Chapter One

My boss makes me feel like I’m an inch tall all the time! Part of me wonders if she secretly enjoys it. I try so hard to do everything right, and she still makes me feel incompetent.
—Tamara, tax attorney

I have a coworker who plays the victim; he thinks everything everyone else does is a personal assault on him. It’s hard to get him to look objectively at his actions, or his contribution to projects, because his ego is so sensitive. I end up placating him and doing all the work.
—Jennifer, financial consultant

My supervisor needs a mother, rather than a strong number two person. It’s like he wants me to take care of him all the time and treat him like a baby!
—Tamlyn, radio producer

My field doesn’t seem to have a lot of women[in it]. I have to be aggressive to keep up with the men, and sometimes when I do exactly what a male colleague might do in a tough negotiation, they treat me like I’m some type of crazy woman, or call me a bitch.
—Lucy, engineer

Do any of these situations sound familiar? Before we begin exploring how to master them, let’s check out the origins of S&M.


Sadism is all right in its place, but it should be directed to proper ends.
—Sigmund Freud

Some background: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, borrowed the word “sadomasochism” from Richard Von Krafft-Ebing’s classic work, Psychopathia Sexualis, which was published in 1898. Krafft-Ebing, interestingly enough, was affected by the writings of two European novelists, the Marquis de Sade, who wrote the infamous Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue and The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom and Other Writings, and Leopold von Sacher-Mascoh, who wrote Venus in Furs. Sacher-Moscoh, in particular, is worthy of note, since his story revolves around the protagonist’s obsession with serving a dominant woman. Keep in mind that although aspects of S&M are fashionable in pop culture, it has deep historical and psychological roots.

What I’m asking is for you to see the darker edges of the workplace more clearly, instead of sugarcoating the truth or blindly accepting that it’s part of doing business. I’ve read extensively about sadomasochism—SM 101: A Realistic Introduction, The Topping Book: Or, Getting Good at Being Bad, The Mistress Manual: The Good Girl’s Guide to Female Domination, The Master Manual: A Handbook of Erotic Dominance, The Loving Dominant—and discovered the sadomasochistic power exchange that exists in an S&M relationship is eerily similar to the employer/employee power exchange in Corporate America. The push-and-pull, give-and-take, back-and- forth, ebb-and-flow rhythm is undeniable.

Have you ever offered an idea with passion in a meeting, only to be dismissed as being too “emotional”? Have you ever been mortified in a public forum? Treated like a child when presenting a project? Felt like a widget instead of a human being? Played mommy with your boss?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then humiliation, infantilism, and objectification are not foreign behaviors to you—they are all common S&M techniques. Not surprisingly these dynamics are witnessed daily in the workplace. A situation in which some people have power and some people do not can lead to abuses by the people with power, and forcing those with less power to play a subservient role. Sadistic and masochistic personality traits are used in corporate life in an emotional and social, rather than sexual, sense (power relations, not sexual relations). Not only can corporate culture be dysfunctional, so is our perverse fascination with this power paradigm. In other words, we accept it, and play into it, and sometimes “get off” on it.

Add to this the forces that are reshaping the world of business today: rightsizing and downsizing, inflation and recession, mergers and acquisitions. The psychological uncertainty produced by today’s brand of fluctuating capitalism and globalization causes anxiety, fear, stress, paranoia, and helplessness—dare I say, a sadomasochistic workplace of supervisor sadists and subordinate masochists.

A snapshot of Corporate America resembles some kind of de Sadeian fantasy come to life in offices nationwide. Need I mention Enron or Worldcom? The command-and-control model is still alive and well, where submission to bureaucracy and authority has become business as usual. If the organizational structure is flattening out, it’s happening at a glacial pace.

Working women are particularly vulnerable in this environment. Why are they at risk? Some have the mistaken notion that kudos, promotions, and raises will simply come from a job well done. Ellen Snee, the founder and current president of Fine Line Consulting, a firm dedicated to the advancement of female corporate leaders, says, “Most of the women we work with are extremely effective leaders, but they’re often not good at drawing attention to their achievements.”

