The high-priced hustle of financial domination, where "pay pigs" send tributes to their cash masters.
To celebrate her 27th birthday, Mistress Marley, a professional dominatrix from Harlem, New York, flew to Tulum, Mexico, where she rented a modern four-bedroom villa with a limestone pool, private beach and personal chef.
For four days, she and six friends swam in the warm Caribbean waters, went zip-lining in the Mayan jungle and dined on fresh lobsters and tequila at boho-chic restaurants.
Whenever she wanted money, she said, she would set up her iPhone on the beach and command her online suitors to chip in.
"Tulum has been amazing thus far. Keep funding my trip!" she posted to her Twitter followers in late January, along with her CashApp handle and a 15-second video showing off her curvaceous bikini body, bright red fingernails and flowing dark tresses.
Soon, she said, money began flowing into her account. "Please take all of my money for your trip, I don't deserve it," wrote Betaboy10, who gave US$500 ($710), according to screen shots Mistress Marley provided to The New York Times. Another, named SubMike00, sent US$250 ($355). A user who goes by Peter Zapp sent US$400 ($570), along with the message: "I'd do anything to be owned by you."
Welcome to the lucrative world of financial domination, a form of BDSM that has flourished during the pandemic, when many sex workers and their customers have migrated online because of social distancing precautions. The concept is simple, even if the allure is not immediately self-evident: "finsubs" (short for "financial submissives") send monetary "tributes" to a financial dominatrix, who could be any gender, in exchange for being humiliated and degraded.
"It's controlling someone through their wallet," Mistress Marley said. (The Times agreed to identify her only by her professional name to prevent stalkers from finding her.) "I love waking up every day realising that submissive men pay all my bills and I don't spend a dime."
Trysts take place mostly online, though there can be in-person encounters. And the humiliation could be as fleeting as a few moments, or persist for hours during so-called draining sessions, when the dominatrix hurls a barrage of insults and demands that ends only when a monetary cap is reached or a finsub's bank account hits zero, whichever comes first.
In its purest form, financial domination is not transactional. Sending money is the kink, and finsubs offer tributes without expecting anything in return. "The arousal is in the act," said Phillip Hammack, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the director of its Sexual and Gender Diversity Laboratory. "It's about that loss of control."
Along with BDSM in general, financial domination has had wider exposure in recent years through social media and popular culture. On the Netflix comedy Bonding, the lead character, Tiff, is a graduate student who moonlights as a dominatrix; she meets a high-powered chief executive who gets aroused by having her spend US$10,000 ($14,000) at a boutique. And on the Gen Z morality tale Euphoria, one of the show's addled high school students, Kat, becomes a financial dominatrix as a way of reclaiming her sexuality.
The fetish is increasingly visible, even as the pandemic has restricted how sex workers can make a living. Just ask Mistress Marley, who previously made the majority of her income from in-person dominatrix sessions. She has made up to US$5,000 ($7,000) a week as a financial dominatrix or "findomme," she said, and provided The Times with screen shots of financial transactions.
"So many people are thriving off of this industry online," she said. "I know this because I'm thriving."
'Who wants to buy me lunch?'
Mistress Marley earned a master's degree in fashion marketing in 2018. While she was in school, she worked casually as a so-called sugar baby, an arrangement in which one person — usually younger — is supported financially by a partner, or "sugar daddy."
After graduation, she found a job in fashion as a buyer for a large corporation. But when she wasn't earning as much as she'd hoped, she searched on the web: "How to make money as a woman online."
Among the first search results was a 2013 Vice article, "Financial Domination Is a Very Expensive Fetish," about a Pennsylvania woman named Cleo Tantra who said that financial dominatrixes like herself could make "a few thousand a month."
Intrigued, Mistress Marley scoured the web and took copious notes: favourite apps and social media platforms (CashApp and Twitter); their colourful aliases (Goddess Taylor Knight; Miss Melody May; Divine Goddess Jessica); what finsubs liked to pay for (manicures, Champagne dinners and designer clothes).
