When it comes to popular entertainment, I hunger to see honest depictions of BDSM (or just any grown up treatment of sex, and the importance of it, in our lives). But so far, while BDSM has shown up in a handful of movies, it is rarely presented in a realistic way. Mostly, kinky elements are used to show the “brokenness” of a character, how mentally ill they might be, how hateful toward others or themselves. I hope one day that will change, and we will see more characters who find happiness and meaning and laughter in their kinky pursuits. In the meantime, here are a handful of movies (and one TV series) that are notable for their focus on BDSM.
Nearly two decades after its release, Secretary remains one of the most touching love stories ever put to film, and the fact that is a BDSM love story is simply the cherry on top. True, the dominant, an attorney played by the incomparable James Spader, is a little too guilty about his sadistic desire to spank his secretary for her mistakes. But he is implacably dominant nonetheless. Meanwhile, the lovely Maggie Gyllenhal inhabits the longings of the submissive secretary, Lee Holloway, with vulnerable authenticity. Their initially fraught conflict unfolds funny and true, and when he finally bends Lee over his desk for a spanking, it is as much a catharsis for us as it is the stunned and satisfied Lee. When the D/s couple hit their BDSM stride, we can actually see the joy in their power exchange, and how it feeds them both. Even when they stumble into a snag, and their relationship falls apart, it is not because they are “sick,” but because Mr. Gray is painfully denying his true nature. When he sets up a trial for Lee to prove her acceptance of him in all his sadistic glory, it feels wildly romantic. And the sweet epilogue of his “aftercare” shows the tenderness that lies at the heart of BDSM. One of my favorite movies of all time. (Available on streaming)
I was so excited to hear of a new movie that not only featured BDSM, but is entirely about a BDSM relationship, that it didn’t even much bother me that I had to sign up for a new service I don’t particularly want just to watch it. The plot is simple: Juha has lost his wife in a drowning accident. Years after, he still feels numb and unable to connect with people, until he meets Mona, a dominatrix. The movie starts strong, and fast, the characters are sympathetic for all their out-there-ness, and we can see how BDSM can be therapeutic for those in pain. Juha craves to be strangled until he passes out, and the enigmatic Mona is ready to oblige. The actors are riveting, and watching Mona’s face as she deprives her client of breath gave me a glimpse of what it must be like to wield such power. I was held still in my seat. When Juha is just short of dying, he thinks he can see his underwater dead wife. I was hooked, and oh how I wanted to know both characters more ... But alas, this is a European movie, with mostly mute characters and their tortured stares. We never really get to know what makes either character tick, and they descend into squirm-inducing extremes of pain and torture designed to make us think they are each certainly sick. Neither character enjoys their tumble into their dark longings, and it seems almost certain that they will drive each other to a violent finish ... But then, to my great relief, the end takes an unexpected turn, and our death-flirting protagonist even smiles for the first time. So at least there is that. I did like this provocative movie, even though I had to cover my eyes during one inexplicably cruel and bloody scene. Still, I felt disappointed that such a rich opportunity to portray the truth of BDSM was left untapped and steered toward torture porn instead. (Available only with a subscription to Shudder, a horror/thriller streaming service.)
This transfixing movie, and its complex protagonist Erika (played brilliantly by Isabelle Huppert), follows the emotional twists and turns of an unconventional couple: a middle-aged piano teacher and her charismatic young student, Walter. The dissatisfied Erika lives with a domineering mother and the abuse she suffers trickles down to her students. When Walter becomes infatuated with Erika, she is cold to him, until an encounter in a bathroom on the hard tile. It is an incredible scene, watching Erika dominate her young student, watching him respond to her domination in spite of himself. I was enjoying the ride, enjoying the heat between them. But, as it turns out, what Erika really wants is to submit to him, be punished by him. Walter is not on board with this, rejecting her, calling her sick and twisted (to my great sigh of disappointment). Fortunately, his obsession with her wins out and he shows up at her place to dish out the treatment she has tried so hard to convince him she wants. Although I’d felt a bit cheated by Erika’s switch (she seemed such a perfect dominant), I was looking forward to her swoon of satisfaction to finally be allowed to submit. But this movie was made 20 years ago, when people were not allowed to be satisfied by BDSM, but must be made to regret their interest. Erika reacts to the treatment she asked for as abuse, and seems to go a little insane ... It is a dreary end that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Too bad, because until the last ten minutes, the movie offered a most interesting look at the longing to feel alive that lives at the heart of BDSM. (Available on streaming)
Considering the wretched quality of the book on which it was based, and all the scorn heaped upon it for its unrealistic portrayal of BDSM, I didn’t sit down to watch this movie with high expectations. Yet it was not that bad. Yes, the fantasy plot is ludicrous, the dialogue wooden, and the lead character Anastasia Steel a judgmental thing and terrible submissive. But actor Dakota Johnson at least makes Ana lively and appealing (unlike Jamie Dornan, who’s glum performance is supposed to portray “brooding”). And there is something satisfying about a movie that is willing to be frank about unconventional sexual tastes, and focus on the centrality of sex in a relationship. But despite the movie’s best efforts, the only truly sexy scene was a spanking scene. And whatever naughty pleasures to be had by the sumptuously staged sex are undone by the eye-rolling plot from the book, in which the heroine, who seemed well-titillated by her lover’s predilection, turns against him because he dares want to “hurt” her. The BDSM critics were right to be outraged, this is not real BDSM, and it’s painful to know the rest of the world might think it is. If only the movie Secretary could have got as much attention. (Available on streaming)
