Playboy Asia Mistress Yin first sashays onto the screen wearing head-to-toe leather, mile-high stilettos

PLAYBOY ASIA - Based on the true stories of a Chinese-American pro-domme, this web series is flipping the script

Written by Diana Hubbell

Mistress Yin first sashays onto the screen wearing head-to-toe leather, mile-high stilettos and a facial expression that says she means business. By day, she’s a top law student, but when duty calls, she heads to her private dungeon full of artfully arrayed toys designed to inflict both pain and pleasure. The new 10-part web series Mercy Mistress delves into her life as a queer, Asian-American dominatrix in New York City. Each episode spotlights a different client with a different kink, while simultaneously advancing Mei Yin Chen’s character development—think High Maintenance with less weed and more orgasms—and tackling societal preconceptions about queer femme sexuality and sex work in today’s world.

When I meet the real Mistress Yin, a.k.a. Yin Q, she’s sipping pinot noir in a plush downtown Manhattan hotel bar, seated across from director Amanda Madden and actor Poppy Liu, both of whom co-run Collective Sex, a group that aims to decolonize stories about sex and sexuality through media. In person, Q has a soothing, almost meditative voice and speaks with precision and authority. She is an activist, a published author, a mother, a Barnard grad with an MFA from The New School, and for more than two decades, a professional dominatrix and BDSM practitioner. Though there’s a thin fictional varnish over the show, everything in Mercy Mistress from bondage to foot fetishes is grounded in her own experiences.

“Every character is based on a person or a conglomerate of people that I’ve met and the stories are true stories,” Q says. “I’ve seen an incredible spectrum—everything from a circus clown to lots of artists. One of the things I wanted to stress through our story was the healing component. Even if people are coming to heal from a certain trauma in their life, there is the capacity to ritualize desires and create a connection that can be transformative.”

Although the show offers viewers an undeniably voyeuristic pleasure, Q hopes that it transcends mere entertainment and helps educate the general population about a world that is often marginalized or misunderstood.

Mercy Mistress comes at a moment when the future of sex workers in the United States is especially precarious. In March, President Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), a move that would hold website publishers responsible for any third-party content soliciting sex work. FOSTA-SESTA makes no distinction between consensual sex work and coerced sex trafficking. It also punches a gaping hole in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a vital piece of legislation that states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” As a result, the bills have already drawn widespread criticism from internet freedom of speech activists, as well as sex workers and those who advocate for their rights.

Courtesy Collective Sex/Mercy Mistress

“Over the last few years with the internet and social media, sex workers have been able to create alliances and become a stronger political force. The bill that has just passed basically takes away those platforms of information sharing and will further criminalize legit sex work and drive sex traffickers underground,” says Q. “There are survivors of sex work traffickers who are protesting against SESTA and FOSTA. They are with us in our meetings saying if these bills had been in place when they were being victimized, they would never have been rescued.”In this climate, she argues, it is crucial that the population understands what’s going on and what’s at stake. “That why it is so important that we make mainstream media that people can relate to on a story level,” says Madden. “I feel that’s sometimes the best defense against misinformation.” Mercy Mistress is hardly the first commercial work to attempt to shed light on sex work and BDSM. The last few years alone have given us The Deuce, George Pelecanos and David Simon’s gritty tale of the rise of the porn industry; The Girlfriend Experience, inspired by the 2009 Steven Soderbergh sleeper drama starring Sasha Grey as a high-end call girl; and the inescapable 50 Shades of Grey juggernaut. Unlike Mercy Mistress, which features a diverse cast and crew, many of whom have ties to the queer and kink scenes in New York, all of these more mainstream productions keep the lens focused on predominantly white, heterosexual characters.

While there’s no shortage of bare flesh in any of them, each in its own way fetishizes commerce more than copulation. In The Deuce, sex work is inseparable from hustle and exploitation in a ruinous depiction of 1970s New York. The Girlfriend Experience follows law student-turned-escort Christine Reade (Riley Keough) through a dream-like, glass-encased world of luxury hotel rooms, lobbies and restaurants, all rendered in a muted palette of beige, onyx and ash. Sex here is transactional, regardless of whether or not fat envelopes of cash change hands. Meanwhile in 50 Shades, the camera lingers seductively over Mr. Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) fleet of automobiles and blingy watches, while the two main characters engage in a whole lot of bland missionary.

Actors and directors in all of the aforementioned productions did some measure of homework. Maggie Gyllenhaal of The Deuce admits to changing her mind about pornography after speaking with retired sex workers. After a number of Skype interviews with escorts, The Girlfriend Experience’s director Amy Seimetz remarked, “I think what they really wanted to see was an actor’s portrayal that wasn’t villainizing them or making [the job] look super-easy, because it is work.” Dornan, however, claims to have needed a shower after visiting a BDSM dungeon and appears both ignorant of and disgusted by his subject matter.

“That is so damaging to the community that you’re trying to portray, that you’re monetizing,” Q says. Attitudes like that are part of what Q, Madden and Liu are hoping to combat, in part by going as far as possible to humanize their characters. Mistress Yin is neither a victim of circumstances nor a sensationalist happy hooker à la the 2007 series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, but rather a fully realized, functioning member of society. Much of show’s dramatic and comedic potency rests in the tension between her steely-eyed dominatrix persona and her day-to-day life. When the PVC comes off, we find out that like Liu, who was born in Xi’an and raised in Minnesota and Shanghai, she has a Chinese immigrant mother. And unlike The Girlfriend Experience, in which the protagonist snaps that she has no friends, Liu’s character has a healthy social and sex life outside of work.

“I have friends who hold gatherings for pro-dommes to get together to talk about how they handle clients and share dangerous clients—basically everything from self-care to how to file your taxes,” says Q, who insists that consensual sex work isn’t inherently alienating. That network of industry professionals helped when it came to research. To get into character, Liu followed real pro-dommes into their dungeons to observe sessions with the clients’ permission.

“Some of the clients were OK with me domming as a baby domme,” Liu says. “There was a lot of support in all of this and I definitely felt humbled going in as a student.”

Unlike Dornan, Liu says she enjoyed the learning process and never flinched at the show’s risqué scenes. From masturbating in a backroom to wielding a cane or a flogger, everything stayed within her comfort zone, with one exception: “The only discomfort was when I was in a full leather catsuit. Trying to rest basically meant being bent at a 45-degree angle,” she says with a laugh.

“Welcome to the femme-domme paradox,” Q says wryly. “What it means to a powerful, dominant woman and yet you can’t move.”

Courtesy Collective Sex/Mercy Mistress

Clearly, Collective Sex’s inclusive approach struck a chord, since people from all over pitched in more than $77,000 to their crowdfunding campaign. “We saw so many people from the leather community come together to make this,” Q says. “Emails poured in about how relieved they were to have an authentic voice from within the community speak their story.”Still, even with more donations than they ever bargained for, the pilot’s budget pales in comparison to the cool $12 million poured into the pilot for *The Deuce. *The trio in front of me describe working for little more than “Metrocard money” and scrimping to stretch their resources as far as possible. “Making film is expensive. Who’s going to have access to that to get their story out into the world and whose stories are left out?” Liu says. “That’s why we have these huge gaps in stories and why we keep seeing the same narrative over and over again.”

One thing is certain: The crew behind Mercy Mistress has no interest in repeating that narrative. They’re not trying to compete with glossier productions, but rather to do something entirely new and tell a story in a way it hasn’t been told before.

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