Melissa Febos on her dominatrix memoir, teaching sexuality in literature, and what it takes to make a great sex scene.
Image from Jameel Khaja
Melissa Febos is teaching a class this semester at Sarah Lawrence College that focuses on sexuality in literature. The stack of books she pulled off the shelf to prepare the syllabus was formidable and towering—including everyone from James Salter to de Sade to Eileen Myles to Duras. Her pupils, on the other hand, are barely younger than Febos herself was when, as a graduate student at the notoriously left-leaning liberal arts school, she worked on the manuscript that would become Whip Smart, a frank, sometimes graphic account of her experience working as a professional dominatrix.
In light of all the hype surrounding the awkward sex depicted in HBO’s runaway hit, Girls, and depictions of sex, and self, in recent novels like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be, Whip Smart is a book premised not on sex, but on the sexualization of sex.
While critical reception of the book has contextualized it as confessional, inspired by the narrator’s taboo life in the BDSM community, Febos uses the memoir form to refract her own story of working in the sex industry against multiple dimensions—identity, class, the pursuit of higher education, the lure of artistic aspirations, relationships both intimate and professional—all from an unflinchingly self-aware perspective. On one level, Whip Smart is a tantalizing twist on the classic artist-coming-of-age epic. On another, it’s queer critical theory disguised as narrative.
—Marie-Helene Westgate for Guernica
Guernica: In some reviews of Whip Smart, you were portrayed as a sex symbol of sorts. Did that surprise you?
Melissa Febos: Nothing new. I greeted that sort of treatment with the same uneasiness that I did as a dominatrix. I expected nothing else from the Post, though I did grow very tired of answering sex questions in interviews allegedly prompted by my work as a writer. In the months after Whip Smart was published, I quickly became adept at steering any interview away from the sexual and toward the literary. I think this happens to a lot of memoirists—but particularly to those who write about sexual matters, and even more particularly to women.
Guernica: Did you encounter any backlash from the sex work community when the book came out?
“The frustration of being marginalized often gets misdirected at the most visible members of one’s own community, because they are more accessible than the real agents of marginalization.”
Melissa Febos: Sure. I don’t think one can depict any kind of marginalized experience and not experience some backlash. Basically the only negative responses to Whip Smart came from that community, which was surprising, but also inevitable (like most believable endings). When there is a scarcity of depictions (in writing, but any realm, I think), the few end up speaking for the many by default, and the many, well, they would rather be able to speak for themselves. The frustration of being marginalized often gets misdirected at the most visible members of one’s own community, because they are more accessible than the real agents of marginalization. I knew that I would garner criticism from them, because my experience was not typical (if there is a typical experience at all—I find that idea essentially reductive, anyway); it was the story of a commercial dominatrix, and something of an interloper in that world. It wasn’t the story of BDSM; it was my story.
One of my most fervent beliefs as an artist, and a human being, really, is in fostering an atmosphere of bounty and support among my peers. There isn’t a fair distribution of, well, anything, but I don’t think stinginess and fear are any kind of solution. The answer to a dearth of representations in literature is to cultivate a greater diversity by supporting other artists, not to condemn the one that doesn’t speak for the whole. I don’t say this from a place of self-pity—I have been very lucky, and very supported, but I see writers all the time suffering from this pinched response to the unfairness of life, and the literary world. It serves no one.
Guernica: Have you remained politically linked to the dialogue surrounding sex worker rights?
Melissa Febos: I haven’t, really. I think I needed to distance myself from the forums of sex workers and sex work activists after the book came out, because the book wasn’t political in that sense. I didn’t want to be mistaken for a spokesperson any more than I already was. I have never seen Whip Smart as a sex worker memoir, or a drug memoir—to me, these elements are just the settings, the props. Of course, I know that by default it’s representative of those experiences, and comments on them in both implicit and explicit ways, but I didn’t write the book with any kind of political agenda. With any agenda, really. The book was born out of questions, not answers, or arguments.
There was satisfaction walking out of a domme session, but it was predictable, and closed. That is, it never led to anything else. It didn’t feel like it provoked something fundamentally in me, but rather subdued what was in me.
Guernica: In what ways does your experience as a dominatrix influence your writing overall, whether or not the work itself is about the erotic?
