BDSM isn't torture, but Bonding sure is

Netflix's new pro-domme series is clueless and unwatchable

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This is a guest post by Davey Davis.

“Domme work,” says Tiff Chester, AKA Mistress May, as she clumsily wraps a scarlet rope around her friend’s wrist, “is about more than just hog-tying someone. It’s about the rope pressing against the skin, becoming safer yet more dangerous with every tug.”

As the rope constricts, her friend, an effeminate young redhead named Pete, winces, and even once yelps, “Ouch!” but Tiff keeps winding, tighter and tighter, until presumably causing some kinky nerve damage.

This actually very unsafe scene is just one of many clueless exchanges that could serve as a microcosm of Netflix’s new series Bonding, a tour through the underworld of transactional BDSM through the eyes of Georgia-born kink neophyte Pete, played by Brendan Scannell. Although the show’s writer and executive producer Rightor Doyle was reportedly inspired by his experiences as an assistant for a New York dominatrix, it’s hard to believe that anyone who’s ever set foot in a dungeon, interacted with a sex worker or a client, or done anything edgier than a handjob could have been involved in the creation of whatever the fuck this is supposed to be.

From dominant women wearing collars, to golden shower bottoms who don’t hector their tops about their hydration, to straight men who don’t object to their domme bringing her gay “assistant” into session to rudely stage-whisper, Bonding is a series of shockingly ignorant displays of technique, consent, and kinky desire that makes Fifty Shades look like The Story of O.

“We should make this into a drinking game,” one of my roommates joked when Mistress May listed “torture” as one of her client’s fetishes. For the unfamiliar, “torture” is too general a term to make sense in this context, especially for a pro-domme, who would typically negotiate specific activities and boundaries with a client, like “anal play,” “mummification,” or “whipping,” before a scene. But TV shows aren’t worth becoming suicidal over, not even this one this awful. If we’d taken a shot every time Bonding got something wrong about BDSM, professional domination, or sex work in general, we would have been dead before the end of the first 15-minute episode.

Bonding follows the trials and travails of Pete in his new career as Tiff’s assistant, twink “bodyguard,” and occasional scene partner. A would-be stand-up comic with stage fright, as well as a Gen Z homosexual who’s somehow never heard of piss play, Pete is our implausible fish out of water who’s just trying to find out who he really is in a city full of freaks, fuckups, and aggressively promiscuous faggots. The Virgil to Pete’s sassy Dante, Tiff (Zoe Levin) has the distinction of being one of Bonding’s most realistic characters: a beautiful young woman who’s moonlighting as a pro-domme to put herself through grad school. And don’t you forget that Tiff is not, as she sneers, a “prostitute,” though she’s quick to add that “there’s nothing wrong with that.” As justifiably frustrated as many real pro-dommes are at Bonding’s bungling, you’re much more likely to encounter a thin, white, straight, cis dominatrix who also happens to be unapologetically whorephobic than almost any other character or situation you’ll come across in Bonding. Like, a co-ed dungeon with shag carpeting? Really?

Were Bonding even slightly less stupid, it might have been worth it to wade through its overall badness to explore the ways in which it manages to erase both the utter banality and the delightful weirdness of kink and its spectrum of subcultures. But although it centers Pete and his experiences, what’s most irritating (“interesting” being a bridge too far, in this case) in this hodgepodge of meaningless fetish signifiers is Tiff’s function as sex work respectabilizer. “Everyone thinks domme work is just about sex work. It’s really just liberation from shame,” she sighs in between screaming at her poorly sissified German gimp.

Coming from a woman who has to make vocabulary flash cards for words like “gender” and “sexism” for her psychiatry class (in its conflation of psychiatry and psychology, Bonding suffers from what I like to call “Frasier Syndrome”), this insight is justifiably suspect. It is also a perfect encapsulation of the sex work discourse in both Bonding and American culture at large, where catering to straight men’s sexual desires is either so profound as to disappear the ugliness of financial need, or so debased as to permanently dehumanize the people who do it.

It reminded me of something author David Sedaris said about economic hardship during a college commencement speech last year. “At twenty-two,” he told the Oberlin College graduating class of 2018, “you are built for poverty and rejection. And you know why? Because you’re good-looking.”

It’s a funny, grain-of-salt quip of the kind Sedaris is known for, but one that exemplifies the Boomerism of his perspective, and the bygone privileges of upward mobility (particularly for white people) that most Millenials and Gen Zers can only dream of. Poverty and the criminalization of poor people, people of color, disabled people, queer and trans people, and undocumented people have always driven the marginalized into underground economies and illegal labor. But with the increasing obsolescence of the undergraduate degree in the face of an unraveling social safety net, catastrophic debt, and economic precarity, sex work has become something that more people who are as privileged, relatively speaking, as Tiff, are obliged to do.

But Bonding is just as divorced from the realities of capitalism as it is from Dungeon Hygiene 101. It may very well be that Tiff became a dominatrix, in part, to “liberate” her clients from shame or, as she hints, to reclaim her sexual agency after negative experiences with men. And who can blame her! Doyle’s straight male characters are written as leering predators, to the point where I couldn’t tell the difference between a love interest and a prospective rapist.

But she’s not doing that liberating or that self-care for free. She’s charging for her services because she, like everyone else—sex worker or not—needs to pay the rent, a detail that Doyle snows over by feeding her lines dismissing the “work” part of “sex work,” and the economic constraints it addresses. In Bonding, Tiff getting paid to make men cum in order to challenge “sexual patriarchy,” bring together heterosexual couples, or simply because she’s been broken by sexual assault is fine. But Tiff getting paid to make men cum because she needs money? The notion seems more distasteful to Doyle than passing the Bechdel test.

A year after the passage of the catastrophic SESTA/FOSTA legislation, a show like Bonding is more than stupid—it’s harmful. It reifies the pernicious stories our culture tells itself about sex work: that it’s only acceptable when it’s done by certain people in certain ways for certain reasons, and that agency only applies to hollow empowerment narratives rather than to the material needs of working people. Doyle may think his show challenges stigma to expose the humanity lurking in the dark underbelly of transactional sex, but aside from its truly singular lack of quality, it’s indistinguishable from all the other media that’s made about sex workers without including their voices.

Davey Davis writes about culture, sexuality, and genderqueer embodiment. Their nonfiction can be found at them.usLiterary HubBOMB MagazineThe Millions, and other places. Their first novel, the earthquake room, is available through TigerBee Press. 

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