"I feel a special frisson with muscular women. The idea of a woman being stronger than me, and the sexual possibilities that that entails, is something I find extremely exciting."
Johnny, 37, is a technical trainer with the British Army. A conventionally handsome guy in decent physical shape, Johnny is one of many men in the UK who engages in the otherwise unconventional practice of muscle worship. Also known as "sthenolagnia", muscle worship is a sexual paraphilia where a person becomes sexually aroused by touching and "worshipping" the muscles of a more physically dominant partner.
Male worshippers like Johnny are referred to in the muscle worship subculture as "schmoes". The dominant women they adore are their "goddesses". Although most schmoes can be found happily swarming around the fringes of your local bodybuilding show, the erotic pleasure they find in the strength and appearance of hyper-muscular women also motivates them to seek out female bodybuilders for private sessions where they can put those muscles to the test. These sessions can take place anywhere from Airbnb apartments to, on special occasions, the schmoe's own home. For many goddesses, sensual touching and wrestling is as far as it ever gets. For others, sexual intercourse is also an option.
"I've had several sessions," says Johnny. "They work out at about £350 per hour. Some guys like to engage in serious wrestling matches with the girls, but my own preference is for playful wrestling while encouraging the woman to show off her strength by lifting me and putting me in holds. The vast majority of sessions I've had have ended in full sex. Some girls are known for always providing sex. Others claim not to; but, in my experience, if the chemistry is good in the room, good things invariably follow."
Johnny goes on to explain how a surge of additional "goddesses" have become "available" to him recently, as the direct result of rule changes to the sport of women's bodybuilding.
The International Federation of Bodybuilding & Fitness has removed the women's heavy-weight category from the biggest global competitions (the Olympia, the Arnold Classic and the World Championships) and replaced it with Women's Bikini – a weight class designed for lighter, more traditionally "feminine"-looking women. As the larger athletes are being phased out, many find themselves wrestling with men like Johnny to make ends meet. "There's barely any money in it for women," says Wendy McCready, "even when you do turn pro."
McCready is a 22-year veteran of the sport who is currently ranked as the fourth best female bodybuilder in the world. Getting to McCready's size requires a level of dedication that means having a full-time job simply isn't feasible. Maintaining the build of a professional athlete also doesn't exactly come cheap; McCready's weekly food shop alone totals over £200.
Although McCready makes enough money from sponsors that she doesn't need to put schmoes in submission holds to make ends meet, only the top pros like her are afforded this luxury.
"There's no amateur competitions over here [in the UK] for women's bodybuilding anymore," she says over Skype, as she prepares an egg-white omelette. "So where else do you expect them to go? There's loads of girls that are too big for bikini, but they’ve got no opportunities to compete anymore. There's simply nowhere else for them to turn."
Barred from competing, the internet has become the new arena where muscular women can make a living. Among the thousands of websites dedicated to muscle worship, Saradas.org is by far the most popular. It's on the Saradas forum where schmoes can freely engage with other muscle enthusiasts and share photos of their favourite goddesses. At the time of writing, the forum has over 30,000 active members. The site, more than just a hub for discussion, is also dominated by female bodybuilders offering their muscle worship services.
Former British bodybuilding champion Christal Cornick is a regular poster on the forum and frequently advertises wrestling sessions that include everything from "pillow fights" to "mild domination". Once ranked the number one female bodybuilder in the country, Cornick gave the sport up in 2016 after realising she could earn a better income catering to muscle enthusiasts.
Although the internet has helped turn muscle worship into a profitable avenue for former pros like Cornick, the allure of a woman with bulging biceps dates back well before the dot-com days. "The fascination with muscular women is not new," says Dr Niall Richardson, a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, who specialises in the topics of gender and bodybuilding. "Look at the big narratives and the myths of all the great civilisations and there's always been a fascination with muscular women."
Tales of powerful females in the forms of Amazons and Valkyries have had an important place in mythology and story-telling since the 13th century. "There has always been a certain exultation, but also a certain erotic fascination, with these muscular women," says Dr Richardson. "But it's only been in recent years that this fascination can be realised in the flesh. What was the stuff of fantasy for many years has only become possible in the past 50 or 60." The advancement of sports science and more potent performance-enhancing drugs has meant that wrestling a larger-than-life woman, like Christal Cornick, has become a tangible reality for schmoes with enough cash to spare.
Tanya Bunsell, the author of Strong and Hard Bodies: An ethnography of female bodybuilding, explains how a large part of muscle worship's appeal stems from a schmoe's desire to be emasculated. "For many of the muscle worshippers, there appears to be a masochistic drive in the desire to be dominated or controlled," she says.
"Muscles have always been associated with men as signifiers of masculinity, strength and power," says Bunsell, "thus, the women who embody these allegedly male traits are antithetical to traditional notions of women as the weaker sex… In the context of the stigmatisation and marginalisation that a female bodybuilder can receive in society based upon her appearance, muscle worship could potentially reaffirm her self-identity and sexuality, as well as provide much-needed income."