Melissa Febos: I don’t think it has had much direct influence, aside from the book itself. The parallels between domming and teaching I could list for days, however. No act is essentially erotic. But I think any act has that potential, sure, even writing.
Guernica: What are some parallels between domming and teaching?
Melissa Febos: Dominatrices and teachers are both performers, and so share many of those somewhat universal qualities—including a hunger for attention, and a keen awareness of their affect. Simultaneous narcissists and empaths, maybe. Both must develop an awareness of their audience’s attention—when it wanes, and is most captured—and an ability to improvise a reaction within the context of their performance (or lesson). Like all performers, they are both Scheherazades—empowered, but also at the mercy of their audience—a tension that I enjoy. Both tend to have a lot of words, and an interest in using them. Both require an interest, and some facility with narrative, though dommes enact the narrative, and as a teacher I objectify it, in order to deconstruct and look at its parts.
I think this distance is an important difference for me. I adopt a persona in the classroom, but I don’t spin a story. It is a genuine facet of me. When I get excited and start flinging chalk around, it’s because I am inspired by my subject, because I get to follow my own curiosities and arrive at new understandings of the thing I care most about: language, and story, and the powers therein. The dynamic between my ideas and my students’ ideas determines so much of the experience.
As a domme, I found pleasure in my role, but it was redundant, and the emotional content of my scenes was largely inauthentic. So, both have reflexive aspects, but teaching feels more honest to me, more progressive, and more of an interaction. I usually walk out of my classrooms brimming, inspired about this thing we are trying to do, these texts we are pulling apart to see how they move us. There was satisfaction walking out of a domme session, but it was a predictable, and closed. That is, it never led to anything else. It didn’t feel like it provoked something fundamentally in me, but rather subdued what was in me. Obviously, I only know my own experience, and so can only speak for it.
Guernica: As for paying the bills, what do you think of writers being linked to universities as a way of making a living?
Melissa Febos: I think there’s no inherent problem in some writers being linked to universities. The problem is that is seemingly the only way for writers to make a living. I happen to love teaching college (though not the amount of it I must to stay financially afloat), but it doesn’t suit all writers. I also don’t think it behooves us to so homogenize the experiences of writers, to so institutionalize artists of any kind. Being an academic is distinct from being an artist, and the blurring of these worries me. Mostly, I think it’s disturbing that writers can’t make a living simply writing; I’m disturbed by what that says about our values.
I don’t think sex scenes should be any more difficult to write than scenes of violence, or romance, or profound grief. The universality of these experiences means that we must work harder to defamiliarize them, to crack them open…
Guernica: Best erotic scene in literature?
Melissa Febos: I could never choose. I generally hold erotic scenes to the same standards I hold any other scenes. Let me lose myself in them, and you have succeeded. I want to find myself slack-jawed at the end of any scene—because it is erotic, or devastating, or dazzling, or whatever else the characters themselves might be experiencing.
Guernica: Worst sex scene?
Melissa Febos: Any scene that prompts me to think, “I am reading a sex scene,” while reading, has failed in some way. Successful sex scenes should function indistinctly from any other scenes, in that they are inextricably linked to the scenes before and after them, and an expression of who the characters are and how they are reacting to the conditions placed upon them by the writer. I don’t really buy into the writerly phobia of writing about sex. Sure, if one is injecting a “sex scene” because one thinks they ought to, rather than as a natural progression of the plot, it will read as false, and the diction (let’s just accept that there are only so many words for some things) clichéd. I don’t think sex scenes should be any more difficult to write than scenes of violence, or romance, or profound grief. The universality of these experiences means that we must work harder to defamiliarize them, to crack them open in a way that surprises the reader, but we are always having to do this. It’s our job.
I think this isolation of certain experiences in literature reveals our tendency to do so in life, in discourse, in definition, in the effort to pin down something that we find unwieldy and nervous-making. We isolate sexuality from the context of the lives in which it functions and so limit our experience of it, subject ourselves and others to finite definitions of what it is or should be.
Guernica: Would you say we’re living in erotic times? Pornographic times?
Melissa Febos: I think there are probably quite a wide variety of times being lived in all over this world. I experience this cultural moment in history as sometimes erotic, sometimes pornographic (certainly influenced by porn, in any event), and sometimes sensual, though these words, and perhaps the things they allude to, have been largely defanged by the internet and television and the capitalization of sex. One has to look in quieter places now, to find the truly erotic and sensual.