May 172020
 

“Escape from the Dungeon!”, aired September 26, 2010

Bored to Death is an American comedy TV series (IMDB) about Jonathan Ames, a struggling writer who moonlights as an “unlicensed private detective”.

In “Escape from the Dungeon!” (S02E01), Jonathan meets Drake, a mounted NYPD officer, who needs his name removed from the hard drive of the BDSM dungeon he frequents before it is raided by the police. He says the dungeon is involved in money laundering, not that it will be raided for sex work charges.

Mistress Florence (Kristen Johnson) is not impressed with Jonathan
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Mar 162020
 

Desperate Housewives was a mystery/dramedy TV series concerning a group of four housewives in a suburban neighborhood who attempt to solve the mystery of the death of one of their friends. They also deal with various other challenges to their families.

One of the four wives, Bree (played by Marcia Cross), learns that her husband Rex (played by Steven Culp) has been cheating on her with another married woman, Maisy Gibbons (played by Sharon Lawrence), who is a sex worker and dominatrix. Maisy took this up for money when her husband lost his job.

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Jan 012020
 

Castle S02E16, “The Mistress Always Spanks Twice”, March 8, 2010 IMDB

Another day, another dead sex worker.

Sooner or later it seems every police or lawyer show does an episode about BDSM. Castle, about a bestselling mystery writer who uses his connections to ride along on police investigations, is no exception.

We open with the discovery of yet another dead sex worker, typical for this genre. She’s in lingerie, hanging from custom bondage cuffs, and slathered in caramel sauce. 

In the narrative logic of Castle, the murder of a person is less important than the series’ leads flirting. As the investigation proceeds, BDSM figures in two ways.

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Dec 312019
 

IMDB First aired 18 November 1998

DaVinci’s Inquest was a Canadian crime drama that aired from 1998 to 2005. The lead character of coroner Dominic DaVinci is based on real-life Vancouver coroner and later mayor Larry Campbell. 

As is typical for this sub-genre, episode S01E07, “The Stranger Within”, begins with the discovery of a dead sex worker. In this case, she’s dumped in a parking lot. 

The medical examiner reveals, first, that the victim, Allison Cody, had signs of multiple beatings, which leads DaVinci to suspect sadomasochism. One of the major threads of this episode is the indeterminate cause of her death, which appears to be a pulmonary embolism that might be caused by the bruises from her beatings.

Mistress Harriet (Lisa Howard) is on guard against Dominic Da Vinci (Nicholas Campbell)
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Dec 072019
 

Secret Diary of a Call Girl (IMDB) is a British dramedy TV series focusing on Belle, also known as Hannah (played by Billie Piper), a young woman experiences in different kinds of sex work.

Belle (Billie Piper) in session with her accountant (Simon Kunz(

Episode 4 of series 1 (untitled, premiered 18 October 2007), directed by series creator Lucy Prebble, starts off with Belle having a session with her tax accountant, as he’s also a client. He says, “I don’t want you to be nice to me.” She doesn’t know anything about this, commenting later, “All that pain and paraphernalia, I don’t really get it.”

This request sends Belle to her manager.

Manager: “I was a domme for a while. I tell you, there’s no fucking money in it.”

Belle: “I’m not changing career. I just want to give it a go.”

Manager: “Good. I understand. You do this job long enough, you’ll want to kick the shit out of a man, eventually.”

The manager puts her in touch with “Mistress Sirona” (Sally Dexter).

Belle (Piper) gets advice from Sirona (Dexter)

While it is good that Belle seeks out advice from someone experienced in the field before her session with her accountant, this is where the episode goes over the top. First, “Mistress Sirona” drops by Belle’s flat in full dominatrix outfit. Second, she’s accompanied by her male slave, who strips naked as soon as he enters Belle’s place. Apparently, she’s combining her social call to Belle with a client session.

Sirona: “So why not send your client my way?

Belle: “I’m curious.

Sirona: “Curiosity is a first step to enlightenment.”

