Bonding
Netflix’s new dark comedy "Bonding" tells the story of Tiff, a grad student moonlighting as a dominatrix, and Pete, her best friend and bodyguard. (Illustration by Erik Ojo, Northeastern University)

Is Netflix’s Dominatrix Series ‘Bonding’ Normalizing Sex Work or Misrepresenting It?

Though the show has netted positive reviews, they’re not coming from the BDSM community.

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Bonding

Though the show has netted positive reviews, they’re not coming from the BDSM community.

At first glance, “Bonding” appears to be a short and sweet, yet dark comedy surrounding itself with the world of the dominatrix business. With seven episodes running roughly 17 minutes each, the story is fast paced and character driven. You could easily sit down and watch the entire show in one afternoon. It is based on creator Righter Doyle’s personal experiences as a bodyguard to his dominatrix friend, so you would assume the television series has grounding in real-life experiences.

However, the reviews have been mixed. Some audience members are praising the show’s ability in showcasing a line of work that is not usually depicted in mainstream media; sex work of any kind is, after all, highly stigmatized. On the other hand, those in the dominatrix community are calling the show inaccurate in its depiction at best and horridly problematic at worst.

“Bonding” tells the story and life of Tiff (Zoe Levin), a psychology grad student living in New York City, who also happens to be a successful dominatrix (supposedly a highly sought-after dominatrix). She recruits her best friend Pete, played by Brendan Scannell, to become her assistant and bodyguard.

Ideally, Pete’s character is supposed to directly relate to the audience in that he is being introduced to the world of domineering at the same time as most viewers. It seems that “Bonding” hopes to show the dominatrix business in a positive and kind light (even within the darker moments of humor).

So why is the BDSM/dominatrix community so distressed by the show? It begins with the minor details. As talked about in an article in Rolling Stone, based on Twitter posts within the dominatrix community, there are apparently an infinite number of tiny infractions. Mistress Couple, the head mistress of La Domaine Esemar, told Rolling Stone, “She’s supposed to be one of NYC’s best dominatrixes but she’s working in a dungeon space with carpeting on the floor, which is not cleanly … You’d be hard-pressed to find any dungeon with a shag carpet.” So clearly, “Bonding” is not the most accurate of shows.

Also, one Twitter user commented on the wardrobe of the show. “Watching #bondingnetflix and want to know who the f— was their BDSM consult on this??? The Domme’s corset doesn’t fit and she is wearing a f—— dog collar into session. Vanilla people should not be allowed to write/portray kink.”

Larger and more worrisome to the community, though, is the lack of conversation and portrayal of the importance of safety within the dominatrix business. The lack of concern within the show becomes blatant after you read reviews and articles surrounding “Bonding.”

One Twitter user put it plainly: “The main thing that bothered me was not only the missed opportunity to bring in the theme of consent in a clever way, but in #BondingNetflix consent is horrifically absent. Consent is something the BDSM community, and especially the PRO BDSM community learned very well.”

There’s a moment in the show that comes immediately to mind. At one point, Tiff lies and tricks Pete into participating in “piss play.” He is given no warning as to what he is walking into, and this happens on multiple occasions, with multiple clients.

Furthermore, negotiations concerning safety are all but left out of the series, so yes, I understand where this series becomes all too painful to watch for anyone who is a sex worker or wishes to destigmatize that particular world and business.

Even more painful is Netflix’s choice to have the “Bonding” Twitter account run by the fictional “Mistress May,” Tiff’s identity as a dominatrix within the show. The account seems like an insensitive insult to the community. Most of the time, real domme accounts are shut down or banned, not verified like the account Netflix has set up.

Sabina Magic said it best: “This is in such bad taste. Operating this account like an actual domme account when real dommes are shut down and shadowbanned all the time. Yuck. Throw the whole concept away. Ew.”

Others have a problem with the stereotypes conveyed in Tiff’s character. First, she is another college student forced into sex work. Second, sexual trauma was the reason she entered into sex work. These dangerous generalizations imply that those in sex work were forced to be there or entered into the world because they were traumatized or have a negative relationship with sex.

Yet, the show was made.

In the words of the show’s creator, “As a young gay man still struggling with my own sexuality, guarding the door while one of my best friends from home tied a naked man to a four poster bed and whipped him was jarring to say the least, but to my surprise it eventually freed me of some of my own sexual hang ups.”

This reasoning for the show’s basis and creation seems legitimate and sets up a possibly wonderful storyline, yet it would appear the show did not do enough consulting. Maybe it’s because the story is so short that it was unable to completely touch on the real-life problems faced by sex workers, social, economic, physical, mental, legal, emotional or otherwise.

And somehow the show, despite all of this, has a pretty positive review on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. So, should we watch it? Or should we not? If you have a moment, take the time to give the show a chance and see what you think.

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