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A review on BONDiNG by a real dominatrix

17 minutes to read

BONDiNG is a controversial new series on Netflix that follows a New York City psych grad student called Tiff, who works as a dominatrix by the name of Mistress May. She enlists her gay best friend, Pete, a nervous wannabe comedian, to be her assistant. Many seem to be really enjoying the series. However, a lot of the BDSM and sex work community have condemned it, calling it ‘problematic’ and ‘inauthentic’. After watching the series myself, I felt the need to break it all down from the perspective of a real dominatrix, and explain where this series provides a good perspective and where it unbelievably fails.

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1 OF BONDiNG ON NETFLIX.

The Story

 The problems with this series begin in the very first scene where we see the negative trope that sex work only occurs in dark and dirty places. The setting is more reminiscent of an abandoned building used as a squat for excessive drug use than any sex work establishment I’ve ever seen.

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The waiting room which clients visiting Temple 22 BDSM house first walk into.

There are significant issues around the lack of negotiation and informed passionate consent in this series. Pete is asked by Tiff to work as her assistant – to “clean up after me and be my bodyguard” – yet she constantly has him do considerably more than this and pushes his boundaries by signing him up to perform certain kink related tasks without informing him or giving him the opportunity to decide for himself if he’d like to give it a go.

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There are some statements made throughout that seem to make an attempt at breaking down the stigma surrounding sex work, but often these fall short of what myself and many others in the industry believe it could be reaching for. For example, when Pete asks Tiff if she “has sex with these guys” and she responds, “I’m a Domme, not a prostitute, not that there’s anything wrong with that”. While I know many Dominatrices who would not under any circumstances offer full service, I also know just as many that would consider it in the right session. To suggest that professional domination is always void of sex is totally ludicrous. Also, I don’t know any sex workers that still use the word prostitute. It’s become more of a slur than a legitimate descriptor.

I absolutely cringed watching as Tiff humiliated Pete – yelling at him to try to force him into making fun of her client, Fred’s, “tiny penis”. It’s really jarring to see non-consensual humiliation in a series about someone with a profession that really requires her to have consent on her mind at all times so as not to overstep boundaries. The idea of boundaries is something that keeps coming up throughout the series, but only in the abstract, rather than turning it into an educational discourse on how establishing boundaries and consent should actually be approached IRL.

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In spite of that awkwardness, I did love watching Pete humiliating Fred, beginning by telling him “yes, [your penis is] the smallest I’ve ever seen”. In seeing how much Fred enjoyed hearing this, Pete then starts whipping out a string of zingers including my personal favourites, “I’ve seen more meat in a vegan kitchen”, and, “I’ve seen bigger dicks in a dyke bar without my contact lenses”. It’s really nice seeing the joy on both Fred and Pete’s faces, as Fred receives the humiliation he craved and Pete got to see how much of gift something like humiliation can be if it is engaged in with passionate consent. Perhaps Pete’s initial apprehension echoed my own apprehension about humiliation at first – worrying about overstepping the other person’s boundaries rather than it necessarily being a boundary of our own that we were concerned about. This is pure speculation though, as this was never made clear. I also really liked the golden shower scene (again, once we get past the lack of negotiation and Pete seems to be happier about doing it), capturing the true awkwardness of trying to piss with an expectant man underneath you, looking up at you with hungry eyes and smacking lips.

BONDiNG golden shower

The plot about Pete’s foot fetish and the anal fingering deal with his seemingly closeted-gay flatmate was nice – but with neither being followed up on, I feel there was a missed opportunity for some great character development. Also considering foot fetishism is the most common fetish for a body part that’s not typically associated with sex, I thought that not following up on Pete’s fetish did a disservice to a great many people.

I thought there was going to be a great moment when Tiff tells Pete there’s “a stigma surrounding sex work that we have to eliminate”, but I was unimpressed when there was no real dialogue about why there’s a stigma, how it can be harmful and why it’s imperative we do all we can to diminish this stigma. It just left us hanging. With the current climate in the US and online with FOSTA/SESTA, I feel it would have been great to go deeper with that and frankly it was upsetting to see the show set up for something that could have been beneficial but just didn’t follow through.

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The whole thing with Tiff’s slave, Rolf, irks me. It seems clear she’s engaging in that behaviour irresponsibly. The fact that she simply refers to him as a ‘client’ but he seems to live at her house and serve her 24/7 is ridiculous. I don’t know any dominatrices that would enter into that kind of arrangement with someone they didn’t truly care about and trust completely. Sure, there were some funny moments with it, but ultimately it’s unrealistic and it doesn’t surprise me when that whole thing ends badly.

