“Attractive young woman wanted for nurse role-play and domination. No experience necessary. Good $$. No sex.” It was an ad at the back of The Village Voice in 2002, and it caught the eye of Melissa Febos, a college student at The New School in New York. She had done her share of jobs other students were doing, like working in bookstores or coffeeshops. She was interested in better money and was also inherently interested in breaking rules and taboos. The ad represented her start of four years as a dominatrix, years that she chronicles in a thoughtful, funny book, Whip Smart: A Memoir(Thomas Dunne Books). For those of us who won’t ever be answering such an ad, or hiring the services of such a one as Mistress Justine (Febos’s work name), this is an introduction into a strange world that only exists because it fills a need. Febos has insights into the men who make such a business possible, and into her own capacity for dishing out pain and humiliation, but suffice it to say that she doesn’t explain everything away; there is enough strangeness here for anyone’s curiosity, and it makes Febos’s book a page-turner.
Febos learned that another resident of her apartment in Brooklyn was a dominatrix. “Aside from a few tame experiments with handcuffs, I had no concept of what this meant. What was the job description for a dominatrix?” Ever the student, she started doing research into magazines that “consisted of erotic stories and advertisements for ‘dungeons.'” She could tell from the pictures of the glamorous models that they didn’t really work in dingy cellars. Eventually, she worked up the nerve to ask her neighbor about the job. The neighbor was going to law school (“She looked so normal“) and her ability to negotiate two such different worlds immediately appealed to Febos. The neighbor explained that there was not actual sex, though the work was sexual, and the money was good, and it was easy to get hired, but it was hard to keep the job. “Domming isn’t for everybody,” she warned, and that was yet another goad for Febos.
Answering the ad, she showed up at the sprawling Dungeon of Mistress X, though she admits she was “at a loss for how to dress for such an interview.” It was, indeed, no dank and dusty cellar, but “a high-styled big-budget dream,” the lush stuff of fantasies. “Excitement folded through me in waves. I had to work here.” Her introduction into the Red, Black, and Blue Rooms is very funny. Shown a table with leather upholstery and metal rings, her guide explained that the top of the table is a lid that opens. “For storage?” Febos asked. No: “For slaves. It doubles as a coffin… If you’re lucky, you get to tie them up – gag, blindfold, the works – and stick ’em in there for most of the session.” So much hardware: “Mounted on the walls were hooks from which hung leather floggers, whips, ropes, riding crops, paddles, cuffs, blindfolds, and even a couple of gas masks.” There were a dizzying array of stocks, a riding saddle, cages with locks, mirrors, a giant wooden cross, strap-ons, stilettos, nurses’ costumes, and more. “Reeling, I wondered how I’d ever remember the names of all this equipment, let alone learn how to use it.” There were plenty of monitors to keep track of traffic in the hallways, elevator, and entryway. There were managers on shifts who took the phone calls for bookings, on an hourly wage with commissions for booking clients. Mistress Justine (Febos enjoys the irony of having the name of one of De Sade’s decidedly non-domme heroines) could expect $75 wages for an hour’s session, plus tips that might be $5, might be $500.
The men were not the social outcasts she had expected. “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, restaurateurs, and retirees.” Their diverse needs she saw as compulsive, but routine, just an itch that had to be scratched. One good tipper merely wanted to arm wrestle for a half hour. More than one client wanted to play a kid who needed a spanking because of a call from a teacher for schoolroom naughtiness. Another common fantasy was to have Mistress Justine play “the high school bitch,” a role she enjoyed, one of the “most requested bullies, along with mom, stepmom, teacher, babysitter, and nurse.” One client, “filthy rich and dumb as wood,” had plenty of sessions “and never tired of the same scene, the same lines. Sometimes I would blindfold him just so I didn’t have to make all the facial expressions.” One had a sweater fetish, wanting to be swathed in sweater pants, underpants, booties, and all, and then tied up. The men would want verbal humiliation, or enemas, or spankings, or other abuse. They must have been having fun at some level, fun that is hard for the rest of us to understand. One client, in stirrups and nipple clamps while getting a catheter installed, “did not look like a man indulging in lascivious pleasure. He looked like a man suffering from painful constipation.”
She says of her high school bitch role, “Don’t mistake my enthusiasm for identification; I was not this type of girl in high school.” It’s all an act. When people asked about her work, the first question was always, “Do you have sex with them?” (No.) The second question was always, “Do you do it because you’re into it?” (No.) “It’s an acting job,” she explains to a date. “Probably one of the most reliably playing acting gigs in New York,” an explanation that always got a chuckle. Like any job, some of it was fun. “Pretending to admire a 250-pound man in a ratty wig and pink muumuu with lipstick smeared on his teeth and pretending enough to play his lesbian seductress often required rigorous effort. When I had another mistress to share the burden, that effort was paid mostly to prevent hysterical laughter.” But sometimes it was just work: “Relentlessly spanking someone for an hour is grueling.” And it wasn’t any fun cleaning up messes. But the job brought in money, and intangible results: “Being a dominatrix so quickly became a part of my identity.” She liked being wanted. She became comfortable in her body and she enjoyed having female friends at work. She did homework at the dungeon during down times, and her grades were good.
Her personal life, though, was a mess. She was using some of the nice money she made to buy heroin and cocaine, and Febos describes the effects of the drugs with detail but not drama. She is also matter-of-fact about getting to AA meetings, increasing her honesty within the abstinence program, and staying clean. She might not have been “into it” at the superficial level of getting off sexually on the scenes she played, but there was a deeper level to the power games. “I torture people for money and I can’t stop,” she says as a shock introduction to a new therapist, and eventually she does stop. She had the feeling that she had completed her anthropological investigation, and she had gotten the benefits of conquering her shyness. She won’t be going back to that scene, because now she is herself teaching writing in college. Her students who exhibit curiosity about their teacher’s past will find plenty of models of colorful descriptions in this volume, along with sometimes lacerating introspection, as well as astonishing depictions of peculiar behavior handled with tolerance and sometimes even affection.
© 2010 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.