DAVE DAVIES, host:
This FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
Our first guest once answered the following ad in the Village Voice: Attractive young woman wanted for a nurse role-play and domination, no experience necessary, good money no sex.
Melissa Febos spent four years as a professional dominatrix in Manhattan. Her memoir about the experience called "Whip Smart" is now out in paperback in. It may be the first dominatrix memoir that mentions growing up listening to NPR. But Febos was probably not your typical dominatrix. During those four years, she put herself through college and got accepted to Sarah Lawrence where she went on to receive her Masters of Fine Arts in fiction and nonfiction writing. She's now an assistant professor of English at Utica College.
Her memoir offers a fascinating glimpse into part of the sex industry and into the world of sexual fantasy and role-playing. It should be pretty obvious by now that this conversation is probably not appropriate for children.
Terry spoke to Melissa Febos last year. Febos began with a reading from her memoir, a description of the so-called dungeon where she showed up for her job interview.
Professor MELISSA FEBOS (Author, "Whip Smart: A Memoir"): It was like a movie set, an atmosphere truly designed for fantasy, more lush than I had even remotely imagined. It occupied the entire floor, comprised of a maze of dark hallways. Along these halls were the polished doors of a highly styled, big-budget dream. Think David Lynch. Excitement folded through me in waves. I had to work there.
Behind three of those doors were the official dungeons: the Red Room, the Black Room and the Blue Room. Accordingly colored, these rooms were huge. The Blue Room was easily 700 square feet, and all with 10-foot ceilings.
The Red and Blue Rooms have full baths, Fiona explained, as she pushed open the bathroom door in the Red Room. She circled the marbled floor, pointing out amenities. These towel racks are heated, so they need to be unplugged after sessions. All the sinks should have Scope, Dixie cups, and these little packages of disposable toothbrushes and paste.
I traced her steps, lingering over the miniature tube of Crest in its sealed package, like take-out dinnerware, and running my hand along the warm towels as I followed her back out into the Red Room.
That over there is the bondage table, she said, indicating a waist-high bed with leather upholstery and metal rings intermittently hung around its edges. The top is a lid that opens.
For storage? I asked.
For slaves. It doubles as a coffin.
For clients into sensory deprivation. If you're lucky, you get to tie them up, gag, blindfold, the works, and stick them in there for most of the session. She shrugged. It can get worked into role-play scenes, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
TERRY GROSS, host:
Okay, thats Melissa Febos reading from her memoir, "Whip Smart." Now, people will be really curious. You know, you graduated from college while you were a dominatrix. You got accepted to Sarah Lawrence College's MFA program while you were a dominatrix. So why were you choosing to do this work? Was it for money? Did it fulfill your fantasies? Like, why did you...?
Ms. FEBOS: Oh, that's a huge question. I mean, ostensibly when I started, I believed that I was in it for the money. And because I had always known I wanted to be a writer, and as I was approaching graduation in college, I was really faced with the reality that there isn't, you know, an illustrious publishing future awaiting you upon graduation. And so I had sort of investigated the different jobs ancillary to writing - working in publishing and magazines, assisting an agent - and none of those, it turned out, really had anything to do with writing.
And so in my mind, that was my impetus for becoming a dominatrix. But, you know, I have also always been drawn to extremity and to fantasy, and so it really appealed to me on that level, as well.
GROSS: In the reading that you did, you started to describe three of the rooms in the dungeon where you worked. I want you to continue that description. You gave a little bit of the description of the bondage room. There were a lot of things hanging on the wall in the bondage room. Why don't you describe what else was in there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FEBOS: Well, pretty much all of the dungeons were outfitted with some sort of, you know, coat-rack-related thing that had all sorts of floggers, riding crops. A lot of equestrian equipment gets commandeered for S&M practices. There was always some kind of trunk or container with a stock of rope. We had giant coils of rope in our utility closet, like thousands of feet that we would just cut off when you needed it.
There were gas masks and cages and a big, hanging, Inquisition-style cage in the red room. And there were mirrors along all of the walls, and they were really vast, you know, and with all of the walls and the ceilings painted. And it had a very specific effect. I think I describe it early in the book as sort of being inside of a kind of womb.
And you know, we were right in the middle of midtown Manhattan, and yet being in those rooms just felt like being at a total remove from the rest of the world. Which, I guess, was the point, because we were there to sort of create fantasy. You know? And you could really sort of invent the world when you're in a place that feels that remote from everything else.
GROSS: Now, one of the rooms was the feminization room. What was that room for?
