Dominatrix Melissa Febos: Whip Smart, Serving Sex Slaves

PHOTO: Melissa Febos worked for three years as a dominatrix, a secret profession she describes in her memoir, "Whip Smart."
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As a little girl, Melissa Febos was a voracious reader, consumed by the fantastical world of the "Chronicles of Narnia" and the rebellious spirit of "Catcher in the Rye."

But by the time she was 19, she was tapping into both fantasy and rebellion, working in a high-class "dungeon" in midtown Manhattan as a dominatrix, bringing men to their knees in sexually submissive role-play games.

"You could put me in a room with a stack of books for days. I was infatuated with alternate realities and having the experiences of other characters' lives," said Febos, now 30. "That was a lot like what I did as a dominatrix."

In her new memoir, "Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life," Febos describes her life as a "domme," numbing herself with drugs and playing out the sexual fantasies of the men with switches, restraints and verbal abuse.

She began her career while getting an English degree in New York City, introduced by another college student who lived in her apartment building.

"I have always loved secrets," she writes in the book's prologue. "What thrilled me was that I was the keeper, I alone possessed the knowledge of the thing that was hidden away."

Febos was able to overcome her addiction to an array of drugs -- heroin, cocaine and alcohol -- but giving up the control and desire from her subjects was hard to let go.

Surprisingly, these S & M parlors are legal, although how they describe their operations while seeking licensing is "murky," according to Febos, who said many of her clients were police.

"No sex happens there. ... It's much more of an acting job," she said. "There is an erotic interest for the clients, but it's much more of a psychological than a physical service."

Febos had always thrived on the taboo -- drugs, "deviant" sex practices with men and women, and even shoplifting as a child. Working as a domme, she could make "fast money without taking my clothes off."

The rules of the S & M world are that the practice be "safe, sane, and consensual," and Febos said she adhered to all three. Pain is never the guiding principle, rather the symbol of dominance and control.

The relationship between slave and master is always tightly scripted and "collaboration, not force, is the foundation of S & M," according to the 2004 book, "Deviant Behavior," by Erich Goode, a professor at State University of New York.

Febos grew up a sensitive girl in the quaint Cape Cod town of Falmouth, Mass.

"I had a deep sense of compassion for others, but didn't know how to modulate my own feelings," she said. "When I felt in control, it erased the fear."

She dropped out of school at 16 and moved to Boston to take night classes at Harvard University -- and not because she didn't have a warm and loving home. Her mother was a psychotherapist and her father a sea captain.

"People tend to assume there was some dark secret buried in the family or there was some abuse going on," she said. "I was never spanked, not even once."

But it was Febos who did the spanking in the 12-room dungeon where she controlled her slaves, who paid her up to $500 a day for humiliation and pain. Later, working as a freelancer, she pulled in that much in an hour.

"It's easy to assume as a dominatrix I would have some kind of malice and want to hurt people," she said. "But I was more curious about other people's secrets and their private thoughts and fears."

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