Frisky Q & A: Melissa Febos, Ex-Dominatrix And Author Of “Whip Smart: A Memoir”

A dominatrix: all of us know what one is. But let’s be honest: few of us actually know a woman who earns her living as one (that we’re aware of, anyway). But you’ll become, ahem, intimately familiar with one after reading the recently published book, Whip Smart: A Memoir, by Melissa Febos.

Febos, who nowadays teaches writing and literature at SUNY Purchase College in New York, was just a college student looking to earn extra cash at a Manhattan dungeon. But surprisingly, something about domme-ing men for money appealed to her. Febos — who was also busy acquiring, and then kicking, a heroin addiction — spat, spanked and insulted her way through clients for a whole four years before she left the dominatrix life for good.

I spoke with Febos about what initially drew her to sex work, how she broke the news to mom and dad that she was a dominatrix (yes, they knew!), and what she did with all those kinky clothes when she finally hung up her whip.

I don’t regret a single minute of it. It totally made me a better person with a bigger heart and a more open mind.

How did you become a professional dominatrix in the first place?

I was about to enter my senior year of college — I was a writing major — and at that point it became very clear to me that there wasn’t an illustrious publishing career waiting for me upon graduation. I sort of investigated all the other jobs that had to do with writing, like publishing and working for an agent, and none of them really seemed to have that much to do with writing. And they paid terribly! I’d been a waitress since I was a teenager, so, ostensibly, that was my reason: I needed more money and I needed time to write. But really, I don’t think you end up being a dominatrix or, really, any kind of sex worker for three and a half years without a deeper-seated interest in it. But that wasn’t clear to me at the beginning.

I’d always been sort of drawn to extremes and [the] underworld and subcultures and sex work, too, to a degree. But I probably wouldn’t have crossed the line into doing it, partly because I considered myself a feminist and always have. At the time, those two things weren’t congruent. But then I met this neighbor who moved next to me in Brooklyn and she was very smart and articulate and put-together and empowered-seeming — and she was a dominatrix! So I picked her brain and after that, I felt like it gave me permission [to become a dominatrix myself].

The dungeon you worked at basically had two different types of “sessions” that clients could pay for — a “sensual session” or a “corporal session.” Can you explain to us what those mean?

A “sensual session” is much more flirty. Really, it’s sensual. You act out roles that would be more common on a date, things that everyday people have experimented with or done. There wasn’t any real pain. It didn’t really fit the description of that iconic dominatrix, humiliation and all that. [It was] the sexy secretary turns the tables on her boss and tickles him with a feather, stuff like that! More teasing and flirty and more sexual, really. More acting out typically sexual, feminine roles.

“Corporal sessions” were where all that iconic dominatrix stuff comes in with the humiliation, torture, and mean names. In the beginning, everybody starts off with the “sensual sessions” because it’s a role we’ve all played to some degree, probably, and so it’s easier and it’s more familiar. But then after a certain period of time, for me, once I became more comfortable doing “corporal sessions,” that really became my preference because they were less sexual and they were more dynamic. It was a juicier role to play! The flirty seductress is a role that I’ve played before, that our whole culture encourages us to play it, and it’s really sort of boring. And for me [sensual sessions] also started to feel a little bit uncomfortable because it felt like a betrayal of my own sexuality. It required you to be more sexually present with people that I wasn’t intimate with or that I wouldn’t have been interested in.

What were you paid per session? And what kind of tips could you expect?

Well, when I worked for the dungeon the clients would pay $200 an hour, or $100 for a half hour. I got $75 for an hour session and I got $50 for a half hour. And tips, you know, I had some really annoying client who would tip $5 or I had one client who would always tip a box of Tic Tacs! (laughs) But I also had a lot of clients who would leave a fifty or a hundred. And there were clients whose fetish was extortion — you know, you could sort of demand money in the session, that’s what they came there for! And I had a lot of clients who would want you to drag them to the ATM and make them take money out.

But at some point you began to see clients outside of the dungeon and do sessions on your own in hotel rooms, right?

You know, when you’re coming from working at a coffee shop, $75-an-hour sounds extravagant, so I was thrilled when I started! But you figure out pretty quickly that [the money's] not guaranteed. You’re not making $75-an-hour for eight hours straight. It depends if the clients come in and if they don’t come in, you don’t make anything. I always had a pretty good business, but it still was a lot of work! And they didn’t charge different things for different kinds of sessions and the house took the majority of it.

So, yeah, after a while, I started seeing some of my favorite regulars on the side and I reversed the split [of the pay]. I would rent a space from a friend who had a private dungeon, or a hotel room, and then I would get what the house used to get. Eventually, though, when I sort of went “freelance,” I would charge them what I thought they could afford. For some clients, that was $200-an-hour up to $1,500-an-hour.

Did you tell your friends that you were a dominatrix?

(laughs) I told my friends with relish! I knew I had the kind of friends who would get a kick out of it. And I always used to like shocking people, to a degree. I’d always pushed boundaries. I liked upsetting people’s expectations of me and of what a dominatrix would “seem like.” And so I would come home every day after work, especially in the beginning, and regale my roommates with all the bizarre stories. I definitely spun it so it was much more hilarious and benign — when really, a lot of it in the beginning, made me nervous and I didn’t know what I was doing. Some of it was gross and disconcerting, but I censored those parts.

What about your family’s reaction? Your mom is a psychologist, right?