Ms. FEBOS: The cross-dressing room. Yeah, this was probably the least intimidating of the rooms. It pretty much - it looks kind of like an old-fashioned dressing room or a sitting room. There was a big leather couch and an Oriental rug, and a vanity with a mirror, and a huge supply of cosmetics and hairbrushes - and this giant wardrobe.
And when you opened the wardrobe, it was literally bursting with giant dresses, giant high-heeled shoes, and stockings and undergarments, and French maid costumes and all of these man-size, very typically girly, feminine clothing.
This was actually the room where - we had a lot of downtime in the dungeon, because we only worked if clients made appointments and came in. And so I actually spent a fair amount of time in the cross-dressing room doing my homework. And we had these wrestling mats, 'cause that's also not an uncommon fantasy, and I would sometimes drag the wrestling mats into the cross-dressing room and do yoga in my downtime - or take a nap on that couch.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: When you were watching really large men get into their women's costumes in the feminization room, I'm assuming that these are men - I mean, were these men who were closeted drag queens, or are they closeted gay men, or are they just men who have this little place in their mind that's just reserved for this obsession with female clothing; and it's very compartmentalized, and it doesn't kind of carry over in the rest of their life? Like, what was your take on the men who would come in for that room?
Ms. FEBOS: I think, really, all of the above, you know. I mean, I think that there's sort of human behaviors that can be, that manifest in a really uniform way, but people arrive at them from all different locations in their psyche and their experience. And so there was really, a pretty wide variety of motives, I think.
I mean, some of these men, I think, couldn't really be classified as, I mean, technically, they could be classified as cross-dresser. But a lot of them, I think, had developed this sort of obsession or fetish for typically feminine practices - really out of a desire for some kind of intimacy.
And some of them would just come in and want to play dress-up and want to have someone brush their hair or just to experience a kind of tenderness, and this seemed like an obvious way for them to access that. And there was really a kind of sweetness, sometimes, in those sessions. Like, I really felt compassion for some of those people.
And for some of them, it was really a purely sort of erotic experience. But a lot of them, it was sort of this very compartmentalized part of their psyche and their lives, and you would never have been able to pick who these people were out of a lineup in their street clothes - never.
GROSS: So the standard of the dominatrix as a woman like, wearing - say, a leather corset, fishnet stockings, like, spike thigh-high boots with a whip in her hand. Was that you?
Ms. FEBOS: Many days, yes, that was me. But I had a pretty large wardrobe of costumes. It calls for a lot of costumery, that job. But I think that, also, what goes along with that sort of iconic image of the dominatrix is cruelty, right, and sort of a disdain for men, maybe for everyone. And that sort of characterization really didn't fit me - and didn't fit most of the women whom I worked with, either.
GROSS: But that was your role, wasn't it, to be the dominant, force men to submit and to say hateful things to them, to verbally abuse them.
Ms. FEBOS: You know, it was, but there were so many roles that I played, and that was one of the surprises of that job, that it wasn't just about being the mean bully.
That was a big part of it. I did play that role a lot. But really, I acted out just about every typically feminine role that you can imagine. There was a lot of nurturance involved, and a lot of, you know, a lot of people came there to be abused in some ways.
But to be in the presence of someone who's powerful and to submit to the control of another person in this context, it didn't always include nastiness or cruelty or humiliation. A lot of times it did, but a lot of times they wanted to just, to trust someone else, to sort of hand the reins over to someone else. And in a lot of the scenes that I would play out, I would end up being very nurturing and reassuring, and just in control.
GROSS: How strange was it to tie people up - people who wanted bondage as part of what they were paying for? I mean, that just has to be a really -particularly when you're first doing it - it has to be a really crazy, odd, kind of creepy experience.
Ms. FEBOS: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the experiences were. And, you know, this is one of those jobs, I think, like a lot of probably a lot of people in the medical industry have this kind of experience, or maybe even people in sports, too. But you work very, very closely with human bodies in a way that most people don't.
It's very intimate. And when people are paying to be put in this position and make themselves really vulnerable, they do give you a kind of power, and that was sort of a clumsy position for me to be in at first, and it made me really nervous. And it wasn't always a power that I wanted, you know. But I was also -I was also fascinated and kind of mesmerized by it. But yeah, tying up another person is a bizarre experience.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FEBOS: Most people don't have that experience, I don't think.
GROSS: What are some of the costumes that you wore?
