If you’re not hip to it yet, Bonding is a short scripted series on Netflix that follows Tiffany, grad student by day and dominatrix by night, as she navigates work, her personal life and pursuing a psychology degree. In attempts to organize her responsibilities, she enlists ex-high school BFF Pete, who has since come out as gay and is strapped for cash, to work as her assistant and “bodyguard” despite him having any experience in the field whatsoever. The first season premiered nearly two years ago in April of 2019, and given this was a lifetime ago in pandemic time, I don’t remember much regarding the plot of the first season, I only distinctly remember watching it and what I felt while doing so: absolutely nothing.
Much to my surprise, it was renewed for a second season that premiered last week, and needless to say, my expectations could not be lower. As a FSSW and stripper who has dabbled in other areas of sex work (i.e. foot fetish, camming, OF, etc.) I can easily identify where this series as a whole went wrong the first time around, however, I have never worked as a full-time dominatrix and I don’t have the dungeon experience to speak on the accuracy of the set, scenes filmed in the dungeon, or what Tiffany might be experiencing mentally and emotionally as a character while working and performing for clients. Which leads me to Bonding’s first and probably largest problem: If you don’t know enough about it, you probably shouldn’t be writing a personal narrative about it.
It was extremely apparent within the first episode of the first season that the show was not written by a sex worker, or even a woman. After doing some research, I found an interview with Rightor Doyle, the writer, director and creator of the series who explained that the inspiration came from his brief experience working as a bodyguard for a dominatrix friend when he was 22-years-old. Since the initial premiere, Doyle has responded to the criticism and backlash the show received from the Domme/BDSM community, mainly for relying on harmful stereotypes, little to no conversation regarding consent and the nuances of BDSM, and the obvious lack of real sex-worker presence in the making of the series. After watching Season Two, and taking into account that Doyle said he was in fact “listening” to the critique from the community and even consulted with professional Domme Olivia Troy, I spoke to NYC-based Domme Raquel Wells about her experience working in real dungeons, and we discussed what the series one again got wrong, but also maybe got right this time around.
RAQUEL WELLS (RW): So I watched Season One and was like, “Okay this is problematic.” But then I saw Season Two came out and the episodes were so short, I was like, “Fuck it, let me just watch it all at once, I guess.”
ERIKA FLYNN (SUGAR): Same, and after I found out that the writer was writing from the perspective of Pete, the assistant and not Tiff, the dominatrix, I realized that a big issue they had in the first season was that the series seemed to be from her POV, but it felt like the writer didn’t know enough about her character at all.
RW: Yes, and I think in the second season it totally points out the fact that he knows absolutely nothing.
SUGAR: I definitely feel like they took that point and kind of made fun of themselves for it, which I liked. They took a jab at the fact that this was written by someone that obviously didn’t have a real Domme perspective. I also just don’t like the main actress, I don’t find her believable as a character at all.
RW: Me either! It felt so inaccurate, most of the Dommes I know are really just the sweetest people and they tried to make it seem like if you’re a Domme you’re just like, a raging bitch all the time and she’s a Domme because of all her “issues.” Some people just genuinely enjoy the job.
SUGAR: Well, apparently they got a second season because they had a ton of positive feedback from “the general public” i.e. people who knew nothing about this world and wouldn’t know any better anyways, and all the negative feedback was, of course, from the sex-working community that were like “No, this sucks.”
RW: There were even parts too [in season one] that were giving the idea that she was shaming other sex workers, like there was a joke or line about “prostitution” that felt very passive aggressive.
SUGAR: There was definitely some whorephobia going on, for sure.
RW: I even felt like the way they portrayed Portia (Pete’s sexually liberated roommate, played by Gabrielle Ryan) is really fucked up!
SUGAR: It was very tone deaf. I could tell immediately in the first episode of this second season they were really trying to fix their mistakes, for example, they mentioned FOSTA/SESTA right off the bat, but then never spoke about it again or how that legislation impacted them as sex workers at all. It was just words in a script.
RW: Yeah, it was obvious they were just like “Okay, I hope this makes them happy.” It felt forced. It definitely felt like they were trying to fix their issues from season one. And it kind of helped? I did like the ending honestly.
SUGAR: I do think they managed to get a couple things right this time. What do you think?
RW: I do like that [in season two] they touched on the connection between being a Domme and therapy. Because as a Domme you do a lot of coddling, a lot of sitting back and listening, usually after a session. You totally build a relationship with your submissive. There’s a huge comfort aspect and it doesn’t even matter if you’re a Domme or not, as a sex worker I feel like clients always want to treat us as if we’re their therapists.
