As is often the case in psychology, many touted “remedies” for girls’ low self-esteem tend to focus on parental interventions: mothers are encouraged not to talk about dieting, and parents are told to push their daughters to take more risks. While these may indeed be positive steps for many families, what a vast majority of these discussions lack is a thorough exploration of how the interpersonal dynamics between girls and their male peers — as opposed to family or educational dynamics — impact their self-perception and may set them on a self-sabotaging road. Pep talks for parents on how to push their daughters outside their comfort zone do not acknowledge, for example, that it is precisely when girls begin to move into the wider world that their confidence and agency are most impacted. How, in a patriarchal, misogynistic society, can risk-taking be meant to help young women when independence and boldness in girls is often “rewarded” by their becoming targets of male exploitation and violence? In placing the onus of their daughters’ self-esteem on parents, and arguably on mothers in particular, the social sciences seem to be engaging in an unintentional cover-up of the fact that girls’ self-love drops when they first become objects of the sexualized male gaze and of male advances.
This is the terrain of Melissa Febos’s psychologically complex and lyrical third book, Girlhood, a profoundly intimate memoir in the form of collected essays. In the author’s note, Febos states that she was a “happy child” until around the age of 10 or 11, at which point her “childhood became more distinctly a girlhood” and “marked a violent turn from” her previously carefree relationship with her body. An early developer, the young Febos was an easy target for boys and men, the forbidden lure of sexual attention becoming a force from which her well-intended and loving mother could not protect her. Though Febos also writes candidly about masturbation and an early romantic and sexual relationship with a female peer, male advances relentlessly dominated her young life, rarely if ever leading to physical or emotional fulfillment, but instead leaving her feeling increasingly shamed and dirty. The electric current of being wanted — of risk — was irresistible (both in the sense of being exciting and in the sense that the preteen Febos had no actual roadmap for how she was supposed to refuse male attentions), leading her to tacitly “consent” to a barrage of sexual situations, even though she was far too young for her consent to be valid from either a legal or a moral perspective.
Many of the boys who took advantage of her were also underage, of course, but there was an anger in them that was as tied to their burgeoning sexual desire as Febos’s growing antipathy for her body was to hers — in fact, male cruelty and female self-loathing seem to form a kind of invisible feedback loop around Febos’s girlhood such that, although there may have been kinder and gentler boys in her environment, these were neither the ones she was drawn to nor the ones for whom she seemed a magnetic forcefield. What, then, are the effects — for a successful adult woman now in a loving queer relationship — of these early exploits filled with highly gendered power dynamics and subtle or overt violence?
Although Girlhood is one of the most intimate and revealing books I have ever read, Febos — as she did in her 2017 memoir Abandon Me — brings a variety of outside source material to her explorations, from mythology to linguistic analysis of the way words are used against women. For example, she tells us that, in Samuel Johnson’s 1775 dictionary, “a slut is simply a dirty woman, without any sexual connotations.” The meaning of the word continues to evolve, but not until the 1960s does a slut become synonymous with female promiscuity, with a woman “who enjoys sex in a degree considered shamefully excessive.” According to Febos,
It’s a brilliant linguistic trajectory. Make the bad housekeeper a woman of poor morals. Make her maid service to men a moral duty, and every other act becomes a potentially immoral one. Make her a bitch, a dog, a pig, any kind of subservient or inferior beast. Create a word synonymous for them all. Make sex a moral duty, too, but pleasure in it a crime. This way you can punish her for anything. You can make her humanity monstrous. Now you can do anything you want to her.
Later, discussing the experience of being called “mamacita” at the age of 11, she states, “Now it seems to me a startlingly efficient way to age a child in a single word. Sometimes the word itself matters less than the authority with which it is spoken. It is the act of naming that claims you.”
The word “dominatrix” originated in the 1500s and meant, then, “a dominant female entity,” but was often applied — when it was applied at all — in a manner that personified social institutions as female, such as referring to religion as “the supreme dominatrix” so as to illustrate its power over every aspect of human life. Its BDSM connotations did not, apparently, come into widespread use until the 1960s, though the word was used in this now-ubiquitous way in select works of art, perhaps most notably in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s cult novella Venus in Furs (1870). In popular vernacular, the term dominatrix is currently used almost exclusively in professional settings; in other words, unlike those in “femdom” romantic/sexual relationships, which may have a similar sexual power dynamic, the term dominatrix in the current BDSM world tends to imply an exchange wherein the client pays a woman for acts of domination that the client specifically craves.
