’m not going to let this [new administration] change who I am,” she said. “I am going to keep doing what I am doing. When they really win is when they change who you are.”
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Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.