A week later, she created a Twitter account with her new nom de findomme — Mistress Marley — and posted a simple message with no photo: "Who wants to buy me lunch?" Two days later, she said, she received her first tribute: US$25 ($35) from an anonymous CashApp user.
The more Mistress Marley posted (not just on Twitter, but also on Instagram, OnlyFans and Patreon), the more money flowed. She uploaded seductive videos of herself in a black corset, dancing to Megan Thee Stallion. She snapped photos of Fendi purses and other gifts. She met finsubs in person and recorded the interactions.
By her second year, she said, she was making up to US$2,500 ($3,500) a week. That's when she quit her job in fashion.
As her following grew, she became bolder. In 2019, she attended homecoming at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina, from which she graduated, in full dominatrix regalia: black leather corset, yellow snakeskin-pattern leggings and black suede platform boots.
But the most scandalous part of this stunt was at the other end of her leash: a middle-age white man whom she said she met a few days earlier on FetLife, a social media platform for the BDSM community.
She walked the man across the campus like a dog, stopping occasionally to pat his balding head. A video shows onlookers gawking and snapping photos. One attendee shared a video on Twitter with the caption: "She brought her sugar daddy to homecoming." Mistress Marley reposted it with a correction: "That's not my sugar daddy, it's my sub LOL. He pays for me to control him."
Mistress Marley also puts her performance in a larger historical context. "For me, especially as a Black woman, I see my financial gains as reparations, because the majority, if not all of my clients, are white men," she said.
By morning, the video had amassed over 3 million views, and her inbox was flooded with requests from finsubs and women who wanted to learn more about financial domination. Among them was King Kourt, 33, a medical data analyst and part-time secretary from Cleveland. (That is her professional name, which The Times agreed to use for safety concerns.) "I saw her video and instantly thought: 'I want to walk a white man on a leash,'" she said.
Mistress Marley invited her to join Black Domme Sorority, a collective she started to help Black women navigate the world of financial domination. The group hosts brunches, charity events, sex tutorials and safety classes. This made her the face of this kind of work, resulting in attention like a profile in Paper magazine.
"Findom feels safe because it's online, and there's no sex involved," said King Kourt, who joined the sorority and said she now makes about US$2,500 a month from 10 finsubs.
While many practitioners are women (and their subs male), there are male findoms who cater to men. "I'm bisexual, but for me, it's not about that," said a 28-year-old "cash master" in Buffalo who works as Ted Smith. "If you're not enjoying the power struggle, then why are you doing this?"
There are also nonbinary findommes like Goddess Ambrosia, 24, a former chef and activist from Salt Lake City, who uses the pronouns they and them, and appeals to male subs.
"In the capitalist society we live in, money is so fetishised, especially by men," they said. "Men are taught from a very young age that they need to be breadwinners and they need to provide for women, for their families."
"As a nonbinary person, to be able to take that power away from men really subverts those expectations," Goddess Ambrosia added.
The desire to be financially humiliated is not limited to men. Some women find it arousing, too. "Women are taught to see men as powerful figures," said a 28-year-old dominatrix from Brooklyn, New York, who has many female clients and who works under the name Miss Orion. "But my subs want to submit to me and give me their minds, bodies and souls because I am a woman, and they see that as powerful."
Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, financial domination is ultimately about power.
"It's a power exchange, just like in BDSM, only it's without ropes or chains — it's with money," said Joe Kort, a sex and relationship therapist and co-director of the Modern Sex Therapy Institutes in West Palm Beach, Florida. "The money is, in fact, the chains, because dommes are tying up subs financially. The eroticism for the subs comes from feeling owned."
Cult Clare, 25, a TikTok creator from Brooklyn, dabbles in findom whenever she wants to feel bossy. "I really do enjoy the control," she said. "It's empowering, particularly as women, because we're taught to constantly undervalue ourselves. Findom really gives you a space to say, 'No, I'm worth this much, and if you can't pay that, then get away.'"
I need to hand over everything
Giving away your hard-earned money may seem counterintuitive or unpleasant, like paying off credit cards and student loans. But for finsubs, who are also known as "pay pigs," it is liberating and titillating.
