Femdom and Supermasochism In the Modern Age: An Interview With Sheree Rose

text and interview by Audra Wist

Sheree Rose is the kinky grandmother I never had but always wanted. Featured in the groundbreaking 1997 documentary SICK alongside her late partner, supermasochist Bob Flanagan, Sheree was the woman behind the curtain acting as Bob’s Domme and a massive force in helping him achieve greatness through performance, poetry, and promiscuity. All smiles and as candid as it gets, she gleefully divulged the breadth of her sexual awakening and the hardships in getting there. She is a punk, a pervert, and a pioneer — a true libertine — warm hearted yet strict and opinionated, which is why I was initially drawn to her. She is most written about in the context of Bob (“an exotic endangered species,” as she calls him), and while that relationship was undoubtedly important to her and performance history, Sheree stands alone as a remarkable and fascinating woman who waxes poetic on the state of femdom, feminist practice, and sex in the contemporary time — “out of the bedroom and into real life — explicit not just implicit.” On September 11th, we met at the ONE Archives at USC to discuss her role in the BDSM and D/s scene in Los Angeles during the 70s and 80s, the importance of choice, questions about male sexuality, and our shared love for guiding slave boys into the matriarchy.

AUDRA WIST: I am primarily interested in you as a dominant woman. Obviously a lot of your work involves Bob. How did you come to understand your relationship? Especially when you were coming of age?

ROSE: I was one of those 50's teenagers who, I think I missed the sexual revolution by a year or two.  And back then abortions were illegal, and in my middle-class Jewish family you were expected to be a virgin until you got married, not necessarily because it was the moral thing to do, but because we didn't want to get pregnant. And we tended to get married right out of high school--many of my friends married right out of high school. I was really worried I was gonna be an old maid. So, I married the first man that I slept with. Did I know about sex? No. I lived at home; I had never had my own apartment, you know I was very sheltered. I was immersed in this culture that was very conservative. Did I know about sex education? Did I know about pornography? Did I know about gay people? Nothing. I don't think I was that unusual; that's just the way it was.

AW: Was that frustrating?

ROSE:  No because I didn't know about sex. I mean I really didn't know. I couldn't say it was bad sex. I knew I was bored with it; I knew I didn't like it. I started going to UCLA at night, and we would go out drinking after class. Only once a week before class. We would go out and have fun, just talk. This was something I had never done before, and these were all single people. My social life before then was couples going out to dinner on Saturday night, going to each other's houses for little dinner parties. It was very boring, but this was exciting. And one night we were out late.

AW: And what year was this?

ROSE: This was '77, and my husband said--I came back a little drunk; I had been drinking-- he yelled at me: "No wife of mine is gonna go out drinking in bars! I won't allow this!" And he threw something at me; I think a bottle of perfume or something; I don't know, and that was my moment. That was this is not the life I want to live. I don't want anybody telling me what I can and cannot do, especially for what I felt was relatively innocent. I mean I wasn't having orgies. But remember, you have to remember the context: my husband was a lot older than me, so he was even more conservative than I was. And that was it, that moment. And soon after that I started having an affair with one of my fellow students, a Colombian. And he played the classical guitar. He started my love affair with guitar players.

AW: So, you did it the exact way you do this kind of thing: you exited the conventional life and did the whole passionate Latin lover thing?

ROSE: I did the whole thing. And I realized that I didn't want to lie to my husband. And my friends said to me: "Look, just have lovers, and don't tell him." That was the morality. Again this is a very small sub-group of people: Jewish, middle-class, upper-middle-class--married people with children. Very respectable people.

AW: This is funny. The reason I got into BDSM, or what peaked my curiosity is that I also grew up middle-class, and I worked at a drycleaner, and I always thought everything was just so, you know? Everyone was always so pleasant and so great. But I thought: "this is just bullshit, such bullshit". I remember I was working one night and this guy came in and told me, out of nowhere that he loved to wear women’s clothes. That was the same thing, it just shattered that illusion in an instant. 

