I watched BONDING with a Dominatrix

Netflix’s new show came under fire for its depiction of sex work. I decided to take notes while watching it with Mistress Kaya Celeste of Chicago.

Mistress Kaya prefers leather cat masks to the latex ones featured in Bonding.

I always tend to stay abreast of popular media featuring BDSM naturally, even before I started KinkBNB. I hadn’t heard anything about Netflix’s new series Bonding before last week, when I had a Facebook friend (and one of our best KinkBNB hosts) go off about it on her Facebook wall. I hadn’t really thought about watching it even after that, until it came up in conversation with Mistress Kaya a few days later. We decided to watch it together.

Netflix’s press release describes Bonding as a “dark comedy is loosely based on the life experiences of Rightor Doyle”. Mr. Doyle is a triple threat here, serving as writer, director and executive producer. This is usually bad news. Mistress Kaya wanted to go into it with a completely open mind so I didn’t tell her much about the origins. Mr. Doyle is primarily an actor, so I decided to have an open mind as well.

Right off the bat, probably due to plot misdirection, Mistress Kaya said “What the fuck?!”

The first episode starts with our protagonist Pete arriving at what is obviously an underground dungeon. “Never let the clients see each other,” Mistress Kaya hissed as the door opened and the story began. But Pete’s not a client! He’s there to meet “Tiff”. Sordid little scenes meant to titillate played out and foreshadowed the end of the series until Pete arrives at the room where his friend Tiff, AKA Mistress May, explains that she needs an assistant. “What the fuck?” is another thing that Mistress Kaya said a lot while watching this. I don’t think this is how dominatrices offer people jobs as assistants.

Some things rang truer than others throughout the series’ seven episodes. There are several plots running through these episodes in different settings. Mistress May is putting herself through grad school, kind of like the tired old trope of the stripper putting herself through college straight male screenwriters seem to always write. She has to endure the predations of her college professor. Pete is trying to become a standup comic. He can’t seem to work up the courage to get onstage even though he couldn’t be any worse than the people we actually see.

Zoe Levin plays a pro-domme in Netflix’s BONDING

There is a parade of an assortment of clients with odd fetishes that Mistress Kaya said was more like real life than you’d want to admit. She particularly had a soft spot for the man who wanted to be tickled fully clothed in his kid’s bedroom until he moaned “mother” over and over again in ecstacy. One man begged to be told he had a tiny dick, which according to Mistress Kaya is more common than you would think. Sometimes it actually does take a little mental trick to be able to pee on someone. But again and again she kept getting her suspension of disbelief destroyed as some detail was obviously fudged. This first happened with a scene in which Tiff, a supposed professional, executes an extremely sloppy handcuff tie with a length of shibari rope.

“What the fuck is that?” exclaimed Mistress Kaya at the bad rope bondage.

The next couple of episodes were masterclasses in… mediocre and predictable writing. It was not easy to pay attention to. From my point of view there were very few likable characters other than the main protagonist and I wanted to slap him. I can’t imagine what Mistress Kaya was thinking, my impression is that she’s slightly more violent towards little bitches than I am. We watched about three episodes and gave up for the night. There could be a lot of exploration of power dynamics in the life of a dominatrix and sometimes it touched on those. But overall, it came off as a script that someone got a job at a dungeon as research for than actually being written by anyone with knowledge — and this was before three episodes were over. We set it aside for a couple of days before making the time to watch the final four episodes.

Mind you, these episodes were only 16 minutes long and they were still pretty tedious. NOBODY knew how to tie a knot during the entire series — even I could see that. Cheap bondage gear and toys were liberally sprinkled throughout the BDSM scenes. It’s also a lot more work to make the kind of cash these two were making than the show let on as far as I can tell. This is a detail that bugged Mistress Kaya as well.

Reflecting upon it during this downtime, I figured out what the problem was for this series. I imagine firefighters have the same problem when they watch something like BACKDRAFT or Chicago Fire — the devil is in the details, and if you’re in that line of work it’s gonna be hard for you to overlook the fact that most sex workers would put on gloves before shoving their fingers up someone’s ass. I am sure that a comedian would feel the same about the comedy club scenes, and college faculty would take umbrage with the portrayal of how quickly a rapey professor was brought to justice. It’s all very shallow.

The bottom line is that this production was too cheap to hire an actual dominatrix to advise them. It shows. My suspicion is that nobody involved could say anything negative to the writer or the director or the executive producer, but what do I know? The number of weird non-consensual situations made me wonder if Mr. Doyle was actually paying attention or if he actually got fired from the dungeon as his protagonist sheepishly admits on stage. Even if you think you know everything, there is always someone who knows more than you. You should probably pay that person to help you.

Things that ring true: a lot of straight guys want their ass played with. However, Mistress Kaya says, “This is bullshit with no fucking glove — (Pete’s) gonna smell like shit for days.”

In the end, during the very last episode Mistress Kaya fell asleep. The time was 4:30pm. I was able to stay awake and my impressions were not good. The final episode involved a very risky visit to a potential client in a private setting — something that I know Mistress Kaya has never done. It also involved a gratuitous stabbing by Mistress May that seemed to be more malicious than in self defense.

It is also problematic that this production is billed as a “dark comedy”. While sex workers may find themselves in some pretty funny situations sometimes, most of the time their lives are filled with paranoia and suspicion. The current political climate makes trying to turn this line of work into the punchline for your Netflix series offensive to boot. I don’t believe for one second that the showrunner was actually a sex worker’s assistant after watching this series with Mistress Kaya. There are other shows actually produced by sex workers such as Mercy Mistress with executive producer Margaret Cho that are a bit more realistic. This is obviously not what Netflix wants, though.

In the end, though, this show will reach more than a few people who are interested in BDSM and power exchange. I have no doubt that the tiny taste will leave them wanting more. BDSM is a fairly personal journey in my experience as well. It raises the sort of personal questions that a badly written Netflix binge-fest can never answer. People will want more, and bad media like this tends to make searchers look for professionals who can explain things to them — see also “Fifty Shades of Gray”. Mistress Kaya perceived this instantly. Unfortunately with the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, online advertising venues have shuttered and it’s hard times for just about every professional dominatrix I know.

I admit that I don’t know much about actual sex work. Much like the protagonist, I am not an actual sex worker. I am in close proximity to them, but I’d never presume to represent what they experience. I don’t feel qualified to fully explain the inaccuracies in this series past the consent issues and excruciatingly bad shibari. Much like the series, I roped my dominatrix girlfriend (full disclosure — we’ve been in a relationship for three years) into helping give this article a veneer of legitimacy it would not otherwise have. The difference is that this article is not really trying to play this whole thing for dark laughs like the series. Sex work is real work, and deserves better. You the viewer deserve better, to be honest. Don’t get your info from a bad Netflix show — find a dominatrix and talk to them.

Mistress Kaya is optimistic even though she wasn’t overly impressed by Bonding. Out of everything she exclaimed during our viewing, she said one thing during the first episode that stuck with me, and I share it with you now.

“This had better get me new clients.”

Founder at KinkBNB. Writer of fiction and nonfiction. https://www.patreon.com/tjcrowley

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