Hear Mistress Matisse's conversation with Melissa Febos:
My last column was a review of Melissa Febos's book Whip Smart, a memoir about the author's experiences as a dominatrix. I critiqued it on a literary level, but I was troubled by the work on a broader one, too. A question remains: What ethical responsibility does an author like Febos have when it comes to telling readers about her BDSM experiences?
It's easy to say Febos owes us nothing. She wrote the book, she found a publisher, and what we get from it is our responsibility. I have some sympathy for that view, despite the fact that Febos—who frequently uses the word "normal" to describe herself—doesn't depict the BDSM community or sex workers very flatteringly. Many of the kinky people about whom she writes seem to have dealt fairly or even generously with her, so it's difficult not to feel stung by that. Still, it's her story to tell.
Unfortunately, Febos goes beyond merely being judgmental of kink. In her book, she writes about engaging in extremely dangerous behaviors—for example, doing breath control while she was high on heroin and cocaine. That is not safe, sane, consensual BDSM; that's flagrant dominatrix malpractice. She never expresses remorse over putting her clients' safety at risk, and she never warns readers that such behavior might lead to someone's death.
That bothered me. So I sat down and had a long conversation with Febos and asked her some tough questions. She expressed regret for not apologizing, in the book, to clients she'd endangered. She also said that while she practices BDSM personally, she doesn't consider herself part of the BDSM community. She confessed to being a bad spokesperson for BDSM people, and said she doesn't want to be one at all, but admitted, "I know that when you write about an experience that is a little-known or marginalized experience, you do end up becoming a spokesperson by default." This representative of the BDSM community thinks Febos's realization of that seems rather late in coming.
I am being severe with Febos, although I don't believe she wrote with malice aforethought. I haven't written a dominatrix memoir—you write a memoir after you're finished doing something, and I'm not done. Still, I know how it feels to be criticized. No writer enjoys that [Not even masochistic writers? —Ed.]. But she is a college professor who teaches writing, so I feel justified in thinking she should have held herself to the highest possible standard of literary ethics.
Febos intends to keep publishing her work. I fully expect there to be an evil bitch who looks like me in some future story of hers. I can live with that. I'd just like to see writers like her have more respect for the power of their words and the responsibility of their stories.