"There's a heart and soul under those delicious muscles. It makes me wonder: how did she get to this point? What were the reasons that led her to cast away her womanly expectations and embrace a body of might and brawn?"
While hashtags like #StrongNotSkinny have made athletic (but importantly, slim!) physiques more socially acceptable for women, the sheer mass attained by female bodybuilders is obviously still extreme to the wider public. Bunsell uses 2017’s Wonder Woman film as an indication of acceptable muscularity. "The plethora of female superheroes on our screens do demonstrate a growing societal value to be unique and have special physical abilities," she admits. "Although, unfortunately, mainstream superwomen are rarely depicted with massive muscles." In fact, Wonder Woman's stereotypically "feminine" physique has barely altered since she was created in 1941 by American psychologist, William Marston.
Marston is best known in scientific circles for his creation of the DISC theory, which proposed that people demonstrate their emotions using the behaviour types of Dominance (D), Inducement (I), Submission (S) and Compliance (C). As one of the founding fathers of BDSM, Marston had an innate understanding of the sexual appeal that a dominant woman could have. "Give [men] an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they'll be proud to become her willing slaves," he once wrote.
It turns out that Marston was only partially right. Most schmoes aren't proud of their fetish. "I let it be known that I like girls who have a healthy lifestyle, but nobody in my personal life knows that I get an intense thrill from engaging in sessions with full-on female bodybuilders," says Johnny. "My girlfriend also has no idea, for obvious reasons."
A 47-year-old who hails from a conservative region of the American Midwest, Kirok is another schmoe who keeps his muscle penchant under wraps. Requesting that his real identity remain undisclosed, for fear of his own safety, Kirok was vocal about the integral role that schmoes play in the bodybuilding eco-system. "This is their way of life," he writes in an email, of the female bodybuilders, "their livelihoods depend on people like me."
A single muscle worship session can cost Kirok an entire week's wages, and though he does get a sexual kick out of being pummelled by a woman with a "cobblestone back", he maintains it's more about the emotional connection. "There's a heart and soul under those delicious muscles," he says, "and to see large swelling muscles on a woman is quite compelling. It makes me wonder: how did she get to this point? What were the reasons that led her to cast away her womanly expectations and embrace a body of might and brawn?"
In an attempt to understand those reasons better, I contacted Emma Switch – a woman who describes herself as a dominatrix, session wrestler and "overall fetish provider". Though she stands at a diminutive 5'3", Switch boasts a martial arts resume that would put most UFC fighters to shame. Switch first got into the fetish industry over 13 years ago and now travels the globe to provide her muscular services to the international schmoe community.
Unlike many women involved in muscle worship, Switch is open about her craft and regularly uses social media to promote her sessions and build up her brand. "In general, I charge around €230 to €250 (£200-220) for an hour session," she says, "depending, of course, on the city and how early it’s booked in." A typical session with Switch involves her implementing wrestling manoeuvres such as head scissors, body scissors and headlocks. According to one satisfied customer on the Saradas forum, she's even willing to knock out more intrepid schmoes using her signature triangle chokehold. One thing that Switch doesn't incorporate into her sessions, however, is sexual intercourse.
"The sessions are just a way for men to express their need of vulnerability," says Switch. "They get little occasion in their social and personal lives to feel like the 'little spoon', and I think everybody just needs a strong arm to feel protected by sometimes." Though her arms are still strong enough to knock a schmoe unconscious, Switch is aware of the fact her career as a session wrestler has a limited shelf-life. "I have no back-up plan for when I retire," she concedes.
"This is the chance for the customers to get to know these women. You'd be surprised: more than 50 percent of the conversations are probably about how the weather is, or how much you like your job. It's not all about, 'Can you squeeze me to death?'"
A few clacks of the keyboard and there they are: the Amazons of the digital age, their baby-oiled biceps glistening, their midsections taut as a bag of rocks. I'm almost afraid that the women on my laptop screen will muscle their way out and give me a beating. This is my earliest encounter with Herbiceps.com, one of the internet's most popular muscle worship webcam sites. Rather than a schmoe shelling out hundreds of pounds to meet a bodybuilder in a Travelodge, sites like these provide a service where schmoes can pay to have a live video chat with a muscular woman instead.
The CEO and owner of Herbiceps.com is a man named Michael Eckstut. I managed to Skype with Eckstut out of his home in Las Vegas, Nevada, to find out what it takes to start a muscle worship empire. Although Eckstut tells me how the venture started off simply as a way for him to meet female bodybuilders, the business has since expanded to become something much larger.
"What the internet did was it made people realise they weren't alone and that this was actually something a lot of people were into," says Eckstut. "You were only ever one or two searches away from realising that this whole world existed. And when you're dealing with a scarce commodity like hyper-muscular women, when are you really going to get the chance to sit down and chat with them unless you go to bodybuilding shows? It's much easier to just do it from behind the computer."
