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03.12.10

My Afternoon with a Dominatrix

David Goodwillie talks with former NYC dominatrix Melissa Febos about nurse’s outfits, double lives, and her new memoir Whip Smart.

Forgive me. I am about to write a thousand words about a young woman who moves to New York City to go to college (she wants to write, naturally), falls into a secret double-life of heroin addiction and S&M dungeons, then lives not only to sober up and tell the tale, but to sell that tale to a major publishing house. The result is the memoir, Whip Smart, by Melissa Febos, and in an attempt to ward off the reflexive eye-rolling some readers may be experiencing, I’m going to break a major rule of criticism and start by quoting the last lines of the book:

I did miss it sometimes. I still had the dreams—I would for a long time. But I didn’t miss the best part—that feeling of pressing up against the barest parts of being human. I’d thought I had to look for it in dark places, that it would be hidden. Turns out it wasn’t.

Beautiful, no? Well, so is the rest (at least in terms of language). I approached Whip Smart tentatively. Having written a memoir myself, I’m attuned—and have at times succumbed—to the various pitfalls of the genre—pitfalls that usually multiply in direct correlation to a book’s shock value. And Whip Smart is shocking. But Febos can really write (she can also do a lot other things), and in the end, it is the narrative voice she inhabits, at once honest and dispassionate, curious and even idealistic, that turns a timeworn story into a smart, provocative thrill-ride of a book.

“I always savored the moment I told someone I was a dominatrix,” she explains. “I liked upsetting their assumptions about what a dominatrix looked like.”

book-cover---whip-smart-1
Whip Smart: A Memoir. By Melissa Febos. 288 pages. Thomas Dunne Books. $24.99. ()

These stories so often start with neighbors, in this case a young law student who moves in next to Febos in a Bed-Stuy walk-up. The neighbor is, of course, a part time dominatrix, and Febos, broke and adventurous, is intrigued. She answers an ad in the Village Voice—“Attractive young woman wanted for nurse role-play and domination. No experience necessary. Good $$. No sex”—and a paragraph later, enters a sexual netherworld that will dominate the next four years of her life.

Much of Whip Smart is set in the sordid gloom of the S&M dungeon itself, which is not a dungeon at all, but a suite on the second floor of a nondescript Garment District building in the middle of New York. The rooms are stocked with contraptions that more closely resemble instruments of torture than anything meant for pleasure, and Febos quickly finds that her interests lie not in sensual role-playing but in far more extreme realms of punishment. Here she is reflecting on a corporal session with a hard-core client:

Did I enjoy hurting people? Sometimes. But not simply for the sake of their physical pain. I couldn’t fathom hurting someone who didn’t want it, but how many people get to experience the moral loophole of hurting someone who wants to be hurt?...As I crouched on that bathroom floor, held that man’s head beneath the water, I experienced a kind of transcendence. It was that utter alienation from self, a loosening of the glue that made my reality whole. It felt both horrific and triumphant.

This is Whip Smart in a nutshell. The raw descriptions of depravity can be astonishing—in the session detailed above, held in one of the dungeon’s “medical rooms” (complete with “examination tables, mirrored walls...proctoscopes and stethoscopes, rolling wheels with spikes and pincers, clamps, syringes, thermometers, tongue depressors…”), Febos is actually high on heroin—but what strikes the reader most is not the description of the scene itself, but the author’s lucid analysis of that scene and her role in it. For all its jaw-dropping shock value—try getting through the “brown shower” section unscathed—Whip Smart is, in the end, a treatise on the psychology of sex and power, subversion and submission—humanity.

It is also the story of a city. Febos’s gritty New York underworld is a welcome antithesis to the gentrified, tourist-riddled, chain store metropolis so many of us love to hate. Trouble may be harder to find these days, but it’s obviously still out there if you know where to look (or what neighbor’s door to knock on). Of course, I don’t know were to look, not for this kind of thing, so I ask Febos if she might take me on a mini-tour of her former world.

We meet on a Sunday afternoon, at a Lower East store called DeMask. Its walls are lined with rubber corsets and dresses of every shape and size—except loose. Febos points to a bottle of baby powder in a front of a mirror. “Powder’s important with this stuff,” she says. “Otherwise….” She shakes her head. Febos is pretty in person, but petite, almost demure, and it’s difficult to imagine her slithering into one of these outfits, let alone directing the dungeon scenes in Whip Smart. It’s a dichotomy she relishes.

“I always savored the moment I told someone I was a dominatrix,” she explains. “I liked upsetting their assumptions about what a dominatrix looked like. ‘But you’re so nice,’ they’d always say. ‘So normal.’ I teach writing, and still enjoy the moment when my students realize I haven’t always been a cardigan-sporting professor. Nobody thinks of themselves as judgmental but we all are.”

The women behind the counter at DeMask are no exception. They’re giving me looks (granted I’ve been taking notes, but what do they have to hide?) so we buzz our way out and walk slowly down Orchard Street, discussing the physical geography of the BDSM “community.” Much of the action these days is either online—message boards are convenient, anonymity liberating—or at private events ranging from intimate parties to ticketed pageants and dress-up balls. But the dungeons still serve as a gateway to the outside, “non-lifestyle” world—they service its fetishes and take in its cash. There are several spread out across Manhattan, from the financial district (one of the most popular is on John Street, naturally) to the northernmost reaches of the east and west sides. The dungeons have a peculiar relationship to the law, in that they aren’t illegal (dominatrixes are not prostitutes: sexual acts—though they occasionally occur—are strictly forbidden), but a casual observer might think otherwise. Owners are careful about advertising and often screen new clients (Febos never supplied the name or address of her former employer in her book, though it’s not hard to figure out). Beyond the dungeons are a handful of “S&M clubs,” the most well-known being Paddles, in Chelsea. Located several flights below street level (the entrance is through an unmarked door in the back of a parking lot off Eighth Avenue), it holds weekend theme parties that attract all kinds of fetishists and role-players, professional and amateur alike.

Febos kept a foot in both worlds. “The bars I frequented were just regular bars,” she says. “The Lakeside, Blue & Gold, Cherry Tavern, Whiskey Ward.” But some of her other stops weren’t so normal. “I spent a lot of time at Purple Passion, in Chelsea, which has a wider selection than DeMask. And towards the end, when I was working independently, I used to make monthly trips to Home Depot for supplies. Rope, tape, rubber gloves, clamps, wire—you’d be surprised the number of uses some things have. I also got a lot of equipment at medical supply stores. I used to like the one on Third Avenue and 14th Street for nurse uniforms. I think it’s gone now.”

We’ve come to a stop on the corner of Christie Street, near The Box, New York’s notorious x-rated burlesque club. It’s been raided more than once, and it’s not alone. In the last year several dungeons have been at least temporarily shut down after being infiltrated by undercover cops claiming they were offered sexual favors. I ask Febos if she’s worried that the S&M scene she has so vividly and perceptively chronicled is disappearing.

“I think those busts are probably part of a cycle, and it will come back around. The interest sure isn’t going anywhere. Where there’s a will, there’s a world.”

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David Goodwillie is the author of the forthcoming novel American Subversive (Scribner, April 2010), along with the acclaimed memoir Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. He has also played professional baseball, worked as a private investigator, and been an expert at Sotheby's auction house. A graduate of Kenyon College, he lives and works in New York City.