Ms. FEBOS: Well, the one that you talked about before, sort of the typical, iconic dominatrix outfit with the corset and garters and fishnets and stilettos. But I also had a handful of nurse uniforms, some of them sort of sexy nurse Halloween-costume style, but some of them really authentic.
We used to get a lot of our clothes - sort of - at actual medical supply stores. And people are actually surprised. I did another interview recently where the interviewer asked me where my favorite boutiques for shopping for equipment were and actually, Home Depot was one of my favorite outlets.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What would you get there?
Ms. FEBOS: A rope and clamps and rubber gloves, and it's amazing how many everyday materials get commandeered for uses that most people don't even know exist. But I also had certain uniforms: sort of a police officer-esque uniforms, schoolgirl uniform. I definitely had sort of a little suit, a secretary outfit, schoolteacher outfit. Pretty much any sort of typically female-dominated occupation or role, whatever outfit is associated with that, somebody in the dungeon would have. Probably a lot of us would.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa Febos, and she's written a new memoir, called "Whip Smart," that's about her four years as a professional dominatrix.
Melissa, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa Febos. She's the author of a new memoir about her four years as a professional dominatrix. It's called "Whip Smart."
And for anyone just tuning in, I just want to say if you have children, we're having a very adult conversation. It's the kind of conversation you probably would not want young children to hear.
Could you describe - I'm not sure if there's something that you could describe as a typical session, but describe what a session was like, you know, just a concise overview of what a session was?
Ms. FEBOS: Sure. I mean, you know, actually what comes immediately to mind, funnily enough, is I recently, you know, I teach writing now, and I've done that for a while, and I recently lectured about plot in storytelling.
And a lot of sessions actually sort of follow a very traditional plot structure, where there will be an inciting incident, where we'll sort of be acting out the scene, and the client will be playing a role. Sometimes it's of a little boy, sometimes it's an employee, sometimes it's a boss. We're in some kind of scene.
And there'll be an inciting incident. They'll do something, and then I'll sort of play the powerful role. And they've eaten some junk food, and I caught them, or I caught them looking at pornographic magazines - or something like that. And then the conflict sort of rises, and then there's some sort of climax to the scene where it breaks or pivots, and they really give in. And sometimes there'll be they'll cry at this point, or they'll get punished at this point. I end up forgiving them or comforting them or there's some kind of resolution.
GROSS: And did these scenes come with sexual release for the man in the scene?
Ms. FEBOS: Sometimes. That wasn't required. I mean, and sometimes it was specifically denied. But sometimes, yeah. They would take care of that themselves.
GROSS: What kinds of men became clients where you worked? I'm sure there was a variety, but what can you generalize about the men who paid to see a professional dominatrix?
Ms. FEBOS: I mean, it really was a pretty eclectic bunch, our patrons at the dungeon. But if I have to generalize, I would say that there were a lot of -sort of Wall Street types. I mean, it's not a cheap hobby to have.
GROSS: How not cheap is it? What's a session?
Ms. FEBOS: Well, a session at the dungeon, our clients would pay $200 for an hour session, and the dom would get $75 of that - and usually there's a tip involved.
When I went sort of freelance, on my own, then there was more of a sliding scale, and I would pretty much charge what I thought that the client could afford.
GROSS: Melissa, I think all of our listeners will be wondering like, what - is this legal? You know what I mean? Like...
Ms. FEBOS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...is this an illegal operation, or is it legit?
Ms. FEBOS: You know, I mean, it is legal but I mean, things get a little murky, I think. I mean, my line when I was working was always, if anyone comes and busts us, it'll probably be the IRS because a lot of money goes in and out of dungeons, and I don't remember filling out any tax forms. But there is no actual sex that happens in the dungeon and so, you know, it could be classified almost as a kind of therapy.
We really just acted out scenes, and most of us kept our clothes on. And so it's not illegal. But you know, there were certain things that would happen in sessions that probably would flirt with that line. I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know exactly. But there were definitely certain - we were definitely encouraged to keep things on the conservative side the first time we saw a client.
GROSS: Until you could trust them so that they wouldn't bust, you know, turn you into the police or something?
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm. Although, you know, plenty of our clients were actual police.
GROSS: Is that right?
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm. But they were off duty when they came to see us.
GROSS: You know, I was thinking for some of the clients, it was probably not unlike going to a doctor or a therapist, in a way, because you've got this secret life, this secret part of you that you can't share with anybody. So you go to a paid professional and reveal it to them, whether that secret thing - I mean, in a doctor's office, that secret thing might be a, you know, a growth or, you know, something happening in a private part of your body.