In this scenario, the actual sexual orientation of the dominatrix and her partner may or may not be relevant to the exchange. Moreover, given that a dominatrix is a professional offering a service, it stands to reason that she is not necessarily a psychological sadist, as her enjoyment in the scene’s dynamics are not a requirement, any more than it is necessary that psychiatrists choose clients they would want as personal friends. Studies indicate that many professional dominatrices are well educated, with nearly 40 percent having attained some level of graduate training. Because of their high level of responsibility in orchestrating scenes that fulfill their clients’ fantasies, being a good actress seems an especially important skill, since one could imagine that, in order to make a good living in the profession, a dominatrix must at least occasionally behave in ways that are not personally appealing to her. The world’s most famous dominatrix, however, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, has made a point of never accepting money for her “ceremonies,” stating that, “If someone pays, then they are in charge. I need to remain free. It is important that everyone involved knows that I do it solely for my pleasure.”
Febos has written at length about her time as a dominatrix in New York in her debut memoir, Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life (2010), but in Girlhood that examination goes to even deeper psychological places. In one of the most powerful essays in the collection, “Kettle Holes,” we discover that, when Febos’s clients asked what she liked, she often said “spitting.” This essay traces the origins of Febos’s desire to spit on men back to a complicated and damaging power dynamic she had with a peer, Alex. When she was only 11 and he was 12, Alex began spitting at her and otherwise tormenting her, in a warped way of simultaneously showing his interest yet asserting his dominance; this dynamic ended only after Febos passively submitted to a sexual encounter in the woods, one in which she took no pleasure and felt only sadness: “I didn’t want anything from him,” she writes, “except what he’d already taken.” For years, even after spitting has become one of her favored practices as a dominatrix, she resists the idea that her sex work is tied to anger, focusing instead on the empathy necessary to meet her clients’ needs. Yet she eventually concludes that empathy and anger are not mutually exclusive. “I did not want my pleasure to be any kind of redemption,” she tells us. “One can only redeem a thing that has already been lost or taken. I did not want to admit that someone had taken something from me.”
Febos is not, of course, the first woman to go into sex work with a belief (or hope) that being the one “in control” will prove empowering. But, as Robbe-Grillet’s words remind us, the one paying for the exchange is the one with the power: in a ferociously capitalistic society, the customer is always right. Though she is free to choose her clients, Febos’s consent is still implied in the exchange of money, and her livelihood is connected to her ability to provoke desire and need in men, often at the expense of recognizing or centering her own emotions in the exchange. It is no surprise, given all of this, that even after she has left sex work behind and entered serious adult relationships with women, she is sometimes drawn to manipulative and exploitive scenarios (including a codependent and emotionally abusive affair that is explored at length in Abandon Me, and which makes appearances in Girlhood, too), or that her ability to behave authentically with men remains compromised.
By her late 30s, Febos realizes that she has spent so many years reflecting back to men what they want to see that she doesn’t know how to stop, even though she no longer has sexual encounters with them and has found a healthy and loving lesbian relationship in which she seems to be flourishing. In the collection’s most remarkable tour de force, “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” Febos and her beloved attend a cuddle party, and she finds herself smiling when she doesn’t mean to and saying okay when she means hell no; she ends up having such a negative experience that her partner convinces her to go back in a cathartic effort to get comfortable with saying “No.”
In the essay “Thank You,” a chorus of voices from women Febos interviewed allows her to get at the heart of how tricky affirmative consent can be when more than half the human population has been trained to place the needs of others before their own. In addition to the obvious fact that women regularly bestow “empty consent” when they don’t actually desire sex (for example, to keep the peace in marriage), Febos quotes numerous women who tell stories of “consenting” in order to maintain the illusion of equal power when they realize that, if they say no, the situation is likely to escalate into violent rape; hence, feigning consent — even believing in one’s own consent, devoid of desire — is an effort to ward off severe trauma and more extreme feelings of powerlessness. In Febos’s words,
The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that anyone realistically expects young women to easily say no to anything, least of all the sexual desires of men. If I struggle to say no to a lunch invitation, a work request, any number of less fraught entreaties, when I have some pressing personal reason, how can a teenager be expected to stop a man’s hand as it reaches under her clothes? Some do, of course, which seems miraculous.
Febos interrogates so many commonalities shared by women with a history of sex work that the effect is to deconstruct the meaning of “dominatrix.” By turning a word that once referred to feminine dominance into a monetary exchange, the dominatrix’s work becomes, essentially, a facsimile of the word’s original intention. The paying client who specifies his (or her/their) fantasy for the dominatrix to enact becomes the dominant member of the exchange even if he (or she/they) is crawling around on the floor appearing to worship the dominatrix and hearing her firm “No.” Because this kind of No has become part of an orchestrated scene, neither consent nor refusal can be wholly authentic. Its negativity is neutralized, and hence the “dominant female entity” becomes merely another facet of the male gaze.
