A Detailed Review of the Sex Scenes in the Kinkiest Major Movie Since Fifty Shades

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Sanctuary stars Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott. Should you let it have its way with you?


Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) erotically tortures Hal (Christopher Abbot) in the BDSM film

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus and NEON

In Sex Reviews, writers offer a sober critical assessment of the sex scenes in new films. This installment contains spoilers for the movie Sanctuary.

Sanctuary stars Christopher Abbott as Hal, an heir to a hotel fortune who is finally inheriting control of his father’s company and is deeply insecure about it, and Margaret Qualley as Rebecca, a dominatrix who isn’t about to let him end their working relationship, though he would like to. The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year to great reviews, and is opening in theaters this week.

As a subject for Sex Reviews, Sanctuary presents an interesting problem. This is a movie about a sex worker and a client. But as Rebecca is a dominatrix, her relationship with Hal has involved no touching—or at least that was the case at one point! So the penetrative sex in Sanctuary is a little sparse on the ground. (This is no Sex/Life.) Despite that, in some ways this entire movie, which is an epic cat-and-mouse game between two people who are trying to out-manipulate one another, could be described as a “sex scene.” Or could it?

Getting into it below are Rebecca Onion, a Slate senior editor, and Olivia Snow, a professional dominatrix and research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry.

20:00: Rebecca Makes Hal Clean His Bathroom. In the Middle of It, She Allows Him To Jerk Off.

Rebecca Onion: This character has my name, which is going to make my utter lack of knowledge about what a dominatrix does seem kind of confusing! Hopefully things will be disambiguated sufficiently soon.

Olivia Snow: To be fair, it’s probably her nom de domme, not her real name. But there’s no confusion on my end because I’ve just been calling you Mistress Onion.

Onion: I would love to know a few basic things about this scene, which takes place before Hal tells Rebecca that he wants to discontinue the relationship and things between them go all cattywampus. As the scene develops, with Hal scrubbing the toilet and Rebecca berating him about how poor of a job he’s doing—using lines, we find out later, that Hal has written for her to recite—Rebecca says to Hal something like: “You can jerk off, but if you come, I will ruin your fucking life.”

Later on in the story, after she starts trying to get him to take back his resolution to quit her, she actively tries to blackmail him, saying she has videos of the things they’ve done. This feels like a little preview of that: She’s implying she will tell people about them, isn’t she? And Hal is the one who wrote this scene. So is that something Hal is finding to be a turn-on, maybe? Or am I misinterpreting that?

My other question, related to that: Is it common for a client to write lines for a scene that they want a dominatrix to perform verbatim, like Hal does for Rebecca?

Snow: This is a good place to differentiate between what in the film seems to be “sex work” versus what’s “real life.” My read was that Rebecca’s off the clock once the scene ends and she takes her wig off. Everything she does before that is consensual and pretty standard domination: your run-of-the-mill blackmail kink with a side of edging. And she is working—I felt like I was in the middle of a double session while I was watching it! But the scene ends when she says “I know everything about you,” per the script we see abandoned on the floor, so I assumed that everything that followed—after their post-session dinner—was real life and not part of a scene.

So to go back to blackmailing: Yes, it seems pretty clearly to be one of Hal’s kinks, but the thing about kinks, especially kinks like blackmail, is that they’re fantasy, not reality. Her threatening to blackmail him after the scene ends is not normal dominatrix fare. It’s a major violation of consent in pretty much every way.

As for scripts—that’s not uncommon at all. (I actually keep the scripts clients give me in a little folder somewhere because they’re usually hilarious.) Some are more flexible, and some clients want you to stay completely committed to the scene as written. Those clients tend to have kinks that are hyperspecific. I’ve had a handful who need the script followed to the T, but a better example of hyperspecificity might be this one client—he’s a bit of a New York City BDSM legend—who has to make sure all your teeth are exactly the way he wants before he’ll session with you. Anyway, the only thing unusual about the session in the film was that Hal seemed to be a half-decent writer.

