By Rebecca Keith
When Melissa Febos told me she used to make $1,500 to spank a record executive’s girlfriend for an hour, I briefly considered a new line of work. For a writer, what could be better than a flexible schedule (and minimum “office” hours) for maximum pay? As we continued on the N train to teach a high school writing course together, she filled me in on some of the details of her four years as a professional dominatrix in a Midtown Manhattan dungeon. She must have had this same conversation hundreds of times with other curious friends and classmates. In retrospect, as genuine as Febos is, it was a brilliant sales pitch for her memoir.
A stunning debut, “Whip Smart” (St. Martin’s Press) is about Febos’s tenure as a dominatrix while she completed her BA in literature studies at the New School and began her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. The book is a fierce examination of sexual politics and power dynamics in the S&M world, which Febos saw played out in her everyday relationships outside the dungeon. “Whip Smart” is also a highly engaging story of the power created and withheld by generating secrets, keeping up facades, and seducing everyone in your path.
Febos writes of a party early on in her dominatrix career, “I’m not sure I’d ever known a more invincible feeling than that of walking into a party feeling beautiful, with drugs in my purse, and a double life that everyone was dying to know about.” She capitalized on the allure of her job even at her first AA meeting. Febos strutted in, not at all ready to give up heroin, with a fellow domme, relishing their image in knee-high boots and tight jeans. Knowing all the men and women in the room were staring at them, she writes, “Funny how bait and armor can be the same thing.”
Febos became increasingly adept at isolating herself, hiding behind her desirability, quick wit, and intellect—and continuing drug use. Once sober, she pushed her boundaries by booking her own appointments with clients, outside of the comfort and privacy of the dungeon, and by exploring submissive (“switch”) sessions. “I was honestly shocked when I admitted to myself that most of my own private fantasies had always run along submissive lines, and I finally saw the patterns of dominance and submission in my own life,” Febos tells me. For someone who began domming as a way to afford air-conditioning for her Bed Stuy apartment because, as she writes, she “couldn’t bear office work or ass-kissing,” it took years for Febos to realize she was actually into it. She also began to see how many of her clients “topped from the bottom,” in which the client dictates every last detail of their fantasies for the domme to enact, thus truly maintaining power over their sessions.
Much of “Whip Smart” is about ritual, routine, and roleplay. On the job for Febos, this ranged from suiting up in corsets or Mean Mommy attire, fixing in the bathroom and smoking a pre-session cigarette, to ending an hour of nipple torture with a golden shower. Febos eventually traded self-destructive routines for running in the park with her pitbull and drinking coffee while grading papers. But from the beginning of “Whip Smart,” her chosen routines allowed her to try on different roles as a young woman, learning to realize what she wanted and take control of the persona she projected.
Early on, watching a fellow domme step into her stilettos for a session, Febos writes, “I had always been awed by the transformative power women appear to have.” On her morning commute—the dayshift at the dungeon allowed her to take advantage of the lunchtime rush—Febos assumed the role of a woman on her way to an average job, thrilling at this taste of classic New York adulthood: “sighing, hurrying, heeled.” She writes, “It was playing at a role that I wasn’t sure I believed in, and was fairly certain I wasn’t qualified for.”
Febos’ New York began full of adolescent fairytale possibility, from her first tour of the dungeon’s giant rooms and candle-lit hallways. Having recently moved to a Bushwick row house, Febos says she’s glad her neighborhood is still “a few years away from vegan cafes,” adding, “bodegas in Bushwick are as bodegas should be: half social club, half grocery, with flan on central display.” As to whether she’ll continue to write about the city, she says, “As often as I hear people whining about how gentrified, diluted, and defanged New York is, it’s still one of the most evocative, provocative settings in the world. When I find somewhere more interesting, I’ll start writing stories that take place there.”
Rebecca Keith and Melissa Febos co-curate the Mixer monthly reading series at Cake Shop, 152 Ludlow St. in Manhattan.