Control Tower

Dominatrix's Memoir Is Not All It's Cracked Up to Be

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Whip Smart is a memoir by Melissa Febos about her years in a New York pro domme house, and I'm both the best person and the worst person to review this book. Because I'm experienced in the field, I'm the best, as the subject doesn't distract me from its strengths and weaknesses. That also makes me the worst, because absent its shock value, this book isn't that compelling.

In Whip Smart, we meet Febos as a 21-year-old college student. She has low self-esteem despite being pretty and smart, and she's spending her parents' money on drugs. She has no experience with BDSM—in fact, she's uncomfortable with sex, although she was "addicted to the power of seduction" and her "craving to be desired never abated." However, after meeting another student who's a dominatrix, she answers a help-wanted ad and lands a job at a McDungeon.

The prose flows smoothly enough, but Febos's freak-show vignettes never quite deliver the punch. She assumes we share her contempt for the people who populate the story, so she sketches in a few ew-gross details and then skitters away. She speaks of her clients "ceasing, in a fundamental way, to be so human to me." Febos sees herself as floating above the experiences, and so depictions of scenes between a scornful girl and customers she regards as objects emerge as banal cliché.

Febos dwells on how she loved shocking vanilla people by confessing she was a dominatrix. It made her feel like a sexy bad girl. But she always hastened to assure her audience that she didn't enjoy her work. "The last thing I wanted was to be mistaken for was into it." She just did it for the money—money for drugs, that is. This book could've just as easily been entitled Needle Sharp, because the author's relationship with drugs—heroin and cocaine, mainly—is more pivotal to her personal journey than her exploits as a dominatrix.

So the narrator is a high, insecure girl who keeps saying, "Look, I am so naughty and edgy! But I'm not like those freaks; I'm normal like you—only I'm smarter and braver." This makes the storyteller difficult to like. Whip Smart is 276 pages, and until about page 256, I wanted to slap "Mistress Justine." Febos does eventually get clean, grow up emotionally, and quit her domme job. However, 20 pages isn't much time to color in that stage of her life. After stories of shooting speedballs and dunking men's heads in toilets, the passages about breakthroughs on her therapist's couch fall rather flat.

Domme houses like the one Febos describes are akin to boot camp. They hire women off the street, cinch them into a corset, slap a crop in their hand, and shove them into the dungeon. Rookies either break and run, or fake it until they make it. Febos faked it in the dungeon, but, unfortunately, she never quite makes it with this memoir. recommended


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Sounds more insulting to kinky people than 9 ½ Weeks.
Posted by Spike1382 on March 24, 2010 at 11:47 AM · Report this
Great review, thanks! I suspected this book would have that tone, after hearing the author interviewed on "Fresh Air" a few weeks ago.
Posted by REW on March 24, 2010 at 1:29 PM · Report this
Ms. Febos should neither be condemned for doing something that she doesn't necessarily enjoy nor sharing her story. I don't like my office job, even though I'm better at it than most people are passionate about my profession. I don't believe sex work is different.
Posted by DirtyLibertarian on March 24, 2010 at 9:35 PM · Report this
Yes, but, DirtyLibertarian, you did not write an entire 276 page book about how much you dislike your job and how much better you are than your co-workers and then market this book as something other than what it really is. That is the difference. Book reviewers (an Amazon customers) condemn bad books all the time for a wide variety of perfectly legitimate reasons. In fact, we librarians depend on experts in the various fields to do just what Mistress Matisse did with this poorly reviewed book. Now I know that an expert in the field gave a bad review to this book and I don't have to consider buying it for my library's collection. So a big thank you from me.
Posted by Dirty Librarian on March 25, 2010 at 7:23 AM · Report this
libraboy 5
It's a book about a woman who hated herself so much she decided to get a job where she could take her self-hatred out on others. Glad you left the industry, you stupid bitch!
Posted by libraboy on March 25, 2010 at 7:43 AM · Report this
@5 My thoughts exactly. Ms. Febos can't really expect more of a positive reaction when she's written a kink-negative book.
Posted by discodolly on March 25, 2010 at 10:41 AM · Report this
Good, well written review and reinforces the opinion I also had after hearing Ms. Febos interviewed by Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" (I don't share MM's dislike of Ms. Gross though as she's one of the best interviewers alive, even though she was noticeably squicked by this subject matter and did NOT do a good job with Ms. Febos). My experiences with "McDungeons" has been the opposite of MM's though as I've almost always played with experienced lifestyle folks, domme and sub, when playing at them. Your chances of having a good experience at a McDungeon are, in my opinion, much, much higher than with your typical "hooker with a whip".
Posted by lvkinkyguy on March 25, 2010 at 11:48 AM · Report this
I agree wholeheartedly with this cogent, well written review though I also agree with lvkinkyguy's comments concerning McDungeons.
It's going to be interesting hearing how Matisse makes out with Febos during their live interview.....
Posted by olderwithmoreinsurance on March 25, 2010 at 11:51 AM · Report this
That's for sure. I'm a bit surprised she has consented to be interviewed by a negative reviewer (assuming she is aware of Mistress Matisse's opinion, which I suppose she is). Good for her if so. I'll be very interested to read it.
Posted by Blake4 on March 25, 2010 at 7:45 PM · Report this
Where does it say that MM will be interviewing Febos?
Posted by CleverScreenName on March 26, 2010 at 2:43 PM · Report this
@10 They are getting that from reading her blog. MM often publishes blog posts that dovetail with these columns. My hunch is it's a space issue given these articles are so short.…
They should just link to it, I don't know why they don't.
Posted by Larkshead on March 27, 2010 at 1:50 AM · Report this
Great article, but oi!-The random bolding in the latest articles is killing me. Is an editor doing this?
Posted by Bellimum on March 28, 2010 at 10:17 AM · Report this
Yeah, the random bolding is a Stranger thing, not something MM does. I never read the paper version so I don't know if they do it in print too. They should stop, it's weird and dumb.
Posted by Larkshead on March 28, 2010 at 7:06 PM · Report this
If you imagine that the editor bolds the words he was reading when MM hit him with the whip it makes the whole thing much more amusing.
Posted by tee-hee on March 29, 2010 at 9:26 AM · Report this
yelahneb 15
@12 I enjoy pretending it's some sort of mystical code - like, if you combine all the bolded words over the course of a year, the result is a chapter from the Necronomicon.
Posted by yelahneb on March 29, 2010 at 11:19 AM · Report this
bitter much? jeez.
Posted by cali on March 29, 2010 at 6:02 PM · Report this
To the reader who wrote:
"I'm a bit surprised she has consented to be interviewed by a negative reviewer (assuming she is aware of Mistress Matisse's opinion, which I suppose she is)."