40:40: Rebecca Describes Other Things She Has Done With Hal Over the Years

Onion: Now we’re into the main, fighting-it-out part of the movie, where Hal has told Rebecca he “no longer needs her” because he’s inherited his dad’s company and wants to believe he’s “beyond” the version of himself who got enjoyment out of their sessions, and she’s refusing to leave quietly. This line where Rebecca describes a past incident in which she gave Hal a saliva sample, allowed him to do a DNA test on her that revealed her to be 100 percent Ashkenazi Jewish, then read aloud the results to him while he “milked himself with a loofah he took from his own mother’s shower”—this had me cracking up heartily.

Snow: The Ashkenazi detail is interesting because it suggests that Hal was hoping to start a family with Rebecca. Short of conversion, you’re only considered Jewish by matrilineal descent in all denominations except Reform Judaism, and even that’s a very recent change. I’m half Ashkenazi—on my dad’s side—so a lot of Jews don’t consider me “a real Jew.” I remember that back when I was broke in college and thinking about selling my eggs, Jewish couples would specify that donors had to be 100 percent ethnically Jewish. (I wouldn’t have been eligible anyway because I’m nuts, but that’s beside the point.) We don’t know if Hal himself is Jewish, but I can’t think of any other reason why this would matter to him.

Coincidentally, the only person I’ve ever known named Hal was a Jewish client, and he also had a bit too much of an … intimate relationship with the Oedipal complex.

58:00: Rebecca and Hal Have Penetrative Sex, Face-to-Face, While She Holds a Knife to His Throat

Onion: Whew. In this scene, Rebecca forces Hal to remain still while she straddles him, tells Hal that she’s ovulating, and commands him to come inside her.

Snow: So this was the first moment that gave me pause. There are differing perspectives on pro-dommes taking off our clothes in session or having sex with our clients. My experience is entirely as a pro-domme in New York City, which is more high-protocol than, say, the Bay Area, and has been this way since long before the pandemic, which ushered in a lot of online adult-content creators who tend to have a different relationship to nudity than in-person workers. But the old-school party line is that pro-dommes do not take off our clothes or have sex with our clients, which is also a legal distinction. Nudity guidelines vary from place to place, but sex is strictly prohibited at commercial dungeons in New York City, especially since the raids in the late aughts. This wouldn’t apply to Rebecca because she’s independent, and some independent dommes do offer full service, but sex isn’t typically understood to be domination.

So I made peace with this scene by thinking that maybe she’s using him as a human dildo—but then again, she’s off the clock! The boundaries in their relationship are too hazy for comfort. When is she working? And is she really his mistress, because she seems more like a scorned girlfriend …

Onion: The boundaries are nonexistent and keep changing by the minute! While she’s using him as (as you say) a human dildo, she tells him all about how she’s going to have his baby and he’s going to put the kid to bed every night and they’re going to be a little nuclear family. It’s like … she’s off the clock, and she’s not doing the kind of thing she’d do if she were working with him as a client, but—she’s still fucking with him, trying to own him, as it were. Maybe she’s referring, in some way, to that time he made her take a DNA test, and playing with the idea that he wanted to reproduce with her. She’s trying to show him that she can change his future as she pleases and redirect what happens in his life, at her whim. And … I think he likes it? After they finish, she announces that she has endometriosis and would probably not be able to have kids anyway. Ha!

Snow: To be fair, I’m still very dominant when I’m off the clock, and I do deeply enjoy fucking with people, but this seems like something else. Since the film starts with a blackmail scene, Rebecca’s blackmailing him in real life strikes me as a deliberate violation of boundaries if not of consent; ditto her producing revenge porn by secretly filming their sessions. She also flagrantly disregards the safe word, which would be unacceptable even in a consensual nonconsent scene. But then again, she’s off the clock! 😵‍💫

1:30:00: The Movie Ends With Hal Promising to Give Rebecca His Company

Onion: Through the course of the movie’s plot, as it develops, Hal has promised to give Rebecca various things: A fancy watch as a retirement present. Six million dollars. A child, and a co-parenting relationship. As he yells at her, frustratedly, none of these things seem to be what she actually wants!