That was something that one submissive, a manager of a Dallas nonprofit who goes by the online alias R.J., discovered about himself in the late 1990s, when he was trolling an AOL chat room for white supremacists. One day, R.J., now 56, said, he got into an argument with a man from Mississippi, who later sent R.J. a private message saying that he knew where R.J. lived and threatened to send friends to beat him up.
R.J., who was granted anonymity because he believed he would be fired, panicked and pleaded for forgiveness. The user instructed R.J. to list his valuables, and when R.J. mentioned a new inkjet printer, the user told him to send it. He balked at first, but the stranger was unrelenting. At his day job, R.J. leads a large team and he found the idea of ceding control surprisingly appealing, so he took the printer to the post office.
Over the next months, R.J. said, he also mailed a scanner, Zip drive, digital camera and CD player. Then he started sending money. Each time, the user would belittle R.J., calling him pathetic and a loser. R.J. was hooked.
"As a sub, I have this need, this fetish, to hand over everything," said R.J., who is gay and single, and estimated that he has spent more than US$150,000 ($213,000) on dozens of cash masters since he started. "It's this feeling of giving up complete control, of someone having ownership over you. I find that really arousing."
The feeling is echoed by other financial submissives.
"This idea of giving their money away, and not knowing what's going to happen — it's the ultimate surrender of power, and it's very liberating for them," said Hammack, the psychology professor.
Hammack said that financial domination can help people struggling with control issues. "I believe that findom can actually be a really healthy way to manifest the part of human nature that is about power asymmetry and hierarchy," he said. "It becomes a context for healthy growth and development."
Financial domination is helping Charlie, 29, a sales manager in Ohio, identify as a transgender woman, even as she presents as a man in her "vanilla" life, she said. King Kourt, her findomme, has full access to one of her bank accounts, she said, and as part of a "consensual blackmail" arrangement, King Kourt threatens to expose Charlie as a woman in exchange for money.
The idea, both said, is to encourage Charlie to live as she wants in public as well as private.
Giving up financial control may also help some finsubs become more empathetic. William M., 31, a technology manager for a school system, said that he spends US$300 a month on Queen Astro, 31, a findomme from Los Angeles. Every time he sends money, she publicly belittles him on Twitter or degrades him on Skype.
"I used to be much more self-centered," William said. "As I've explored this fetish, I've definitely become more aware of other people, their feelings and putting them before myself," adding that he sacrifices personal comforts like new winter boots and an air conditioner to keep his findomme satisfied. "My domme definitely comes first," he said.
In that sense, financial domination is not so different from some marriages. "We don't call it findom," Kort said. "We see it as romantic, as one partner telling another, 'I'm going to take care of you.' In findom, it becomes erotic, but it's the same dynamic."
'Good boy. Now, send more.'
Unlike in most marriages, however, there is a persistent fear that a findomme could steal one's entire savings. And that's part of the appeal.
Still, Kort believes that most findom relationships are safe, likening the fetish to an expensive hobby. "If I'm into golf and golfing is important to me, I will wait to spend money on other things, but I'm not going to go broke buying golf clubs," he said. "It's the same for subs. The majority are in charge of what they're spending."
Mistress Marley would agree. She recounted one draining session she held last July, with a sub who says he is a college student from Boston. She said she wore a black bra and leather corset, logged onto Skype from her Harlem bedroom, and almost immediately received US$50 on CashApp.
"Good boy," she wrote. "Now, send more." Another $100 landed.
She said she then ordered him to get on all fours, which he did, while he sent another US$100. "Good piggy," she said to him. "Now double it."
She said then picked up her phone and scrolled through Instagram, like a bored teenager. When she looked up, she saw another US$200. The submissive bowed his head, she said, averting eye contact. "I'm not worthy, Mistress," he said.
"You're right," she said. "Now get on your knees and beg."
With every insult — "Pathetic" "You'll never be able to touch this" — the submissive sent another US$100 until the total hit US$1,000, which took about five minutes. She said that at the end, she snapped her laptop shut without saying goodbye and posted a screen shot of her new CashApp balance.
"I'm never quitting my job," she wrote in the caption.
Written by: Alexandra Weiss
Photographs by: Camila Falquez
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES