‘Bonding’ on Netflix: Why Sex Workers Aren’t Happy With the Show – Rolling Stone
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Sex Workers Aren’t Happy With the New Netflix Show About Dominatrixes

Bonding leaves an awful lot to be desired

Bonding

'Bonding' is being criticized for offering an unrealistic view of a real-life community.

Netflix

The Twitter account for Mistress May shows an alabaster-skinned, dark-haired woman in a bustier, holding a riding crop and staring suggestively at the camera. “Welcome to my office. I’m Mistress May. And I didn’t give you permission to @ me,” her bio reads. At first glance, it looks much like any other dominatrix profile on Twitter, with one glaring difference: Mistress May primarily tweets links to positive reviews of the Netflix show Bonding, which was released on April 24th, because Mistress May is a fictional Twitter account created by Netflix to promote the show. Another glaring difference: unlike many sex workers on Twitter, Mistress May is verified. And this is not insignificant: on a website that many have argued partakes in discriminatory behavior against those who do sex work, many sex workers are outraged that Twitter would provide a platform for a fictional sex worker from a show that they have argued promotes an inaccurate and outright harmful view of their profession. 

But let’s back up. Bonding tells the story of Tiff (Zoe Levin), a grad student who enlists her best friend Pete (Brendan Scannell) to serve as her bodyguard/assistant in her growing dominatrix business. The series unfolds mostly through the eyes of Pete, a fish-out-of-water in the dark underbelly of the sex industry who starts out the series so vanilla that he is appalled by the mere mention of the term “piss play” (an act that he himself engages in, a mere episode later). To a degree, this vantage point make sense: the series was created by Rightor Doyle, a queer man who based the series on his experiences serving as an assistant to his own domme best friend.

Criticism of the show is fairly wide-ranging: many have taken aim at the fact that the show basically glosses over how doms and subs negotiate boundaries and consent, which is crucial to any BDSM dynamic, while others have critiqued specific elements of the production design. (“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,” Mistress Couple, head mistress of La Domaine Esemar, tells Rolling Stone. “You’d be hard-pressed to find any dungeon with a shag carpet.”)

By far the most common critique of the show, however, is that for a series that claims to be sex-positive and interested in removing the stigma surrounding alternative sexualities and sex work, Bonding actually seems a hell of a lot more interested in propagating harmful stereotypes about fetishes and sex workers. Tiff, for instance, is a highly cynical, emotionally unavailable grad student who, it is implied, has a history of sexual trauma — a cliché about sex workers that is, in itself, “pretty sex-negative. It’s such a tired trope and encourages people to see us as trauma victims,” says Kitty Stryker, a writer, consent educator and sex worker. (It is also inaccurate: despite the prevailing myth that porn performers were sexually assaulted as children, there is no evidence to support this.) Tiff is also depicted as emotionally unavailable in her personal life — “an ice princess in latex,” Stryker says — which, it is implied, is a prerequisite for her job. And that’s simply not the case, says Couple: sex work is work, not an extension of one’s individual personality or pathology, and “most dominatrixes I know are not passive-aggressive women who are taking out their trauma on their clients.”

Although the show depicts Tiff as being one of the most in-demand dommes in New York City, the thing is, she’s really not that good at her job. Time and again, she displays a flagrant lack of understanding of the principles of safety and consent, two values that are considered sacrosanct in the BDSM community. She coerces her best friend into working with her, and bullies him into performing sex work alongside her when she tricks him into peeing on a client, a moment that’s bafflingly played for laughs. She is never seen engaging in ongoing discussions with clients — whose fetishes are, again, largely played for laughs — about their boundaries. And in one episode, she fails to vet a client due to the amount of money he offers her, something that represents extremely risky behavior, says Couple. This, above all else, is perhaps the most egregious flaw of Bonding — the fact that, for a show about sex work and BDSM, it has no interest in engaging with the reality of what it means to do both safely. “BDSM without the consent and the care and the sexual component of it is just abuse,” says Couple. “And I think Mistress May is very abusive not only to her clients, but also to Pete and especially to herself…she compromises her boundaries a lot of the time.”