SUGAR: Did you have a favorite scene?
RW: I did really love when the Head Mistress [Mistress Mira, played by Nana Mensah] expressed she was leaving the dungeon but she didn’t make it, like, the end of the world. She encouraged them to come together and do their own thing, and I thought that was a really good message because it is so true. Coming together and working together really can make you go so far in this world.
SUGAR: What were your thoughts on Mistress Mira as a character?
RW: I liked her, I really feel like she stabilized the series, I mean, the dungeon I worked at the Head Mistress was not that … nice [laughs].
SUGAR: Did you feel like the Domme training was an accurate portrayal? Another dominatrix friend of mine was laughing at Mistress Mira finally acknowledging the collar that Tiff had been wearing for the entire first season that’s a huge no-no. Collars are only for submissives.
RW: Obviously everyone’s experience is different but I do feel like Mistress Mira taking her under her wing and even giving her the opportunity to redeem herself within the community was a little far fetched, a little for show. I mean when I was training, it was very low key. Like I would just go to the dungeon in my pajamas and practice rope ties. Also, the office wasn’t OD, like, BDSM vibes. We had cubbies and it was cute back there, it was more of a living room, a loungy space for us to hang out. It was supposed to be a comforting place where you could come and take off your heels and latex and just chill. But in terms of training, I know people pay to do one-on-one training but the way I learned was very different. I would shadow in sessions with already established Dommes and watch how they worked.
SUGAR: I can tell they tried to scale back this season on the dungeon set as a whole, because I feel last season they overplayed it a bit.
RW: Totally, and my first note was that dungeons would never be so out in the open like that! Like, it’s not a night club.
SUGAR: It was a major story flaw when her boyfriend showed up and she was like “Omg! You’re not supposed to be here!” And I was like, “Well, how does he know the address?”
RW: Exactly! No one knew where my dungeon was, it was so incognito. That scene made it seem like we’re extremely unsafe and it’s a free-for-all, which is totally untrue. At my dungeon, when you came in all the doors were locked, there were cameras facing the clients and they had to put their ID inside of a little cubby which we then took and did a full screening. It was drastically different from what they portrayed. And the stigma that as sex workers we’re extremely unsafe is dangerous.
SUGAR: A huge element I feel like shows about sex work miss is the mundane tasks or the boring shit we have to do, like administrative work and screening. But those things are so important. I understand maybe that’s not super exciting to show on tv, but it’s really important when people don’t know enough about the reality of this work. It dehumanizes the work because people don’t understand all the work that goes into the “interesting part” i.e. the dates, the sessions, the shit people want to see. That’s why I did like the ending where they chose to have her drop out of grad school, and chose sex work as a legitimate career path. I hated the typical “hot girl going to grad school” narrative, it was very reminiscent of The Girlfriend Experience on Starz.
RW: Oh my god, I used to hate when submissives used to ask me, “What else do you do?” First of all, that is not your business. I don’t know if they wanna know because it makes them feel better or they have a savior-complex. I feel like they played with the idea that her trauma was the reason she became a sex worker, which is definitely not always the case.
SUGAR: This is why I liked the scene where Tiff comes to Pete’s comedy show where his stage name is ‘Master Carter’ and all of his comedy is stemmed in Dominatrix stereotypes. She calls him out on the fact that he is in no place to speak for this community he’s not really apart of.
RW: I know, I felt like yes, he experienced some of these things but he never took it seriously. It was always kind of a joke for him. At first he was even afraid of it and was very judgmental. And now he kind of gets off on it, and is profiting off of it. It would be different if he had taken it seriously from the beginning and really wanted to learn, and then used it to his advantage? But that wasn’t the case.
SUGAR: Especially to be promoting those stereotypes to a bunch of people who will believe it. This is where I feel like it kind of mirrored the critique Rightor Doyle got for writing the show itself.
RW: I agree. I think it still needs more work. But I don’t know, I might even watch season three. I feel like it might get better?
In conclusion, Bonding Season Two felt a bit like when an influencer or public figure makes a huge misstep and has to put out a public apology to their followers, except I sort of bought parts of the apology. Do I think they’re learning? Yes. Do I think it was perfect? Absolutely not. Bonding still feels more like Disney Channel made a show about a sex worker versus a "dark comedy," and that concept just doesn’t quite hit the spot for me. We need more real sex workers in the writing room, we need more sex worker directors, producers and consultants on set if these stories are going to be told with any shred of authenticity, and if they are going to benefit the community they are representing in any way. Oh, and can we stop casting thin, pretty, cis white female “grad students” as the sole protagonist for this narrative? It’s boring.