What a delight to stumble on this hysterically funny and fun short-form series, released by Netflix in 2019. Over a season 7 episodes, each less than 20 minutes each, our protagonist Tiff (Zoe Levin), a New York City grad student, moonlights as a dominatrix, and enlists Pete, her gay best friend from high school, to be her assistant. Both characters are well-drawn, and well-acted. The situations are very adult, the dialogue is sharp and smutty, and there is even a turn toward depth and sweetness that makes us see the humanity in these people. Somehow this improbable set up becomes believable and relatable, and although it might not portray BDSM perfectly accurately, it definitely portrays absurd life and unpredictable sex accurately. The journey is worth every breezy minute, and how I look forward to Season 2. (Available on Netflix)
What the hell happened to Bonding in Season Two?
Rarely have I been more excited to view a new season of a show I adore, and rarely have I been more disappointed in the result. The second season of Bonding took a tart and frothy show that celebrated the absurd fun of kink and dragged it down into a dreary dungeon. The press that accompanied the season’s release says the first season caught a lot of flack from the BDSM community for not portraying consent or power dynamics in an accurate or “safe” way. I am guessing the show’s creator took his scolding to heart and bent over backwards to correct his alleged mistakes (which frankly, I never noticed because I was too busy laughing). But in trying to depict scenes that are more educated, they got considerably less funny, and tragically, left all the fun behind. Season One’s strong, swaggering dominatrix Tiff (aka Mistress May) has been reduced to passive, apologetic mush. She has very little dialogue in most scenes, reduced to listening as her mentor, the stern and unsmiling Mistress Mira, advocates ad nauseam for the high calling of the Domme. Yet, for such a noble calling, few scenes in the entire season showed any actual domination happening. Fortunately, Tiff’s “assistant” Pete (aka Master Carter) got to keep his personality this time around, and he and his travails were the only reason I stuck with the show through the last episode. But it was a joyless slog of speechifying and contrived conflict, with the rare exception of scenes that seemed to remember what Bonding originally was. Like the scene with a submissive wearing a dog mask crawling around on all fours while dominatrixes-in-training salivated to discipline him. Or the scene where the same women frolicked with bouncy strap-on dildoes. Oh, it was almost torture to see such brief glimpses of a once glorious show with BDSM at its center that is no more? (Available on Netflix)
Probably one of the first mainstream movies to ever explore BDSM, the 1986 so-called “erotic drama” 9 ½ Weeks starred Kim Basinger as the art gallery employee who falls for the kinky seductions of the Wall Street guy played by a smoldering Mickey Rourke. Based on a much darker memoir of the same name, and heavily edited for more puritan American audiences, the movie was a box office bomb in the U.S. at the time of its release. But over time, it has drawn a cult following of those who like to see sex portrayed onscreen in something other than porn. There are genuinely hot sex scenes aplenty, and the two gorgeous actors have great chemistry, but it is a sorry depiction of BDSM. It takes the usual Hollywood tack of considering a man interested in kinky sex to be a dangerous pervert who needs to be escaped. To be fair, Rourke’s character really is a wretched dominant: he doesn’t negotiate with the submissive he is trying to lure into his sexual service, he doesn’t respect her limits, he plays cruel headgames with her. As she considers whether she wants to live the seductive D/s life he is trying to convince her to live with him, who can blame her for thinking she should get away from him for her own sanity? It is too bad that BDSM and kink is stained with guilt by association with this bad dominant. It is also too bad for Basinger’s character, who is profoundly drawn toward submission, and would clearly be happy in a good D/s relationship. But instead, she turns her back on BDSM entirely because her partner didn’t know how to dom her right. The movie implies she “saved” herself, but really, I think she missed the boat entirely. (Available on streaming)
Unlike movies, in which BDSM is rarely depicted, the publishing industry has been besieged by kinky erotica (thanks E.L. James), most of it atrociously written. While it is fun to explore which of the many genres of erotica appeal to one (Victorian medical erotica anyone?), this site will rarely feature fiction or erotica reviews. Non-fiction books on BDSM, especially ones that explore the why of it all, are more interesting anyway. The following books offer lots of insight into the subject:
Often touted as the “BDSM bible,” this 1995 encyclopedic look at all things pain-giving is the most recommended BDSM book to beginners for a reason. Sure, this book by Phillip Miller and Molly Devon is a little dated now, but every type of kinky tool of torture is covered in surprising detail, with lots of fun photos to illustrate, and a playful tone that perfectly conveys the wickedly joyous nature of BDSM play. The best part of the book are the introductory chapters, which focus on the philosophy and “romance” of power exchange. I still recall where I was when I read the description of a deeply committed D/s relationship, how my chest swelled to read such a beautiful description of exactly what I was experiencing. The only flaw of the book is that these opening chapters are too short, and breeze by too quickly. The author clearly developed a wise and knowing philosophy of BDSM that would have been wonderful to read about more deeply.