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: That secret thing might be a genuine secret that you'd share with a therapist, but you wouldn't tell the people you're close to.
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did you feel that kind of comparison, that people were coming with a secret part of their life that they could only share with a paid professional?
Ms. FEBOS: Absolutely. I definitely do. I was actually surprised, after I started working, at how sort of perfunctory a lot of people were about it. It was like their weekly checkup or their weekly session with their therapist, and it was just a built-in part of these men's lives. And to a lot of them, it was just as essential as a checkup with a doctor, or a session with a therapist. And for some of them, I think that it was as helpful as those - for some, not so much.
For some, I think I was, you know - I mean, we sort of assume, and it's been my experience, that when I go to see doctors and therapists that there's - I can rely on sort of a forward progression, that I'm growing or healing or learning more. And that was true for a lot of my relationships with my clients, but not for all of them. For many of them, it was a pretty repetitive experience. It would be like going to the doctor and getting the same information every time you saw them.
GROSS: What would the equivalent of growing or getting healed be?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FEBOS: I mean, I think that some of them - I would get a client who was new to it, and had - maybe had a private obsession that they were ashamed of for a long time. And then they would come in and I saw - I mean, after a certain, after a year in the job, just nothing will surprise you. You've heard it all before. And so they would come in, and I would not be shocked at their fantasy, and we would act something out. And they would leave just glowing, you know?
I mean, I think a lot of people are very lonely. Secrecy is a lonely experience. I know that for myself, you know? And so a lot of these people would've been carrying around this sort of obsession or interest or fantasy for a long time, feeling as if they were the only one who'd ever had it, you know, and feeling privately, really alienated from other people. And then they would come in, and I wouldn't gasp or be shocked or disgusted or reject them. And it would be like okay, that's fine. I would just treat them like a normal person because in that context, they were - I mean, in any context, you know, they were.
No one, I think, is really as weird as they think they are. And so for a lot of them, it was really liberating. And for me, it was really parallel experience for me because, you know, for a lot of this experience, I was an active drug addict, and I think that there are a lot of parallels. There's a lot of secrecy. There's a lot of shame. There's a lot of feeling sort of terminally unique. And then when you find other people who have had this experience before, it's really relieving to realize that you're not the only one.
DAVIES: Melissa Febos' memoir "Whip Smart" is now out in paperback.
She'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with Melissa Febos. She's an assistant professor of English at Utica College with an interesting job history. She spent four years as a professional dominatrix in Manhattan. Her memoir about her experiences offers a glimpse into part of the sex industry and into the world of sexual fantasy and role-playing. This is a conversation that's probably not appropriate for children. Febos' book "Whip Smart" is not out in paperback.
GROSS: You were a heroin addict, and that was probably very connected to why you were doing the work and how you were doing it. I mean, I imagine the work helped pay for your drugs.
Ms. FEBOS: It did. But you know, I mean, I think that a lot of people tend to assume that there was a directly sort of causal relationship between my being a heroin addict and my being a dominatrix. And that's not exactly how it sort of worked out. I don't think - I didn't become a dominatrix out of desperation. It wasn't to feed my drug addiction. I really think that sort of both of those practices came from a similar place, you know, both sort of a simultaneous desire to find a way to make the world feel more manageable and to feel more in control of my own experience.
And drugs are a way of feeling in control of your experience, to be able to have control over the way your environment affects you. And playing out these fantasies, and playing this role where I was pursued and where I was in control, also felt really safe in a certain way.
And at the same time, almost paradoxically, I think that I also sort of sought out these extreme experiences because to try to manage your own human experience and to be in control of the world, essentially to sort of try to play God, is exhausting and impossible and a futile task. And I think that in seeking sort of these extreme experiences, I was sort of searching for the wall. You know, searching to find - to be sort of disproven in my own power so that I could let go of that futile task.
GROSS: Don't you think, in a way, that the heroin deadens you enough to do the work of dominatrix? That it might've been more difficult had all your senses really been alert and not dulled or changed by heroin?
Ms. FEBOS: I do think so. I mean - and the experience of being a dominatrix really changed, really fundamentally, when I - because I got clean while I was a dominatrix and, you know, I assumed, actually, when I got clean that I would be rendered almost instantly incapable of doing it anymore because I would be really awake. And in many ways, it's true. You know, I was much more conscious during my sessions. I was much more aware of things, and it did become difficult in some ways. But it was also, to my own surprise, revealed to me that I could still do it, that there was something that kept me there. And it hadn't been the drugs, you know, that there was something else in me that brought me there that was distinct from the drugs, because I kept doing it for over a year after I got clean.
