Whip Smart: A Memoir
Here's a confession: I've never actually read a memoir before, so I went into Melissa Febos' cleverly titled Whip Smart with complete ignorance. As a result, I'm not sure if the book's half-plot, half-retroactive dime-store psychological self-exploration formula is typical of the genre or not. Either way, I found the real-life narrative of a twenty-year-old college student turned self-destructive sex worker simultaneously engaging, sickening, unflinchingly honest, and enormously annoying.
Febos' story is certainly uncommon. As a straight-A student at New York City's The New School in the early 2000s, she decided to become a dominatrix, not because she was particularly strapped for cash or because she became seduced by the BDSM scene or even because she was bored. She makes the case at the beginning of the memoir that it was either that or stripping. "The vulnerability of stripping had always disturbed me; it seemed too easy to be condescended to, to be humiliated," Febos writes. "My need to be in control had always trumped the allure of being so desired." A couple of calls, a short interview, and a few training sessions later, the author is plunging headfirst into the world of dominant-on-demand women and the wealthy men they serve.
As the story advances, it's hard to believe that anyone performing the kinds of acts she did (for the small salary of seventy-five dollars an hour, given the extreme things she was asked to do) would exalt themselves above a stripper, who is never required to urinate, defecate, or spit on their clients, as Febos frequently did. She manages to do it, repeatedly, while separating her dominatrix sessions from other types of sex work because she didn't get nude or allow her clients to have sex with her (although she did frequently have sex with the men, with the help of a strap-on). It's this frequent, repetitive holier-than-thou diatribe about her position within the sex trade that makes the book annoying.
Hand in hand with her top-of-the-sex-industry lines were hollow words about female empowerment and her mother's feminism, which apparently was seriously misconstrued in it's transference to the next generation. Take this scene where she decides to fess up about the new job: _Instinctively, I tried to appeal to my mother's feminist, therapist values...The women I work with, they're amazing, strong, educated, creative women. It's not like I'm a prostitute or something. I'm in control of everything that happens. It's empowering._Empowerment and feminism are obviously not the same thing, while being paid to serve as a sex object (nude or not) is a form of prostitution. Febos' lines aren't from any feminist playbook; they're just ways the author—always used to feeling like the smartest person in the room—justifies her profession, which she admits was, at times, demoralizing and plain disgusting. Because of the exchange of currency that occurred in "the dungeon," she and her co-workers were objects fulfilling a dominant sexual fantasy for the men without actually being dominant. Dominance, also, isn't synonymous with feminism or empowerment, as is often insinuated in this memoir.
While the story revolves around life in the dungeon and it's crazy cast of characters, Febos also weaves a parallel story of her heavy drug use, which occurred concurrently with her dungeon ascent and descent. There are also the other bad habits that she reveals—like randomly stealing books from Barnes & Noble and lying at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings—all of which are eventually resolved as Febos becomes stronger in her power over her addictions.
Despite our differing opinions on women, society, and sex work, I admired Febos' willingness to tell the whole truth in the least preachy way possible. Although it was evident that she thought (and maybe still thinks) many of her actions were commendable because of their shock value and adversarial relationship to social and sexual norms, it takes some serious guts and huge (ahem) balls to pull off publishing this type of story. For that reason alone, Whip Smart is an absolute must-read.