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POWER GRAB

What a dominatrix can teach you about your next salary negotiation

Terence Mendoza via Shutterstock
It's all about power.
  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Membership editor

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

What do the board room and the bedroom have in common? Power dynamics play a key role in what goes on there. That’s especially true in the world of BDSM, according to professional dominatrix and BDSM educator Mistress Couple

But unlike the office, the collection of sexual practices known as BDSM comes with a set of clear-cut guidelines about how to navigate relationships fairly and ethically, with an eye toward ensuring that both parties get what they want. Couple spoke with Quartz about what her work as a dominatrix has taught her about the art of negotiation and managing up.

Set boundaries—and respect others’ limits

In BDSM, the roles of the dominant partner (called a “top” or “dom”) and the submissive partner (“bottom” or “sub”) each come with their own responsibilities. Before anyone starts getting sexual, the partners start off in a conversation in which they, on a level playing field, can negotiate what kinds of activities they’d like to try as well as boundaries for that interaction.

To play those roles well, though, each partner can’t allow themselves to be totally dominated or to totally dominate—they should incorporate a little bit of the other person’s role. The best bottoms, Couple says, know themselves well enough to be honest and forthright about their limits. Even from a position in which they might be physically restricted or psychologically dominated, they can stand up for themselves enough to stop an interaction when they are no longer enjoying it. In other words, they have to be able to manage up.

And though the top is in charge of setting the tone and pace for the interaction, they should also be empathetic enough to know when they are pushing their partners too far or in a way they don’t enjoy. “I think [a good top] is somebody who is curious and always trying to learn more, whether it’s about the activities they’re engaging in or how to interact with their partners,” Couple says.

Tops should also know their partners well enough to know their limits. “Personally I think the top should also be careful and risk-averse,” says Couple. “There are a lot of kinksters to whom the risk is really erotic… [but their dom] should have a full understanding of what the consequences are of what they’re engaging in.” Similarly, the best bosses are empathetic to their employees’ daily schedule and workload, and should know how to challenge them in ways that help them grow, not in ways that make them shut down.

Don’t be afraid to get vulnerable

The best BDSM relationships, like the best boss-employee dynamics, benefit from a bit of vulnerability, Couple says. “I think a lot of people in leadership positions are afraid to show vulnerability—they feel they need to steer the ship, and if they show any sign of weakness it’ll throw off their team or make people think less of them. In fact, I think that learning about the power that vulnerability has can be really useful to people in a variety of settings, but especially in a work setting.”

Showing a little vulnerability can help bosses better earn their subordinates’ trust, creating a stronger working relationship. That could mean, for example, admitting that you don’t know how to solve a problem, and asking the people who report to you for their perspective. “Having to be the ‘knower’ or always being right is heavy armor,” as researcher Brené Brown wrote last year on LinkedIn. “It’s defensiveness, it’s posturing, and, worst of all, it’s a huge driver of bullshit.”

Keep anger in check

For people who aren’t in positions of power, Couple says, it’s particularly useful to learn how they respond when someone exerts power over them so that they can behave more constructively. Say, for example, a male boss takes credit for a female employee’s idea. Naturally, the employee would be outraged, in part because it may remind her of past situations (professional or otherwise) in which a person in power took advantage of her. 

But showing one’s anger isn’t the most productive reaction, Couple says. “For me at least, what helped me work through those kinds of feelings is being in BDSM scenes with male tops and working through feelings of anger to [reach] acceptance, then feeling loved at the end of that experience. Somehow all of that allowed me to be able to approach the superior person with more empathy and with the understanding that directing anger at them wouldn’t empower me.” Only empathy and kindness, she says, can win someone over. Persuasion works best not with brute force but with what Couple calls “seduction—not in a sexual way, but showing them why a particular idea might be more convincing than what they’re doing, and not responding with anger.” Lots of people learn this in their professional lives, Couple says, “but I learned it from being tied up in a dungeon.”

Put yourself in a position of power

In the workplace, few scenarios put that boss-employee relationship to the test like asking for a raise. Couple has a few suggestions for how to exert your power even if you’re in the subordinate position. To start, be knowledgable and prepared. “Do your research and know what you contribute to the team, or to this person’s life, and know why they’ve hired you. Have you been living up to those standards? If you have, then of course you deserve a raise,” Couple says.

Go into the negotiation with confidence. “A lot of times people that have been involved in some sort of emotional abuse end up being more timid and feel like they need to please or win over an authority figure,” Couple says. “But really, I think a more empowered place to enter into a negotiation is by thinking about what your boss gets out of your relationship and why you are important to them. They [the boss] should be the one who is trying to convince you to stay. If you’re not walking in with that attitude, you’re already at a disadvantage.”

If you aren’t quite as confident as you’d like to be, or if you think you might come off as arrogant instead of confident, asking questions of your boss can help you strike the right tone without sacrificing any power. “When you’re asking questions, you’re in the position of power, you’re directing the energy back at the person who you’re conversing with,” Couple says. “Rather than you being on the spot all the time, you can be asking that person, ‘Well, what do you think I have offered to the team? Have I been helpful to you in the last year?’ Get them to tell you all the reasons why you’re important to them. If you need confidence boost, that will help show you that this person does respect you and that you are valuable.”

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

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