Head Mistress Evilyne gives The Telegraph the low down on the Netflix series Bonding

Whenever something BDSM related appears on our screens whether it be the small or large screen it's usually followed by some sort of controversy. As with 50 Shades of Grey, Netflix’s Bonding is no exception. And as with 50 Shades of Grey it has shocked the vanilla public with it’s content and has had some Professional Dominatrices up in arms due to its inaccuracies. Which is why the Culture section of The Telegraph gave us a call to see what our Head Mistress Evilyne had to say on the subject.

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When author EL James released 50 Shades of Grey in 2011, she incensed both prudes and literary purists worldwide with her tale of erotic abuse and (equally abusive) handling of adjectives. Less publicised, however, was the outrage the book whipped up in the professional BDSM  (Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) community, which accused the author of giving BDSM a bad name, portraying the practice as traumatic, with the female protagonist described as an emotionally-manipulated victim, rather than safe and tightly regulated.

The professional sex community more widely has always been sensitive, defending itself against relentless bad press, poorly researched stereotypes, kink shaming, and, in some countries, criminalisation. Last month, the porn industry was busy criticising Channel 4's Mum's Make Porn documentary, which saw four mothers come together to direct a porn film they'd be comfortable with their children seeing, all the while turning their noses up at mainstream porn makers.

This month, BDSM experts are up in arms about Bonding, a new Netflix series about a professional part-time Dominatrix and twenty-something graduate student Tiff, known to her clients as Mistress May and played by actress Zoe Levin. The series is a comedy, with Tiff enlisting her awkward friend Pete as her clumsy Dominatrix assistant, but it has also charmed viewers with its nuanced probing of more introspective themes including self-acceptance and empathy.

The show's male creator Rightor Doyle has said the script is loosely based on his own experience of being a bodyguard to his female Dominatrix friend for six months while trying to make it as an actor aged 22 in New York. He defended the criticism the show received by saying the drama was "highly fictionalised...though it is based on a small chapter in my life and I did consult people in the community prior to filming."

Perhaps, considering all the script's alleged inaccuracies, Doyle didn't consult the right people. But, we ask 35-year-old London-based professional Dominatrix Mistress Evilyne, headmistress of the London Dominatrix School: does it even matter?

How did you become aware of the show?

I saw it on Netflix, put it on My List and then saw everyone getting up in arms about it  on Twitter, which I found very interesting. Everyone was asking, 'Oh did you consult sex workers for this?', but actually, I thought it was just a really sweet little comedy. Yes, it’s totally and utterly inaccurate on so many things, but then again, that’s OK, it’s fiction. It's harmless. And in a lot of ways I think it’s normalising sex work and BDSM, which is great.

Why were people so offended by it, then?

Because in the sex work community, a lot of legislation is being put through in the US, criminalising sex work, that puts sex workers in jeopardy. Like right now we’ve got the Women’s Equality Party and Labour really pushing to bring the Nordic Model [which punishes clients of sex workers rather than the sex worker] into England. A lot of people feel that it’s very poorly timed. Also, this show comes along and the fictional protagonist [Mistress May] get a verified Twitter account. And yet none of us are verified. I’ve got nearly 50,000 followers and I run my account, yet there’s no way that I’ll ever get a blue tick. Yet a fake Dominatrix gets a blue tick?

It's surprising to see how young Mistress May is. She's still a grad student. Is that realistic?

You can be a Dominatrix at any age. And actually, I read recently that 10 percent of university students in the UK resort to sex work to pay their way through university. I mean for sure, an older Dominatrix is going to have a much more thorough understanding of human psychology, and going to be able more skilled. But, you know, men are men, and there will be lots of them who are attracted to a dainty, young little petal in a corset. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I started much later, I started at the age of 28, after studying Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University and then working as a pastry chef for ten years, but I have friends who started when they were 19. Most of my pupils so far have been in their late twenties.

It's surprising to see how young Mistress May is. She's still a grad student. Is that realistic?

You can be a Dominatrix at any age. And actually, I read recently that 10 percent of university students in the UK resort to sex work to pay their way through university. I mean for sure, an older Dominatrix is going to have a much more thorough understanding of human psychology, and going to be able more skilled. But, you know, men are men, and there will be lots of them who are attracted to a dainty, young little petal in a corset. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I started much later, I started at the age of 28, after studying Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University and then working as a pastry chef for ten years, but I have friends who started when they were 19. Most of my pupils so far have been in their late twenties.

In the show, Tiff has an assistant, her best friend Pete, who she ropes in last minute. Would that happen in real life?

This is one of the things a lot of people in the BDSM community are quite upset about: there were very blurred boundaries in the show. I guess that’s what makes for an interesting story line. But, when she says to her friend before she gets him to help her, “If I told you what we were doing you wouldn’t want to do it”,  that's a massive red flag in BDSM. Because it’s all about communication.

