Still from Bonding, courtesy Netflix

does this netflix show remove the stigma around bdsm and kink?

New TV show 'Bonding' earnestly, if not unproblematically, attempts to debunk some of the myths attached to this variety of sex work.

by Megan Wallace
|
29 April 2019, 8:00am

Still from Bonding, courtesy Netflix

“Masculinity is inherently constricting: expectations, dominance and power, emotionlessness. So, men come to me to escape this societal prison.” So explains dominatrix-cum-psychiatry-student Tiff in Bonding, the bingeable new Netflix show exploring the lives of full-service fantasy providers.

With gender dynamics being renegotiated at both a public and private level, BDSM — which is often read as a sexual dialogue about power — has captured the zeitgeist. Whether it’s club kids in head-to-toe PVC, or rubberists at Christopher Kane autumn/winter 19, the clothes you might have once expected to see in a sex dungeon have become common fashion statements. Particularly for women, whose freedom has typically been fettered by submissive gender roles, fetishwear as chic daywear has become a shorthand for sexual empowerment. Besides appropriating their workwear for clout, however, cultural engagement with the work of professional dominatrixes has been thin on the ground — even from the most sex-positive amongst us. This is where Bonding comes in: earnestly, if not unproblematically, attempting to debunk some of the myths attached to this variety of sex work.

Falling on tough financial times, wannabe comedian Pete finds himself in need of an extra source of income, ultimately finding gainful employment as an assistant in friend Tiff’s night-time sex dungeon. On one level, it’s a crash course in BDSM and kink for the uninitiated, running its viewers through the basics of rope bondage, piss play and furries. However, Tiff’s vocational interest in psychiatry places a focus on the psychology of sex, taking us on an exploration of personal and professional boundaries, intimacy issues, and flawed relationships.

In the first few episodes, Tiff’s inability to see Pete as an equal manifests itself in remarks criticising him for his lack of confidence and even a call for him to “go back to Indiana, where he belongs”. Yet through their professional relationship, the terms of their relationship are redrawn. Pete develops a sense of initiative — for example, offering extra services as a paid submissive for one of their clients’ wives — and eventually learns to becomes more assertive in defending his own wants and needs. His heightened agency is reflected in the way he deals with Tiff, and the realisation: “I used to think it was me that needed you, but maybe it’s you that needed me.” Power play serves as a motif for Tiff and Pete’s rocky friendship, with both initially locked in a dominant/submissive dynamic that gradually develops into something much more lateral. Fittingly, then, BDSM emerges as a vehicle for conflict resolution between the two, with one particularly nasty argument leading to Pete tying Tiff up, making her safe word “I’m sorry.”

Perhaps given its wider psychoanalytic interests, the show can sometimes fall into the trap of pathologising fetishes. In fact, the writers seem to implicitly suggest that kinks are a sexual manifestation of stunted emotional growth. Take, for example, submissive client Fred, who’s shown to be emasculated and eager to please both in and out of sex play. Or, for that matter, sadist Daphne (a cameo role for The Good Place’s D'Arcy Carden) who’s depicted as high-strung and full of repressed frustration, with her desire to inflict pain during sex serving as an outlet for this. There’s a playfulness to most IRL fetish and BDSM scenarios but the show sometimes oversteps the line and veers into parody — Fred’s safe word, for example, is Barney Rubble, and he goes through the names of different Flintstone characters until he climaxes. In a world where, admittedly, not all clients are respectful, reliable or even safe to work with, turning the joke on punters is understandable. However, poking fun at kinky people in general, which is the stance the writers seem to take, feels out of step with the show’s wider sex-positive agenda — particularly as members of the BDSM community are already made to feel like freaks under the weight of vanilla sexual norms.

Bonding Netlix

The show’s not infrequent disparagement of full-service sex workers is another element that feels in poor taste. Whilst Bonding is at pains to highlight the variety of skills which dominatrixes develop in their professional lives — from knot work to psychological role play — the same courtesy is not extended to other professionals in the field. The show seems to suggest that pro-dommes are above or better than other sex workers, with Tiff making comments like “everyone thinks domme work is just about sex work — it’s really just liberation from shame” or, when running away from the authorities after an altercation with a client, “you think they’ll believe us? To them we’re just prostitutes.”

Bonding uses this run-in with the police to highlight anti-sex-worker social bias, as well as the way that all sex workers are at risk from abusive clients in societies that do not give them sufficient power. This, in itself, is an important point to make but the insistence that Tiff and Pete are not “just” prostitutes speaks to a wider social trend in which “lighter” sex work like camming or sugar-babying is becoming destigmatised alongside the continued derision of prostitutes. However, just like how being a hairdresser is no better than being an accountant, domme work is no “better” than prostitution — it just uses a different skill set. Indeed, it feels like the show’s careful dissection of power dynamics in the wider world — whether it be hierarchies within gay subcultures or lecherous lecturers coercing female students — comes at the expense of any detailed commitment to revealing the social structures currently abusing sex workers. The show, for example, makes no reference to the FOSTA/SESTA act — nor is it acknowledged that pro-domme work is illegal in US states like Arizona.

All in all, Bonding does some important work in demythologising the pro-dominatrix — depicting Tiff as a flawed, complex character rather than a collection of paper-thin tropes about childhood trauma or excessive sexual appetite. Yet, by zoning in so acutely on character analysis or on the intricacies of relationships, it erases the material realities of sex work. Beyond the two protagonists, we never meet any other sex workers; not even the women Tiff shares a working space with. Bonding is a fun take on sexual kinks, but it’s a missed opportunity to advocate for improved legislation. Let’s only hope that, if it returns for a second season, it will be bigger and braver in its defence of sex workers — taking its focus on the personal and making it political.

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Culture
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