The popularity of Eckstut's website – which currently has over 80,000 likes on Facebook – proves that convenience is a major draw. Herbiceps.com receives tens of thousands of customers every day, hosting hundreds of webcam models (like Emma Switch) and dozens of former professionals (like Christal Cornick) whose physiques have now been deemed too large by the IFBB.
I decided to make an account to find out just how easy it all is. Giving myself the username "Intrigued", it wasn't long before I figured out the catch. Like most mobile apps out there, Herbiceps.com relies on the use of micro-transactions, meaning users must buy credits on the site to be able to purchase time with the models. Credit prices then vary depending on the popularity of the models and the "Premium", "Fantasy" or "1-on-1" tiers on offer.
"It's just people getting their rocks off and indulging in what makes them excited," says Eckstut, indifferent to the fact that the livelihoods of hundreds of women rely upon his website. Eckstut’s priority is not ensuring his women earn a sufficient income, but rather that they make him as much profit as possible. In fact, Eckstut’s only real rule when it comes to what goes on in the chats is that his models don't direct traffic to any other sites. "Yeah," he says. "I mean, McDonald's wouldn't want their cashiers pimping out another restaurant."
Eckstut does however claim that, unlike other sites, Herbiceps.com doesn’t take an extortionate cut of money from the models. "They get much more than 50 percent of the money that gets deposited, and they deserve it," he assures me. "I'm really working for the fans and the women. I'm trying to make both sides better off in the transaction. Besides, a webcam is safe. You don't have to meet a stranger in a room. You don't have to worry about any illegality. It’s the best way of exploring this fetish." I checked with Switch to find out what percentage of the cut she actually gets from Eckstut. Her response: 52 percent.
"On my site alone," boasts Eckstut, "I've put more money into the hands of female competitors and muscular women than anyone in the history of the sport. You could add up all the prize money given out to any female bodybuilder ever and you’d probably have maybe $3 or $4 million at best. I've paid that out multiple times to women, just for appearing on our webcam site."
"We used to get shoved to one side when the males were sharing the stage. But now we get treated like queens. We get flown over, we get put up in a mansion, taken for our food, taken for our training."
Though I'm unable to verify Eckstut's figures – or his altruistic integrity – one thing that can be confirmed is his understanding of the muscle worship marketplace. "What you're selling these days is an experience," he says, echoing Kirok's emotional desires. "We're not purely an adult site. This is the chance for the customers to get to know these women. And you'd be surprised: more than 50 percent of the conversations are probably about how the weather is, or how much you like your job. It's not all about, 'Can you squeeze me to death?'"
Although, Eckstut is swift to assure me, there is still that, too.
Regardless of one's opinion of men like Eckstut, the muscle worship industry remains a financial necessity for a lot of aspiring competitors. Dominic Black, 22, left her hometown in Russia for Prague to pursue her ambition of competing in body fitness, and was offered a life-line by Eckstut's site. "I was lucky enough to discover Herbiceps.com so I could pay all my bills, plus afford a great coach," Black told Femcompetitor.com in 2017. "After a while I found out that all this domination stuff and overpowering is a great business, especially when you love it yourself naturally."
As the demand for heavy-weight female bodybuilders has decreased, so too has the supply. And with fewer opportunities to compete, larger athletes like Black have become a rarity, phased out in favour of sinewy bikini models. Nevertheless, hope for the sport's future isn't over yet. Following the demise of the Ms Olympia, the Rising Phoenix Bodybuilding World Championship has been born from its ashes. The show, now in its fourth year, has become the most prestigious female bodybuilding event in the world – a place where the heavyweights of women's bodybuilding are free to compete.
What makes the Rising Phoenix so remarkable isn't just the fact that it's putting money back into the hands of female bodybuilders, but, rather, it's where that cash is coming from. The competition is entirely funded by the Wings of Strength – a company that turns a profit by charging schmoes for access to exclusive photos and videos of female bodybuilders, before reinvesting 100 percent of those proceeds into the sponsorship of women's pro shows around the globe.
"Wings of Strength really came in and resurrected female bodybuilding," says Wendy McCready. "We used to get shoved to one side when the males were sharing the stage. But now we get treated like queens. We get flown over, we get put up in a mansion, taken for our food, taken for our training. Everything's better now."
The next Rising Phoenix show, which McCready is already preparing for, takes place on the 8th of September in Scottsdale, Arizona. The first-place winner will receive a cash prize of $50,000 (£37,000), with monetary rewards for the entire event adding up to $100,000 (£74,000). It seems almost fitting that the very schmoes who've been benefitting from the decline of women’s bodybuilding might inadvertently be about to save it. Because if there's anyone who's terrified at the prospect of "goddesses" like McCready and Black joining the Amazons and Valkyries, it's the men who worship them.
UPDATE 28/11/18: A previous version of this article misattributed quotes. This error has been corrected.