A real-life bondage performer reviews Netflix’s ‘Bonding’

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If you linger on the Netflix home screen, I’m sure you’ve noticed the show Bonding. Their teaser was attention-grabbing, that’s for sure. I admit, I was enthralled enough to check it out. My take? It was… different. I’m not just talking about the short format (the episodes lasted an average of 15 minutes.) Basically, it’s about a gay man who became the  assistant of his former bestfried, Tiff, who moonlights as a dominatrix (aka domme)—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a woman who physically or psychologically dominates her partner in a sadomasochistic encounter.”

It sounds wild, but it’s actually based on the real-life experiences of writer, producer and director Rightor Doyle. “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,” he revealed on Instagram. “As we experience the beginnings of the cultural shift brought on in part by the #MeToo movement, the funny, wild stories from that time in my life began to refocus themselves as allegories on power, secrets, and consent,” he continued. “I saw the mischievous idiocy of a frightened young gay man and his fearless female best friend as a perfect (even fun?) way of dissecting the many ways the patriarchy has had a stranglehold over sexuality and shame.”

His statement was actually in response to criticisms—particularly, from dommes themselves who argued that the show was an extremely inaccurate representation of what they do.

In line with this, I spoke with rope model Trisha O’ Bannon. To clear it up, she explained, “Basically a rope model allows a rope top/rigger to tie them up, either for photos or a performance.” Trisha was one of the many from the real BDSM community who watched the show. “I was excited, albeit a bit skeptical especially because I saw some pro-dommes on my Twitter feed criticize parts of it,” she told me. “But I thought I’d give it a chance, even if it wasn’t accurate, since it could still be enjoyable.”

While she admitted that there were some parts she did find enjoyable, there were several that ultimately “soured the experience” for her. She explained,  “Not only was it inaccurate—which is to be expected when you translate this kind of thing into film or TV—but there were some wildly harmful practices as well.”

She noted that the show “makes fun of the kinks presented, while also somehow looking down on sex workers in general.” She particularly mentioned the scene where Tiff asserted that she isn’t a prostitute. “She says there’s nothing wrong with that, but it still seems unnecessary, like it’s supposed to be easier to root for her just because she doesn’t sleep with her clients,” Trisha pointed out.

She also said that she thinks the portrayal of Tiff as “cold [and] emotionally closed off” hurts the public’s perception on their community. “Most dommes I know are warm, inviting, open, and confident, both in their vanilla and kink lives,” she said. Trisha further talked  about the technical inaccuracies, like in the rope work, or the clothing she’s wearing. “Even though she’s supposed to be a popular domme, she doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing, she said. “Her character rarely engages with BDSM and sex work safely, the way that most experienced dommes do.”

Apart from the inaccurate portrayal of dommes, according to Trisha, “It also depicts most clients as either weirdos or violent assholes—or obsessive, as with her lifestyle slave.” She shared that generally speaking, clients are actually “very respectful of boundaries” in real life—“especially because crossing those boundaries will mean that you can no longer work with that domme again—and more often than not, a larger network of dommes. They usually ask for references from previous mistresses!” she revealed.

Trisha also mentioned an issue with the marketing. To promote the show, Netflix set up an account for Mistress May—Tiff’s domme persona. She was even verified by Twitter. One of her tweets read, “Now accepting clients.” Trisha explained that this angered a lot of dommes because a lot of them actually had their profiles “suspended or completely shut down for doing the exact same thing, except for real.” She explained that due to SESTA-FOSTA legislation in the US—a law that makes it ”easier to cut down on illegal sex trafficking online,” a lot of dommes “are being taken off social media and other online platforms—the same platforms that help them earn money.”

But above everything, Trisha told me her biggest issue with the show was  how Mistress May “treats—or more accurately, abandons—consent when it’s convenient… And it’s played for laughs.”

She enumerates the scene where Tiff forced her friend into becoming her assistant without his consent, the time she made him participate in acts he wasn’t informed about and did not consent to, and when she allowed a completely untrained—and reluctant—person to participate in risky acts with her clients.

“There’s literally a scene where she says ‘I don’t tell you things beforehand because I know you’d say no’ and that’s a big no-no in the community,” Trisha pointed out. She also mentioned the scene where a husband and wife discover they have different kinks, and they reach a compromise (“Great!”), but they also look rather traumatized from the compromise.

I think it’s interesting that to justify his show, Rightor mentioned #MeToo–a movement which focused on our society’s lack of regard for consent in sexual acts—when Bonding clearly failed in that aspect.

The lesson here? Like most dommes iterated, when talking about something as sensitive as this, an individual’s personal experiences may not be enough. It’s still best to have at hand consultants from the industry who can join the writing table.

In this case especially, BDSM is already a misunderstood industry. To use it merely as a tool “for laughs,” as Trisha said, while in the process, promote harmful truths—is just irresponsible.  

 

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