Belle: “I thought it killed the cat.”

Sirona: “Belle, I like you. I like anyone with an open mind and clean shoes. Just to be clear, though, I take this job seriously.

Belle: “Of course.

Sirona: “Some people meditate, some people pray.

Belle: “Sure.

Sirona: “And fetish is not something for working girls to retire to once their tits have started to sag.

Belle: “My tits are fine.” 

Mistress Sirona (Sally Dexter) demonstrates on her slave (Darren Clarke) for Belle

Sirona gives Belle her brief introduction to the practice and theory of kink, including impact play and bondage on her slave.

Belle: “What about the sex?”

Sarona: “There is no sex.”

Belle: “None at all? How do you know when you’re finished?”

Sarona: “My watch beeps. I’m a goddess to my slaves. That’s what they want. I wouldn’t stoop to sex with them. Plus I’m a married woman.”

Belle: “He knows?”

Sarona: “Of course. Our sitting room’s a dungeon.”

In her book Dominatrix, Danielle J Lindemann explores the particular role of professional dominatrixes and their relationships to other types of sex workers. She says that pro dommes, their clients, and the mainstream media have jointly cultivated a professional mystique around the female dominant sex worker. The idea is that they are an elite with specialized expertise, who are authentically interested in dominance; not that they’re women, performing a job with varying degrees of skill, dedication and enthusiasm, for clients with money.

Secret Diary buys into this mystique, and doesn’t critique any of it. It even copies the “healing” rationale of pro domme work, as Sirona tells Belle that what she provides is “a huge relief.”

In a montage in the middle of the episode, Belle shops for the clothing, the implements and the furnishings for this new role. She even redecorates her flat with a pair of giant Gothic candelabras. There are obligatory shots of the arrays of bondage and impact gear, and a full-body shot of Belle in her new latex dress, corset and heels. Presumably her accountant is paying for all of this, even though Belle might not keep any of it. This fits with the consumerist ethos of Secret Diary, which links upscale escort work with a luxurious lifestyle. As Barbara Ehrenreich et al. observed in Re-Making Love, sadomasochism is the perfect form of sexuality for a consumerist society.

Belle (Piper) gets into costume, if not character.

One of the problems of this episode is that Belle treats the role of dominatrix as something she can acquire in a package, rather than something she has grown into. When she’s in the full outfit, she’s not completely comfortable, which is emphasized by the squeaking of the rubber dress as she moves and her awkwardness on the high heels. This fits one of the series’ themes: Belle trying on different identities at the behest of her clients.

When the accountant shows up, Belle says in an aside to the camera:

“Everything’s worked out in advance. The script, the scenario, even the insults I’m going to use have been agreed with over email.”

While it’s good that this is made clear, wouldn’t showing the negotiation between Belle and the accountant have been interesting? Perhaps, but it would have detracted from the glamorous fantasy.

Belle and her client

As the scene progresses, Belle stumbles a few times. First, she doesn’t know how to read her sub’s responses. She has to ask for “Red, amber or green?” “Green,” he says.

Belle (to camera): “How do you know if you’re doing it right? In my job, if you make a man come, that’s success. With this I can’t even tell if he’s enjoying it.”

Her second problem is that she runs out of things to do to him. After a quick call to Sirona for advice, she puts him to work scrubbing her toilet. While this keeps him busy, she makes a few calls.

The B-plot is that Belle has just learned that Ben, the guy friend she has a crush on, is getting married. This puts a rift in their friendship, and Belle responds by pushing him away. Later, when she finally takes one of his calls during her session with the accountant, he points out that she’s always secretive and controlling, and she’s punishing him by avoiding her calls. In other words, sadomasochistic dynamics of control, punishment and suffering can occur in any relationship.

Belle gets angry and starts to take it out on her accountant, vigorously using all of the implements. He red-safewords but she keeps going for a few more strokes until he calls her “Belle.” “I don’t want scars.” (Note, however, that the accountant says he can’t have marks, not that Belle has gone over his physical limits.)

