Whip Smart: A Memoir

Whip Smart: A Memoir

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by Melissa Febos

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A dark, wild, powerful memoir about a young woman’s transformation from college student to professional dominatrix

While a college student at The New School, Melissa Febos spent four years working as a dominatrix in a midtown dungeon. In poetic, nuanced prose she charts how unchecked risk-taking eventually gave way to a course of


A dark, wild, powerful memoir about a young woman’s transformation from college student to professional dominatrix

While a college student at The New School, Melissa Febos spent four years working as a dominatrix in a midtown dungeon. In poetic, nuanced prose she charts how unchecked risk-taking eventually gave way to a course of self-destruction. But as she recounts crossing over the very boundaries that she set for her own safety, she never plays the victim. In fact, the glory of this memoir is Melissa’s ability to illuminate the strange and powerful truths that she learned as she found her way out of a hell of her own making. Rest assured; the reader will emerge from the journey more or less unscathed.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“All memoirs are an attempt to follow a trail of breadcrumbs home, yet WHIP SMART steps off the path, into the wooded shadows, and names that part of ourselves that could linger there forever. Melissa Febos masterfully brings us into these unexpected, unsettling places, the least of which are the dungeons she so vividly—briefly—occupies. WHIP SMART is a wild, bright-eyed, ride home.”

—Nick Flynn, New York Times bestselling author of ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY

“WHIP SMART is remarkably honest, brave and provocative about growing up: the pleasures and perils of being visible, the temptations of being numb, and the weird kick of being desired.”

—Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone critic, and NY Times bestselling author of LOVE IS A MIX TAPE

“Mesmerizing. A brave, darkly wild and powerful memoir, Melissa Febos's fearless journey through drugs and dungeons into the uncharted territory of true intimacy will shock, inspire, and leave you breathless. Don’t even think about resisting."

—Rachel Resnick, author LOVE JUNKIE

“Melissa Febos takes us by the hand and leads us into a curious, disturbing, and funny world of a dominatrix, and she does so with often startlingly beautiful, expansive prose. That would be engaging enough. But what's even more gripping is Febos' fierce intelligence as she examines herself inside it. A must read for anyone interested in enlarging his or her understanding of sexual politics.”

—Kerry Cohen, author of LOOSE GIRL

"Melissa Febos writes with lacerating wit and insight into the world of the professional dominatrix, saving the sharpest sting for herself. An unsparing, deep, and dazzling read.

—Janice Erlbaum, author of GIRLBOMB & HAVE YOU FOUND HER

Publishers Weekly
Febos's candid, hard-slogging debut about her four years working as a dominatrix at a midtown Manhattan “dungeon” cuts a sharp line between prurience and feminist manifesto. Having grown up on Cape Cod, Mass., then dropped out of high school before moving to New York City and enrolling in the New School in the fall of 1999, Febos slipped into drug use and needed a way to finance it. An attractive law-school graduate neighbor in her Brooklyn apartment building mentioned that she worked as a “domme,” and Febos decided to give it a go. She spanked grown men, professionals, fathers, and rabbis, sometimes inserted enemas, sodomized them with dildos, and otherwise verbally humiliated them, all for $75 an hour, plus tips. At first, Febos managed the grueling, unsavory work while high on heroin and cocaine, and gained a tremendous sense of confidence, even invincibility at being able to justify her livelihood as “one of the few well-paid acting gigs in this city.” In time, she also became addicted to her job; she eventually joined AA to help get clean of drugs, but kicking her addiction to sadomasochism was harder, and in this emotionally stark, excoriating work, Febos mines the darkest, most troubling aspects of human interaction. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
In her provocative debut, Febos chronicles her descent into drug and sex addiction and her harrowing escape from both. Already a heroin addict in 1999, the author moved to New York to attend college at the New School. A chance encounter with a neighbor led her to find work in an upscale S&M house. For the next four years she was a professional dominatrix. Febos pulls no punches as she describes in minute, and at times horrific, detail her working life fulfilling the sexual fantasies of men who need to be humiliated (or to humiliate), where the tools of her trade included "latex enema, colon tube, Bardex, clamps, catheter, piercing needles, leather cuffs." At first she viewed the work as just a well-paying gig, but she began to realize that it also fulfilled personal needs that had seemingly always been there-a need to seduce, to be desired, to control but also, paradoxically, to be controlled. She was seduced by "the romance of misbehavior" and "the exhilaration of secrecy." She considered herself smart and clever enough to be both "normal"-the brilliant student with a bright writing future-and a drug-addled sex worker who increasingly crossed self-imposed barriers of what she would not do for money and attention. Eventually her dual life began to destroy her, and her intellectual arrogance gave way to the realization that "my compulsions were simply stronger than my will." Her drug life was reduced to locking herself in her room with "a glass of water, a bag of puke, and a coffee can full of pee in the closet." With much suffering and plenty of help, she ended her drug addiction, but the sex addiction remained. Not until she learned to accept the essential truth about herself was sheable to escape the demons that haunted her and the depression they nurtured. In lesser hands this could be a maudlin, salacious tale, but Febos's electrifying prose and unremitting honesty continually challenge the reader. Expertly captures grace within depravity. Agent: Scott Hoffman/Folio Literary Management

