Sometimes, it’s at a cocktail party. “A guy asks, ‘Where are you from?’” said Sophia Li, 26, a consultant and former Vogue editor. “People who are racially ambiguous know that’s the worst question.”
Sometimes, it’s on a date. “I lost track of how many times I was assaulted,” said Terry DeMeo, 70, a coach and former lawyer. “My ‘nos’ were wobbly.”
“Do you see the pattern?” Ms. Urbaniak had asked from the stage, of moments like these. When faced with an uncomfortable question, “there’s a moment of speechlessness, of neuromuscular lockdown in women.”
She discovered, back when she began training dominatrixes, that the fix was this: Instead of answering or refusing to answer the question, ask the client a question back about why he asked the question in the first place. When he responds, dig in with more probing.
Students practiced the technique with real-world examples. Ms. Urbaniak and a cadre of male volunteers facilitated, playing the parts of nosy date or film executive who has lost his bathrobe strap. (The name of this workshop: Cornering Harvey.)
He asks: “Do your children all have the same father?”
She asks: “Are you fantasizing about me having sex with multiple men?”
He asks: “Can we review your presentation in my hotel room?”
She asks: “Where did you get that shirt?”
Comebacks can be pointed or off-topic, sweet or biting. Testing the reaction they provoke is informative and fun. “He’s on the spot, and you regain your footing,” Ms. Urbaniak said.
Not everyone catches on right away. “I don’t even know what my uncomfortable question is,” one student said. “Every time I take your class ——”
“Do you feel embarrassed that you freeze all the time?” Ms. Urbaniak said.
“Yeah!” the student said.
“No, don’t answer! See?” The student had missed her cue.
The Academy was founded in 2014 by Ms. Urbaniak, a graduate of Bard College, and a creative partner, Ruben Flores, formerly of NYC Medics. The courses draw on BDSM, Taoist martial arts, Cesar Millan’s books on dog training and the hostage and border checkpoint negotiations of international NGOs.
It’s quite unlike corporate sexual harassment training, which typically consists of video or PowerPoint presentations filled with warnings about liability and potential business costs. Some studies have shown that these trainings aren’t particularly effective. In a 2016 report, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s harassment task force recommended, among other changes, more interactive trainings, in which employees role-play misconduct.
United States companies spend $15 to $40 per employee on sexual harassment training, according to Michael Johnson of the Clear Law Institute, which creates programs for human resources departments. Advanced Power With Men, the Academy’s forthcoming weekend-long workshop, is sold out at $2,200 a spot. Another course, Foundations of Power, costs $8,500 for three in-person weekends and an online component.
Harassment is the tip of the iceberg for long-term students, who look to Ms. Urbaniak for a wide range of things, including help with fixing marriages, reading body language and resetting careers.
“It’s a fantastic idea. This should be in a damn high school,” said Sue Storm, a Toronto-based fetish therapist and pro-domme (that’s industry shorthand for professional dominatrix) with no connection to the Academy. “But I’d love to see it cheaper.” She said that was because “you’re trying to help the average woman,” not men who will “pay anything” for their sexual fantasies.
Cornering Harvey is the Academy’s largest and most affordable class yet — $45 for three hours, with a sliding scale for anyone who can’t pay the full price. Ms. Urbaniak is also developing an online version of the workshop (students will respond to onscreen prompts, karaoke-style) as well as live trainings for organizations.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever had anything happen in history where what’s on the forefront of culture was so intimate, personal and relational,” she told her audience. “It’s a huge opportunity.”
The Academy draws from dominatrixes’ psychological, rather than physical, tools. (Those include cuffs, paddles, blindfolds and feathers, if rarely actual sex, according to Simone Justice, a pro-domme and BDSM educator in California.) Political applications of BDSM make sense when you consider the gender roles that trap women in submissive societal positions are the same as those locking men in sexually dominant ones — which lead men to dominatrixes, to escape, said Ms. Storm: “Women are socialized to be submissive little kittens. Men think they have to be some kind of alpha male.”
Several attendees were hesitant to give their names for this article, fearing friends’ and colleagues’ reactions. “If they caught wind I did a class with a dominatrix, I’d be a laughingstock,” said one 39-year-old investment bank vice president. Her colleagues don’t know that she has been using the techniques at work. “Someone looks at you the wrong way on the trading floor. You could spend forever figuring out what that meant. Now I just call it out: ‘Hey, uh, you look sad.’ You’re testing, and creating transparency.”
In Academy lexicon, the word “you” is dominant and the word “I” is submissive. Neither is inherently superior. “If I’m in control of you, my attention is outward, so precisely fixed on the other person that I almost forget I exist,” Ms. Urbaniak told the audience. If you’re submissive, “your attention is focused inward, on yourself and your feelings.”
Dominant and submissive are, she said, rhetorical and energetic states, and can be unmoored from the social hierarchies that empower men. It’s a post-gender outlook, with as much in common with theories of performativity as with women’s empowerment programs like the Makers Conference and Lean In, which focus on elite communities as a way to tap female power.
Demographically, though, the Academy is similar to those peers. The participants I spoke with said most of the students are straight and cisgender (25 percent are nonwhite, according to the company), although the school is open to anyone who identifies as a woman. At Cornering Harvey, the majority of attendees had heard about the workshop through the School of Womanly Arts. In that school’s Mastery course ($4,950), participants call each other “Sister Goddesses” and examine their vaginas with mirrors.
Many of the Academy students have more economic advantages than other women, which may be a root of their faith that resetting power dynamics on an individual scale will spur widespread social change.
“Imagine if someone had said this to Louis C.K.,” Ms. Urbaniak told the nodding group, after a student met the question “Can I masturbate in front of you?” with a probing zinger of her own. “If a woman had been able to reach him, how might that have changed things?” Ms. Urbaniak said.
It’s an optimistic theory. As the Louis C.K. news broke, a 2011 clip from his show “Louie” surfaced, in which an earnest young blonde asks him, “Have you ever tried not masturbating?” He responds: “Later I’m going to masturbate, and I’m going to think about you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Credit Illustration by Tracy Ma/The New York Times
For Ms. Kubiak, the aerospace business developer, the Academy’s potential lies beyond reforming men — and beyond earth. Perceiving and fluidly shifting between dominant and submissive roles improves our communication as a species, she said. “If Elon Musk enables transport to Mars, and humans are traveling light years in small spaces to other planets, our ability to clearly give and receive requests, and to read and influence a room, will be even more important than it is terrestrially,” she said.
For now, Ms. Kubiak is exploring the nuances of dominance and submission at Starbucks: “One day I might say, ‘I really feel like a white-chocolate mocha.’ The next, ‘You’re going to make me a cappuccino with extra foam, superdry.’”
Practice makes perfect. “I’d really like to be in the room,” Ms. Kubiak told her boss when he asked her to arrange lunch instead of being present for the signing of the deal she had negotiated. If she could do it over? “I’d nail him with a bunch of questions,” she said.