The Harm of Sloppy Storytelling

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Dominatrix Community Condemns Netflix Show ‘Bonding’ As ‘Inauthentic’ and ‘Problematic’ (IndieWire via yahoo.com)

I’m old enough that my first explorations of my sexuality online weren’t done on the Internet, but on local computer bulletin boards. I got regular Internet access when I first went off to college, and as wonderful of a resource as the Internet proved to be for that purpose, it also provided me with my first lessons about how “nothing ever really leaves the Internet,” long before anyone thought to coin that phrase (and back before things like Hotmail made it easier for us to construct alternate personas to use for those purposes). Combined with the devil-may-care attitude I had about a lot of things in those halcyon days, this led to my kinkiness becoming a very large part of my online identity from my first days on the Internet, and I don’t think much has changed since.

Back then, nearly everyone around me was worried about how my openness about being kinky might negatively affect my future prospects, and their fears weren’t unfounded. After how I’d had to live my life up until I got to Antioch, though, I couldn’t hold those parts of me in any longer. Broader trends in society have since made this less of a problem — everything from the mainstreaming of Bettie Page and Dita von Teese, to media like Secretary and Mercy Mistress — and although those trends may be reversing these past couple of years, I’ve been able to build up a track record that proves to everyone around me that my kinkiness doesn’t affect my ability to do what’s expected of me in my public and professional lives.

That initial shifting in trends in the nineties came at the same time as the broader public slowly began to realize that so many of the most harmful stereotypes about non-heterosexuals — that we’re predators, that we’re looking to hurt children, and so on — simply weren’t true. The same realizations seemed to start happening about non-cisgender people after that, but again, it’s hard not to feel like something changed a few years ago that reversed the progress that was being made, at least for a sizable chunk of the American people. Especially for those of us who have these identities, it feels almost impossible to explain how frightening it’s become for us to try to live day-to-day in America like we used to.

Expressions of sex that aren’t tied to sexual identity or gender have always existed in a very gray area in America — at once condemned but also utilized for their ability to sell people stuff, often times by the same entities — but it’s hard to ignore the regression and repression that’s been happening there as well. Particularly after the passage of SESTA/FOSTA just over a year ago, and the horrors that have resulted from that, it can feel like we’re already close to an Atwoodian dystopia. I’ve already suffered from this in my efforts to promote my novel The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, and that situation may be getting even worse now, which I’ll try to blog about here soon.

I hesitate to complain about my marketing efforts for my novel when so many sex workers are now afraid for their lives as a result of SESTA/FOSTA, and the climate that created such abhorrent legislation, but I feel compelled to bring it up in the context of Netflix’s Bonding, simply because of my experience in creating a work of art that takes sex work as one of its major themes. I’ve known many sex workers throughout my life, and for those who include safer sex educators under the umbrella of “sex workers,” I am also a sex worker because of the classes I started teaching back when I was at the University of Toledo. My own experiences with sex and sex work definitely influenced my novel, above and beyond the immersive research I’ve been able to do on sexuality throughout my life as a result of the communities I’ve inhabited.

That said, I wouldn’t dare to position myself as some kind of authority about sex work, or kinkiness, or anything like that. I don’t think that being a member of a community is an absolute necessity for having the authority to write about that community, but writing about a community as an outsider absolutely creates an immense burden of responsibility for the writer to do everything in their power to make sure that their written representations of a community, and its individual members, are as accurate as possible. Netflix series and feature films only differ from the apocryphal horror stories of predatory gays/transpeople/kinksters/etc. in terms of form. Often times. those word-of-mouth lies can find an even greater audience than most films or television shows.

When the community is already being actively marginalized, especially when parodies of the community are more commonplace than actual representations of them, misrepresentation becomes even more dangerous. There may be more information out there than ever before about kinky practices — “safeword” seems to be in mainstream American vocabulary now — but there’s been little done to accurately portray kinky communities in American media. Inaccurate local news reports about these communities are still legion, and the same people pushing false information on the American public (and deliberately working their followers into a frenzy using the same lies) have already been targeting sex-related topics (and the people involved with those topics) as one of their main points of attack.

The end result of this is the same sickening refrain that’s become endemic in American culture these days: As long as it’s done for laughs, few people seem to care. The tragic consequences of this kind of thinking became clear long before the most recent presidential campaign started, and they’ve only gotten worse since then. Bonding is just more proof that too many people fail to see the problem caused by this thinking, and that even more groups will now become victims of the same forces responsible for some of the worst behaviours of our time.

This is why representation — accurate representation — matters so much in the stories we tell. It’s not like there’s a dearth of stories out there by people actually involved in sex and sex work communities, and I don’t just say that as the author of a novel about sex work. (Seriously, though, please buy my novel.) If nothing else, there are more than enough bad stories out there, and especially for those of us being forced to constantly live through bad stories in our own lives, we could use some good stories. The more visible we make the good stories, the better off we’ll all be.

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