File photo: A professional dominatrix with her equipment. Picture: ANA Pics

New York -  “So you like breaking rules, do you?” Kasia Urbaniak said to the bald man seated before her. 

“Or do you like getting in trouble? That’s pretty greedy of you, to come here and do something right away to warrant punishment. I haven’t even had a chance to assess what kind of punishment you need.”

She paced across the bright stage in her platform leather boots. An audience of 130 professional women — bankers, marketing directors — were observing this demonstration in the parquet-floored ballroom of a rented midtown Manhattan co-working space. They took careful notes and, when prompted, shot their hands in the air to volunteer to role-play on the stage.

Urbaniak, 39, worked as a dominatrix for 17 years, independently and in dungeons in New York City. Now, in something she calls the Academy, she teaches women what she has learned about men. In a moment of cultural reckoning around gender and harassment, the Academy is one of the new unconventional entities, including anonymous spreadsheets and Hollywood-run legal defense funds, emerging to fight harassment, discrimination and bias.

So the point is not her leather riding crop. Her mission is to teach women how to employ a dominatrix’s rhetorical tools in any scenario when there’s a power imbalance with a man, whether or not it’s about sex. The scenarios happen everywhere.

Sometimes, it’s in an office elevator. “I worked for nine months negotiating a multimillion-dollar contract, and the day we closed, my boss suggested I look into lunch arrangements while he and his boss signed,” said Hanna Kubiak, 46, a business development director for an aerospace company.

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.”

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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?” 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. 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,” 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?” Urbaniak said.

“Yeah!” the student said.

“No, ...don’t answer! See?” The student had missed her cue.

The New York Times