Elevate Difference

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.

Cross-posted from Uptown Literati

Written by: Whitney Teal, April 25th 2010

I think I can comment on this with some authority as I used to do domme work and also enjoy BDSM for myself.

I did domme work because I needed the money, but also because I felt it would be a useful way to get rid of excess anger, which I tend to have a lot of--better than punching a pillow for sure. Some scenes I did for pay were ones I enjoyed for other reasons as well--e.g. getting a relaxing foot massage, or when the client's fetishes matched up with mine. I was not attracted to them but sometimes I found the situation sexy. Other times their fetishes and mine did not match up and it was just acting. I do think domme-ing takes less out of you than other sex work, because a) they cannot touch your private parts, and b) generally you don't have to pretend to like the clients, you can express towards them the rage and contempt you feel. I definitely felt freer to express my personality in domme work than I did in most of the office jobs I've had.

I stopped it in the end because I just did not want to deal with the sexual needs of people I was not attracted to--I wanted to reserve BDSM for situations where I was truly into the person on both physical and mental levels. I also started a meditation program that I knew would release painful buried emotions, and did not want to have to project command and control when I was feeling emotionally open and vulnerable.

I agree that having BDSM defined by professionals in our culture is not so great. It tends to produce more humiliation-fetish stuff, because as pro-dommes we care less about our clients, and we act cruel and dehumanizing to them to satisfy our own anger at them for often being ugly assholes. Or at least I did. On the other hand, pro-dommes allow people with fantasies they can't fulfil anywhere else to get some happiness/relief from their obsessions, and it can be good for the dommes too--money-wise obviously, but also it can be fun, teach you skills for self-presentation and handling other people, help with anger problems like I said earlier, etc. So I am not against the profession, and do not consider it any more exploitative than, say, being a salesperson--even less if like me, you are naturally more aggressive than smiley.

As for whether a pro-domme is truly dominant: there are degrees. A pro-domme is dominant over her clients in the raw physical sense, the same way a non-pro is. The fact that the client pays tips the power scale more to him, but then again we don't have emotional investments like you do if you're dominating someone you care about. No one person is %100 dominant over another unless the situation is one of rape; BDSM is about play-power rather than real power and that is just as true for BDSM in relationships as it is for BDSM in for-pay situations. But in for-pay BDSM there is more dehumanization going on at both ends of the whip. That's why I quit. The other I quit was because I had enough money to be more picky about which type of work I did--if it was a choice being a domme or working in real estate sales, for instance, I'd probably pick the domme work/

Thanks B! Huge praise since I sort of worship Terry Gross. Like most of you, I found the author frustratingly misguided in her ideas about domination and empowerment and feminism, although I do think that towards the end of the book she began to see that some of her opinions about the dungeon were not reality. it was really difficult to not judge while reading (and I'm sure that I failed miserably), not because of what she was doing but because of the irritating, superior and snobbish tone that the entire book was written. I read a review on Amazon that said that one chapter didn't go by without the author mentioning her 4.0 GPA, which I tend to agree with.

So many really interesting comments here. Having not read the book, I can't comment on it directly, but I do find the pat "I feel empowered/I got some benefit out of it so therefore this is empowering" generally short-sighted and frustrating. Like B, I find it particularly unfortunate if the author didn't deconstruct the link b/t her descent into substance abuse, her distaste for the work she was doing, and the economic drive behind her doing this work.

Nodding in agreement with Clarisse, I find there are a lot of really good arguments being made in favor of queer- and feminist-oriented porn and sex work, as well as BDSM--but it seems like the ones that get the most play are the least interesting, the least invested in the power or stigma attached to the self-identification as BDSM (as opposed to it simply being a means to an end), and the most self-interested (i.e., they want things like hipster cred or money). I wish there were a greater number of options for more considered works out there on these topics (shout out: $pread, Lee Jacob Riggs chapter in Yes Means Yes, and Elisabeth Eaves' Bare).

Ugh. As an S&M activist, writer, etc. I find this woman (and many like her) to be somewhat annoying. I try hard not to judge other adults on their consensual sexual expression -- in fact, not judging consensual sexual expression is the entire focus of my activism. But it's still incredibly frustrating that professional dominatrixes like this woman, who isn't even actually into BDSM herself and just does it for the money/edginess/whatever, are the ones who largely define the image of S&M in popular media.

I recently wrote a post on 5 big sources of assumptions, stigma, stereotypes and biases about BDSM -- http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/5-sources-of-assumptions-and-stereotypes-about-sm/

... and a point made in the comments (as is often made in these conversations) is that professional dominatrixes are the ones defining the image of BDSM, much to the detriment of actual BDSMers who are trying to advance the conversation and, you know, figure out our own sexuality too.

Since many of us see BDSM as a sexual "orientation", or at least as "innate" -- http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com/2009/06/03/bdsm-as-a-sexual-orientation-and-complications-of-the-orientation-model/

... it can really screw us up to have our sexual orientation socially defined by sex workers who usually aren't actually interested in their activities at all, and who frequently even define sex right out of the picture, as this woman attempts to do.

I heard an interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Febos, and while I may love the show, I think this review really got to the heart of the issues at hand more than Terry Gross could (which is sort of shocking to say, and a true compliment, considering how good Gross is at interviewing people). But I find all the double standards to be a bit strange and wonder why Febos doesn't spend more time analyzing her drug use and her desire to engage in sex work. It's a cliche that women often do the two hand in hand, which is why I wonder why she doesn't aim to deconstruct that. Or maybe she does and I missed something in the reviews here and elsewhere?

Anyway, terrific analysis. Such a cool review.

"she and her co-workers were objects fulfilling a dominant sexual fantasy for the men without actually being dominant"

this statement sort of sums up my opinion on sex work at the moment and I appreciate someone articulating similar opinions within the feminist community. I try to be as open-minded as possible about prostitution (and its variations) but sometimes can't help being skeptical because I feel like it tends to reduce women to nameless sexual toys... and just how could that be good for our advancement? So what exactly is your view on the subject? Do I need to be enlightened?