Love and Leashes: Bad boys ask for consent, then punishment

Communication, boundaries and consent. We love to see it.

I’m from Singapore, a place where people have opinions about other people’s relationships. Shit, even the government has lots of opinions about other people’s relationships. It was only this year, the year Twenty Twenty-Three, that we finally repealed Section 377A, which criminalised even consensual sex between adult men. But even though 377A has been thrown into the incinerator (it’s not recyclable; at least, I hope not), the government continues to have opinions about relationships through its regulation of mainstream media content (no promoting “alternative lifestyles”) and school curriculum, through its refusal to extend marriage and adoption to same-sex couples, and through housing policies that favour heterosexual Singaporean couples. Apart from that, ordinary citizens also have thoughts about other people’s business: from conservatives complaining about children’s books featuring different types of families to racist uncles ranting about interracial couples.

This is all very tiresome, because ultimately the shape and form a relationship takes is really only the business of the people involved in said relationship. (This doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships, btw.) The only opinions that matter are those involved; if all parties consent and are satisfied, everyone else can !$%# off.

Love and Leashes, a romantic comedy (based on a web toon, which I haven’t read but now want to) available on Netflix, approaches this theme from an angle you might not have expected in an easy-to-watch Korean meet cute. Jung Ji-woo (played by Seohyun) is a no-nonsense office worker in the PR department of a company that creates content for children. She’s smart, focused and good at her job, which would be perfect if her boss weren’t a gross sexist asshole who downplays her contributions, leaves his finished drinks by her desk—not necessarily because he’s deliberately targeting her; it’s more that he takes it for granted that someone else will clean up after him—and tells her to smile more. It’s a clear demonstration of her professionalism that Ji-woo hasn’t slapped him, even though we can all see how much she wants to.

When Jung Ji-hoo (played by Lee Jun-young) transfers into the PR department from another part of the company, Ji-woo doesn’t hesitate to admit to a co-worker that she’s interested in him. He’s cute, competent and well-mannered. And even better: he’s not a sexist prick and uses his male privilege to back Ji-woo up and get their useless department head to see sense. He’s instantly popular with everyone, and women from his former department still show up to fawn over him. But Ji-hoo harbours a closely guarded secret under that Mr Perfect exterior, which Ji-woo stumbles upon after a mishap involving a parcel and their very similar-sounding names.

The secret is: Ji-hoo is into BDSM. More specifically, he’s a submissive in search of someone to dominate him. It’s something he keeps tightly under wraps because past experiences, and the advice of others in an anonymous BDSM web portal, leave him terrified of backlash, ostracisation or even threats to his livelihood. In Ji-woo, though, he sees the ‘master’ he’s been looking for. Unfamiliar with BDSM at first, Ji-woo is taken aback by Ji-hoo’s proposal, but curiosity gets the better of her and she eventually agrees to a temporary arrangement. Once she makes the commitment, Ji-woo does her homework to make sure she plays the domme role to the best of her ability (we wouldn’t expect any less from her). Of course, being a rom-com, our unconventional duo find themselves dealing with feelings that fall outside the boundaries of their BDSM contract. And I don’t think I have to provide spoilers for you to know how a rom-com ends.

I’ve been teaching consent, boundaries, equal relationships and sex ed to teenagers for over half a decade now (phrasing it like this because I honestly can’t remember the exact number of years I’ve been doing this), and I kind of wish I could screen this film in class with the kids. Unfortunately the BDSM theme landed the film an R21 rating, so I doubt I’d be allowed even if we had time during the jam-packed workshops. It’s a pity, because Love & Leashes does a much better job with consent than many of the PG13 romantic comedies out there—some of which are so problematic we’ve actually shown scenes as examples of how sexism and double standards are normalised in the media and in pop culture.

Click the Instagram embed above to get a quick and easy summary of the components of consent!

When thinking about BDSM in pop culture, arguably the most prominent example that comes to mind is Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve never watched the films, although I did attempt to read the book—I gave up because the writing was so bad it actually made me angry—but it’s been pointed out by writers who have delved into this far more than I have that the BDSM relationship in Fifty Shades is highly problematic because the consent that the female lead gives to her domineering boyfriend is often very shaky, coming more from insecurity and fear of him walking away than an enthusiastic desire to participate in his kink. As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic: “Fifty Shades eroticizes sexual violence, but without any of the emotional maturity and communication required to make it safe.”

That’s not the case in Love and Leashes. Ji-woo is new to BDSM, but she does her research and enters the relationship with her eyes open—in fact, she’s the one who finds a contract template online for dom-sub pairs that she gets Ji-hoo to sign. The rules and boundaries are set before they do anything: the period of the contract’s validity, the frequency of their BDSM play, their safe word, how Ji-woo wants to be addressed by the submissive Ji-hoo. Play sessions are planned. Ji-woo is sharp and authoritative with her orders, as she’s expected to be the one in charge, and sometimes their sessions involve inflicting pain, but there’s no coercion or emotional manipulation.

(I think it also helps that, unlike Fifty Shades where the skewed power dynamics [older man/younger woman, billionaire/university student] are really stark, Love and Leashes has the male character, respected and loved at work, as the sub, while the female character, who is constantly belittled and sidelined in the office, takes on the role of master.)

Consent is front and centre in Love and Leashes. It’s present in all the lead characters’ interactions, in overt and deliberate ways that show these characters thinking (and communicating!) about consent rather than just acting on some vague ‘instinct’. It’s incredibly refreshing, especially when compared to romances that ply the idea that, if two people are meant to be, they’d magically figure out each other’s needs and desires based on vibes or soulmate-ism alone.

The fact that consent is such a big part of Ji-hoo and Ji-woo’s relationship brings us back to what I opened this newsletter with: societal norms and expectations versus people’s personal and private choices. The stigma against Korea’s BDSM community is made clear throughout the film; it is a shadow that hangs over Ji-hoo, informing his choices and behaviour. But when two people enter into a personal relationship—whether romantic, sexual, kinky or anything else—with confident and enthusiastic consent, then how is it anyone else’s business? In exploring this question, Love and Leashes delivers not just sweetness and heart, but also catharsis.