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.60(w) x 5.84(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Part One


STEVE KNEW TO BE KNEELING when I walked into the Red Room, his torso bent over his knees, forehead resting on the rug. He knew to be clean. He knew to undress, and to fold his clothes neatly behind the door, so that I walked into an immaculate room, nothing between me and the softly folded fist of his body but anticipation. While desire rose off Steve in fumes, steeping the whole room in its cloying vapor, I reveled in its absence. Just minutes before entering the Red Room, I adjusted my garters before the dressing room mirror, wrapped my fingers in electrical tape, and felt that happy absence, whose vacancy made room for some other, unnamed thing to fill me. I felt it already, the way you can smell autumn coming. Steve was into heavy flogging, and the tape protected the clefts between my index and middle fingers where I would soon clench a flogger handle in each hand.

I had cued the music—which piped from the main office into all twelve rooms of the dungeon—to begin just a few seconds before I walked into the Red Room. The music I sessioned to was all the same; while I preferred angrier music for meaner sessions, all that really mattered was the bass line. I didn’t need a plan to have a good session; I needed a pulse.

If that great red-walled room was a womb, I was its heart. I was the moving center, my will a muscular force. There was nowhere I could go, it seemed, that the cushion of my client’s longing wouldn’t support me. It happened to be 10:45 in the morning, but the only time that mattered in that room was indicated on the wall-mounted timer that I turned a full circle when I walked in. There was only ever one hour in the dungeon.

As I closed the door behind me, the pale stripe of my body shifting on the mirrored walls, I dropped my supply box on the floor by the door. Steve flinched at the sound, as I’d intended. I let my heels fall heavy against the wood floor on my way to a row of hooks lining the wall. Retrieving a smooth length of rope, I draped it around my shoulders. Then, finding Steve’s favorite floggers, I held one in each hand, letting their thick tassels swing against my legs as I approached him, knowing the gentle slap of leather against my legs would agitate him. Standing over his curled body from behind, I dropped a flogger to the floor on either side of him and bent over so that only the tips of my hair, and my breath, touched him.

"Get the fuck up," I whispered.

"Yes, Mistress," he exhaled, and hurried to his feet, head still bowed toward his chest. Steve also knew that looking at me was a privilege he had to earn. Pulling his hands behind his back, I slid the rope off my shoulders and looped it around his wrists. With a few quick loops and a single knot, I securely bound his arms from wrists to shoulders. I paused then, giving him a few moments to absorb the warmth of my body so close behind him, and the embrace of the rope, which I knew would only feel tighter as our hour progressed. There were clients I cowed with words, but with Steve his own anticipation was enough to wilt him into submission; I just had to pause and let it accumulate. Slowly dragging the tip of my finger from the base of his spine to the hard vertebral knuckle at the base of his neck, I watched a shudder follow my touch up his body. Pausing again, I let my fingertip rest on him, and knew how the heat of my touch rippled out across his body. No job, indeed, no exercise I’ve ever done, has been so coldly empathic as this one. I grabbed a handful of hair from the back of Steve’s head and pulled hard. Steve yelped, and sank jerkily to his knees. I stepped around in front of him, keeping my handful of hair so that when I crouched down to face him, his head was thrust back to face the ceiling, eyes wide and wild. His mouth trembled with short breaths, lips parted. Pressing a finger against his chin, I gave his hair an extra tug to open his mouth wider.

"Thirsty, Steve?" I asked. He knew I alluded to the golden shower I would end the session with, if he was good. Steve was always good. Between now and then, however, I would tan his ass with those leather tails until he cried for mercy.

Who pays to get peed on before their breakfast has been digested? It’s a logical question, and one I’ve answered after nearly every explanation of my working hours. The day shift began at 10:30 A.M. on weekdays and ended at 5:30 P.M. Often I would arrive at the dungeon at 10:20 and already have a client waiting for me. It didn’t take long to figure out that most of the patrons of the dungeon were not, as I had originally suspected, social outcasts who spent their time in basement apartments fondling pet snakes and watching pornography. They were seemingly normal. The majority of them were married fathers, and they were nearly all professionally successful. My client base consisted of stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, rabbis, grandpas, bus drivers, restauranteurs, and retirees. Getting peed on, spanked, sodomized, or diapered was less often a delicacy than a basic provision to these men. And while the need for it was compulsive, it was also routine; it was an itch that they had been compulsively scratching for many years, and it did not require an atmosphere of nighttime, intoxication, or great fanfare. The day-shift crowd scheduled their whippings the way they scheduled business luncheons: out of necessity and convenience. En route to the dungeon they dropped off the dry cleaning, or their wives at Macy’s. Just as the cafés all over midtown Manhattan had their lunch rushes, so did we.

