Inside the hidden world of online dominatrixes
It's an average day at work for Sara Bakeman.
She sits down at her computer, connects with one of her clients and opens a program. Using this program, she logs in to her client's social media: his Facebook page, his Instagram account, maybe even his Twitter profile. She looks through his bank account and opens his payment apps too, delving deep in to his digital identity and scrolling through all of his most personal, private information.
If at any point her client tries to put a stop to this, he is immediately punished: either physically, or financially. Sara might order him to do something embarrassing or painful, or demand that he send her a certain amount of money. She might even log on to her own Twitter account and ask her followers to help her choose a punishment for her helpless charge.
No, Sara's not a hacker, a scammer, or a thief and her clients are far from forced in to this unusual arrangement. Sara is an online financial dominatrix and her fully-consenting "subs" (submissive clients) pay a premium for the privilege of having her snoop through their private information and spend their hard-earned dollars.
"My subs always say, 'How are you doing this to me? You mesmerise me'," Sara tells me, in a message filled with smiling emoji.
While we're all probably a little familiar with sexual domination and submission thanks to films like Fifty Shades of Grey, financial domination - or 'findom' - might be a little more hardcore than what Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele got up to between the pages of a book.
Unlike a more traditional relationship between a Dom (dominant partner) and their sub, financial dominatrixes rarely meet their subs in person. They don't have sex and they might not even get undressed. Their subs could speak to them over Skype or hear their voices on the phone, or they may not even be permitted to do that: some findom subs pay good money simply to be ignored, spending more and more in what will ultimately be a fruitless effort to gain the attention, and favour, of their Dom of choice.
This isn't a disappointing day for most subs, either. The experience of paying money to a financial dominatrix only to be ignored, spoken down to, abused, or humiliated is what keeps them coming back. While some subs choose to pay a relatively small amount, others have been known to spend hundreds or even thousands chasing the thrill of being financially dominated. Findom is a mental game - not a physical act.
As a general rule, the more money a sub is willing to spend, the greater amount of control they're seeking: hence why Sara can spend her days looking through her subs bank accounts and being paid for the pleasure. She offers a speciality service: TPE, she tells me, or, "Total Power Exchange."
"I've been in sex work since I was eighteen," says Sara.
"I started out selling panties and going on dates for money. I just gave lonely men attention and they gave little ol' me money for it - win-win, right?"
But the more she worked, the more she realised her clients were craving a specific kind of relationship with her.
"The turn-on factor is control," she says.
"These men are in jobs where they are constantly in control, making money decisions, [and] ordering people around. What they want is for someone else to take control."
So Sara did exactly that, offering financial domination to the men who contact her daily, looking for release and distraction from their busy, stressful lives. But while her job may be niche in an industry that's already highly specialised, she's not alone in her work.
Jessie Sage is a phone sex operator and a sex columnist for the Pittsburgh City Paper. Although she doesn't advertise herself as a dominatrix, many of her phone sex clients call her looking to indulge their fetishes - including being dominated financially.
"Sometimes what clients who are in to financial domination want is for me to change my rates, and make them call back at a higher rate," she told me over email.
"For example, while I usually charge $1.99 a minute, they will ask me to double the rate and make them call back at $3.99 a minute. But I recently had someone who was legitimately in to the blackmail aspect of financial domination.
"He gave me his PayPal login and his bank login, and pushed me to threaten to drain his accounts unless he voluntarily continued to tip me."
Jessie sees the same desire in her clients as Sara does: a want to surrender control over something that we're told is impolite to even talk about in polite society. Money.
But is it as easy as it sounds? Can we all just jump online and start financially dominating men tomorrow?
"Oh my gosh, no," says Sara.
"It's not easy at all."
"[Working] online is pretty hard. You have to market yourself and make yourself known, be creative and hustle harder than you've ever hustled before.
"Remember you're your own boss, marketeer, costume designer, script writer, photographer, prop designer - I mean, the list goes on."
Jessie agrees. "No form of sex work is easy," she says.
"There is so much invisible labour that goes in to sex work: marketing, client recruiting and retention, social media maintenance … and in the case of this particular fetish, there are ethical issues that arise. You have to build trust with your clients, and understand where the lines are so that you make sure not the cross them."
And as much as abusing men online and taking their money might seem ethically questionable to some, for the men who submit to financial Doms there is a need being met - even if it sounds strange or bizarre to us.
After all, every now and again, everyone wants to give up control over something in their lives: for these men, it's money.
"I love the work I do, and think of it as a calling," says Jessie.
"I think sex work, in all of its forms, is important care work that has the potential to have a huge positive impact in the lives of those we work with."
Kate Iselin is a writer and a sex worker. Continue the conversation @kateiselin