Maybe you've seen a classified ad like the one that first drew Melissa Febos, left, the author of the new memoir, "Whip Smart," into her accidental career as a sex worker:

Attractive young woman wanted for nurse role-play and domination. No experience necessary. Good $$. No sex.

Maybe you even thought, I've tied up my boyfriend in bed. How different could it be!?

Before she earned her MFA and began life anew as a college professor, Febos responded to that very ad and spent four years working as a dominatrix at a midtown Manhattan dungeon.

"I specialized in pretty hardcore scenes -- what we called corporal scenes. Sort of the meaner scenes," she tells Lemondrop. "Which was interesting, because it didn't seem to fit with my personality. I didn't like those sessions at the beginning. You start by doing the 'sensual sessions' that look like flirty behavior ... but that just started to feel uncomfortable -- too close to reality. I worked hard not to engage my sexuality in the job. So there was something thrilling about acting out this mean, violent persona. It was so far from who I was or who I'd ever been."

Although we've only just met her, we believe her. It's hard to imagine this sweet-sounding professor ever trussing up a naked man like a turkey or, say, dunking his head underwater. But remember -- those guys asked her to do it, they paid her for it, and all we have to say is, she worked hard for her money.

As if her book weren't revealing enough -- and trust us, it is! -- Febos agreed to share even more. After the jump, in her own words, 10 Things You Don't Know About My Life As a Dominatrix:

1. I started most of my work shifts at 10 a.m.
That's right -- spankings get scheduled just like massages, lunches and picking up the dry cleaning. I worked in midtown Manhattan, so there was always a lunch rush of businessmen trying to fit in a little bondage between meetings. In the beginning, and often at the very end, I found it sort of comforting to be around people who treated it with a businesslike perspective. That just felt safer to me. Because that was how I saw it. And there was less intimacy in those sessions. Most of the lifestyle dommes work in the evening; that's when the kinkier clients were in. And I definitely went through a phase when that's what I was more interested in. But there was definitely something thrilling about going to get my coffee, saying hi to the cashier, and then going upstairs and peeing on someone at 10 a.m.

2. I had a happy childhood.
Contrary to popular public assumption, not all workers in the sex industry have five-hanky stories. I was well loved, and my parents never spanked me. When I started, I thought I had always had a tendency toward extremity and sort of the taboo ... But in the end I think it was really a combination of wanting to push boundaries, and looking for boundaries, wondering, How far can I go?

Also, I was a liberal-arts major, so there was no well-paying job waiting for me after college. And I didn't want to be a waitress anymore.

3. My current girlfriend -- and many of my past lovers, men and women -- claim that I'm actually pretty shy in bed.
Being a dominatrix was mostly an acting gig. It was easy (eventually) to slip into assertive, bossy roles in other people's fantasies, but when I'm just myself, it's different. Having a pseudonym, the clothes to match, the perfect set design, it all helps the fantasy seem real. At times, I really did feel like my alter ego, "Justine." Role-playing, outside of the commercial realm, also offers that kind of experience. You have to find a way to occupy a role in an authentic way, and then it feels -- and appears -- real.

Now when I meet people and I tell them that's what I did, they're always so shocked, because I'm a college professor, or I'm really friendly, or I just don't "act like a dominatrix would," and I'm actually pretty approachable. They're like, Oh, she seems like someone who would be safe to question about it.

It's almost always the same questions: What do people want? How much did you get paid? What did you do in sessions?

4. I never had actual sex with any of my clients.
It's not part of the job description for a dominatrix. Although we did trade in erotic fantasies, we never performed actual sex (as defined by intercourse, and most other common sex acts). While this fact is part of what enabled me to do the job (I wouldn't have otherwise), it also meant that we earned less money than other sex workers and, arguably, worked harder.

Earlier in my experience, I was very stubborn about needing to bring that up. It was the first thing I would say -- that I didn't have sex. I think I told myself that to feel more comfortable. I don't really feel that need anymore; I do recognize it as sex work now.

5. I used to do my homework in between sessions.
It's true! I was a college student for my first two years as a dominatrix, and I would pull out my books in the dressing room. I'd draft a literary-analysis paper, put on my sexy nurse get-up and work for an hour, then go pull together a bibliography. Sometimes I would even do yoga in the "Cross-Dressing Room." It wasn't that uncommon; there were a lot of students. You could earn more money and work fewer hours, so you could go to classes and study while you were at work. And, in most cases, people were more willing to be a "domme" than a call girl or a stripper.

6. You can be a sex worker and a feminist!
Maybe this isn't news to you, but for a long time while I was a domme, I felt conflicted about that. I'd always thought of myself as a feminist, but after a year or so of acting out men's fantasies, I started to feel like a fake. I might have been playing a powerful role, but it still wasn't my fantasy. And many of the fantasies included dressing up my clients as women and abusing them in typically misogynistic ways -- lots of humiliating scenes, which began to seem less like a reversal of roles than a reinforcing of them. But by the time I quit, I had gained a new perspective, an open-mindedness I had already thought I had.