ROSE: Well yeah, it is illusory. Unfortunately all the hypocrisy, especially around sexual matters, I mean big deal. But in the meantime, between the time I got married in the 60's and eventually divorced in the 70's, the whole sexual revolution had taken place. Birth control was out there, so I could have an affair and not worry about getting pregnant. And that was a big deal. I found that being being was wonderful, and he had a different take on life. You know, he was very romantic. He was like a rolling stone because he came from a very wealthy family in Colombia, and he just travelled around doing different things, doing whatever he wanted to do. So that was a good introduction because he wasn't really the typical married guy who you'd have an affair with. But after that break up I was single for about three years, and this was from '77 to '80. And this was not a happy time. In some ways it was great because I explored my sexuality; I said: “I need to know what sex is all about.” I explored my sexuality with different people, but never one that I felt like I really liked.

AW: So, you were cruising?

ROSE: I took a lot of chances. But this was the time. It was the time before AIDS; it was the time to do it. And I had my tubes tied after my two children, so I wasn't worried about getting pregnant. And most of the time I used condoms (luckily I didn't get any diseases) but this was before AIDS and we didn't think about sex as something you could die from. I was hanging out with X--the rock 'n roll group X. I became a groupie for X. I was older than everybody else! I was in my late thirties, but that's what got me off my boyfriend. We had been big Who fans, and I heard about this new group X, and decided I wanted to go see it, so we went to see our one of their first performances. And there were people throwing up on the floor, people with purple hair, people cutting themselves.

AW: At the show?

ROSE: Yes, if you were an X fan--and back then it was before there were plastic bottles, you had glass bottles--and you would cut their arms with X's. So the first time I saw stuff like that was not SM, it was the punk scene. And I was an older punk, but I was a punk. In that photograph of me and Billy Zoom, I was the punk queen and he was the punk king at a punk prom. It's a very famous photograph. But that was before Bob. This was all before Bob.

AW: And this was in LA?

ROSE: All in LA. It was '78-'79 was when I got totally wild that way.

AW: So did you run around with the same people, like Joanna Went?

ROSE: Yeah, of course I know Joanna Went. But that was later, once I got together more with Bob, and we got more into the art part of it. But at that point it was all music. I knew everybody in that scene, and it was really fun: those early days. It was innocent in a way that it isn't now. And then I went to a poetry party Halloween 1980; my other interest was in poetry, and it was Beyond Baroque which was a poetry art center. And all the poets came through there. I was dating a poet there, and he invited me to this Halloween party. I was dressed like Jane Mansfield. Bob wrote a poem about it, and he was a character from Night of the Living Dead. So I am in a blonde wig, and fake boobs, and a tiny dress. I knock on the door and he answers the door and he has hand in his mouth, and we looked at each other--two dead characters--and something happened. I don't know what it was, but it happened. He was 27, very young, but I just thought there was something interesting about him. He was thin and very punky looking, and I was impressed that he had a book. That was a big deal in those days, to have a book published. So we made a date, and like a day or two days later he came over and we went to dinner, and he told me he had cystic fibrosis which I had never heard of. He said to me: "you know it’s a gastric disease, and I have to take all these pills, and I have to cough." And I thought oh, okay, No big deal. I was exploring. Remember I was in an exploratory period; I am looking for a new kind of something.

Mockup of Bob Flanagan on the cover of Bimbox, No. 4. Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose Collection. ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

AW: How did your relationship move into SM?

ROSE: So that first date at my house--I had this big house in Westwood--and he fell in love in my basement, which we did utilize. And he said to me: "I'm a submissive man," and I thought what does that mean? And he said "I have CF." And that meant nothing to me. But he said: "I want to belong to a woman. I want to do anything she says. I want to cook for her, clean for her: wash windows, wash clothes, clean up." And for me, I thought this is a great. I want a man to do all those horrible chores for me that I can't stand doing. Because when I was married, and we were both working, I had maids. So I knew what that was like.

AW: He came out swinging.

ROSE: Well, remember he was dying. He thought he was dying, and was looking for a good two-year relationship. Most people with CF didn't live past 30, and he was 27. So I thought to myself: this is interesting. I mean two years.

AW: Did he tell you straight out: "I could die"?

