What Netflix's 'Bonding' Gets Wrong About Sex Work

While the show may have intended to illuminate and subvert the stereotypes facing sex work, it's gotten a lot of heat because of what many dominatrixes claim to be a misrepresentation of BDSM culture.


Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

Sex positivity is a buzzy term people love to throw around these days, and while it's a good thing that more and more content creators are exploring the stories and experiences of those involved in sex work, it shouldn't be treated as another clickable trend.

When content focused on highlighting the sex work industry isn't handled with the proper nuance, research, and sensitivity required, it can yield some pretty ugly results.

In 2018, the U.S. Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) / Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) bill, which was intended to curb online sex work. In actuality, the legislation silenced and endangered sex workers by forcing them off of their safe, online platforms––essentially their legal storefronts––and deterred the actual policing of online sex trafficking.

The ramifications of the bill––which conflated consensual sex work with nonconsensual sex trafficking––were felt across the internet. Forums that provided services and community for legal sex workers were shut down almost overnight, from the classifieds section of Craigslist to the escort service Cityvibe, and even the furry dating site Pounced. Now that websites are being held liable for the content created on their platforms, many platforms have resorted to shadow-banning: a practice that restricts an account's ability to be found or searched, preventing new people from following and discovering the page. Twitter is one of the main offenders, restricting and filtering out accounts related to sex work from hash tags, searches, and discovery features.

So when Netflix's new BDSM-centric dark comedy, Bonding, created the Twitter account for its protagonist Mistress May, adorned with a blue check and all, many sex workers saw it as a slap in the face. But the Twitter account was just one problem of many that members of the Dominatrix community have vocalized since the show's premiere.

Bonding chronicles the life of Tiff (Zoe Levin), a grad student who pays her bills by working as a Dominatrix under the title Mistress May, with the help of her best friend and aspiring comedian, Pete (Brandon Scannell), who gets roped into her BDSM world. While the show clearly intended to illuminate and subvert the stereotypes facing sex work, it's gotten a lot of heat because of what many dominatrixes claim to be a misrepresentation of BDSM culture.

In an Instagram post, Doyle outlined the show's inception, explaining that Bonding is loosely- based off of his real life experience of becoming the "assistant" to a dominatrix when he first moved to New York City. He wrote that his intent for the show was tied to "dissecting the many ways the patriarchy has had a stranglehold over sexuality and shame." The show's saturated visuals, he explains in the NY Post interview, are a creative choice meant to "subvert your expectations of what you think dominatrix culture is." He admits that the show's plot is "highly fictionalized," and that he is less interested in creating a show about himself and more interested in creating something that reflects what he learned about sexuality along the way. In the same interview, he states "The important thing about the show for me is we are exploring this world, but not exploiting it."

Reporting from IndieWire and RollingStone has shed light on various dominatrix's criticism of the show. Mistress Blunt, a dominatrix, reviewed the show for Vice. Blunt writes,

"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."

Bonding's flaws range from fundamental to technical. Many have commented on Tiff's ill-fitting corsets, party-city-looking whip, and inept basic rope work. Other pointed out that if Tiff is supposed to be New York's premiere Dominatrix, then why does she operate out of an underground dungeon? But then there are more critical issues like her inability to properly negotiate consent and boundaries with her clients and friends.

The show especially misses the mark when it comes to consent awareness, a major pillar of sex work. For one, Tiff tricks Pete into doing kinky things he's not comfortable with. Her reasoning is "if I told you what we were going to do before we did it, then you wouldn't do it." Some of Tiff's experiences with her clients align less with the tenets of BDSM and more with straight up abuse. This depiction undermines some of the main principles of BDSM practice such as risk-aware consensual kink (RACK) and Safe Sane Consensual (SSC).

Tiff is characterized as icy and self-serving, often brandishing a couldn't-care-less affect and even putting the people around her in precarious situations. It's a portrayal that reinforces the 'heartless b*tch' stereotype, rather than highlighting a dominatrix's care-taking and empathetic qualities. There's also the optics issue: Tiff is an attractive, young white woman who enjoys all of the privilege that comes with that. The show would do well to feature a more diverse range of sex workers from different backgrounds and modes.

One Domme named Mistress Velvet tweeted: "Am I the only person not here for @bondingnetflix ??? It's superficial and unrealistic. Like as an ACTUAL PRO DOMME I'm SO OVER mainstream portrayals of BDSM that erase risk aware and trauma informed care / consent. We are not one dimensional / not heartless. We are caretakers."

Other episodes reveal that perhaps the show's writers aren't familiar with the proper procedures and safety precautions that sex workers use. In another episode, Tiff skips vetting her client because of an offer-you-can't-refuse sum of money, which would be considered a case of risky malpractice for anyone in the industry.

There's also the storyline about Tiff's trauma and sexual assault, which they imply led her to sex work. It's a harmful stereotype often associated with sex workers' that undermines many Domme's experience of freely choosing to get into the business, not as a result of trauma, but as a road to empowerment.

One SW wrote on Twitter: "None of us are the target audience, nor does it seem we were considered during the production process. This is for college age civvie women who want to dip their toe into SW for lols without ever taking on any of the risks."

When considering the issue of target audience, one has to question whether this show was written for sex workers to relate to or as an introductory, simplified glimpse for a demographic who's never been exposed to the industry. If it's the former, it's failing. But if it's the latter, then perhaps credit is due for Bonding's attempt to de-stigmatize the stories and lives of sex workers.

People aren't necessarily knocking this show once and for all, but rather calling out the way the show misses the opportunity to create a more accurate and authentic reflection of life as a Dominatrix. Many have pointed to the sex-worker written web series Mistress Mercy, as a model of what real representation could look like. If Bonding were to bring kink educators and professional dominatrixes into their writing room who have actually experienced the sex work industry they would gain valuable consult into the intricacies, norms, and experiences of sex work. But until then, Bonding will likely continue to fall short of its potential.

Sara is a music and culture writer.

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