Tiff telling Pete about how “masculinity is inherently restricting” and saying that men come to her to “escape that prison” is a pretty spot on analysis as to why a lot of men would see a dominatrix. But again, this scene left more to be desired and could have ended better than Pete being bound and left. Tiff also says Dom work isn’t all about sex work – it’s “liberation from shame” which is true for myself and many others, but also I believe many sex workers (not just Doms) would feel their work is liberation from shame too. I feel this point would have been good to make. Without it, it seems they’re trying to make out like being a dominatrix is a more palatable and appropriate form of sex work than just offering straight sex.

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There’s an exchange where Fred says to Pete, “I told my friends about how funny you are”. Pete responds, “you tell people about this?”. Fred replies nonchalantly with, “yeah I’m not hurting anyone”. I do feel that more discussion on the shame that surrounds kink and trying to break free of that would have been beneficial to the series. For example, when the housewife, Daphne, comes in to book a session for her husband but is nervous to really discuss it with Tiff,  Tiff could have had a heart-to-heart with her about why she feels there is no need to be ashamed or nervous, leading to Daphne feeling more comfortable confident in booking the session in for her husband. Without this, the recurring appearance throughout the series from her and her husband seems forced and it doesn’t contribute anything to the overall narrative.

The series constantly seems to set up these scenarios where you think it’s about to get into some good shit and actually be something that sex workers can be grateful for, but then it just changes the topic.

 The whole storyline with the scummy professor being inappropriately flirtatious with his students is a storyline that seems unnecessary to the broader story, except to bring up Tiff’s trauma from men assaulting her in her past. By the end of the season, I’m even unsure of why the show had to bring up this trauma in such a way, or if it was even really necessary to the story at all, beyond a poor attempt to add another dimension to a such a flatly written character. All it seems to do is perpetuate the negative trope that all sex workers are victims of sexual assault and trauma and that a dominatrix is simply in the role to take out anger from her past trauma on unwitting men.

I enjoy watching as Pete seems to be getting comfortable in his new role as assistant to a dominatrix and I couldn’t help but draw parallels between this and my own journey in kink – moving from stage fright before golden showers to feeling like my urine is wasted if another human isn’t at the other end of my stream.

The penguin wrestling scene – which began with no negotiation, leading to Pete smacking the penguin and yelling, “no means no!” before leaving – gave the first tangible hint of the whole series (besides one small mention of a ‘safe word’) at the idea that there should be consent involved in these practices.

There’s a sweet moment near the end of the series where Pete goes to the comedy club and finally performs a routine. Tiff comes out to her class as a Dominatrix in a presentation. It’s a nice point where they’ve both grown: Pete into a more confident person and Tiff into someone more open. This is followed up in the next episode with Tiff, Pete, Doug (whom Tiff has started dating) and Josh (dating Pete) are all in a café. Tiff apologises to Pete for cutting him down and not treating him like an equal. I really like this moment but I feel it could have been done so much better. This scene could have continued with a conversation more geared towards how Tiff did not respect Pete’s autonomy and she should have apologised for not giving him the opportunity to make informed decisions on his session involvement and consent without coercion.

There’s a part where Doug tells them all he liked being tied up and then to Josh he says, “the restriction actually helped with my crippling sense of worthlessness”. I would have loved to see this episode go into something more meaningful – it was set up perfectly for Tiff and Pete to have a conversation with Doug and Josh; for both them and the audience to learn something. However, the story moves toward an ending that is just completely pointless and left many feeling unsatisfied and even hurt. The flashbacks to Pete and Tiff having sex after prom did not need to happen for a start, as they were only used to feed into a sensationalist ending that wasn’t necessary.

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When Pete and Tiff go to a new client’s house and Tiff says, “normally we like to vet our new clients, but you made us an offer we couldn’t refuse”, I literally yelled “FUCK OFF!” at my TV, because I knew straight away what they were setting up and I knew it was going to be done poorly. No dominatrix I know would ever let the offer of a larger sum of money than usual cloud their judgement when it comes to their safety. The violence that ensues is painful to watch on many levels. A major issue with this storyline is that killing someone in self-defence is something sex workers of colour have been imprisoned for more than once, but a second season wouldn’t involve Tiff being in prison and receiving this same fate. Also, the point where she says of police opinion, “we’re no better than prostitutes in their eyes” is awful and discounts any good intentions of her character saying at the beginning of the series that there is nothing wrong with those that engage in full sex services. While the rest of the series up to this point was fairly up and down, the ending was a firm no from me.

