Stefanos Tiziano was grasping onto a single-tail whip, his partner Shay awaiting his next strike, when the dungeon monitor chose to step in. The Tizianos, new to doing BDSM together in public but not new to play in general, followed standard protocol before starting their scene: They made clear to the monitor what they were there to do, explaining that the loud cracks of the whip were a sign of pleasure, just like Shay's shrieks. But during their play, the monitor chose to interrupt—a call they did not anticipate.
"We asked why [he intervened], and he said 'she doesn't look like she's enjoying herself,'" Shay recalls of the event, which occurred at a BDSM convention in 2005. "But I was enjoying myself. And I was devastated."
Essentially lifeguards of the pools that are BDSM dungeons, monitors are brought in to ensure guests are having fun but also being safe. A good dungeon monitor knows when to step in and also when to stay back and watch. But with a lack of standardized responsibilities and comprehensive training on how to correctly assess every possible BDSM scene, it's not only difficult for hosts to pick monitors, but also for those chosen to know their exact role in a dungeon.
"Were somebody to walk into a BDSM scene in a dungeon, they might think, 'oh my god, they're hurting each other,'" says Dr. Neil Cannon, a licensed marriage and family therapist, as well as an AASECT-certified sex therapist who's known internationally for his expertise on BDSM. "But what they missed is that beforehand, participants had careful negotiations, describing their wants, their needs, their soft limits, their hard limits, and aftercare. In most dungeons, the DM wouldn't be involved in anything all night."
Often identifiable by neon armbands or other bright accessories attached to their upper body, dungeon monitors are typically active members of the BDSM community who sit out a night of play to work an unpaid shift to support their go-to dungeon or community. Arriving early to check in, monitors let kinksters tell them what they're planning on doing so they can know what to expect; after which they'll spend anywhere from one to four hours watching over the couples in the dungeon, often equipped with fanny packs, walkie-talkies, and first aid kits. If a woman wants to drip hot candle wax onto her partner's nipples, the DM will make sure there's a tarp beneath them; if a leather daddy requests water during aftercare, they'll bring him a cup. And were something to go wrong, a DM serves as the first responder to provide help or first aid.
Shay and Stefanos Tiziano, "pansexual polyamorous playsluts [and] purveyors of perversion," have taught dungeon monitor training classes since 2007 after their bad experience at the BDSM convention and a joint realization that their city lacked an effective training program. In 2005, they moved to the Bay Area from Minnesota and decided to take a DM course so they could give back to their community. When they found themselves in a full-day lecture that ended with a test about various types of play, they weren't impressed.
What dungeons ask of their monitors vary. In Minnesota, where Shay and Stefanos often found themselves playing in home basements, owners of the house would often choose people as monitors who seemed like they had "a reasonable headspace." In larger, more structured dungeons in major cities, monitors are often expected to be both CPR- and first aid-trained, as well as DM-trained—the later of which has no standard certification process.
While some have made detailed guides available online, it often falls on the local BDSM community to provide training for their monitors. So, it's inevitable that different dungeons have varied rules and regulations.
The Tizianos ended up creating their own type of case scenario training, using Shay's experience with "mega-code" scenarios in the ER (she's an emergency nurse) and Stefanos' military training. For nearly 10 years, they've been traveling the US, putting guests in realistic play situations in dungeons for them to troubleshoot: If someone is suspended in a dangerous way, how do we get them down? If a man faints during needle play, what's the first thing you need to do?
The training gives prospective monitors hands-on training so they know what to do in physically or emotionally dangerous situations, as well as how to identify when a scene actually is dangerous for either party. However, Shay stresses that more than being unable to recognize a dangerous scene, DMs have a problem with intervening too much.
"We tell DM trainees over and over that there are only three reasons we want DMs to interrupt a scene: if there's a question of danger to life, limb, or property," she says. "The DM's main role is to facilitate play and provide excellent customer service, ensuring everyone has a good and safe time."
According to Cannon, all the training boils down to one concept: consent.
"Everything in BDSM starts and stops with consent because if there's not consent, it's not BDSM…it's violence," Cannon says. "But when things go wrong, it's because consent was maybe taken away. When consent is taken away, and the person who is the dom or top continues, then the sub feels violated, raped, abused, or victimized. With that comes emotional wounds that can be severe."
While Cannon emphasizes that it's rare that DMs have to step into scenes, there are always exceptions—even when they merely live as hypotheticals in a DM's mind. And because of the lack of clear-cut guidelines, kinksters will often talks through scenarios, asking for input and advice from the community.