After Steve’s thirst had been quenched and he’d showered and dressed, we exchanged the usual pleasantries: I asked after his wife, and he tipped me a crisp fifty-dollar bill. Leaning my head out the door of the Red Room, I called, "Walking out!"—our practice of warning the occupants of nearby rooms to stay put. Clients could never meet in the halls of the dungeon. Then I led Steve down the opulent passageway to the magnetically locked chamber leading to the elevator.

"I’ll see you on Friday," I said.

"Thank you, Justine." Steve smiled warmly and adjusted his tie. Before I had even heard the click of the door’s lock, I pulled my hair into a bun, kicked off my heels, and headed back to clean the Red Room. I had an exam the next morning to study for.

Excerpted from Whip Smart by Melissa Febos.

Copyright © 2010 by Melissa Febos.

Published in 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

Melissa Febos is co-curator and host of the Mixer Reading and Music Series, she holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and teaches at SUNY Purchase College and The Gotham Writers’ Workshop

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Whip Smart 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
Steppenwolf77 More than 1 year ago
When I picked it up, I didn't think I would relate to this story, but the way the author describes her struggle in getting to know herself and coming to recognize her own self-destructive behavior did remind me of my own struggles as a teen. Despite her extreme experience, Febos is a really sympathetic (and candid) narrator: wanting to be seen as desirable, wanting short cuts to succeed and identify herself, and ultimately having to deal with the fall out. Febos is a great writer, she writes beautiful sentences. I hope she'll keep writing.
JFR2LS More than 1 year ago
How can you not get drawn into this sordid world that Melissa Febos paints with such a vibrant and honest brush? Febos does a masterful job of not only describing the physical world of the dominatrix dungeon and New York's seedy streets, but she unflinchingly exposes the soft underbelly of her emotions, psyche and addictions with achingly beautiful prose. Her journey through those addictions and ultimate recovery will keep you turning pages until the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was moved, disgusted, inspired, and enlivened by Febos's memoir WHIP SMART. A world that I never knew more about than it existed, and now have learned from the book how many people on my commuter train might be going to a 10:30 session! It is filled with humor, sex, and a deep searching for who she is at her core, a searching that is highly courageous. We would all do better to really look and understand ourselves this deeply.
Kara1289 More than 1 year ago
Parts of this memoir are grim and the accounts her "work" in a dungeon sometimes make for uncomfortable reading, but I enjoyed this memoir overall, which is as much about recovering from drug addiction as it about working as a domme in New York City. In many ways, this is a very New York City kind of book in that it is dark and gritty and a little desperate. Interesting read (morbidly fascinating), which I recommend. As a satire of this subculture, I'll recommend Permanent Obscurity by Richard Perez, also about female domination and drugs.
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So many books about sex workers are just soft porn. This book is not. I really enjoyed it and although I cannot speak for the drug and alcohol recounting, I can speak for the sex worker parts. Authentic and honest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dr_Wilson_Trivino More than 1 year ago
“Shut up, sit in the corner you piece of human scum!” You might ask, what is this? Well, welcome to the underground world of dominatrix. These sultry women take charge and fulfill a need in some men that seek to be dominated. This memoir is a fascinating peek into the world that Melissa Febos used to be a part of, one where money was no object and the insults flicker off the tongue like no one’s business. I think what makes Whip Smart: A Memoir worth a read is that is takes a multidimensional approach. It is more than merely enabling people to fulfill a sexual need it exposes the emotional vulnerability of the dominatrix. How quickly you can run out of insults and can be left speechless. The real issue in this role play is power and how quickly the tables can turn if the dominatrix does not kept a firm grip of the situation. I discovered the intricate dimensions of golden showers, brown showers, and the very bright ruby showers. This is a book that will lead you into the dark corners of sexual deviancy and will make you wonder what makes that conservative guy next to you get his rocks off.
JennGrrl More than 1 year ago
It was SO interesting to read about the life of a dominatrix. Not only does this book cover some of her actual sessions, but also what was going on in her personal life during her time as a dominatrix. Definitely worth a read if you want something different, but not for the faint of heart. There are some very detailed descriptions of a few sessions.
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