The Characters

While we don’t really get to know any of the supporting characters well enough for me to comment on them, Tiff and Pete are strong characters who are played well. They’re characters who are easy to relate to. I found it hard not to relate to Tiff on a lot of levels. We’re both Domme’s, we’re both psych students, we both “love old movies, hate the beach, hate the sun and essentially just hate going outside”.  I also really related to Pete as he reminded me of my early journey to becoming a professional dominatrix.

I don’t like that Tiff, the dominatrix, just seems to be used as a prop to make a tired and clichéd story into a sensationalist one that has the illusion of being fresh. Tiff just seems to be a Manic-Dominatrix Dream-Girl rather than a valid and equal character to Pete. I hope that in the second season, we might see Tiff’s character grow to become less of a cliché stock character who was simply placed in the script to further the man’s story.

 

Summary

I found that the story wasn’t at all as terrible as some people have made it out to be. I was actually pleasantly surprised by a lot if it, but also unimpressed by some. There were some good points raised, some sweet moments and good laughs had. The characters were, for some of it, enjoyable to watch grow. I do feel like a lot of space was filled unnecessarily with forced side-stories that were littered with common negative tropes and clichés. The fluff from those episodes could have easily been removed and used for more beneficial things – like perhaps showing Tiff negotiating a session with someone, or talking to Pete about R.A.C.K practices. For all the mentioning of the word boundaries throughout the series, it’s mind-boggling that the actual setting of and adhering to boundaries was totally absent. There could have been real conversations on safety and having Tiff actually vetting clients rather than triggering shock tactics. I would have loved to see them perhaps go into different fetishes and fantasies and having a discourse around them that could really show people their kinky desires are nothing to be ashamed of. This series could be an opportunity to truly educate people through a comedic narrative and it’s really disappointing to see it fall short.

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While I appreciate Netflix putting out content to the masses that gives a better perspective on BDSM than the Fifty Shades Trilogy, it wasn’t at all what we deserve. I think it’s great that there is a representation of dominatrix work (and sex work in general) that makes it seem more approachable and less scary,  but it’s thoroughly disheartening that it completely misconstrues BDSM and sex work. The writers don’t appear to have consulted with BDSM practitioners or sex workers of any kind very effectively. It would have been so much richer if they did and used more real life experiences (which would have been just as hilarious as some of what was in there). I did like that there were some things close enough to reality, and that in watching it with my partner, she was able to gain a little more sense of what I do for work. It was a good starting point for us to have a discussion and lead her to a better understanding.

One point, aside from the show, that has upset many is the way the Twitter account for the show has been structured – from the perspective of Mistress May. It’s quite hurtful to see a fictional Mistress gain a blue tick verified Twitter account, while real Mistresses are having their accounts shadow-banned and shutdown on a daily basis. My account is currently shadow-banned and it’s severely impacted my work, so it is a bit of a kick in the face to see a fictional Mistress have the platform on Twitter that no real Mistress could.

In the end, the series mostly came off as an arrogant, white, male comedian trying to tell a story that wasn’t his.  With such little honest exploration into BDSM and sex work, I don’t see the show making it successfully to any more than two seasons. The sensationalist shock-value approach can only carry it so far, especially when it then falls back onto those of us who live this every day to right the poor messages conveyed about sex work. I hope if they are renewed for a second season, the show writers actually take on the criticism from the BDSM and sex work communities and consult more with those who actually live it and understand it.

The general concept of the series is one with a lot of potential to be educational and to break down stigmas surrounding sex work and taboo desires. I would love to see it be more than just a clichéd story that will soon be forgotten, but at least it’s provided a platform for sex workers to critique and be heard. The series may not be perfect, but it’s started an incredible dialogue, giving many an opportunity to speak out and be heard when they might not have been before. I definitely am grateful to BONDiNG for that.

If you want to know any more about me, please follow and tweet at me – @_Mistress_Ava.

 If you want to know more about BDSM, fetishes, kinks and sex work, please read my column – Desire Into Discourse and don’t hesitate to get in touch to discuss.