ROSE: Cystic Fibrosis was a deadly disease, and he started talking about the SM aspects: he liked to be whipped; he liked to have his penis tied up. And I had never heard any of that stuff, but all the light bulbs went off for me. The other thing that had happened to me is that I started going to feminist workshops, and I was a student. I had stopped archaeology and went into psychology. I have a Masters in psych. So at that time my assignment was the women's building on campus. Now, I am a straight woman, don't know anybody who's gay. Really, nobody. And I was thinking: I have to go in there with all those lesbians. I was petrified! I don't know what I was thinking. But this was my assignment, and I started meeting all of these wonderful women who weren't scary at all. They were women! They were cool women! And also from that came The Socialist Feminist Network, and this was a group of women who met once a week to talk about feminist literature, and the history of feminism, and women before the patriarchy. And all the texts that has been written--that I knew nothing about. Everything about women power and women taking control, and I think most of these women were lesbians, but I was dating someone at the time and they said to me: "don't you realize you're sleeping with the enemy?" That was the attitude.

So that got me thinking. I had been very dissatisfied with these men I had been dating, so when Bob came into my life at this point it was like the perfect storm. As an identified straight woman I was looking for a man who would not dominate me. Who I could take the role, take over. So it was the political aspect of it as well as the sexual, and he was in a band, and he was a poet, and a lot younger than me. It all worked perfectly.

Had he told me he was a dominant man, and wanted to dominate me I wouldn't have been interested. My head was filled with rhetoric about women power, and all that.

AW: You came about it from almost a theoretical or intellectual standpoint, whereas now, I feel like there is so much merchandising of BDSM. There is so much imagery, and the amount of porn out there. Not that that's bad, but the difference in how you come to it.  Do you think that one is better or worse or it doesn’t matter?

ROSE: As far as sexuality is concerned, some people--male or female--enjoy getting a sexual thrill. SM to me is all about satisfaction. If you're not getting off on something you're doing, you're not doing it right, or you shouldn't be doing it. So, some people, really enjoy being submissive: it gives them a sexual thrill. And if they love their partner, it's fun. And that's why you do it, that's why you should do it anyway.  But for me, anyway, it wasn't fun for me to be submissive. It wasn't fun for me to be tied up, and we tried a little bit of that. I did not like following directions, and he had no interest in doing that. He loved to be submissive; he loved to be on his knees--whatever weird stuff I wanted him to do, he just got off on it. So I don't think it really matters what your theoretical thing is, it matters more what gets you wet, what gets you off. It's sexual. It can be theoretical, but if it’s not sexual--if you're not doing it for money. Then there are economic reasons for doing what you're doing, which I have no problem with at all.

AW: There was never any formal training?

ROSE: He taught me! He had been going to professional Mistresses for year, which many men would do. He would save up his money, go and pawn his camera, then go and get beat up. It was a lot of physical domination. He had a lot of bruises, a lot of welts. He liked very heavy SM; not as heavy as some guys, but that was what he was into. He loved being in bondage. So, it clicked. When I first got together with him, there wasn't any situation that I knew of where a couple could go in and do SM together. It was very private, very closeted. I wanted to get it out of the bedroom and into real life. It wasn't just that I tied him up, and we fucked, and nobody knew what we were doing. No, it was a political statement. I wanted him with a nose ring and a collar and people knowing that he was submissive to me, not just in the bedroom, but in real life.

"It was very private, very closeted. I wanted to get it out of the bedroom and into real life. It wasn't just that I tied him up, and we fucked, and nobody knew what we were doing. No, it was a political statement. I wanted him with a nose ring and a collar and people knowing that he was submissive to me, not just in the bedroom, but in real life."

AW: Did you have any inspirations?

ROSE: Our model was Leopold Von Sacher Masoch. He wrote a book called Venus in Furs (a very famous book) and masochism comes from him. And he was essentially Bob's role model. He looked for the woman of his dreams who would be cruel to him, who would be mean to him. And they started with contracts, so we started with contracts. Everything was written out: what we would do, and how we would do it, and it was renewable. He signed with a cut in his chest, to formalize it. He was my slave forever, or until I said you're not my slave anymore.

AW: Marriage is a contractual thing, but using the body as a symbol of that power exchange or bond is interesting.

ROSE: Right, absolutely. I wanted it to be explicit, not just implicit. And I like the idea of contracts. And later on, when we started different groups to bring SM into the mainstream, and we started a group called Society of Janus. There were quite a few women coming into it, and I wanted to get women into the SM scene. I didn't want it to just be under the table. Because it was "nasty", the only women in it were professional, but they weren't high on the social ladder, back in those days in the early 80’s. I mean they were not talked about. They were there, for sure, so I really wanted to make it more respectable. If a women wanted to be more submissive or dominant, it didn’t matter, to be able to be out about it, honest about it. So I started having female slaves. My main slave was Bob but I had other slaves as well, and with all of them we had contracts. That was a really big deal to have a contract, so that everybody knew what was expected. After three months, we would go over the contract again and decide are we going to keep it up or dissolve it. So it wasn’t like anyone was breaking up with anyone, you signed up for three months and at the end of those three months, you both decide, not just the Mistress.