At the end of the series, Tiff ends up in a violent situation. While violence against sex workers is sadly not uncommon, sex workers who have committed violent acts in real life, such as Alisha Walker, a sex worker of color who was sentenced to prison for 15 years for killing a client who punched her and attempted to stab her, are met with brutal punishments for the crime of fighting for their lives. It is unlikely that Tiff, a young and attractive white woman of means, will face such consequences should Bonding be renewed next season — and given that Tiff is the only sex worker on the show who is given significant screen time, it is unlikely that Bonding will ever choose to engage with the reality of the lives of women who do not look like her. 

Were the series created by someone who had worked or was currently working as a dominatrix, many of these inaccuracies could have been avoided, say Couple and Stryker. It’s unclear whether the show hired former or present sex workers to consult with the development of the show, or to write on staff, but that, too, could have offered a more realistic and balanced view of the industry. (We reached out to Netflix to get clarification on this point, and will update if we hear back.)

The fact that Mistress May has her own verified Twitter profile, at a time when many sex workers have been subject to shadowbanning or outright banning by major social media platforms, is an additional issue to many who have watched the show. The practice of shadowbanning — or removing a social media profile from suggested accounts to follow, and making it difficult for people to find — is widely used by large social media platforms to silence sex workers, says Jessie Sage, a sex columnist for the Pittsburgh City Paper and an organizer with the advocacy group SWOP Pittsburgh who has been subject to the practice and has written about Big Tech discriminating against sex workers. Although Twitter has denied shadowbanning users, Sage says sex workers have reported otherwise, and it has had an impact on their livelihoods. “Many sex workers have reported that this is dramatically cutting into bookings and sales,” says Sage. So watching Twitter “[shadowban] all of our accounts, but then verifying an account for a terrible show about sex work” feels like a particularly rough slap in the face.

Couple links the perceived censorship of sex workers to the passage of legislation such as SESTA/FOSTA, an anti-online trafficking bill that has prompted the shutdown of networks like Backpage, which many activists have argued has robbed them of a safe support network to vet clientele and safely earn a living. In light of such legislation, she says, the tone-deaf nature of the show — and Netflix’s Twitter campaign — are all the more galling. “If we were at a [better] time in history right now regarding sex workers’ rights — especially on the internet, and with also incarceration — then maybe a lot more professional dominatrixes or people into BDSM would have been able to see this as, ‘Of course it’s not accurate, just like doctor shows and cop shows. This is just meant to be a funny thing,'” says Couple. “But the thing is, these communities are experiencing so much tragedy and oppression because of the current political climate that it just makes us extra sensitive when we are portrayed in ways that aren’t really accurate to sex workers’ experience.”

For his part, show creator Doyle seems to be genuinely invested in trying to eliminate some of the stigma surrounding sex work and alternative sexuality, telling the New York Post, “The important thing about the show for me is we are exploring this world, but not exploiting it.” Doing the former and not the latter, however, will require hiring actual sex workers to work on the show — as is the case with the BDSM webseries Mercy Mistresswhich was created by BDSM educator and sex work activist Yin Q — as well as learning more about the real-world issues surrounding the sex work community. “The biggest fear that I have is from the show is that it will inspire young women to think this is an easy side hustle where you can take out your trauma on unsuspecting people for money, and because you’re not having sex with them, that’s easier or less of a form of sex work, and it’s easier to justify to yourself,” says Couple. “All of those are wrong reasons to get into it and it’s a totally inaccurate view of what this life is actually like, and it’ll put women in dangerous situations as well.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Mistress Couple was surprised by there being shag carpeting on the show, not just regular carpeting. It’s also been updated to clarify that she does not think no sex worker would not conduct a background check on a client if they offered a large sum of money, just that it would present very risky behavior. 

 

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