In this last scene, in the elevator, as she’s leaving his apartment, he decides to do something she suggests: Buy out the board of his company so that he’s in sole control of it. But then, he lays out to her, he’ll give her the company—make her into the CEO. He’ll become the person in her life who does everything else: The cooking, the cleaning, the home admin. (The way Christopher Abbott, who plays Hal, inserts the word “sex” into the list of things he proposes to do for Rebecca, in this studiously offhand little way, is really funny. Good acting job there.) She says something like: “Isn’t what you’re describing being a slave?” And he’s like, “That’s what I was born to be.” And then … they kiss.

Dear God! What a scene. My questions for you … I’m sure this is wildly, uh, unprofessional. Do dominatrixes ever do this? Transform a relationship from client–pro into something more everyday, domestic, and ongoing? And also, a question for you as a viewer: Do you think Rebecca was aiming for this outcome all along?

Snow: It is wildly unprofessional! Lots of dommes, myself included, have personal submissives, many, if not most, of whom start out as clients. Some clients may become friends, but a client turning into a boyfriend is unusual. That said, it’s a common client fantasy—I’ve had to fire several submissives for trying to date me—which makes me think that the screenwriter identified more with Hal than with Rebecca, to put it diplomatically. Rebecca could have been gunning for a relationship—she indicates that the relationship went from professional to personal when she dumped her fiancé and “quit [her] job”—but I’d like to think a dominant would simply say that rather than going through this extended passive-aggressive boundary-busting charade. Then again, she does love fucking with him—to which I can very much relate—so who’s to say!

The kiss at the end left me with a bad taste in my mouth, so to speak. I don’t, for the most part, give a shit what other dommes do in session, but especially with this being a film with a theatrical release, I didn’t appreciate its pushing the misconception that dommes fuck our clients, make out with them, secretly want to date them, or that we’re incapable of maintaining boundaries between sessions and real life. In reality you have to have very rigid boundaries to survive in this industry without burning out or getting seriously hurt, and Rebecca flouts all of that.

Consent in professional domination, especially in a violent culture that criminalizes both BDSM and sex work, is sacrosanct. Rebecca throws all of that out the window for a cool $6 million. Maybe that’s her tribute for what you and I both thought was her off-the-clock behavior, but I think it’s more likely that neither the director nor the screenwriter thought to consult with any real pro-dommes. And for me, that makes this film yet another reflection of the way our culture dehumanizes sex workers. We’re not fit to tell our own stories, and the civilians who do speak for us don’t care—don’t even consider—how their fantasy narratives ultimately contribute to real violence against real sex workers. And while I initially thought they must have consulted with a pro-domme to achieve that opening scene, I now think the reason the scene works is because it so masterfully caters to a fantasy that clients pay us to imbue with life and make real.

But hey, at least it wasn’t Secretary, right?


Onion: At the end of a Sex Review, we usually judge the cultural product by a simple metric: How horny did consuming this Thing leave you, on a scale of 1 to 10? For me: Maybe a 3 or 4? I’m not really into lies and arguments—they don’t turn me on—which may be part of what makes me a vanilla baby. But I did think the actors had chemistry, and convincingly enjoyed themselves, each in their own ways, in the one major sex scene—which I didn’t mind watching.

What about you? I suspect your number may be, uh, low!

Snow: I started out at a 7 or 8 because that opening scene (i.e., the actual session) was #dommegoals. But my number steadily declined as Rebecca kept doing nonconsensual, unethical nonsense until the elevator kiss, at which point it crashed on the floor at a 1. Honestly, the director, the screenwriter, and both actors need to visit a domme and get taught a lesson or two.

On that note, I am an educator at heart. Y’all know where to find me, and I promise I won’t film it! Pleasure doing business with you, Mistress Onion.

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