‘Whip Smart”s Melissa Febos on Diets, Dudes and Dominatrix-ing

It was by chance that I bumped into Melissa Febos while she and co-host Rebecca Keith at their Mixer NYC reading series a month ago at the Lower East Side’s Cake Shop. She gushed about Whip Smart‘s launch finally approaching. And you should be too–Febos’ tell-all about spending four years as a Manhattan dominatrix has already earned high praise from The New York Times and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City author Nick Flynn among others. And recently, she sat down with The New York Post to dish on the mechanics of the industry, confessing, “Once you do it, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else, it starts to infiltrate your sense of self.” Despite gearing up for her memoir’s release next week, Febos found a little time to wax whimsical about the finer points of working in a dungeon.

Well hello, Melissa! What are you up to? Well, hello! I am in the midst of packing up my gazillion books, answering emails, drinking coffee, making phone calls, and grading papers. I have a book coming out and I’m moving in with my girlfriend next week, all the while teaching five college classes. So, as you can imagine, it’s a little A.D.D. over here.

So I had a few questions that I felt The Post skimmed over. Among them: What kinds of diets do S&M workers tend to have? Having such an extensive client roster–and being in what’s such a challenging line of work, did it get difficult managing what you eat? I can only speak for myself. In the early days I was on a pretty strict regimen of Diet Coke, wheatgrass, heroin, and cocaine. Occasionally, I would order some kind of wheat gluten delicacy to be delivered to the dungeon from Zen Palate. So that kept it pretty simple. After I eliminated the hard drugs from my diet, it did become harder to manage. Luckily, dungeon clients don’t mind if you gain a few pounds–all the better to trample them with, I suppose.

Are there any skills from your time as a dominatrix you think have parlayed well into other careers–aside from that of a memoirist? Oh heavens, yes. Contrary to what you might assume, being a dominatrix is a profoundly empathic job. Dommes make great therapists, social workers, professional coaches, personal trainers, animal trainers. The ability to get inside the mind of other humans coupled with a knack for giving firm instructions comes in handy in just about every profession. Also, that kind of work necessitates a deep comfort with all aspects of the human body. A lot of former dommes end up nurses, doctors, masseuses, and estheticians.

Do you have any memories with clients that are centered around popular music? Or do you remember your musical tastes changing more to suit the nature of your work? Music was so important. I absolutely couldn’t session without the right soundtrack. I fastidiously made mix CDs for work. In fact, I recently made a mix CD of a bunch of songs I used to session to. The problem with listening to good music while working, is that the work association kind of ruins the music. It’s like when I was eleven and ate twenty York Peppermint Patties (my brother was selling them for his little league team, okay?) and then got the flu and was vomiting peppermint for five days. I couldn’t eat mints for years. Like that–only, you know, Portishead. Or certain Nick Cave songs. The association isn’t as bad as one with puking, but it’s inextricable nonetheless. I can’t listen to music that I shared with my ex-lovers, let alone music that I gave enemas to.

Did the background of these men–that some were married or had families–ever make it difficult for you to retain certain clients–did you ever feel conflicted? I think it might bother me now–the secrecy so much of it was steeped in conflicts with the way that I live now. My perspective has changed pretty drastically. Not that I’d feel responsible for their personal betrayals, but just to exist in the company of so much shame would affect me more now. I’m too in touch with my feelings at this point. At the time, though, no, I didn’t feel conflicted. My clients were accountable for their own transgressions. Even now, I can’t claim to have any moral authority. I don’t know what those marriages looked like, or how my work affected them. I don’t feel qualified to assign judgment or value to any other human being’s experience.

Are you still in contact with any of your clients–not in a working relationship–but just in general? Nope.

What are some of the politics within this world like–between veterans and newbies, or even among sex workers in general? Well, I used to love having newbies come into my sessions for training—that’s how they learned, by apprenticeship—because most of their jaws would hit the floor and we’d never see them again. I was kind of a show-off. My sessions were usually pretty hardcore, very mean, which I wasn’t in person so it was doubly shocking. I guess that sounds kind of sadistic, but all of us veterans were annoyed by how they would come in with this naïve, Heineken Beer commercial idea of what the job was, thinking it would be easy money. The turnover rate was fast, because very few lasted more than a week or so. You learned not to care about anybody’s name until they’d been there for a few months.

In your opinion, what are some of the most misconceived notions of the nature of S&M workers? That we hate men. That we are sadists. That we all had miserable childhoods, and were irreparably fucked up in some way. I mean, implicit in a lot of assumptions about S&M workers, and sex workers in general, is that it’s a symptom of some incapacity—it’s not “healthy,” a sick manifestation of unresolved psychological, or emotional, or sexual issues. But really, I think everything everyone does is a manifestation of unresolved issues. Right? That’s our task in life, isn’t it? To have everything resolved would be enlightenment, I guess. Pretty boring. Nothing to write a book about.

Any misconceptions that hit a nerve more personally? A lot of the interviews I’ve done have ended up portraying me as a tourist in that world, someone who was just along for the ride, and who ultimately felt different from, and superior to my clients. While I did feel that way for a lot of my time as a domme, ultimately, my book is about discovering just the opposite. That I identified with many of them–and had an interest that went far beyond anthropological curiosity or greed.

What celebrities do you think should give up their day job and pursue a career as S&M workers themselves? Why? Michael Kors would make a great domme. All of those judges on Project Runway. And America’s Next Top Model. Tyra Banks. I don’t think they need to quit their day jobs, however. They already are dommes, really. Humiliating people who are dying for the opportunity to submit themselves to such treatment? The only difference is in the outfits. And even that’s not much of a difference in many cases.

What advice would you have anyone looking to break into this line of work? Well, don’t do it for the money. First of all, it’s not that great. Second of all, you’ll never last with that motive. Nonetheless, doing something for money is different than having a personal interest in it. Work is work is work. You don’t get to choose your clients. Curiosity isn’t enough. But go for it. You’ll find out pretty quick if it’s for you.