Not to be confused with Fifty Shades of Grey…
In Melissa Febos’ book “Whip Smart: A Memoir,” the author takes us into a very specialized sector of the sex industry: the professional dominatrix. A Dominatrix (or Domme, for short) is a woman who plays the dominant role in BDSM interactions. BDSM is shorthand for the practice of Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, and Masochism. Febos worked at a professional dungeon in New York, a S&M establishment that caters to submissive men with a variety of fetishes and desires.
Of course, we are living in the era of BDSM popularized by the bestselling book Fifty Shades of Grey. The two books explore very different worlds. Fifty Shades is a fantasy love story, while Whip Smart is about the grueling, exhilarating, and sometimes disgusting life of a dominatrix. In the opening of the book, Febos walks into a dungeon where a man crouches on the floor. He is eagerly waiting for her to come flog him and then urinates on him, a practice known as a golden shower. The reader may feel shock initially, but the rest of book peels away the mystique and sometimes grotesqueness of the BDSM experience.
The diverse nature of sexual fantasies
Whip Smart investigates the nature of submissive sexual fantasies. Many of her male clients are powerful and wealthy, including seemingly straight-laced businessmen and even Hasidic Rabbis. She speculates that being dominated allows them to escape the responsibility of their lives. The book provides a revealing look at the diversity of human sexuality as a variety of fetishes are explored, ranging from gentle sensual domination, to violent and harsh corporal punishments. Febos also delves into her clients more unusual fantasies, such as coprophilia (sexual arousal from feces) and ageplay, where client role-plays an underage child. The fetishes of the clients Febos dominates are socially taboo, but by the end of the book, we are as accustomed to them as she is: they are just routine aspects of her job.
The realities of BDSM sex work
Professional domination falls into a grey area in the controversial world of sex work. While the dommes in Febos’ dungeon did not have intercourse with their clients, their work is sexual in nature. Initially, Febos considers the role of a dominatrix empowering compared to other types of sex work, and wonders why more women have not experimented with the practice. However, her perspective shifts as she spends more time in the dungeon: even though her clients are subjected to a multitude of degradations and punishments, they are still the ones in control. Some of the women Febos work with are personally invested in the BDSM lifestyle, while others see it as a job only. Febos falls in the latter camp, and ultimately becomes disillusioned with the false sense of power in her position.
Whip Smart offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of one professional dominatrix. The book is great read for those interested in gaining a behind the scenes look at the world of BDSM and sex work.
Grace Lidinsky-Smith is a sophomore at Indiana University. She studies Ecological Justice and has a strong interest in gender and sexuality studies.