The dominatrix is one of the indelible images of feminine power in pop culture. From Catwoman to Cher, black leather and thigh-high boots have been shorthand for a woman who can dish out some serious pain.

But for Viola Parker—aka Mistress Viola, co-founder of Portland's Sub Rosa fetish space—female domination, or femme dom, doesn't even have to involve pain. Some people just like to be ordered around.

"People come to me because they want someone else to lead them through an experience where they are subject to the control of somebody else," says Parker, 38. "The only thing they have in common is an interest in that."

Parker started her career in San Francisco before relocating to Portland in 2013. Despite the city's kinky reputation, Parker found the local BDSM scene overwhelmingly masculine. When she founded Sub Rosa in November 2018 with fellow dominatrix Natasha Strange, her goal was to create the same sense of community she found in San Francisco—and to liven things up a little.

"I wanted something velvet and comfy and inviting instead of dark and cold," she says. "Certainly, we have cages and all sorts of fetish gear—but we also have a really pretty color scheme."

WW spoke to Parker about her work, the often misunderstood terminology associated with it, and how being in control doesn't always mean being mean and scary.

WW: What are the biggest misconceptions about BDSM?

Viola Parker: I think one of the biggest ones is that BDSM is all about pain, and that's really not true. There are a lot of people interested in kink because of the emotional dynamics and the power exchange. A lot of times as a femme-dom, [people] think all I do is hurt people. That's not the case. A lot of it is taking care of people and nurturing people in these very specific ways.

What's a BDSM practice without pain?

A lot of people have an erotic experience with things that people might think are tools of pain. For instance, the flogger. While it is something you're hitting someone with, it's less about the pain of flogging than about the impact, the sensation of leather. It almost feels like a massage.

Another thing is verbal control—the idea of commanding someone to stand a certain way or be on their knees. The vocal command has nothing to do with pain, but you're asserting a tremendous amount of control just by your physicality. A lot of my submissives like to be put into women's clothing or put into a collar. Just the act of putting on a collar can be very erotic for someone. A lot of people want to worship my boots. They are just immersed in the sense of leather and the touch and the feel and the idea of being at my feet.

What's the difference between a femme-dom and a dominatrix?

"Dominatrix," generally, is the word you use if you're a professional. If you call yourself a dominatrix, you're getting paid. That's how I've always seen it used. The other word I use is "pro-dom"—professional dominant.

Is there anything you won't do with your clients?

I do not do any directly sexual activities with my clients. I don't do race play [BDSM scenarios in which the race of the participants plays a role in the power imbalance]. I just can't get into it. I don't do any kind of fluid exchange or anything like that. And no children, no animals, no one who's non-consenting.

How much is sexual arousal involved during a BDSM session?

It depends on the player. Generally speaking, orgasm isn't even part of it for my subs. It's more about the experience: the denial and control of their release. So it's not about sex. It's about temptation. It's about the power dynamic. For some people, kink is foreplay. For other people, maybe rope is the whole thing, and all they want to do is play with rope with no expectation of sex involved.

Do your clients fit a certain profile?

That's another myth—that there are all these high-powered executives who go see someone like myself. I do see high-powered executives, but I also see young men who save up for the occasion. I see someone from Eugene with a beard who works in construction. Though most of my clients are men. I see women, I see trans folk. I bristle at the idea that there's one kind of person.

But I will say this: Men have a lot of expectations on them to be masculine, and a lot of the time those expectations can be oppressive. Femme-dom is a flipping of traditional gender roles. People come to me because they want someone to lead them through an experience where they are subject to the control of somebody else.

Do you ever get judged for being a dominatrix?

Most people are just interested. The only thing is, people ask me a lot of questions and it becomes the only thing they know about me. It's hard dating. I have an amazing partner now, but when I was dating before, I felt like a novelty-type person, like people weren't taking me seriously. They just thought, "Oh that's fun, but you're not a serious person. You're a crazy dominatrix."

But most of my friends are people who know what I do and respect it, and understand how important it is. No one really gives me shit. I have a lot of privilege as a dominatrix. I think it's a lot harder for other avenues of sex work. I'm in a very liberal bubble. We're in Portland, most people are just like, "Cool!" But maybe if I was in, like, Nebraska I would get more shit.