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The story of the 91-year-old dominatrix.

The story of the 91-year-old dominatrix.

Catherine Robbe-Grillet is in her tenth decade of life, lives in a beautiful French castle, and is fully committed to BDSM.

The great science fiction author Robert Heinlein once wrote, “Every generation thinks it invented sex, and every generation is wrong”. There’s a huge paradox at play when it comes to an older generation being shocked by a younger generation’s sexuality—how openly things are or aren’t discussed changes, of course, but there’d be no younger generation to do the shocking if the older ones hadn’t figured a few things out. 

Someone who figured a few things out a long time ago is Catherine Robbe-Grillet, a 91-year-old French dominatrix. She’s been out and proud as a member of the BDSM community for over six decades, which isn’t something a lot of people can say, and even as a nonagenarian, continues to surprise people.

Born in Paris in 1930, Catherine Rstakian, as she was then called, went to a strict, all-girls Catholic school, where she somehow managed to aggravate the nuns while following all the rules, earning the nickname ‘The Sneering Student’ for her superior attitude. 

When she was 21, she met broke engineer and wannabe writer Alain Robbe-Grillet on a train to Istanbul. The two entered into a relationship but, traumatized by a horrific backstreet abortion, she announced that she was “happy to do all kinds of things erotically, but nothing that could lead to a pregnancy”. The pair began experimenting with other activities, with Catherine taking a submissive role. The “marital whip” was introduced, given by Catherine to Alain as a symbol of submission. Alain, who became a successful writer and filmmaker, is long dead, but the whip is still used to this day. 

In 1956, the 26-year-old Catherine published a BDSM-heavy erotic novel, L’Image, under the male pseudonym Jean de Berg. The story concerns a relationship between a man and two women who we eventually learn are mirror images of one another. It was made into an American film in 1975, The Image, later re-titled The Punishment of Anne and The Mistress and the Slave. Catherine and Alain entered into complex roleplay situations along with the publisher, Jérôme Lindon, taking on the personas of the characters from her book, with Catherine taking on the role of Alain’s slave.

The following year they entered into a marriage in which Catherine was free to take as many lovers as she wished, male and female, while also living under Alain as her ‘Master’. Alain drew up an elaborate document, Contrat de Prostitution Conjugale (Contract for Conjugal Prostitution), which was both incredibly brutal and too gentle for Catherine’s tastes, with her later writing, “The very notion of a contract ran contrary to my erotic fantasy wherein the Master, once elected, requires no permission whatsoever from the woman who has agreed to submit herself to him.”

In 1973, one of Catherine’s lovers ordered her to, for a change, dominate him, and she realized in doing so that she had spent twenty years at the wrong end of the whip. “I suddenly realized that I felt like doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to decide for myself,” she told Vanity Fair in 2014. “I became dominant.”

For the last fifty years, since that revelation, Catherine has performed “ceremonies”, both on her own and with the help of her petit clan, an intimate group of fellow dominant women. People eager to be dominated arrange visits to the 17th-century Château du Mesnil-au-Grain she shared with Alain until his 2008 death—his ashes sit in an urn positioned above the marital whip—for which, crucially, no money changes hands. She insists that, if she were paid, the person paying her would be in charge, something she will have none of. She does, however, have countless errands and jobs done for her by her submissives—if Madame’s pond needs cleaning, Madame’s pond gets cleaned.

She has bound, beaten, branded, and cut countless men and women; locked some in cages; treated others as horses. She opted after one dramatic incident to mostly retire the use of knives, but still regularly inflicts pain with a hatpin. “As a dominatrix, you must dominate yourself,” she told Vanity Fair. “Otherwise you take the chance of killing someone or doing serious damage, so you have to know your limits.” 

In many ways, she seems to know no limits at all. She is, again, 91. She was 12 when Casablanca came out. She’s 4’11” and 88lbs and fits into a child’s clothes. She refuses to appear in front of anyone other than her wife/protege, fellow dominatrix Beverley Charpentier, before 2 pm. Just, when she does, it might be to cheerfully cause a huge amount of pain. 

Catherine Robbe-Grillet has packed a hell of a lot of life into her nine decades and spent the brunt of it as a prominent, well-known member of a frequently misunderstood community. She’s had a pretty unique life and seems to have found her calling—multigenerational high-society dominatrix—in a way few ever manage. She won’t be around forever, and it’s hard not to feel like a world without her will be that bit less interesting. 

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