The Rumpus Interview with Melissa Febos

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Melissa Febos is the author of Whip Smart, a new memoir about her four years working as a professional dominatrix in a Midtown Manhattan dungeon while enrolled full time at The New School University. She now teaches writing and literature at SUNY Purchase and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and has just begun offering private lessons and editing.

Febos is wrapping up her West Coast book tour and will hit up San Francisco’s A Different Light Books on April 3 and K’vetsh Reading Series on April 4, then head to the AWP Conference where she’ll sit on an April 9th panel, “Truth or Trash? Women Writing Memoir.”

The Rumpus: In Whip Smart you talk a lot about being able to read people’s shame and/or desires right away, a skill you honed while domming. Are you able to turn off your shame-o-meter or do you still look at men (or women) and automatically see their fetishes/desires/sexual compulsions? I found myself getting squeamish while reading your book, wondering what the man ordering coffee next to me did on his lunch hour.

Febos: Thankfully, that has changed. I mean, I’ve always looked very closely at people, and seen a lot; that was true even when I was a kid. That’s what made me a good domme, but it’s also what makes me well suited to being a writer, and a teacher. But I no longer see people through a sexual lens the way I did when it was my job. My perspective has changed a lot. I was also a more frightened person back then, more freaked out by my own vulnerability, so it was a kind of defense to compulsively locate other people’s; it made me feel safer, more powerful. I don’t need to do that anymore. I have a lot more compassion for myself, and that makes me gentler with others, too—I can still discern people’s weaknesses, but it doesn’t make me want to exploit them; it makes me want to hug them.

Rumpus: You mentioned in your Black Book interview last month that you were initially portrayed by the media as a “tourist” in the S&M world, which is how you thought of yourself at first, a cultural anthropologist, but there’s that pivotal moment in Whip Smart where your therapist gets you to admit that, after three plus years of domming, you were actually a little bit into it. It was not like Gloria Steinem posing as Playboy Bunny for research but, as you write, “It has been my experience that the people I judge most harshly are the ones in whom I recognize some part of myself. My shame in my own desire to dominate and submit to men sexually (and otherwise) did not manifest as a dirty or guilty feeling, but as a denial of it.” Can you elaborate on this?

Febos: I really thought I was in the job for the money (which is laughable, because it just isn’t that good), and out of anthropological curiosity, for a long time.  I think that actually, I had a deep and lifelong interest in power dynamics, sexually and otherwise. I think most people do, to some degree.  I think that a lot of what drew me to that world was the imbalance of power in my own life—I’d always been extremely self-sufficient, in control, desiring of the lion’s share of power in many of my relationships.  Beneath that was a profound lack of trust, in other people, in god, in anything but my own power to get by and make myself feel safe.  I was, without realizing, looking for some evidence that I could let go, or a place where I could do so in a controlled way, with boundaries. Ultimately, I did find that through my experiences as a domme.  Practicing letting go within those boundaries was good practice for doing so in the greater world; I learned to see myself much more clearly as a result of having a very private place in which to muster the courage to do so. But all of that insight came later; I was honestly shocked when I finally admitted to myself that most of my own private fantasies had always run along submissive lines, and I finally saw the patterns of dominance and submission in my own life.

Rumpus: After you got sober, you took on switch and submissive sessions out of boredom and wishing to break more boundaries since you couldn’t break them anymore outside of work. You write about how in submissive sessions you finally engaged your own sexuality on the job. Until then, were you actually denying your own sexual desires outside of work, a sort of self-sabotage— denying yourself pleasure or seeking pleasure that was ultimately unfulfilling?

Febos: Although pushing limits and being bored were somewhat a part of that progression, I think that the dissolution of my boundaries in sessions was less a result of boredom, or wanting to push limits than a result of my being more awake to my own desires – I wasn’t high anymore, and my own fantasies started to rise to the surface.

Rumpus: How do you feel about the fact that The Post coverage may have sold some of your books because you look fantastic/super foxy in the photos? Is it strange to use sex to sell a book which is partly about selling sex, or is it just apropos or a sweet revenge of sorts that you can still make money off this experience now that you’re in the notoriously non-lucrative profession of writing?

Febos: Sure, I feel squeamish about the idea of using sexuality to promote the book, and it wasn’t an entirely conscientious decision on my part.  I refused to give them any images at first and then figured, what the fuck- it’s not as if nobody’s ever seen such a thing, and if it gets people to read the book, it’s totally worth it in my mind.  I think the message of the book is much more powerful than whatever message those images of me send. Also, the allure of super foxy people has gotten me to show up for plenty of good stuff in my life that I might not have otherwise, and I’m grateful for that. There’s also something kind of satisfying about it—kind of meta, kind of poetic—the fact that it’s a book about desire, about wanting to be desired, about the mixed bag of that kind of attention. The experience sure didn’t end with the job.

Rumpus: Do you ever miss getting decked to the nines every day?

Febos: Sure I do. But I am so glad that it’s not my job to look sexy all the time anymore. I really learned how to appreciate dressing down as a result of that requirement.

Rumpus: Here’s a question or two via me and Stephen Elliott. What’s your take on the lifestyle dommes who work into their fifties, making domming a craft, not a job, and what do you think about consensual S&M?

Febos: Early in my career as a domme, I both admired and feared becoming one of those career dommes.  I saw, in myself, and in some other women in that industry, the way that sex work could eclipse the other parts of your personality, the way that I started to feel as if I wasn’t qualified to do anything else. I had always known that I wanted to be a writer, and I stopped writing for a time while I was domming; the experience subsumed my other interests, and it scared me.  Now, however, I have nothing but admiration for them. It is so easy for people to project their own fears and experience onto the appearance of others’ experiences.  I have experienced that kind of reductive perception from both sides. Anyone who makes a life of what they love is a hero to me, and it’s important for those people to be visible in every kind of life, every kind of love, every kind of work.

I see consensual S&M no differently than I see consensual anything: as beautiful, and never any one thing. S&M is just a set of practices that get classified as a single category, when more accurately they are a part of much larger set of behaviors: expressions of love, and self, and play, and even art. There is no hard line between “vanilla” sex and S&M sex, or any other kind of relation between people.  Behaviors and lifestyles that are classified as “normal” rarely get so generalized, public perception of heterosexual relationships, for instance, or of the “white” experience, allow for the infinite variety of experiences that exist under such headings, but people love to reduce the vastness of individuality and subjectivity within marginalized types of experience.


Rebecca Keith’s poetry, fiction, and other writing have appeared in Best New Poets, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Laurel Review, BOMBlog, The Awl, Dossier, The Millions, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and is a founder, curator, and host of Mixer Reading and Music series. She also sings and plays guitar and keyboards in Butchers & Bakers and the Roulettes. More from this author →