“It’s your life story!” a friend texted me on April 24th along with a screenshot of Netflix’s new show Bonding. It was one of five or six texts I received that day from friends and clients making sure I’d heard about this new program that follows a dominatrix/grad student in and out of the dungeon. As a dominatrix/grad student myself, friends were sure I’d be interested in the show. I’d already heard about it on social media, where opinions were pretty starkly divided between sex workers and non-sex workers. I wasn’t exactly interested in this show so much as I was morbidly curious, because I could tell from these reviews and from the show’s own promos that Bonding was not made for someone like me.
Hell, Bonding isn’t really even about someone like me; it’s really about the dominatrix’s best friend, Pete (Brendan Scannell). An audience surrogate, Pete starts the series as a vanilla naïf knocking on a dungeon door, summoned there to be Mistress May (aka Tiff)’s (Zoe Levin) bodyguard, or, as I shrieked while watching the promo, “a FUCKING body guard!” No domme I know can afford to pay twenty percent (later in the series, forty percent) of her income to a bodyguard, as Mistress May inexplicably decides to do. We don’t really need to, either; we often work in incall spaces with receptionists and other dommes. But a story about two women sex workers working together for safety wouldn’t allow us an audience surrogate, and if there’s one thing a non-sex working show runner like Bonding’s Rightor Doyle wouldn’t abide, it would be throwing the audience in head-first into a world populated mostly by sex workers.
At least, Pete (aka Master Carter) doesn’t start out the series as a sex worker. As it progresses, however, Mistress May coerces him into doing the work. As former pro-domme Gwyn Easterbrook-Smith writes at The Spinoff, “[Mistress May] treats [Master Carter] like a prop, and manipulates his financial need in a way that is deeply uncomfortable to watch.” Forcing Pete to play the role of Master Carter also makes no practical sense: who are all these straight male clients who want a male dom in on their sessions? The series is littered with this kind of nonsense logic, from May taking a golden shower session in a carpeted room to May claiming to be “full service” after clarifying she doesn’t have sex with clients to May showing up to work wearing a submissive’s collar. There was clearly no sex worker consultant or even a BDSM consultant on set; the actual bondage in Bonding is so bad that it’s laughable. And as dominatrix Mistress Blunt notes in her review for Vice,“a nuanced understanding of power dynamics, consent and negotiation are utterly missing.” But as I said, this show clearly wasn’t made for someone like me. The target audience presumably doesn’t even notice that May’s corset is ten sizes too big.
Are such inaccuracies really such a big deal in fiction, though? Does it matter if the friend who thought my life story was on Netflix now assumes my life involves a buff house slave who pays me money to serve me coffee in the morning? When that slave also stalks Mistress May onto a vanilla date, yes, it does. Bonding isn’t just a throw-away comedy; it also attempts to depict violence against sex workers, and when it expends such little energy affording us the basic respect of an accurate depiction, the violent scenes just feel like an affront.
I could sense the climax of the show coming before it even arrived. (Stop reading here for spoilers.) As soon as May and Carter walked into the apartment of a rich client, my sex worker spidey senses tingled and I knew they weren’t walking out without a fight. Once May confirmed that they had forgone screening because the client offered them sooo much money, I considered sparing myself and exiting out of Netflix. But I’d already thrown away nearly two hours of my life, so I committed to watching the ugly final scene play out.
I somehow held it together through watching a woman who does, indeed, do the very things I do and even looks suspiciously like me being menaced with a knife, even as Doyle and his writers couldn’t afford her the basic humanity of being properly scared and insisted she mouth off to her her attacker the way she’s been mouthing off the whole show—she’s an insufferable bitch because she’s a dominatrix, see, and she’s a dominatrix because she’s been assaulted, and now she’s being assaulted again because she’s a dominatrix. Fine, fuck you, whatever. But to end the first season with May and Carter gleefully running from the cops after stabbing a client in self-defense pushed me over the edge. How dare you end things here? This isn’t where it ends! It ends with May—with Tiff—in jail, like Alisha Walker, just for having the audacity to keep herself alive, because sex workers are one of several subclasses of women who aren’t afforded the right to self-defense. Or who knows, maybe being white and middle class would save Tiff the fate of someone like Alisha.
The most infuriating part about Bonding, though, isn’t really even about Bonding at all. (No, it’s not about how it’s inspired every jackass on Twitter to get into the business, but that’s a close second.) It’s about Yin Q’s Mercy Mistress. This very brief web series follows dominatrix/grad student Mistress Yin (aka Mei Yin) in and out of the dungeon. More artfully directed than Bonding and very unlike Doyle’s show, this beautiful series features mostly people of color. It was created, written, and produced by a sex worker and filmed by a team that “produce[es] films that decolonize storytelling” It explores several of the same themes as Bonding—sexual liberation, being closeted about sex work, stalker clients—with a level of authenticity Doyle’s show couldn’t hope to match. As “former freelance submissive” Sofia Barrett-Ibarria says over at the Daily Dot: “getting sex work right … means seeking out those marginalized voices and listening to sex workers when they tell their own stories.”
I can only imagine what the three-to-four minute episodes of Mercy Mistress might become with Netflix-level funding, and that funding isn’t unlimited; where shows like Bonding get to step into the spotlight, shows like Mercy Mistress do not. In a world where dominatrix representations are so rare I get a barrage of texts about “my life story” on the rare occasions we do see any, this lack of funding fucking matters. I can only hope Bonding isn’t renewed for another season and that that money goes somewhere more deserving.