Netflix's Bonding Is Just Another Half-Baked Representation Of Sex Work And The BDSM Scene

If you’re going to profit off our stories, at least have the decency to ask for our input and give credit for our contributions. Our lives are complicated enough.

The Netflix miniseries Bonding was released this week, a typical indie-feel comedy with a heart of gold about two best friends with a complicated past.

The story is about Peter, a struggling gay comedian, who manages to find his confidence with the help of his plucky BFF Tiff – a psychology student by day, dominatrix ‘Mistress May’ by night. Peter is thrown into the world of professional BDSM and sex work unexpectedly, without prior discussion and with the bold statement: “If you knew what we were going to do before we did it, then you wouldn’t do it.”

Half-baked representations of BDSM on screen are common. Fifty Shades of Grey still leads the pack of problematic examples – the mysterious billionaire Christian Grey is arguably more abuser than dominant, and the books and film series have been condemned by the kink community. Anyone who takes the time to look through the forum pages on Fetlife (a social network for kinky adults) or dips their toes into a real world kink event will have heard the terms ‘safe, sane and consensual’ (SSC) and ‘risk aware consensual kink’ (RACK). The main tenet of the BDSM community is consent with a healthy dose of communication.

Any representation of BDSM that shows happy doms and subs respecting each other’s boundaries can do a lot of good for the scene. Good filmmaking can reduce stigma and raise awareness by shining a positive light in our direction and turn us from ‘those weirdos over there’ into your friendly neighbourhood kinkster. Bonding is funny and heartwarming, I’m sure that it will do good by opening the scary door into the world of kink for some people on the outside. I’m happy to give the creator the benefit of the doubt with it being too short of a format to go deep into all the details of what it’s really like to be a dominatrix or their assistant.

If we ignore the consent violations – which include a client ejaculating into Peter’s face and a tickling fetishist ending up with a mild case of PTSD after his wife discovers she enjoys beating him – Bonding does an okay job of showing how BDSM can be used as a tool for self-care, that the people involved aren’t scary, and that dominatrices are in fact just like you and me. Unfortunately film, like all art, cannot be separated from its real world context, and the issues with Bonding have occurred outside of the two hours runtime.

Netflix has advertised the show with a Twitter profile (fairly normal), but in a particularly misguided move, the page is named Mistress May and its pinned tweet is captioned “Mistress May here. Now accepting clients”. In the few days since Bonding was released, hundreds of real life dominatrices and sex workers have commented on the tweet, many are captioned “Actually accepting clients”. In April 2018 the Fight Online Trafficking Act (FOSTA) came into action in the US. The law allows any website suspected of advertising “prostitution” to be shut down.

Creator, Rightor Doyle states that he’s channeled his own experience into the writing but he’s yet to give credit to his “dominatrix friend” without whom the show wouldn’t have been possible. Speaking as an #ActuallyAcceptingClients dominatrix, I struggle to believe that Doyle and the writing staff had enough expertise to speak with authority on the subject.

Tiff’s line is that she is a “full service fantasy provider, but not a prostitute”, is very revealing. Firstly, within sex work, the term “full service” refers to a provider willing to have sexual intercourse with their clients – a “full service provider” is commonly referred to as a “prostitute”, so the statement is incorrect. Secondly, as well as being oxymoronic, the line is just plain moronic-moronic as among sex workers, the p-word is considered a slur. Credit where credit is due, Tiff then goes on to say “ ...not that there’s anything wrong with that.” While the character insists there is nothing wrong with it, she is still happy to use the slur from the comfort of her relatively high position on the ‘whorearchy’ scale.

I’m not surprised that a show that revolves around the plot motivator of a career in domination isn’t written by a sex worker; Bonding is not a documentary and creative license allows the writers to pepper the truth. The difference with this compared to other exaggerated storylines is that sex work is glorified on-screen, while the workers are stigmatised and disenfranchised in reality.

Lena Dunham – a problematic ‘feminist’ at the best of times – caught the attention of sex workers in 2015 when she, Meryl Streep and others signed a petition against Amnesty International’s expertly researched proposal to decriminalise sex work. Fast forward to April 2019 and she joyfully tweets in support of Doyle’s work. This kind of cognitive dissonance is all too familiar; we’re allowed to be entertaining on screen but our rights in the real world are ignored.

Sex work Twitter in the UK has been busy this month – Labour MP Sarah Champion has been pushing her agenda of introducing the Nordic Model on her profile and her tweets have been met with comments from sex worker-run organisation Decrim Now, plus hundreds of sex workers who fundamentally disagree with her stance that the Nordic Model will help them. Despite this overwhelming consensus from those of who are actually sex workers that the Nordic Model would increase the danger we face while working, Champion has largely ignored the response.

Similar moral policing was reported in Sheffield this week, where it’s been reported activists covertly filmed strippers at clubs to protest the existence of legal clubs. Without the consent of those filmed performing sexual acts, these people would be in violation of the UK’s laws prohibiting “revenge porn”.

Instances such as these show us that plenty of people with influential positions in society prefer speaking for us instead listening to what we have to say about our experiences. We are all too used to being told what is best for, and having our consent violated in the name of protecting us. While it might seem like a lighthearted bit of fun to see us on screen, for many of us it’s a painful reminder of the actual stigma we face in reality. For every sex worker who has had their social media accounts deactivated (in many cases their primary source of income) for “inappropriate content”, when we’ve all seen a hundred photos of Kim Kardashian’s bum on Instagram. For every penny taken away from us after our payment processor has indefinitely withheld our funds.

I can only speak from my experience as a relatively privileged dominatrix – I have a support network, the means to advertise to and vet clients, and a safe place to work from. The dominant/submissive dynamic means that often the ball is in my court and in the UK sex work is mostly legal. But there is always a fear that I could be assaulted, and I have had digital accounts shut down with no way of appealing.

Not all sex workers have the advantages that I have. In the US there have even been reports of sex workers having their bank accounts suspended. We know of the dangers that are associated with working with our clients, but since FOSTA we have had our rights taken away by the US government. For those of us who require the internet to make a living and don’t live in the US, the effects are still the same.

Whether it’s policies or simply shows such as Bonding, consult sex workers. You risk looking like an insensitive idiot at best, and endangering the lives of marginalised people at worst. If you’re going to profit off our stories, at least have the decency to ask for our input and give credit for our contributions. Our lives are complicated enough.

Ria Harpsichord is a UK-based dominatrix, who works and writes under a pseudonym


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