By Melissa Febos
(Thomas Dunne Books)
In her new memoir, Whip Smart, Melissa Febos -- who'll be reading at Eros on April 4 -- examines, with frankness, generosity, and unexpected grace, the four years she spent working as a dominatrix in a midtown Manhattan dungeon. Readers are invited into the world of high-price humiliation, in dungeon rooms decked to the nines in the accoutrements of masochistic fantasy, where Wall Street types pay huge sums to be flogged, diapered, and pissed on. Her revelations are often funny, occasionally sad, and fearlessly candid. Febos also writes of the heroin habit that led her to accept the job, and details the emotional strain and psychological effort of kicking addiction. She speaks with the SFBG about life as a professional domme and the process of turning that life into memoir.
SFBG: What is the single most frequent question you get asked when people confront your history as a dominatrix?
Melissa Febose: There’s really a list, and they usually come in rapid succession, and they are basically the same questions I answered repeatedly when I was a domme: What did your clients most commonly want? What did you wear? Did your parents know? How much money did you make? People are pretty predictable. I get really excited when people ask original questions, when people ask about the writing process, or the experience of publishing such a personal story. It has been so long since I was a domme, and all the questions are answered very quickly in the actual book. To me, the process of creating art out that experience is much more interesting than the actual job was.
SFBG: Before your sessions, you write that you'd be in a state of "happy absence, whose vacancy made room for some other, unnamed thing". You were free of all sexual desire and you "reveled in its absence". This seems to me almost like a description of Zen, a sort of 'emptying out' of ones desires. As you were writing about your experiences.
MF: Well, I don’t think my mental state pre-session could most accurately be described as Zen. I think of a Zen state as actually being a very present state. There was a way that working as a domme necessitated a kind of presence, a clearheadedness, but I also think I was pretty detached emotionally from a lot of those experiences. When I showed people early versions of chapters, they all loved the material, were intrigued and compelled, but felt there was an emotional element missing; they sensed that absence.
SFBG: How did you access the highly specific memories, both physical and emotional, that you describe in your book? What was it like to enter, from a state of "absence", one of presence?
MF: So when I really dug into writing it, I knew I had to enter, as you say, a state of presence with the experiences I was recounting. Essentially, I had to experience them emotionally for the first time. I think this was possible only with the distance I had from those years. I had thawed out a lot between quitting and writing the book. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book, do the story justice, without a good therapist. People don’t imagine memoirists doing much research, but that’s a misconception. I did a lot of research for this book, and some of it was internal.
SFBG: What were the things you enjoyed the most about being a dominatrix, and what did you enjoy the least?
MF: I loved the feeling of power that it gave me, that having a secret life gave me. I genuinely enjoyed the work, a lot of the time, and I loved many of the women whom I worked with. Now, I love how much I learned about myself, and the way it made my heart bigger. I didn’t love a lot of the sessions – the way that I compromised what I was comfortable with in some of them. Clients who topped from the bottom also drove me bananas.
SFBG: Judging from the experiences you describe in your book, you pretty much saw the extremes of human sexual behavior. What was the craziest thing you saw during your days as a pro-domme? Does anything surprise you in the bedroom anymore?
MF: Well, I’ve always kept my personal sex life and my work in the sex industry pretty separate. Many of the things I did in session never came up in my own bed, and probably never will. And if they do, it’s a very different experience. At work, I saw pretty much everything – sweater fetishes, bug fetishes, poop fetishes. You have to read the book for the goods on that front.
SFBG: Have any of your former clients contacted you since your memoir was published?
MF: Yeah, I’ve gotten a couple emails. All friendly. Though they haven’t read the book yet.
SFBG: Once you made the decision to publish your work under your real name, was there a moment between when you signed the contracts and before the book hit the stands, that you had a legitimate freak out?
MF: No, actually that moment didn’t happen until the book hit the stands. Intellectually, I understood that the book was very, very candid, and that it would probably end up being a lightening rod for all sorts of opinions, judgments, projections, assumptions, and more. But when the fact of that really hit my heart, it was pretty staggering. I’m actually a very sensitive person; I want to be liked, I want to be considered for my full complexity as a human being, and when you publish a book about a single narrative from your past, inevitably, the public’s perception of you will be reductive. That’s unavoidable. But still pretty painful.
I seriously considered publishing it under a pseudonym, but I couldn’t stomach the irony of publishing a book partly about eschewing secrecy under a secret identity. Also, it was important to me that it be clear that I saw my experiences as valuable, not something to be ashamed of. I love the fact that I am a living example that you can be a sex worker, a heroin addict (now former heroin addict), and also a college professor, a writer, a thoughtful person, an emotionally balanced person, a feminist – these identities are not in conflict. My past and present are all part of a continuum that makes perfect sense. I want that to be visible.
SFBG: What are you working on now that we should keep our eyes out for?
MF: I’ve got a few novels gestating – when I have time to delve into a long-term project, I’ll see which one calls the loudest. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a bunch of short essays, which will probably be enough in number for a collection at some point. I blog regularly for The Nervous Breakdown, which is a fabulous site, full of great writing.
Those interested can meet the author in person during one of her upcoming San Francisco book readings. She will be reading at Eros (2501 Market, SF) on Sunday, April 4, as part of the K’vetsh Reading Series, at 8pm. On Tuesday, April 6, she will read at a RADAR Reading Series event at the San Francisco Public Library, Main Branch, at 7pm.
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