GROSS: In writing about your experiences as a professional dominatrix, you write: Most sessions were based on paradigms that were often a kind of inversion of misogyny - the subjugation of women re-enacted by men on themselves. Our clients wanted to be dressed in women's clothing and raped, molested, infantilized, humiliated and physically abused.
Can you talk about that a little more - this idea of it being like an inversion of misogyny?
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm. You know, I didn't dig very deep into my observations of that when I first started. You know, it seemed pretty clear to me, I am acting out a powerful role. I can be a feminist and also dress up in these sexy clothes and enjoy being desired. And that seemed to agree for me. But the longer that I worked in the job, the more I sort of recognized this sort of inversion of sexual paradigms. And it was disturbing, and I didn't quite know what to make of it - and I still don't quite know what to make of it. But I don't think that it's as simple as I thought in the beginning, where it was sort of like, you know, good, these are men who want to get a taste of their own medicine, you know?
But also, I was being paid to still conform to these fantasies and in some ways it started to dawn on me that even if it was being performed on the men themselves, it was still sort of reinforcing these kinds of behaviors, you know, and it was still an obsession with misogyny and with sort of the abuse of female characters. They just happen to be men dressed up as women. And also, I mean, I don't have an answer for this or a diagnosis for it, but it occurred to me then, and it occurs to me now, that it might also be an expression of men's discomfort with those paradigms in our culture, you know, and trying to make sense of it themselves, you know?
GROSS: But even when you're the dominatrix, you're the one in power and you're humiliating the man, it's in some way still the man who's in control. He's paying for you.
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: If you perform well, he'll give you a big tip and if you don't, he won't. I mean, he kind of wrote the play, and you're an actress in it.
Ms. FEBOS: Exactly. Exactly. And that became progressively less and less comfortable for me, the longer that I was in the job. Yeah. And I mean, in the beginning it did feel pretty powerful, you know, to act out those roles. And in the end - and not even in the end - after a little while, you know, it wasn't my fantasy in most cases, you know? And in a lot of ways it felt more humiliating to me than it did to them. I mean, I think it was satisfying for them. And for me, to enact a sexual fantasy that wasn't my own fantasy was uncomfortable in a lot of ways - and especially after I got clean - became acutely uncomfortable in many ways.
And as much as I had sort of my own arguments and ideology and rationalizations about it - like my emotional experience, which I slowly sort of awoke more and more to throughout my time doing it - my authentic emotional experience was that it ended up being kind of humiliating for me in a lot of sessions - not all, but in many of them.
GROSS: Now, I am looking at your resume.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And it has how you got your MFA at Sarah Lawrence College; it has how you were the recipient of the Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year Award in 2008, 2009.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What it doesn't have is that you were a dominatrix for four years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FEBOS: No.
GROSS: Did you intentionally leave that off the resume?
Ms. FEBOS: Yeah. I haven't, you know, I haven't typically thought of it as sort of a boon when job - you know, I'm looking for a full-time faculty position right now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FEBOS: And, you know, it's really, this is actually something that I've been dealing with a lot very recently. You know, my book just came out on Tuesday and - I mean, typically having been a sex worker or a dominatrix or participating - you know, being a former heroin junkie, they're not things that you talk about with your colleagues at work, especially in academia. But I've sort of merged my checkered past and my most extreme personal experiences, the kinds of things that most people don't tell anyone about, with my career and with my profession and with my artistic craft. And so it's a really interesting adventure and also a challenge.
You know, I don't - I'm not always sure how to navigate it. You know, I was recently at a faculty meeting, congratulated by my boss at Purchase for - I was on the cover of the New York Post, you know, and it was like, thank you. But I also - it was an awkward moment, you know, because you're not used to accepting congratulations for having had these kinds of experiences.
But ultimately, I'm really glad for it, and I'm really glad to able to sort of present these experiences in conjunction with my creative processing with literature, and with my teaching, because I do see them, they're not things to be ashamed of. You know, maybe in our culture at large they are, but they've really profoundly enriched me and deepened me as a human being and as an intellectual and as a teacher - and absolutely as a writer.
GROSS: Melissa Febos, thank you so much.
Ms. FEBOS: Thank you so much, Terry. It's been a huge pleasure.
DAVIES: Melissa Febos is now an assistant professor of English at Utica College. Her memoir "Whip Smart" is now out in paperback.
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