It wasn't until I was out of the job that I thought, I think being a feminist is knowing you can do whatever you want. Not whatever you want in the world -- but whatever you want as a woman.

Self-judgment is one of the most confining psychological phenomena for women in our culture. At this point I feel like I have a lot less to prove. I feel much more secure in my identity and my desires and my feminism.

7. My whole family knew, even while I was actively working.

First I told my brother, who has always been a close friend. That was easy; I knew he wouldn't be judgmental. Then I told my mom, which was harder. She accepted my argument for it, how empowering it was, but I knew she wasn't comfortable. I told my dad last. What father wants to know that about his daughter?

Mine was no exception. I think they both tried to play it cool, not object too strongly, because they knew me well enough to know that that would just drive me away. They were all relieved when I quit. I also gave everyone a censored version of what actually went on in sessions. The first time I was really honest about the experience was in my memoir.

I gave my family advance copies and a warning, and they handled it with a tremendous amount of grace. It was not an easy thing to read, I'm sure. Pretty much a book of everything you didn't want to know about your kid. But I have to say, the first time I spoke to my parents, they both said, "[Reading that] was one of the hardest things I've ever done." But then they said, almost in the same breath, "I'm really proud of you. It's a beautiful book. It broke my heart." And that's really impressive -- that they would have that kind of perspective. It's really blown me away, and I feel closer to my family as a result.

8. Clients are average people.
Well, some of them are. And most of them look like they are. My clients were from all walks of life, all ethnicities, all ages. They tended to be on the successful side, partly because seeing a dominatrix regularly isn't a cheap habit, and partly because many of them were men who had a surplus of power in their everyday lives and were seeking to balance it out privately.

I had a lot of favorites over the years. I had really friendly, amicable relationships with most of my clients. If I didn't like them, they weren't going to become one of my regulars. You weren't going to hang out with someone every week if you didn't like them at all! Toward the end I actually became friends with one client.

9. Being a dominatrix wasn't all that different from any other job.
There was the same camaraderie between co-workers, along with competition and occasional cattiness. The same tedium of tasks done repetitively, the same opening and closing routines, the same laughter and boredom and takeout for lunch. Nothing you do a majority of days of the week remains exotic, and there is a lot of universality to running a business of any kind.

When I had my book party, a whole bunch of women I used to work with came. Overall they've been very supportive; every once in a while a couple of them will show up at a reading. My best friend back then, Autumn, who also worked as a dominatrix, is still my closest friend. I talk to her on a regular basis. She just got her degree in nursing. Occasionally, when she was still in school, she'd call me and say, "We were in geriatric today and we did catheters and everyone was like, 'You're so good at that!'"

When you're training to be in the medical industry, most people have to get over their squeamishness about the body, and she'd already done that. And even more than that, what suits former sex workers to medical jobs is, ironically, it's a very empathetic job. You really have to get in touch with what other people are feeling and needing and be able to read them intuitively. You have to have a pretty strong nurturing streak to do both of those jobs.

10. I don't hate men.
I never have. I'm actually a pretty nice person. I was never a bully in school. In fact, the roles I usually played at the dungeon -- mean cheerleader, strict teacher, etc. -- were rarely roles I'd ever assumed outside work. What drew me to the job was not a deep well of anger or resentment, but rather an interest in power dynamics, curiosity and an instinct for pushing boundaries. Plus, I got to play dress-up every day, which I've always loved.

I never even really planned on writing about it. I figured there would be a dominatrix supporting character in a novel someday. But I did take notes. After all, I knew that it was a pretty extraordinary experience.

Once when I was in my MFA program, just for fun I took a nonfiction survey course where we wrote a book review, an op-ed and a memoir. I wrote about my sex-work experience: a 15-page essay that was like an encapsulation of what would later become "Whip Smart." It just poured out of me; there was a real drive behind that story. And my professor said, "You have to write this book. This is not a suggestion. You have to." That wasn't my plan. I didn't want to be a 29-year-old memoirist. I was going to be a very serious literary novelist. But it just grew and grew, and the story got deeper and deeper and the story became one I wanted to tell -- if only to write my way into the end of it.


Whip Smart a memoir about my life as a dominatrix, by Melissa FebosMelissa Febos is the daughter of a sea captain and a Buddhist psychotherapist. After moving to New York City in 1999, she graduated from the New School University, spent four years working as a dominatrix, then received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She now teaches writing and literature at SUNY Purchase and the Gotham Writer's Workshop in New York. "Whip Smart: A Memoir" is currently available in bookstores.

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