Inside the Secret World of a Dominatrix

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Melissa Febos was not your average college student. While most of her fellow co-eds took jobs at local coffee shops or campus bookstores, it was a different kind of opportunity that caught her eye: a newspaper ad that read, "Attractive young woman wanted for nurse role-play and domination. No experience necessary. Good $$. No sex."

Trading dorm rooms for dungeons, Febos began to work as a dominatrix, earning $75 an hour (plus tips) to act out sexual fantasies that included various types of role-playing and whipping her clients into shape — literally. Her new memoir, fittingly titled Whip Smart, graphically recounts the physical and emotional trials she faced during her four years in an industry that exists exclusively behind closed doors. Febos talked to TIME about juggling a double life, understanding the power of her own sexuality and the realities of the dungeon world.

Domming is obviously not the typical side job. What inspired you to respond to that ad?
I had worked in plenty of coffee shops already — I'd been making lattes since I was 16. I [actually] went looking for the ad. I already had it in my mind that I wanted to be a dominatrix. It represented the potential for a double life and I'd always been drawn to that. In the beginning, I thought of myself as a cultural anthropologist — a student of human behavior. I was also sick of making lattes.

How hard was it to balance school and domming?
Surprisingly, it wasn't. I mean, in terms of pure time management, I worked less hours at the dungeon than I would have had to in a lower-paying gig. I often did homework at the dungeon. I'd also had practice juggling different lives, seemingly disparate lifestyles; I enjoyed it. The exhilaration of it gave me a lot of energy.

You describe your client base as being made up of seemingly normal people — stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, rabbis and bus drivers. What is it about this world that you think appeals to them?
Well, for most of my clients, it wasn't so much the world that appealed to them. For many, it was a very private experience. They were often led to the dungeon by their own desires and fantasies — ones that they didn't feel safe or brave enough to explore or voice in their personal lives. The dungeon felt like a safe haven, their domme a trusted person with whom to explore their obsessions. I think even the fact of it being a business transaction lent them some feeling of safety. It is an emotionally vulnerable experience to divulge your secret desires to someone. That it was our job to hear about such things was comforting on some level. I never made them feel strange or wrong for having their desires, and I was never shocked. Or on the rare occasions that I was, I certainly never acted shocked. I saw a lot of clients attain more self-acceptance through the experience. I certainly did myself.

You mention that being a domme quickly became part of your identity. In what ways did it translate to your personal life?
Well, I borrowed a lot of confidence from my persona. I've always been pretty gregarious, extroverted, but secretly shy. I felt a lot less shy when I was a domme. It also gave me the power to compel anyone, at any time. People were so curious about it, and because I was approachable and seemed so unlike what they would imagine a dominatrix to be like, they felt safe asking me about it. All I had to do was mention my job and I could hijack any conversation.

I'd also always felt different, and suddenly I had this tangible, social way of expressing it: an alter identity, membership in a private world that not everyone could have or would want entry to. There is also a psychological phenomenon particular to sex work — which domming is, even though there is no actual sex — in which you start to feel as if you aren't qualified to do anything else.

You left domming after two years, to become an editorial assistant. What motivated the shift?
I was getting tired. And feeling kind of entrenched in that world. I had been so infatuated with the double life of being a college student and a dominatrix, but after I spent some time just as a dominatrix, the romance of that polarity was gone. I also honestly wondered if I could still fit into regular society, and wanted to prove that I could.

How did you adjust to normal office life after an experience like that?
I didn't. It was miserable, boring, and the pay was abysmal. I quit so fast, and went back to the dungeon for another year.

So what made you quit for good?
Really, I think I learned what I ended up there to learn. There were other things I wanted to do. I also wanted to understand the experience, and I knew I couldn't do that until I had some distance from it, some objectivity.

Has this had any lasting effects on the way you approach men and sexuality now?
Yes! While I did a lot of judging while I was inside the experience, at this point it has only made me more open-minded, accepting and inspired by other people's courage in accepting their own desires. It has made me more accepting of my own. There was a lot of shame I witnessed in those years, but a lot of pathos, joy and acceptance too. So often, people are not as different from one another as they think. Sure, for a while, I would look as men on the subway and speculate on their secret penchants and perversions, but that passed.

You're a professor now. How do your students react to your past?
So far, so good. Most of my students are writers, and they can see my book from a literary standpoint and appreciate it as a literary work. Sure, I walk into class to very wide eyes sometimes, but I am very forthright with my students and clear about my belief that you cannot attach a specific value to any kind of experience. Especially as a writer. Anything that challenges me, that makes me see the world in a more generous, nuanced way, is valuable — necessary, even, as an artist.

What kind of advice would you give to women considering a dungeon career?
As a policy I try not to give advice to aspiring dommes; if you belong there, you'll find your way. And if the time comes for you to leave, you'll find your way. But prepare for surprises — if you are anything like me, you might catch glimpses of things you weren't expecting in other people and in yourself. Ironically, it can be a humbling experience. But not in a bad way.