Belle is stunned, sits down, asks Accountant to help her undo her dress.
They apologize to each other. Belle recommends Sirona to him.

The episode ends with Belle telling her friend Ben about her sex work.

Belle (voice over): “Sirona was right. Hurting people is a very special talent. S&M has taught me one thing. Maybe absolute control isn’t always best. Maybe sometimes, you’ve got to give a bit away.”

While Secret Diary is fairly positive in its portrayal of BDSM, it’s also pretty shallow; there’s only so much one can cover in 22 minutes. Much like Personal Services, it’s focused on the emotional-commercial transaction between hetero male clients and female providers, and doesn’t explore adjacent areas like non-commercial BDSM or maledom/femsub interactions. Certainly no indication of why a woman would want to be a top/dominant for any reason other than money.

Belle/Hannah was played by Billie Piper, best known as companion Rose Tyler in the revival of Doctor Who. Mistress Sirona was played by Sally Dexter, who also played a dominatrix character in Adult Babies (2017).

Nov 052019
 

Hardcore (IMDB) is a 1979 crime drama film written and directed by Paul Schrader.

The plot is that Jake (George C. Scott), a mid-Western family man and devout Calvinist, searches through the sex work underground for his daughter after she disappears in Los Angeles, then turns up in a porn film.

Hardcore bears a strong resemblance to 8MM. Both are Orpheus narratives: a man descends into the underworld to find a lost loved one. It also taps into the American captivity narrative. It provides an interesting glimpse into the sex work underworld of Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Again, like 8MM, there’s no particular investigation of the people who work in the sex industry. (Somebody did do enough research to drop names like the Mitchell brothers.)

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Oct 252019
 

One Shocking Moment (IMDB) is a 1965 exploitation drama film, written and directed by Ted V. Mikels. Unlike some other movies discussed in this project, it has a coherent narrative and recorded dialog.

Newlyweds Cliff and Mindy leave their home town so Cliff can get a big corporate job in LA. They settle into an apartment complex. This is the sleazy side of the sixties when everybody smoked like chimneys and drank like fish, and men cheerfully belittled and objectified women. Cliff even does so right in front of his new wife, with only her mild objections. Cliff starts an affair with his boss’ secretary, while lonely Mindy drifts into an implied lesbian affair with her neighbor Tanya, a lesbian nightclub owner.

Tanya (Verne Martine) gets down to business
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Jul 142019
 

Not every film I study in this project has a lot to say about sadomasochism. In some cases, these may be single scenes or even brief moments.

Dancing at the Blue Iguana (2000) is a semi-improvised drama about the exotic dancers at a club and their various struggles in life.

Jo (Jennifer Tilly) has a smoke break outside the Blue Iguana
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Jun 122019
 

Belle De Jour (1967) is a French drama directed by Luis Bunuel and starring Catherine Deneuve.

Note: quotes are from the English dubbing, not the subtitles.

Deneuve plays Séverine (a name probably chosen for its link to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs), the beautiful young wife of a surgeon, Pierre. They seem to have the perfect life, but Séverine is sexually unresponsive, what at the time they would have deemed “frigid.” (“Frigidity” is not a term used any more, at least not clinically.) The only way she can be aroused is by imagining herself in scenarios of degradation and slavery.

In Severine’s (Catherine Deneuve) fantasy, Pierre (Jean Sorel) oversees the men whipping his wife.
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Jun 102019
 

Personal Services (1987) is a comedy-drama directed by Terry Jones.

The DVD I had begins with text that says “This film is a fiction. The author’s inspiration was a book about Cynthia Payne. However the events recorded in the film and the characters who appear in it are wholly fictitious. This is not the life story of Cynthia Payne.” This is a bit disingenuous, as Payne, a notorious UK madam, is listed in the credits as “Consultant.”

The police raid the establishment of Christine Painter (Julie Walters)
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