Want to be more assertive in life? / This former dominatrix will show you how

Kasia Urbaniak has mastered the dominant position with men, and is a master at unpicking power dynamics

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Kasia Urbaniak was, she says, one of the highest-paid dominatrices in Manhattan before deciding to focus on female empowerment. Photograph: Henny Garfunkel

Kasia Urbaniak has mastered the dominant position with men, and is a master at unpicking power dynamics

Edward Helmore

Fri 30 Mar 2018 11.00 BST Last modified on Fri 30 Mar 2018 11.01 BST

It’s a decade since Kasia Urbaniak hung up her whip. The former dominatrix – one of the highest paid in Manhattan, she likes to say – now crafts her knowledge of gender power play to a new career: she’s a female empowerment coach in a city where power is a naked game.

What started as an online discussion group is now, thanks in part to Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, a booming business. With courses titled Power With Men, Foundations of Power offered as part of her introductory monthlong seminar, Urbaniak is an emerging star of the movement.

“I don’t teach anything related to BDSM or sex, just the application of power dynamics,” Urbaniak tells me. “It’s about the communications that women carry that either make them go speechless, or afraid of coming across as too bossy or too needy.”

As a professional dominatrix, Urbaniak has mastered the dominant – dom – position with men, and is a master at unpicking power dynamics. And over the past two years, the news cycle has delivered almost daily updates to the subject at hand. Women are too often taught to acquiesce; they shut-down, they minimize. They do it at work, at home, in the bedroom, at work, anywhere, in fact, where their paths cross with men.

“There are consequences to that shutdown,” says Urbaniak. “And women have almost universally experienced it when it comes to dealing with men. They compress, and they don’t know why they’re doing it.”

As Urbaniak sees it, the solution is relatively simple: the key is to turn the attention back outwards. When a man asks a woman an uncomfortable question, ranging from “How old are you?” or “Do you like threesomes?” to “Would you like to go upstairs to have sex?”, the woman can change the power dynamic at play.

To do this, the woman could ask: “Why do you ask that question? Are you having a fantasy right now? What good would it do for you to know how old I am? Are you looking for a mother?”

It’s exactly what sex worker Stormy Daniels told 60 Minutes she did with Donald Trump during the alleged 2006 encounter, when he was talking endlessly about himself and showing off his new magazine.

Kasia Urbaniak, wearing a t-shirt saying ‘Un Femme Libre’ (A Free Woman). Photograph: Henny Garfunkel

Daniels asked: “Does this normally work for you? Does just talking about yourself normally work for you?”

To Urbaniak, that was a basic lesson in how to flip power dynamics.

“She has one victory in that moment – she reported that afterwards, he totally changed and became appropriate,” Urbaniak says. “Power dynamics are a play-by-play kind of game and Daniels doesn’t fit into any particular archetype of power, just a woman doing her best to navigate a game where the deck is stacked against her and having to break many hardened social conventions in order to do so. More power to her!”

Elaine, a Brooklyn-based poet in her 40s, recently attended a session hosted by Urbaniak. She says she felt conditioned to not ask for too much. But that, she says, leaves everybody feeling short-changed. “When a woman asks for her true desires, it turns out to be a service to everybody,” she says.

“As a dominatrix, power comes from pushing the attention outwards – you’re penetrating them with your attention. But women are often in the submissive – sub – position, with attention turned inwards on their feelings and experience.”

Elaine, who asked that her named be changed, adds “that submissive role gets over-stressed and turns into self doubt and over-analysis. We’re so conditioned to be concerned about how people view us, it boxes us in.”

Urbaniak, 39, and partner Ruben Flores, a former project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, started their program, called The Academy, in 2012. “It started as a small, elite training program for women – powerful, private women, women from corporate life or who had been recently divorced.” Many turned out to be veterans of the self-discovery and self-empowerment movements.

“I was super-intrigued by the idea of authentic power,” says Sarah, who works as a charity fundraiser in San Diego and joined The Academy 18 months ago. “I developed a visceral sense of being a powerful woman I’d never had before.” She describes Urbaniak as “a sassy big sister who sees the potential for power in women that we can’t necessarily see in ourselves.”

The turning point for this student, as it has been for many women, was Donald Trump. “The #MeToo movement is huge for us, of course, but what was devastating for me was the presidential election,” she says. “That was the signal that now is the time we really have to step up.”

Urbaniak noted the change in pitch and tempo among her students – or as she calls them, “mistresses” – with the candidacy of Donald Trump. The presidential debates, she observed, became a kind of master class in dysfunctional power dynamics. Hillary Clinton, irrespective of her strengths or weaknesses as a candidate, had displayed exactly the kind of behaviors that Urbaniak’s students recognized in themselves.

Women, Urbaniak explains, “are wary of seeming too above (dom) or too below (sub). They try to level with people or be equal.” And Clinton, they recognized, had frozen and sought compromise when faced with overt male bullying.

Women, she points out, will go inward first. She calls it “the trained power dynamic of women”. There are advantages to the submissive position (being self-aware, for instance), but not when it comes to expressions of leadership.

Kasia Urbaniak gives a presentation to women on assertiveness in the work place. Photograph: Henny Garfunkel

“Hilary showed that very clearly. She didn’t want to seem too much like a mom, too much like a slut, too much like a boss, or a weakling. She compressed herself to the point that you couldn’t read any signal off her. Whatever she said felt like a lie.”

Urbaniak’s direct action approach to gender relations, she explains, owes much to Cesar Milan’s book on dog training: essentially that, as animals, we only relax when we know the presence of authority. It’s an awkward concept, but then again power dynamics are intuitive, not rational.

The dungeon, she explains, is an interesting space to observe this. “Everything from the outside world is stripped – identity, status, context. It’s a blank slate. It’s on me to see the person, to see where they’re at, where their shame is, where their desire is and where the boundaries are in order to liberate something.”

Transfer that to a room full of women, and the results could only be intense.

“Come to a class of 200 women and witness the moment when I ask them to start voicing all the things they haven’t said, or describe all the moments they wanted to say no but felt they could not,” she says.

“I have had the inside experience of witnessing women who have incredible power and influence on the outside but can’t, for example, tell their husband of 20 years the sex they just had isn’t working. Can you imagine that?”

In the same vein, some women have not felt able to ask for what they need in the workplace. “Women are saying, it isn’t OK that my silence was taken as acquiescence. The way this business is running isn’t OK. Not getting compensated properly isn’t OK. The way this relationship is working isn’t OK. The things I have to navigate just to get through a work day isn’t OK.”

So where does this leave men? Without direct access to the male side of the battlefront – Urbaniak’s seminars are women-only, for obvious reasons – there’s curiosity from both sides.

The movement, she warns, is also creating its own crisis around masculinity.

“There’s a reflective questioning about whether they’re going to be next and if they’ve ever hurt a woman. There’s a level of anger and frustration. If you’ve been doing something wrong but haven’t been told, there’s an incredible sense of betrayal and it’ll provoke a backlash. I think silence on both sides is incredibly dangerous.”

Urbaniak says she would like women to be allies of men and to be curious about their experience. “In that alliance there’s a lot more power and possibility than there is in men stepping aside and starting to stew.”