You can’t force someone into doing something; someone has to consent. And in order to consent they need to have information. So you would never just drag someone into a scene without telling them. Unless they’ve done this thing which is called “consensual non-consent” which is advance signing a contract where you say, you know, “I agree that I am just going to go with the flow and see where this takes me and I put myself in your hands.”

Do you have an assistant?

Not like in the show. I have a PA, who does my emails, but she’s an ex-Dominatrix..

How much would an hour with a Dominatrix cost?

I charge £250 an hour, and I work between three and seven shifts a week, which isn't a lot. I make a nice living but it's not massive, and it all goes on expensive clothes and dungeon hire. But, yes, when someone’s putting that much money in, it’s your duty to make it worth that money. Of course, there's a whole fantasy of “it’s all about me, I’m the Dominatrix", but in reality, we’re being paid to provide a service.

Some members of the BDSM community have said Tiff's clothes are embarrassing. That she wears a dog collar, for instance, which a Dom would never wear.

Yeah, but again people do what they want. There aren't rules. I mean, I’ve seen professional Dominatrixes who wear a dog collar because they like the style…. Obviously a collar is usually a sign of submission, so generally it would be a slave who’s wearing it, but some people will just decide one day that they’re going to wear a collar because it looks cool. One thing I will say, however, is that her corset was incredibly ill-fitting. It was supper baggy around the chest.

I felt several of the clients on the show were made to seem a bit ludicrous. Were they being mocked by the show?

I don't know; I loved the client who was urinated on. I mean that guy might have a high profile job, we don't know, his story isn't clear to us. But I have people who walk through my door who are very proper, dressed in a nice suit, hold their head high, super proud… and then the moment they walk through my door they become a groveling little mess. Like the guy in the show. And that’s really fun because I’m providing them with a space in which they can be that fantasy character that they want to be. And I love it when they really get into it. And so that guy and the penguin guy were my two favourites.

Ah, the penguin guy, who gets turned on by wrestling a Dom in a penguin suit. Does that really happen?

Absolutely. I have a Dominatrix friend who recently dressed a guy up as a pigeon and made him pick up breadcrumbs.

I felt the penguin scene wasn't sexual in the least, actually.

But that’s fetish. Fetish means the sexualisation of something that is classically considered non-sexual. So you can’t fetishise a penis; you can’t fetishise sex. But you can, for example, fetishise nail polish or fur. I've seen fetishes which include riding a lawn mower, and even littering. Some people are aroused by watching women litter.

What's the most peculiar fetish you’ve engaged with?

One of my absolute favourites is scent fetish. It happens very rarely but it’s something that I really enjoy.  I just won’t wash for a couple of days. And then I will just stand and let someone just smell me. They’ll put their nose right up against my body, my armpits, arse-crack and just breath in my scent. For an hour.

And nothing more?

Nothing more.

And do you find that pleasurable?

Yes because we’re always told we have to be so clean, so perfect that we can’t smell of ourselves. The idea that someone is aroused by my natural scent I find it amazing. I find it really a massive boost for self esteem.

I assume you charge more for that?

Yes, because obviously you can’t really work. Other people might not be so appreciative of the smell.

In one episode, a client invades Tiff's invades personal space by coming to find her at a bar when she's on a date. And he refuses to leave. Does that happen?

So that was quite realistic, in a sense, because a lot of men who go and see Dominatrixes, and who are submissive, actually tend to have quite poor personal boundaries. And one of the reasons why they come to see a Dominatrix is because we really enforce boundaries. They need someone who can enforce those boundaries for them because they’re incapable of enforcing them for themselves.

So what do you do in that situation?

That’s never happened to me, but I have heard of it happening to other women. I’ve heard of women getting stalkers and these guys don’t even realise that they’re stalkers. They just become very obsessed, or in love. And you’ve got to just be really strict with someone. And Tiff was very strict.

In another episode, we see a wife come in and request Tiff's services for her husband, who had a tickle fetish.

Their relationship showed what can happen when people start discovering BDSM without educating themselves around it. She wasn’t comfortable with his fetish, then she realises that she has a fetish which is essentially being a sadist and beating him up. And then you can see that he ends up with mild PTSD because of it. You can end up traumatising someone by not playing safely, without a safe trigger, safe words and boundaries. For instance, you would have a collar that you put on, which means “now we’re in role play mode and you need to be scared of me because I will beat you up.” And then the moment the collar comes off, you're safe. I felt anyone into BDSM would understand that storyline of the show.

How many women come to you?

I have very few women. I think over the seven years I’ve been doing this I’ve had three women.

Have you ever had a woman come and speak to you on behalf of her husband?

