Mastering LifeHow BDSM Is Teaching Women to Become More Assertive

Mistress Damiana Chi (Photo courtesy of Mistress Damiana Chi)

Feeling the need to apologize for speaking up at work or in relationships is often a learned behavior that, research shows, is much more common among women than men. But is it possible to stop saying “sorry” when it’s so ingrained in the way many of us communicate? Professional Dominatrix Mistress Tara Indiana would say yes: She’s found that BDSM (or bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism) is a surprisingly effective way to help women become more self-assured and less apologetic. “Learning how to accurately use a single tail whip can help you assert yourself at work,” Indiana says. “When you master a skill like that, it gives you a boost of confidence that you can build upon in other areas of your life.”

Indiana has been teaching these skills to women since 1993 in a series of workshops focused on the art, science, and business of female domination or FemDom. Under her tutelage, women can develop Dominatrix personas for professional pursuits, or simply gain more control over their careers and relationships. “One of the first things I teach women is how to stop apologizing,” Indiana says. “It can be a difficult behavior to alter—especially during my workshops, which often involve inflicting pain. The automatic response [when you hurt someone] is to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ However, in the context of a BDSM power exchange, what the dominant (or top) does to the submissive (or bottom) is consensual and well negotiated. This teaches women to change the social dynamics they’ve been conditioned to follow.”

Indiana says becoming a more dominant woman means “not only focusing on your own pleasure first but also defining boundaries.” She explains, “BDSM is about creating a connection through deep intimacy and learning to develop trust and communication. It’s so important to have healthy boundaries in all aspects of your life, and learning the appropriate language to assert those boundaries is invaluable.” BDSM educator and pro-domme Hudsy Hawn agrees. “The negotiation skills that you learn through BDSM will carry over into your everyday or vanilla life because relationships, whether romantic or professional, always require communication to be successful,” she says. Hawn explains that making a list of what you want and don’t want and adhering to the written or verbal agreement you’ve negotiated can help to maintain trust and communication when you enter an emotionally-charged situation, whether that’s in the bedroom or the office.

Hawn says BDSM transformed her life because it provided her the discipline and structure she lacked growing up and gave her a better understanding of herself. In both her personal and professional life, she identifies as a Switch, which means she moves from being dominant to being submissive depending on the partner or scene. “Being a Switch is nice because you get to experience both sides, the dark and the light, hard and soft,” she says. “It’s really helped me to grow not just as a player in the scene but as a whole person.” Tara Indiana’s classes are also in high demand. Her East- and West-coast workshops often sell out and she says her students, who range in age from 18 to 80, aren’t just signing up to learn new skills; they’re looking for a community. Each student is assigned to work with what Indiana calls a “bondage buddy,” a lab partner for rope play. “Learning together can be a powerful shared experience,” she explains.

When she isn’t leading FemDom workshops or advocating for sex-workers’ rights, Indiana speaks at public events like Los Angeles’s annual DomCon. This May, she presented her popular lecture, the Science of S&M, which looks at kink from a neurological perspective and explores why people can experience enhanced pleasure or even spiritual fulfilment through pain. “When you look across cultures, there are many rites of passage involving pain,” Indiana explains. “S&M is a similar initiation rite. It’s a way of taking ownership of your body. Additionally, when you become a dominatrix, you always pick a Mistress name. This is significant because it’s not a name given to you by a parent. You choose it for yourself. There’s something very spiritual about fully claiming who you are.” Indiana says that cultivating a successful Dominatrix persona means envisioning an idealized fantasy version of yourself while also not being afraid to explore your darker side—what she calls the “shadow self.”  

Mistress Damiana Chi, who also presented this year at DomCon, has applied her background in Jungian psychology to identify four domination styles that she defines as the Dominatrix archetype. “To be a well-balanced domme, you need to channel the archetypes of Authoritarian, Seductress, Mother, and Queen,” she explains. “Any woman can access this aspect of her identity. When you’re developing your Dominatrix persona, it’s not about pretending; these archetypes are a real part of you.” Chi’s workshop teaches the psychological, verbal, and technical skills of FemDom as well as the importance of practicing posture that projects confidence and control. “When you slouch, your body language doesn’t evoke dominance,” she says. “But if you keep your shoulders back, neck straight, and head high, you allow yourself to take up space, and that dominant energy helps you to own the whole area around you.”

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Still, for many women it can feel difficult or even impossible to elicit that kind of commanding presence. “Women are trained since childhood to be polite, to be quiet, to please others, to accept what’s given to them without question, and that may be why as adults we often apologize for voicing our opinions or feel uncomfortable projecting dominance,” says Hawn. Avoiding body language that commands attention is also sometimes a defense mechanism. “When women walk down the street, we often do so with our heads down,” she explains. “If we see a man walking toward us, we’ll avoid eye contact because a glance in their direction might be taken as an invitation for them to approach us.”

Though Hawn says the #MeToo movement has created a “resurgence in women’s rights that’s given us all a lot more agency,” being objectified by men or through cultural messages is still a daily reality for many women, and studies show that unwanted body evaluation negatively affects mental health. Mr. Shaw, a male pro-dom, works with all bodies and genders and specializes in a technique called Positive Objectification. Shaw says his sessions not only subvert the negative connotations associated with the term “objectification,” but transform the ways in which his clients view their own bodies and self-worth. “Often when women are seen by men, they’re not really seen at all; they’re fetishized,” he notes. “A compliment can’t just be a compliment; there’s always this expectation that men will want something more from them. I turn the tables on that by showing women that I acknowledge who they are and what they look like without any strings attached.”

Unlike a FemDom workshop, a private session with Mr. Shaw teaches greater self-awareness through submission. “There are a lot of reasons why submission can be empowering,” Shaw explains. “BDSM requires negotiation where the sub gets to decide when a scene starts and stops. I teach my submissives how to take care of themselves and how to ask for what they want without apology. Many women really struggle with that initially.” Shaw also says that while it may seem counterintuitive, being dominated is a freeing experience for many people.

During a BDSM scene, the sub produces increased levels of adrenaline and endorphins, which can cause them to enter an altered state known as “subspace. “Similar to mindfulness meditation, dropping into subspace allows submissives to get more in touch with their bodies without the distraction of a constant stream of thoughts running through their heads,” he explains. It can also help to correct those negative thought patterns that have conditioned us to feel apologetic for taking up space. “BDSM can really be a journey of self-discovery and personal empowerment,” says Shaw. “When you work with a pro-dom, you can allow yourself to push your boundaries, feel vulnerable, and explore your sexuality in a safe environment. Everyone deserves to experience that.”

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Margaret Andersen is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. She has contributed to Wired, Gusher magazine, and AIGA’s Eye on Design, among others. She likes visiting mirror mazes, petting dogs, and watching pretty much any movie that includes a training montage.”