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Retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford has published her memoirs. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI)
Retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford has published her memoirs. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI)

Meet the dominatrix Add to ...

I had expected Terri-Jean Bedford – self-billed as “Canada's most famous dominatrix” – to be properly decked out. Chains, perhaps. A thick leather whip or riding crop. Thigh-high boots, at a minimum.

Instead, impeccably groomed and conservatively attired, the 51-year-old brunette leading the constitutional challenge to the nation's prostitution laws is attempting to play a new, much less kinky role: bestselling author.

Indeed, she would not look out of place in any high-rise corporate boardroom. Which, as it happens, is precisely where we meet – in her lawyer's office in downtown Toronto.

The only hint of her former life as Madame de Sade, proprietress of the 10-room bondage bungalow on a quiet residential street in Thornhill, Ont., is the vise-like grip of her handshake – firm enough to suggest that she is accustomed to commanding submission.

And, when I confess to having had less than a day to peruse her new, self-published memoir, Dominatrix on Trial: Bedford vs. Canada, she draws a practised breath.

“Ooh,” she coos, issuing me a mimed, punitive wrist slap. “Speed-read.” Then she laughs, lustily.

The chronicle of a battle-scarred survivor, her book – more a tell-some than a tell-all, the surnames of her clients and backers discreetly undisclosed – is a fusion of combustible elements.

One part is painful autobiography, the story of a sexually precocious young woman too soon immersed in the perilous world of prostitution and drugs.

Another part provides a tour of the subterranean culture of sadomasochism, with descriptions of the elaborate inventory needed to run a respectable bondage domain and the creative role-playing scenarios needed to satisfy the clientele.

In her suburban funhouse, clients were routinely masked and beaten, prodded and probed, straitjacketed and bound. No intercourse, Ms. Bedford insists, ever ensued: the foundation of her refutation of the bawdy-house charges.

They did want to play, however, acting out fantasy scenes that involved everything from “teacher-student” and “French maid” to panty-stealing.

But the bulk of the memoir recounts Ms. Bedford's 25-year skirmish with the courts.

The latter segment begins with her first arrest in September, 1994, on charges of maintaining a common bawdy house (the very phrase signals the musty Victorian antecedents of the law) and continues through to her current campaign to modernize the nation's prostitution laws.

That decriminalization crusade was ostensibly won last year, when Madam Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court issued a landmark ruling, finding three provisions in Canada's Criminal Code – prohibiting communication for the purposes of sex, running a bordello and living off the avails of prostitution – unconstitutional.

Asked how she intended to celebrate the decision, Ms. Bedford raised her riding crop triumphantly and declared, “I'm going to spank some ass.”

But the federal government promptly appealed and won a series of stays. The Ontario Court of Appeal heard the case in June and is still deliberating.

Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young, who argued the case before Judge Himel, says a decision may come this fall. Win or lose, he predicts that it will go to the Supreme Court of Canada.

He says Ms. Bedford's story reflects the essence of their argument – that prostitutes would be safer in supervised brothels than they are on the streets. “She was brutalized while working on the street, and only felt safe when she became a dominatrix in a secure house.”

Even if the case succeeds at the highest court, Mr. Young cautions, it will be up to Parliament to determine what approach Canada will take.

In the meantime, Ms. Bedford – from her authorial throne chair – inveighs against the hypocrisy that still governs attitudes to the sex trade. “If 50 prostitutes go missing on a pig farm,” she says, alluding to the case of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton, “who cares? But if a single police officer goes missing on the beat, all hell breaks loose. Those lives are just as valuable as his.”

The Himel judgment notwithstanding, Ms. Bedford harbours few illusions that the situation is likely to change any time soon.

“It's taken 100 years to get to where we are,” she says. “It will probably take another 100 years to get to where we need to be.”

Terri-Jean Bedford discovered the power of sex early. Her impoverished parents – a black father and white mother living in Collingwood, Ont. – put her up for adoption when she was 6. By the age of 8, she had already begun to experiment with sex – with both genders – including classmates, neighbours and her siblings, who were also adopted.

Her adoptive mother, ostensibly a devout Christian, beat her repeatedly. Psychiatrists who treated her concluded that “there was nothing wrong with me,” she says. “I was just too old for my age. Prematurely mature.”

The onset of puberty fuelled her promiscuity and she bounced from girls schools to group homes to the YMCA and, later, to prison and halfway houses. By 17, already addicted to amphetamines, she was living with an ex-con and turning tricks. By 20, she was also a single mother and, unable to provide, forced to let her five-month-old daughter be raised in a foster home.

“I tried begging, I tried stealing, but my spirit could not do it. I was trapped. Many women are trapped. They'd rather sell their bodies.”

Eventually beating her drug habit, Ms. Bedford says she has sampled most of the world's major religions, but found none of them satisfying. She fell back ultimately on some inner reservoir of strength. “I'd like to say I'm a goddess in my own right,” she jokes. “I touched my higher power – me! You have to have faith in yourself. That's how it works.”

She went into the bondage business in the early nineties. Clients helped to underwrite the enterprise and, in recent years, her legal battles. These include a group known as The Dozen, to whom the book is dedicated, and a man identified only as Scott, who stands to earn whatever royalties the book or subsequent movie rights might generate.

“He was a mentor, loyal and undying,” she says. “I could never pay him back for his financial support and encouragement.”

Ms. Bedford says her body now bears the scars of her hardscrabble life. She has undergone three partial hysterectomies, and been diagnosed with hepatitis C, spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia. Medical marijuana “smoothes out the edges,” she says. Still, she adds, “there are days when I can't get out of bed. The outer shell may look good, but the inside is always in pain.”

She lives on disability pensions, along with income earned from part-time bookkeeping.

Meanwhile, awaiting the Ontario Court of Appeal's verdict, she is vowing, if need be, to refer the case to the Supreme Court.

“You don't want to see me angry,” she says with another robust laugh. “I'll take my riding crop to Parliament Hill and get that dead horse, Stephen Harper, moving.”



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