What do you think of when you hear “BDSM”? Do you think of pain and torture? Leather and dark dungeons? Confinement and control? Or do you think of pleasure and release? Do you think of freedom? There’s a good chance that, thanks to news reports and various media consumption, that there’s only one version of BDSM (short for “bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism”), and that’s the version that sees one person in full control and the other at their mercy, usually involving some kind of abuse. Having its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2023 is writer/director Todd Max Carey’s tOuch Kink, a documentary aimed at the curious rather than the experienced which follows Masters and Mistresses, as well slaves and submissives in order to elucidate a general audience on the subject matter. It should go without saying, but tOuch Kink is for mature audiences only, unflinching at nudity yet displaying disinterest in the fetishes of the flesh in favor of focusing on the aspects those in the “vanilla” crowd may not know or understand.
If you don’t understand some of the terms above, don’t fret. Carey does a fairly good job of making sure that terms are defined, even if contextually. “Vanilla,” for instance, refers to those who tend not to incorporate any form of play in their sex life, be it toys, costumes, or other materials beyond each person’s own body. If you’re not familiar with terms like “kink” or “kinkster” and even “fetish,” you won’t get a solid definition, certainly not a clinical one, as Carey makes it clear that tOuch Flesh is for those who may have seen Fifty Shades of Grey (2016) moreso than those coming in fully blind. To be clear, Fifty Shades isn’t the model of BDSM and Carey quickly slides in experts who proclaim and explore as such, but it’s the presumed on-boarding upon which the rest of the documentary functions, operating off an assumption that you know at least that much in order to process what follows. What’s great is that tOuch Kink doesn’t look down on those people whose starting point is Fifty Shades so much as keep the focus on clarifying what BDSM incorporates and breaking as many myths as possible in the process.
Building off of this, Carey sections off the documentary in four distinct parts, absent introduction and epilogue, that follow, what he states, are the four parts of a BDSM engagement, specifically referred to as a scene: negotiation, consent, play, and aftercare. Through the introduction, Carey sets up concepts, introduces a few of the individuals taking part in the traditional talking head interviews, and showcases a few moments that we’ll end up revisiting throughout the doc. Carey even makes a point to walk through the various incarnations/evolutions of the public and medical fields by showing off the different definitions as provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known in its current edition as the DSM-5. It is, however, within these four sections that Carey’s investigation actually occurs, using the four stages of a scene to learn not only about each of the subjects in some capacity, but to either dispel perception, actually show off how someone engages in a specific form of play, or listen to the ways in which people who participate in BDSM feel transformed positively as a result.
One aspect that gets repeated regarding its significance within the community constantly throughout is the definition of consent. Put simply by Ernest Green (described as a writer, director, and dominant) is “no mean no and yes means yes.” He goes on to explain that all parties in the scene are responsible for being honest and truthful and respecting the other person. So once the scene begins, the dominant (dom) knows how far to push the submissive (sub) and the submissive knows that the dominant has checked in with them prior to this to see what they are and are not comfortable with. Most importantly, if either one is uncomfortable, they merely need to use their safe word and the scene stops. Though it’s not explicitly defined, the term scene refers to the BDSM activities that the dom and sub engage in versus the way it’s used in television or film, but more like a play where each participant knows their roles, each having given their consent to be involved. In the case of NOFX’s Fat Mike and dominatrix/lifestyle kinkster Soma Snakeoil, the audience both watches their talking head interviews as they express their own views and feelings on BDSM intercut with footage of them engaging in play, which they also discuss. So a scene isn’t necessarily in a “dungeon” or set space, it could be at a public pool amid fellow kinksters, at a convention like DomCon, or anywhere else that the dom and sub(s) have agreed to.
Each step of the documentary, Carey follows a direct path from outward-in and the whole thing truly zooms along. One doesn’t feel like they are being lectured or that they’re observing something deviant; rather, there’s a sense of welcoming and sharing. Meant as the highest of compliments, tOuch Kink possesses the same energy and style of an episode of HBO’s sexual documentary series Real Sex which explored different aspects of sex and kink, always with the intent of educating the audience versus judging the subjects. Interestingly, Carey grows concerned that his own view is being warped by his time with the subjects and finds a vanilla individual, Grace, to be a proxy for a bit. Rather than offer an impartial perspective for Carey, Grace comes off as more of a surrogate for those in the audience who still can’t get past their biases. It’s a choice that further breaks barriers in terms of what one “thinks” about BDSM versus what it is.
But the documentary isn’t all hot wax and leather. There’s no clear explanation of where Grace comes from or why she was selected. Some of the scenes that she’s in could be staged as she sits on the phone and we hear a voice reply on the other end, but we presume, in good faith, that she is having the conversation live versus engaging with a proxy whose dialogue is edited in. Through Grace, we’re introduced to Cupcake, a sub, who we get to know quite deeply, but it’s done with a speed in which perhaps more build-up or connection would make more emotionally investing. There’s also a sense created that the Masters and Mistresses are to be revered due to their longevity, but we, the newly-inducted, aren’t given a reason as to why, making some of the material fall a little flat due to lacking a connection. Lastly, there’s a moment wherein one starts to question the totality of what we’ve seen when an item is dated for the future, but is spoken of in the past. It could be a misprint or an honorarium that we, the documentary audience, are being secreted in on, but, being aware that a documentary is merely a genre of filmmaking and not an always-honest depiction of events, this could be an instance of manipulation that we haven’t consented to.
tOuch Kink does a lot of great work in its 75-minute runtime. It welcomes foreign audiences into private spaces, presents them information that they may have only guessed at, which dispels terrible rumors, and places before the willing a starting-point to learn more. Would it be great to have clearer definitions for terms or titles as the subjects speak from such a place of authority that one must rely on context for clarity? Sure. But then the experience might be more watered down and detached. Audiences need to understand that BDSM, at least as Carey explores it, isn’t some cold and depraved thing, but an act of revolution and revelation that two or more parties engage in together with full consent. It’s no different than a vanilla couple who have outlined what it is they’re comfortable with in their day-to-day and sexual experiences, just with a bit more range in options. Carey’s doc certainly makes a strong case that kink doesn’t have to be a dirty four-letter word.
Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.