My mom’s a psychotherapist and my dad’s a sea captain. First, I told my brother to sort of test it out, because we’d always been close. And he was, like, ‘Okay?!?!’ I mean, really, what’s he going to say? And I told my mom I was, like, temping and catering for a while and then just decided to tell her [I was a dominatrix] after I’d been doing it for a few months. You know, I’d always been incredibly strong-willed, incredibly self-sufficient. You know, when I was 14 or 15, I just decided I didn’t want to go to high school anymore and was going to home school myself. And when I decided I was going to move out of my parents’ house, I just sort of informed them. I’d always been really good at presenting my decisions as non-negotiable. I was very clearly not interested in debating it with people, you know? My parents both knew if they said, “This is unacceptable,” I just would have been, like, “Bye! I just won’t talk to you about it.”

They both definitely had reservations — I don’t think any parent hopes for their daughter to be a sex worker, even one who doesn’t actually have sex with her clients. And again, I gave them a very particular, tailored version of the experience and tried to appeal to my mom’s therapist, feminist values. I talked about it as a very “empowered” job, how I was almost a kind of therapist for my clients. All of which was true! But there was just a lot more involved that I didn’t tell them about. And they were both incredibly relieved when I quit.

How safe was it working as a dominatrix? There’s nowhere in the book — unless you left it out — where you seem afraid for your own safety.

No, I never felt as if I was in physical danger. I mean, sometimes I look back at it objectively, and we had security — in terms of cameras and locks of the doors and a screening process — but we didn’t have any big, strong men hanging around to protect us if something went wrong. But it was just the nature of our clients (laughs) to not be threatening in that way, you know? So, no, I never feared for my safety. There’s a few instances where I think maybe I should have, but I had a sort of grandiose faith in my own instincts, too.

Are you expecting to hear from any of your past clients?

I have heard from them! (laughs) I was was worried about that because, you know, for a lot of women who work this job, it’s a lifestyle and it’s a part of their set of beliefs. While that’s true for me at this point, to some degree, for me [being a dominatrix] was really a job. I worked in the commercial sect of that community, so I wasn’t authentically playing these roles. They weren’t really my fantasies in a lot of cases. It was my job to act out these fantasies, but I didn’t really believe in them a lot of the time. A lot of my clients, I had a certain distaste for [then] and I knew it wouldn’t be worth writing this book if I wasn’t rigorously honest about the experience. So, for a lot of my clients, I knew it would be really disappointing to find out I didn’t feel the way that I acted in sessions and I was a little worried about that. They weren’t bad guys — they were just clients. [But] for a lot of them, it was a really authentic, intimate experience. I didn’t want to ruin that for them, but I knew I was running that risk. And probably those clients are out there, but they haven’t contacted me. The clients who have contacted me have been incredibly supportive and sweet and it’s been a really warm reception, actually. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

You know, in the end, at this point, and even at the end of the book, I really did have a genuine affection for a lot of [clients] and for the community as a whole, and I hope that that got across to them, too.

In addition to Whip Smart being a sex work memoir, it’s also a drug addiction memoir. A good chunk of the book is about fighting an addiction to heroin while you working in the dungeon. Which part of your life was harder to write about?

I think that they were hard in different ways — probably equally challenging. But as far as the sex work part, for me, that required a lot of self-examination. I had to do more research on that. The process of writing the book was a process of investigating what my true motives were and trying to unearth those. It was difficult in that way, trying to find them and then appraise them as honestly as I could. That wasn’t very comfortable. I’ve learned some unexpected things about myself.

With the drug material, in order for me to get clean, I had had to already investigate those motives and those parts of myself and my psyche. So, it wasn’t that difficult to write about why I was an addict or what that experience was like, but it was more intense to relive those experiences, actually. Writing about using and shooting up was pretty intense. I could only do it for short periods of time.

Do you have any advice for would-be dommes or would-be clients?

You know, I get asked this question a lot and it always stumps me a little bit. I think this kind of experience is so subjective. There’s such a broad spectrum of motives, so that I feel like I couldn’t give any general advice to anyone who’s interested. It’s a complex experience.

But for me,

I don’t regret a single minute of it. It totally made me a better person with a bigger heart and a more open mind.

But it’s not for everyone and it’s certainly not what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a job, it was going to be easy money, it was going to be kind of glamorous and exciting. It was those things for a while, but it was a whole hell of a lot else, too! So, if people are drawn to it and they stay in it, there’s something there for them.

And also, I believe so deeply that people shouldn’t be ashamed of their desires. I encountered that a lot in [clients] there. I encountered a lot of people who were really liberated and had a lot of self-acceptance for their desire, but I also saw a lot of shame and that was probably the saddest part of the job.

Now that you aren’t a dominatrix anymore, what did you end up doing with all the costumes and the props?

(laughs) I actually held on to them for a long time because I really loved all the clothes! I think, also, I wanted to hold on to the option to go back to it if I wanted to; it was such a part of my identity and it wasn’t easy to let go of. So I kept them in a couple wheeling suitcases under my bed for a while. I actually wrote an essay about this. There’s a link to it on my website. I actually ended up taking that suitcase to the iSold It On eBay store in my Brooklyn neighborhood, not really realizing how public an experience that was going to be! At the time it was kind of mortifying, but it’s really funny in retrospect. This woman — this very nice woman who did a very good job of not seeming shocked! — went through and tagged it and appraised it and sold it on eBay for me.

Whip Smart: A Memoir, by Melissa Febos, is available for sale now.

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