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."
Share
Copy

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."

Whips, Paddles and Gas Masks as Tools

Febos viewed herself as a "cultural anthropologist" and relied on her "verbal strength" to arouse the men who chose her as their master.

That might include dressing up as a nurse and inflicting an enema on an examining table in the med room, or barking orders as a strict teacher or office manager. In addition to costumes, her props included whips, paddles, cuffs, blindfolds, wooden stocks and even gas masks.

One bondage table had leather upholstery, metal rings around its edges and a removable top that served as a coffin for men who were into sensory deprivation. The only practice she didn't engage in was "breath play" or choking, and there was always a "safe word" that signaled the dommes to stop.

And all the while, Febos was getting her English degree at the New School in New York City and taking copious notes on her work. It was only later in a master's degree program that a professor suggested she turn an essay on her experience into a memoir.

Febos began on the day shift -- 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. -- catering to "mostly married fathers," who were, "nearly all professionally successful," who wanted someone else to take control for an hour of their day.

"My client base consisted of stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, rabbis, grandpas, bus drivers, restauranteurs and retirees," she wrote. "The day-shift crowd scheduled their whippings they way they scheduled business luncheons: out of necessity and convenience. En route to the dungeon, they dropped off the dry cleaning, or their wives at Macy's."

Not all her clients were sexual deviates, Febos insisted, and many used her services as a "lifestyle," rather than a compulsion.

"For some, it's pathological behavior and there is shame involved," she said. "For some, they are perfectly healthy and had success in their lives good relationships and it wasn't even secret."

Others came to work out childhood trauma.

"They may have been bullied as children and the practice was cathartic," said Febos.

She kept her work hidden from parents, friends and boyfriends. Her other secret was her growing addiction to drugs, and most of the time Febos worked, she was high.

"I was born with that gene -- it was part of it," she said. "For me, it manifested itself as a desire for adventurousness and pushing boundaries, to escape to alternate realities."

A type-A personality who was doing well in college, she controlled her drug use, but eventually it became more frequent.

"In a moment of clarity, on my own, it dawned on me I was too good at hiding it and I was going to die with a straight-A report card," she said.

After Febos sought help to rid her life of drugs, the dominatrix work that once gave her a sense of feminist empowerment began to feel degrading and dishonest.

"I started to feel uncomfortable and humiliated," she said. "The secrecy was killing me. And for three years as a dominatrix and being a drug addict, I hadn't written anything."

But today, Febos teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and is working on a novel about the complexities of female friendship. She said her students are "admiring and respectful, and also quite shy" about the subject of her graphic memoir.

Febos disagrees with critics who say that her book glamorizes the business of S&M and that being a sex worker made her a better person.

"My message is of brave open-mindedness to other people's experiences," she said.

Still, the work, though addicting, eventually became a psychological burden.

"Even though I was playing a powerful role," she said. "I was conforming to the fantasies of other people."

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...
See It, Share It
PHOTO: Anthony Lemons glances to family and friends at the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court
Marvin Fong/The Plain Dealer/AP Photo
PHOTO: Indian Christian devotees watch a fireworks display outside St. Peters Church in Allahabad on Dec. 24, 2014, on Christmas Eve.
Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images
Newborns at this hospital on Christmas Day get the special stockings as a keepsake.
Magee-Womens Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
PHOTO: US President Barack Obama plays golf at Mid-Pacific Country Club in Kailua, Hawaii, in this file photo.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images