“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.

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Review of BONDiNG by Emily Dall’Ora Warfield

May 13th, 2019