On April 24, the day Netflix released its original series Bonding, my dad texted me.
“GOD DAMN IT. There’s a new Netflix comedy about a dominatrix," he said. "I told you to write it.” I had already heard it was bad, but as a dominatrix who is invested in how my profession is portrayed by the media, who was I not to binge watch it and cringe?
Having worked as a dominatrix for over nine years, I have watched as BDSM has entered the mainstream. From 50 Shades of Grey’s fetishization of an abusive relationship, to the sensationalized and simplistic portrayal of a professional dominatrix in Netflix’s Bonding, it’s all bad. Even the title, which looks like it tried really hard to make a pun.
Writer and producer Rightor Doyle said that the show is based on his experiences as a dominatrix’s assistant: “The important thing about the show for me is we are exploring this world, but not exploiting it,” Doyle said in an interview with the NY Post.
But what is exploitation if not taking someone else’s story, boiling it down to stereotypes and telling it for them? The show purports to unpack the stereotypes of life as a dominatrix, but really just reinforces them at every turn. The main character is reduced to an archetype of an angry, traumatized woman who aggressively yells at men and is a control freak. Like most mainstream portrayal of BDSM, a nuanced understanding of power dynamics, consent and negotiation are utterly missing.
There is a movement and desire for by-and-for story telling (storytelling by the people portrayed, written for the people portrayed). The kink, sex worker, and queer communities are hungry for real stories that don’t sensationalize our lives. More and more sex workers are coming out of the closet and sharing stories about their lived experiences, such as the sex-worker-written web series Mercy Mistress.
Yet, rather than tell a nuanced and complex story that reflects the realities of a sex worker’s life, Netflix decided to release a sitcom about a sex worker, written by a gay man who doesn't (openly) identify as a sex worker. A man who is just dipping his toe into his friend’s life.
In the first episode, Tiff (Zoe Levin), the dominatrix and main character, says, “Everyone thinks dom work is just about sex work. It’s really just liberation from shame.” While some people might find BDSM liberating or empowering, for most BDSM professional’s, the work that they do is exactly that: Work. Passing judgment values on different types of sex work contributes to stigma, violence and the classist upholding of the whorearchy.
One of the beauties of a professional BDSM session is the thought that goes into negotiation, and consent as an active process. Nowhere in this series is that present. In fact, it seems that Bonding operates in a world where consent is not only an afterthought, but something that doesn’t exist. Power is abused and consent is violated, and Bonding, like most other mainstream representations of BDSM, presents this as an accurate portrayal of kink community.
I was unable to suspend my disbelief as Tiff clearly has no understanding of bondage, BDSM or power dynamics. The bondage throughout the show was laughable and at times dangerous. Her whip looked like the one my dad bought for me from Hot Topic when I dressed as “catwoman” for Halloween when I was 15. She’s referred to as a “top NYC dominatrix,” but works out of a commercial dungeon with carpeted floors, wears a collar to sessions and has only has one pair of boots. To top it off, she has literally no understanding of negotiation and consent. A number of times throughout the series Tiff coerces Pete (Brendan Scannell), her assistant, into interacting sexually with clients regardless of him saying no. I doubt that Bonding had a BDSM or sex work consultant, and if they did, they didn’t listen to them, and if they did listen to them, they shouldn’t have. (Ed. note: Motherboard has reached out to Netflix for comment on whether the show had a sex work consultant, and will update if we hear back.)
There are some tender moments throughout the show, like when Pete is romancing his roommate’s foot before sticking his finger in his butt (but what about LUBE, man?) and when Pete and Tiff are laying in bed in latex masks to facilitate talking about their feelings.
But mostly, Bonding tries to be something that it’s not: An interesting, complicated, and nuanced portrayal of power dynamics in and out of the dungeon. The series is occasionally entertaining, but in a “schadenfreude for the filmmaker” kind of way.
LA-based dominatrix An Li told me in a text, “People could argue that it’s a comedy and that it’s not entirely true to the point, it’s supposed to be zany, but you can have smart comedy that is based on reality and not just superficial stereotypes. Not doing research is just lazy.”
While some BDSM professionals say that all representation works to destigmatize our labor, most prodommes are in agreement, Bonding is a mediocre story where kink is the punchline. Coming out almost exactly a year after FOSTA-SESTA, legislation that worked to erase sex workers from the internet, was signed into law, seeing a mainstream platform profit off of our criminalized labor rubs salt in the wound. As our websites are disappearing, our accounts are being shadowbanned and our social media and fintech accounts are being deleted at alarming rates and whorephobic TOS are on the rise, who is allowed to be visible and tell their stories becomes an increasingly important issue.
(These policies also prevent community visibility in opposing policies that affect us and critiquing poor media representation of us. Upstate New York Dominatrix, Mistress Couple, recently had her Instagram live review of Bonding deleted from Instagram.)
In the second to last episode, there's a scene that serves as a tight microcosm of this show. Brendan Scannell’s character, without his own story to tell, gets on stage at a stand up comedy club, in a gimp mask, and appropriates the story of his sex worker friend. Completely by accident, this is where Bonding is the most honest: a man utilizing his proximity to sex work for the story, rather than sharing his privilege and making room on stage for a sex worker to share their story.
Danielle Blunt is a NYC-based Dominatrix, a full-spectrum doula and sex worker rights activist. She studies power dynamics and researches the intersection of public health, sex work and equitable access to tech. Currently she is getting her Masters in public health. She enjoys watching her community thrive and making men cry.