I’ve had people who want to come and see me as couples, but it’s something that I personally don’t do. Because, again, this was very well portrayed within the show, which is, when you are a third person and you’re walking into a pre-existing couple, you’re walking into a pre-existing dynamic. And I really prefer not to get involved in other people’s couple dynamics.

Have there been repercussions for you?

I've just felt sometimes that when you walk into a couple there's a lot of baggage to it. I feel like I’m sort of an agent provocateur and you don’t know if one person wanted it and the other one’s just going along with it, or if they both wanted it, or if they’re both trying to make a compromise and actually neither wanted it. You don't know if they’re trying to fix their relationship and putting all that pressure on you.

Have you noticed a trend in what couples want?

Generally it will be a man who wants you to dominate him with his wife.

In the show, Tiff comes to the couple's house. Do you come to people's houses?

No, but this totally depends. I mean some professional Dominatrixes work from their homes. Some work in hotels, some go to people’s homes. I have my own play space. I've got my own dungeon which I rent in central London. You can hire dungeons per hour. The way Tiff works is the American method, which is that there are these big dungeons that are run very much like a business, where clients come and ask for a specific girl. Then the girls get part of their fee taken away but the dungeon.

That’s basically brothel keeping which in England is utterly illegal. Technically, women aren’t even allowed to work from the same location even if it’s at different times. Which makes it actually really unsafe as a result. Because, you know, safety in numbers right? So what happens in England is people who have dungeons will hire them out per hour, like a studio or an AirBnb, and then what you do there in your time is your business.

Some people complained Tiff's dungeon, which is bright pink, didn't look realistic.

Well it’s made to look good, isn’t it? For the TV. Someone I know made a very good comment about this whole thing saying, you know, it’s like expecting Brooklyn 99 to be like actual police work, which would actually be quite dull. I mean Brooklyn 99 is totally and utterly unrealistic. In every single sense. But you don’t see policemen up in arms about it. If you were totally realistic about the work of a Dom it would be very boring: a vast amount of cleaning and a vast amount of sitting in front of a computer.

Did you find the show better Secret Diary of a Call Girl?

I used to watch Secret Diary of a Call Girl years ago and I really liked it. I used to read Belle de Jour’s blog, when she was blogging before she did the books and everything.

In the series Tiff is portrayed as quite damaged and emotionally unavailable. Do you think that’s a damaging portrayal?

My view of things is very unpopular, but I’m still going to say it because I really believe this. I think a lot of people who gravitate towards BDSM, gravitate towards it because they’re looking, just like everyone in life, for healing. I think everyone is damaged. I think there’s no such thing as an undamaged person. Life damages you. I think people go towards BDSM because somewhere it offers them solace and intimacy that they didn’t feel they could get anywhere else. I think there’s nothing wrong with someone being a bit damaged and coming to BDSM because if you approach it right it really can bring you so much healing. And anyway, look at any other TV show about any subject.  Generally the protagonist will be damaged in some way.

I think it’s hinted at that she’s had some sort of sexual trauma. And it’s a bit of a stereotype that people in sex industries have been sexually traumatised.

Yeah but, again, it makes a good story. And I personally I love a good story. But I think a lot of people who are feeling so strongly about this show really think that people are going to watch this show and it will form their entire concept of BDSM; that their ideas will hinge entirely on this two-hour show. They won't. And I think overall it is a positive thing, it’s showing Tiff as human. And that’s what we want, we want people to see us as human. Yes, she is a bit damaged, but she’s also incredibly likeable.

Tiff manages to find a partner who is OK with her work. Does that tend to be easy in real life?

So this is a very interesting thing about just sex work in general. So because you’re sex workers, you spend your life negotiating boundaries. You become very aware of your own personal boundaries, much more than other people. As a result, you also become much more aware of what it is that you need from an actual partner. And what you don’t want from a partner. So you end up being much better at finding the right people to put in your life. And much better at setting boundaries with them, healthy boundaries. So actually, most sex workers have happier relationships than the average person.

When do you tell them you're a Dominatrix?

You have to be open right from the beginning. You can’t wait two months and then tell someone, “By the way, I whip men for a living and kick them in the balls." Personally, I don’t look for kinky partners, because it’s very emotionally tiring. I mean, I’m a naturally dominant alpha female. But having someone who just wants to take the back seat is very tiring, you always have to be taking the decisions. I don’t have the energy to take responsibility for another person.

Have you noticed an uptick in demand for BDSM?

I think Fifty Shades of Grey made a huge difference, didn’t it? Although it was essentially portraying abuse rather than BDSM. And we’re not even talking about how poorly written it was. But that brought BDSM to the forefront of popular culture. And then the internet made it all accessible at the click of a button. So more people are experimenting. Our Dominatrix school only opened six years ago. And you can see in the increase of kinky London club nights, too, that people no longer feel they have to hide.

Bonding is currently streaming on Netflix UK and US