Written by Morgan Thorne, this book dives right into its subject matter without preamble, and it takes awhile to figure out that it is written by a very knowledgeable professional Dominatrix. Thorne covers the basics without a lot of depth, but admirable scope. I learned some things I had never come across before — for example, a helpful explanation of the distinction between “resistance play” and Consensual Non-Consent — and that alone made it worth the purchase for me. This book is as advertised, all about the “discovering,” and would definitely be helpful when launching an exploration into BDSM play. But it is very much a workbook, heavy on repetitious questions and prompts, and light on specific suggestions that those more experienced in BDSM and looking for new ideas to expand their play might hope for.
Having long been equally fascinated and mystified by the allure of erotic humiliation (who knows how many times I have asked myself; how can I possibly like THAT?), this book had a lot to offer me. Princess Kali, a professional dominatrix, knows what she’s talking about, and thoroughly explains the reasons underlying erotic humiliation in plainspoken and playful writing. The early chapters were my favorite part of the book and talked about the psychological reasons not only for being drawn to humiliation, but for the pull of power dynamics on our psyches in general. I found myself highlighting many sentences and paragraphs because it explained the rationale for BDSM in ways I hadn’t come across before. Chapters on negotiation and safety were well-thought out and thorough. Which is why the second half of the book was mildly disappointing. Cleverly titled chapters which describe different types of humiliation were so thin on actual ideas that they read like outlines, as if someone forgot to fill in the details. Chapters called “Coitus Humiliation: Sex and Masturbation,” and “Things That Make You Go Ew: Putting Bodily Functions to Good Use,” had me eager to find more than just a few specific suggestions on how to take advantage of the perverse joys of humiliation in my own life. But the chapters were only a few pages that glossed quickly over a few suggestions, with no real depth to the how or why. Still, we did pick up several ideas we might play with in the future. And I will be buying more books from Princess Kali to learn more from her.
My Daddy Dom and I do not practice high protocol and don’t really want to (it wouldn’t fit our dynamic), but I had seen a review which said that reading this book was helpful in discovering rituals and protocols that might enrich a D/s relationship, so I bought it. On a long car trip, I read parts of this book aloud to my Dominant, and it prompted a truly dynamic-changing conversation. I will count this as one of the more transformative books of our own personal journey, because it was so clarifying on the whys of instituting protocols and inspired us to add more rituals to our daily routine. Maddeningly, the author made few specific suggestions beyond the usual ones you can find on most any how-to Web site. Instead of using actual examples of creating a new protocol for a submissive, the author would repeatedly use the phrase, “You just have to use your imagination.” Of course, if we could rely on our own imaginations to come up with our own rituals, we wouldn’t have bought the book! However, we did glean enough from the standard high protocol practices described within -- the stretch on “inspections” was particularly eye-opening for us — that we could talk through what kind of rituals and protocols would likely work for us. We got busy trying them out that first night — new inspection rituals, new exposure protocols. Within days, we were seeing the positive effects on our dynamic, to our great pleasure. A worthwhile read, high protocol or not.
When I read about the release of a new book of literary short stories entitled “Kink: Stories,” edited by R.O Kwon and Garth Greenwell, I thought, Finally! I was excited to read well-written stories about the thrill of kink, its pleasures, its complexities, its passions. Most of all, I wanted to read love stories enlivened and deepened by power exchange. But that is not what I found. Sure, if I squinted a little, I could make out an actual love story or two. But this story collection was primarily about confused or broken people inflicting things on each other for reasons that were occasionally artfully put. This is not the kink I know. [full review]
For a more in-depth look at the problems with this book:
The Commodification of Kink
— Daemonum X