On FetLife, the predominant social network for the BDSM, fetish, and kink community, entire discussions center on questionable dungeon play and the role of the DM in specific scenarios. Many focus on those involved in rope scenes, a more advanced play that specialists teach entire classes over, with members debating whether partners should be made to keep precautionary EMT shears or rescue hooks nearby. Some conversations are just chains of straightforward questions pertaining to a DM's involvement: Would you allow a dom to step away momentarily from their bound and blindfolded sub? Would you correct a couple who was engaging in a riskier-than-usual flogging scene?
And then other discussions sway toward the deeply psychological, with DMs considering how to handle things like rape scenes and especially violent play, which could be triggering to those surrounding. In a dungeon, while not physically engaged with everyone in your immediate surrounding, you're inextricably linked to their psychological and emotional wellbeing.
Peoples' play is really personal to them, so call a party host if you have a question
"As a DM, how are we supposed to protect and interact with a community member that professes to be in an almost constant suicidal state and places their triggers as a community responsibility?" one FetLife user asks in a thread from six months ago. Some DMs say they wouldn't allow a high-risk person into the dungeon, others say that person shouldn't be ostracized from an otherwise open, welcoming community.
The conclusion that most threads come to is that, ultimately, DMs don't get to make the rules—the owner of the dungeon does. While it varies from state to state, if a death, assault, or violent crime happens in the dungeon, the legal responsibility can fall on the owner of the property or the host, if there's a contract between the host and the venue. Dungeons often have release forms for attendees to sign to minimize problems, but ultimately, legal cases around play are often complex. Even when clearly consensual, many types of BDSM activity can be "prosecuted under state criminal laws dealing with assault, aggravated assault, sexual assault or sexual abuse," according to The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.
And because dungeon owners aren't often in the room during play, and rules and guidelines vary from dungeon to dungeon (and in some cases, from event to event within one dungeon), DMs feel the weight of that responsibility, and are also the ones who ultimately make the calls in the moment. It's something that Shay wishes weren't always the case.
"Peoples' play is really personal to them, so call a party host if you have a question," she says. "I wish more wouldn't hot-dog it by themselves because sometimes it's hard to make decisions. You don't have to make them by yourself."
Master Gabriel, a sadist and dominant who's been a leader in LA's BDSM scene for over ten years, says he feels fortunate that most DMs he hires for his play parties come from within House RavynBlood, a selected group of people in the area's BDSM scene that, under Master Gabriel, organizes, produces, and hosts various events for the local community. Before you're admitted into the house, members go through everything from first aid to play training, so once you're in, Master Gabriel feels a certain level of trust.
Because he hosts Gentlemen in Charge, a play party for dominant men and sub/switch/bottom women, he says he meditates more deeply on who's DM'ing the party to ensure the women in the dungeon feel like they have someone they can trust, lest they find themselves in a scene that pushes their boundaries. For every party, Gabriel makes sure he has as least one female DM on the floor. But in some scenarios, and for other parties, he can't always have DMs that he knows well, and calling on new volunteers can be difficult.
"I've had [volunteer] DMs get in the way of a lot of scenes," he says. "They're well-meaning, but that's not helpful when you're dealing with head spaces."
However, not all DMs are so well-meaning. DMs are human; they can use their authority irresponsibly and abuse their power. "It's really easy for a person who's learned a few things in the BDSM world to come in as a DM, and they can be a little heady," Gabriel says. "You can get the feeling that DMs are there to be assholes."
As with any sexual minority population, because the community's fetishes and kinks are often considered taboo by society's heteronormative, vanilla-flavored standards, many assume that people who get off on whipping a partner until they bleed or engaging in "needle play" would have more incidents of sexual assault. But BDSM communities have been found to be "less rapey" than the general population and that practitioners have more secure relationships and lower anxiety.
Jade, a female submissive who "loves public play," speaks of the good-cop, bad-cop duality of DMs to Broadly over email.
"I think of DMs like lifeguards," she writes. "You don't particularly care about them until you need them." However, like many public players, she's had one of those experiences where she didn't need them—yet there they were.
We like to joke about how we should rename them dungeon bunnies.
"I did have a scene planned, which was okayed by the club owner, where I was going to be bound and beaten while I sang the Marine Corps Hymn to my then-Master/Daddy, a deployed Marine, but it had to be recorded so that he could watch it," she writes. "[And then] one DM sees me being filmed and shuts down the scene."
Overall, Jade says she loves that dungeons have monitors to ensure that people follow community rules, citing an instance where she once informed a DM about a couple that had been heavily drinking before play, which she believed jeopardized their safety. Upon hearing this information, the DM promptly spoke to the couple and removed them. No one wants to be interrupted during sex; it's just that sometimes—when fingers turn blue or a partner faints—it has to happen.
"You're not policing them—you're serving them," Shay says. "We like to joke about how we should rename them dungeon bunnies."