AW: So, what’s this?

ROSE: Oh! These are some good pictures, this is rather famous, the incident is going to be in a book that just came out. This is the weird kind of stuff we did. Bob devised this whole thing, where he was down in the basement, and he had tubes attached to his penis and mouth so he could pee and be fed because he was down there for 24 hours.

AW: I remember Grace Marie [Professional Dominatrix] did something similar.

ROSE: Did she? Oh cool!

AW: Yeah we were at a play party and there was some ass-to-mouth tube system and it was pretty amazing.

ROSE: Pretty amazing. And also we were into things like enemas, I used to give people wine enemas, that was my big deal.

Mike Kelley and Bob Flanagan, MORE LOVE THAN CAN EVER BE REPAID

AW: How old did Bob live until?

ROSE: 43.

AW: He lived for a while then.

ROSE: Yeah, he did. And without a lung transplant either.

AW: Do you think that it was the fact that you were around?

ROSE: Definitely, no question about it. He wrote a song about it. CF would have killed him if it weren’t for SM.

AW: I always tell people, what we do is therapeutic, but it’s not therapy.

ROSE: Oh my god, yeah, men who need it, it’s like lifeblood for them.

AW: I feel like I’m so fascinated by the punk scene you were talking about, and the way you came out BDSM. I don’t know if it’s because I romanticize things that I don’t know about or things that I wasn’t there for. But it must have been so different and exciting, to have no rules or precedent.

ROSE: It was, and that’s what I loved about it. Remember when I was talking about my boring life before? I wanted to experience things that nobody had experienced, that women hadn’t experienced. By that time, I knew that men were doing wild things and I wanted women to be able to do them too.

AW: Right.

ROSE: So I don’t think if I had been as repressed, maybe if I had had a great sex life with a great husband, maybe none of this would ever have happened. I don’t know.

AW: That’s crazy. And I guess there still are women out there living those lives, maybe not you or I, but generally speaking there’s people who subscribe to it who maybe wouldn’t otherwise.

ROSE: I don’t know anymore, I’m not in touch with the world the way I used to be. I’m not nearly as active and I’m not nearly as plugged in. But I still do my things on the side here and there. One of the things we did before was crossing SM world with the poetry world with the art world. So we were always running to one thing or the other. Bob was the star, and I was coming from a place where I was the woman. I’m the mother and I still have that traditional role of wanting to see my children succeed. In many ways Bob was my pet, he was the best pet a person could have. He was an exotic, endangered species, and I thought he wasn’t going to live that long anyway so I wanted to exploit him in the best possible way so that he would make the best impact on the world.

AW: You facilitated that.

ROSE: Totally. I saw him as not as just a kinky guy, but as someone who was really talented, really funny, really sweet, as extraordinary. I thought he was going to die. I don’t want the world to forget about him. So of course it changed as years went on, and I became more active in it, but I didn’t want to be the star, to be on stage. That wasn’t really my thing. I very enjoyed being behind the scenes and making it happen. And getting almost a motherly thrill. I got a lot of satisfaction out of seeing him be so successful. That pleased me. It wasn’t like I was jealous of him and wanted to be up there.

AW: Right. That’s something I picked up on in reading about you and watching all the videos. That’s a really privileged position to be in. To have that responsibility, to feel like you had such a hand in making somebody fulfill whatever their higher purpose is. Putting something good into the world.

ROSE: Yeah, and I feel like that was the impetus of it. Now looking back, should I have done something different or been more assertive about some things? I never felt that I was that talented… my talent was recognizing other people who were talented. I could see something good, something that should be noted. 

In 2014, Sheree Rose donated her extensive archives of photographs, ephemera and other material to the One Archives at the USC Libraries. You can peer into Rose and Flanagan's intimate public life in the documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. text and interview by Audra Wist, Autre's sex editor-at-large. Below photographs of Rose and Wist at the One Archives by Sara Clarken.