You're wrong in assuming this. Febos had no idea of the negative review when she did the live interview. Her father, whom I interviewed for the Port Townsend newspaper, told me this after the fact. Pretty cheap tactic by MM if you ask me. Also I felt that MM came off as "I'm more dom than you are" in her review.

Posted by artsjournalist on March 31, 2010 at 4:25 PM · Report this
@17 This column was published last Wednesday. MM said the interview was on Saturday. Why didn't MF do her homework?
As for "I'm more dom than you" - if MF says she's not really into the dom/sub stuff for real, she just played on on TV, then she's not a dom at all, is she.
Posted by Larkshead on March 31, 2010 at 7:20 PM · Report this
I heard the interview with Terry Gross. I *love* Fresh Air, I love Terry Gross, worship her in fact, and even so I felt that her interview with Ms. Febos was one where she kept saying "EW" in her head and shaking her hands like a 5 year old playing with worms. Febos came across sounding intelligent, but definitely judgmental and pretty kink- and sex-negative.

I think this review by MM, given the tone of the interview on Fresh Air and the position taken in the book ("I was so damaged I did KINK for a living, I was disgusting but now I'm better") was fair and nicely done. This book probably was written as kind of a titillation for the bored vanilla audience and as such misrepresents much of what MM stands for. I could see Matisse taking a much more offended stance. The fact that she writes a fairly calm and intelligent piece is impressive. As good as Terry Gross *should* have been. I hope the interview with her is recorded and available to us online.
Posted by Fan of Fresh Air on April 2, 2010 at 9:48 PM · Report this
The Fresh Air interview was a woman that didn't know kink very well (Gross) interviewing an author that didn't like kink very much (Febos) about her book on kink(!) and drug use.

In this light, the interview's about what one should expect.
Posted by woof on April 8, 2010 at 4:48 PM · Report this
Febos attitudes are quite common for a young sex worker. But that doesn't mean she doesn't potentially make for an interesting character. However, you don't comment much on the quality of the writing, the characterization, or the scenes. Based on your article Mistress Matisse, I still can't tell if I'd want to read this book.
Posted by Casey99 on May 5, 2010 at 11:47 PM · Report this
Febos attitudes are quite common for a young sex worker. But that doesn't mean she doesn't potentially make for an interesting character. However, you don't comment much on the quality of the writing, the characterization, or the scenes. Based on your article Mistress Matisse, I still can't tell if I'd want to read this book.
Posted by Casey99 on May 5, 2010 at 11:48 PM · Report this

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