Let me preface this by saying clearly: Ms. Febos, I do not think you are a bad person. I don’t harbor any personal rancor towards you.
I am not attempting to “silence” you, either, and to demonstrate that, I asked the The Stranger to make the audio of our entire conversation available for download so people can hear exactly what you said when I interviewed you.
For the readers, let me also just run down the timeline of how our meeting came about:
• I arranged this interview with Ms. Febos, via her agent, on March 15th, and I told him that I would publish my review of "Whip Smart" in advance of her Seattle appearances the weekend of the 27th/28th. I had a personal email exchange with Ms. Febos subsequent to that.
• My review of "Whip Smart" was published in print and went live on the web on Wednesday March 24th.
• Saturday March 27th at 5pm, Ms. Febos walked into an interview with me – without having read my review. In fact, she admitted that while she had heard of me, she had actually never read anything I’ve written.
That was not a smart way to handle a professional situation. Ms. Febos teaches writing to college students. One wonders what she would think if a student of hers showed up for class without doing any homework whatsoever.
So it’s true that I didn’t like her book, but books are not people. I was completely prepared for this interview to reverse my opinion of Ms. Febos’ perceptions of BDSM and sex work. It failed to do so.
I don’t wish you unhappiness, Ms. Febos, but this not about just you and me. This is about some bigger issues. That’s why you are making another appearance in my Stranger column this week.
In many ways, Ms. Febos is a striking example of what happens when people write about kink and sex work in cultural isolation. She is not a part of the BDSM community, nor is she participatory in any sex-work activism circles, so she has not been educated by leaders in those communities on how to talk about them without putting her foot in her mouth.
She’s getting a remedial education now, and not just from me. I’m sure she’s not enjoying it. Judging by the difference in both her tone of voice and in the answers she’s given in her more recent interviews, Ms. Febos is adapting quickly to the feedback she’s gotten. That’s good. But it does indicate to me that her perspective on her experiences is still very much evolving. That’s understandable, because according to my calculations, Ms. Febos finished writing "Whip Smart" when she was just twenty-six years old. I myself shudder to think of the book-length memoir I would have produced at twenty-six. That’s the tough part about writing: once the words are out there, you can’t unwrite them. They take on a life of their own - but you still have to stand behind them.
Aside it just being too soon for her to write this book, I think Ms. Febos’ post-addiction views about BDSM sexuality and sex work have been largely shaped by vanilla people - 12-step people, therapists, family – who have a very one-dimensional view of kink and sex work. She has not put herself in situations where kinky, sex-working people who are smarter than she is can raise her consciousness. I could tell, talking to her, that a lot of the experiences and reactions she thought were uniquely hers were, actually, experiences and reactions I’ve seen people have time and again. Some of them I’ve had myself.
One's experiences are not either right or wrong, they just are. But the conclusions we draw from them can be either accurate and insightful, or – not. When I had some of what I might call the Universal Kink/Sex-Work Experiences, I had the advantage of having like-minded people to turn to and say, “Hey, this weird thing happened and I’m feeling X way about it.” Not everyone in my communities always dispenses Solomon-like wisdom. But you can’t get education; you can’t get perspective, if you never talk to anyone who knows more than you do.
I have been asked why I can’t just “be nice”, and say nothing critical about Ms. Febos’ words. No, I cannot do that, because I am part of these communities, and I would not be the person I am, or have the life I do, without them. When I was just beginning to understand who and what I was, writers like Susie Bright and Patrick Califia literally changed my life by brilliantly and ceaselessly refuting the lies that are told about people like me. And I would not be here now, safe and sane and happy, without the kinky, sex-working people in my everyday life who corrected me when I made mistakes, and told me truths I didn’t always want to hear. So while I didn’t necessarily like it at the time, it’s a damn good thing they did it, and now I owe them.
At the end of the interview, Ms. Febos said something that explained a lot to me. She said, “Learning how to do something new in public is so uncomfortable.... I’m not good at being a beginner at anything.”
I thought to myself, And therein lies the problem here. Because she is a beginner when it comes to talking and writing about BDSM and sex work. Unfortunately, by publishing the book, Ms. Febos has placed herself in the expert’s seat. Now she has to learn, in public, to handle her discomfort in that position.