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.