Anthropology often grows in unexpected places. This time around, Melissa Febos, the author of Whip Smart and an ex-dominatrix, declared herself a “cultural anthropologist.” While in college, Melissa worked in a S/M dungeon for three years and her book is a gripping memoir of her experiences being a trusted partner for the lawyers, bankers, rabbis and bus drivers who have a secret passion for being sexually dominated (without engaging in real sex). Without conducting formal participant observation but collecting rich memories fueled by exhilaration and a good pay, she emerged from an exotic world carefully tucked away from the public eye to write a memoir full of keen cultural, social and psychological insights. This one I like a lot:
“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.”
Melissa’s “anthropological” experience was fully immersive, reciprocal, transcultural and relational. She ended up on the fringe of society, enjoyed every bit of it and worked back to the boring but promising mainstream. Her journey was not driven by academic curiosity and did not involve the typical anthropological sublimation of the forbidden desire to “go native” into a “thick description” of a culture but by a deep social and psychological context which gives Melissa’s narrative the authenticity and nativity many academic ethnographies do not have. Actually, Whip Smart reminds me not so much of anthropology but of interpretative sociology as exemplified by Howard Becker‘s experience working as a real dance musician and subsequently writing Outsiders.