This is true of many of the common terms to describe women that Febos evokes, which ultimately serve more to describe male fantasies. This dynamic is most powerful in the word “witch.” The fact that many women may practice Wiccan (or other) spells and rituals does not change the fact that, historically, “witch” has come to serve as a stand-in for woman wrongly accused of witchcraft for in some way violating the norms of the patriarchy. When contemporary feminists hold up signs at protests proudly proclaiming, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn” — a slogan that can also be bought on T-shirts, stickers, and posters — we are essentially spinning an alternative history in which crafty “witches” escaped persecution through cleverness or magic, when in fact women have been burned, tortured, drowned, hanged, beheaded, and otherwise murdered not because they possessed magical qualities that threatened to overturn the phallocratic order, but merely because men in power desired to enact violence on them. While women were not the only victims of witch hunts, they formed the majority of those accused and executed. In her discussion of what may be the most sadistic piece of torture porn in the history of literature, the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), Febos points out that you could be accused of witchcraft “for having opinions, being poor, being rich, having female friends, not having female friends, […] having sex with a man, a man’s impotence, […] having no children, having too few children, […] having spoiled milk in your home, […] having […] a swollen clitoris,” in addition to things like “being very old, being very young,” and so on. Torture that did not draw blood was, Febos tells us, not even considered torture.
Did all those involved in the brutality and execution of so-called “witches” believe these ordinary humans were fornicating with Satan and plotting to wreak havoc on their communities? It is hard to imagine, mob mentalities and superstitions aside, that they all did, any more than Nazi doctors all truly believed that brutal experiments on prisoners were somehow destined to revolutionize medicine or than the CIA agents in the Phoenix Program genuinely believed that using a car battery to administer electric shocks to an enemy soldier’s genitals was the key to assuring success in Vietnam. People commit violence because they want to, and history has shown no lack of manufactured justifications for them to do so. In the Western world, while women have been far from the only victims of such bloodlust, it remains true that the bright ideas for such culturally sanctioned torture have been thought up almost exclusively by white men.
The logic goes like this: men are afraid of women. They are, in fact, so afraid of women that you can’t blame them for the fact that they often rape, torture, and murder the objects of their fear. Women have some manner of toxic sexual power over men, and men have to defend themselves and civilization from this unnatural power that renders women witches, sluts, animals. It is, you see, self-defense.
Now, you’re a 12-year-old girl. A group of older boys has lured you into a closet, a bathroom, a bedroom, anywhere with a door that closes, or maybe a wood where nobody can hear you scream. One puts his hand up your shirt, down your pants, over your mouth. Go on, say No into the sweaty palm covering your lips. What’s wrong with you; what are you waiting for; say it. How is anyone supposed to take you seriously with a question mark at the end of your refusal? Why are you crying — just breathe through your nose. Geez, we can’t even hear you, for God’s sake. Louder.
In the end, Girlhood does not describe the youth of every woman, of course. Febos doesn’t purport to speak for every girl on earth, and there are different books, different calls to action, that have been written for and are still needed by the populations Febos does not represent: Black girls, mousy girls, girls who hate their mothers, girls who have never been tempted by a needle in their arm or sex work or the thrill of a feral boy’s mouth. And yet, if we read it closely enough, Girlhood has taken us closer to the eye of the storm of what it means to grow up female than most well-intended social-science and self-help books on the market. It is a text that adds up to far more than the sum of one woman’s parts.
“As a young woman,” Febos writes, “I struck myself against everything — other bodies, cities, myself — but I could never make sense of the marks I made on them, or the marks they made on me. A thing of unknown value has no value, and I treated myself as such.” In Girlhood, Febos with rare acuity dismantles the various historical, literary, mythological, and everyday factors that lead to a girl being “a thing of unknown value”; but, in this deep dive of unpacking, she insists (and this is what makes Girlhood a thing of incredible value) that, yes, something has “been lost or taken” from us, and she redeems for us the parts of ourselves that we have been taught to hate. This triumph of learning to value herself enabled Febos to write a book that is somehow neither careful nor reckless but profoundly wise and healing, fearless and generous at once. With Girlhood, Febos has become much more than the edgy-but-brainy literary wild-child Whip Smart announced her as a decade ago, but rather — still only in her early 40s — one of our most crucial American writers.
Gina Frangello is the author of the novels A Life in Men and Every Kind of Wanting. Her memoir, Blow Your House Down, will be out on Counterpoint in 2021.