“Whip Smart” by Melissa Febos

Finishing a book can feel like losing a friend.  This one certainly did, though I didn’t start off expecting it to do so.  Early on I took it as sensationalistic, pornographic popcorn. It is about a professional dominatrix after all, and there was a certain amount of salacious exposition.  Then it started making me really uncomfortable; all that kinky sex with no feeling behind it, shrouded in shame and revulsion.  All those women going through the motions and all those men digging ever-deeper into the taboo, trying to find something that would cut deep enough to bleed.  None of the trust and mutual care that I’ve always seen as the heart of BDSM.  Not even any shared or compatible desires.  In the scenes described, the women who were ostensibly doing the dominating were in actuality no more important than the handcuffs or any of the other props.  It was honestly nauseating and I almost gave up on the book.

I want to emphasize that it wasn’t the kinks that bothered me.  It wasn’t the idea that New York City bankers and stockbrokers have some truly bizarre fantasies and turn-ons.  That was hardly a surprise.  What made me squirm was the lack of emotional involvement, on both sides.  Where I come from mentally, culturally, intellectually and sexually, BDSM play is an emotional interaction as much as a physical one.  It’s about trust and respect and showing care for another person, accepting them with all their quirks and flaws and needs, even if only for the duration of the session (I once read it described as “sugar coating for trust,” an apt description if I’ve ever heard one).  That’s what I like, the give-and-take, the primacy of negotiation, the compassion and empathy required to seek out another person’s empty places and try and fill them as best you can.  It’s not that I think BDSM should only happen in the context of committed romantic relationships.  It’s not even that I have a problem with the idea of exchanging money for BDSM sex; but I do think that it should take place in a context of mutual respect and care.  I guess what it comes down to is that, while I don’t mind the idea of someone being paid to play, I hate the idea that that is the only reason they are doing it.  As for the other side, the person paying to top or be topped, I find the idea of them treating the session like a candy bar purchased from a vending machine abhorent.  At its most simplistic and basic, this is the same problem encountered by service sector employees and consumers in all industries.  It’s the reason a meal cooked by a loved one tastes better than one purchased in a restaurant, why handmade crafts cost more and service sector employees are told by their bosses to smile no matter what.

But people who sell BDSM experiences do something a whole lot more intimate than people who wait tables.  Good BDSM, as I define it, requires vulnerability from all participants, and that’s not going to happen if one person is watching the clock and the other is worried about getting their money’s worth.  And if it’s not good, the next natural question is, is it safe? Maybe, maybe not. Physically it might be, but emotionally? Febos finds that once she quits drugs, once she’s no longer using heroin and/or cocaine to get through her session, they become nearly impossible.  Without a chemical buffer between herself and the emotional barrenness between her clients and herself, the work becomes intolerable.  Upon reading it, I could hardly get over how much sense that makes. Of course being truly present during her sessions was devastating and nearly traumatic.  No wonder she was shooting speed-balls in the employee bathroom.

Eventually, the book turns into a straight addiction/recovery memoir, which at first I was prepared to be bored by (if you’ve read one, you’ve read ’em all), but then…I don’t know, there’s just a truth to it, a clear beauty or a beautiful clarity to the level of insight and self-awareness present.  Febos ability to articulate the minutia, the minute-by-minute changes and tiny but life-changing epiphanies that make up a recovery was a pleasure to read.  Finishing something is always satisfying, but I’m going to miss this one.

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