Female executives sometimes don’t feel comfortable tooting their own horn, or playing with power or office politics. “Power is more important to men,” says Ogilvy & Mather’s current chief executive officer, Shelly Lazarus. “Men like to issue orders. They like to feel powerful. I get no thrill out of being powerful.” Ann Winblad, Silicon Valley’s leading software venture capitalist, says, “‘Power is a very dangerous word.” And Mattel’s ex–chief executive officer Jill Barad says, “When you apply the word ‘power’ to a man, it means ’strong and bold’—very positive attributes. When you use it to describe a woman, it suggests ‘bitchy, insensitive, hard.’” Although women have made significant strides in the workplace, most are still conflicted about how their corporate power is perceived or acknowledged. So here we are, strangers in a strange new landscape where women are stuck. A new archetype is needed.


The Corporate Dominatrix uses the tools of the professional dominatrix to succeed in the workplace. She understands that the key to effectiveness is to know how and when to switch roles according to the situations she faces. She knows when to be dominant (i.e., strong) and when to be submissive (i.e., flexible). She knows how and when to pick her battles. She is confident enough to intuit what her clients or colleagues need and want, and to respond accordingly. The Corporate Dominatrix exercises her power and mastery in the workplace using disciplines relating to attitude as well as technique. Faith Whittlesey said it best: “Remember, Ginger had to do everything Fred did, except backward and in heels.”

Clearly we cannot wait for men (or even some women for that matter) to change corporate culture. We must take matters into our own hands and instigate change. Why, after so many years, are women still stuck? A study on social-dominance orientation published in the Colgate University Journal of the Sciences offers some clues. Researchers found that dominant women are viewed more negatively than dominant men, indicating that behavior inconsistent with gender roles is not well-received. The study also found that women who act according to their specific gender roles are viewed as more competent than women who do not. The trick to success is being able to succeed managerially while still remaining “womanly.” As Duke University Basketball head coach and U.S. National head coach Mike Krzyzewski has said, “All leaders should embrace their inner woman.” This leaves women with the quandary over which role to play; can they be both forceful and feminine?

If simple aggression were the key to the success of women, the office go-getters of the seventies, eighties, and nineties would have achieved total equality. Their no-nonsense approach would have catapulted them to the top, but that didn’t happen exactly as planned. While this intense, take-no-prisoners style advanced those women’s career trajectories, it only took them so far. This strategy often fails because gender roles in society have been clearly divided. For one thing, women traditionally have been more collaborative; many of them didn’t feel comfortable in a more commanding role. If they could not compete by applying overwhelming force, they eventually dropped out or stopped climbing.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the women who tried to cross the divide and overpower the competition were seen as bitchy and alienating. Obviously, being underwhelming does not work, nor does being completely overpowering. Women—even more so than men—must be dominating without being domineering. They can be seemingly submissive to management and acquiesce to authority at times—picking their shots without playing the victim—in order to get ahead. They must be able to play both roles. Think of it as being one part Laura Bush and one part Hillary Clinton. Women have to be firm and direct, but also compliant and flexible. They need to work harder at being included in informal networks. A woman who successfully melds these techniques—who can strategically assume the appropriate role for the situation—becomes the Corporate Dominatrix. And the Corporate Dominatrix always comes out on top.


The Corporate Dominatrix examines the workplace for what it really is: a social sadomasochistic wonderland that must be approached with a new mind-set and a new methodology, working from the inside out, as well as the outside in. In case you’re still thinking that sadomasochism, or S&M, is a frightening concept only practiced in an underground dungeon, think again. The concept has been a part of our daily lives for quite some time. Consumers—yes, even savvy ones like you—have been bombarded, even seduced, by subliminal S&M messages over the decades. Popular culture reflects our fascination with S&M in fashion (Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier), body modification (piercings, tattooing), rock music (punk, goth, metal), and the photography of Helmut Newton. The popularity of movies such as Secretary, Quills, and The Matrix illustrates how S&M has tinged mainstream films, taking the sting out of the stigma.

Take common workplace terminology: “I’m on top of it,” “This is going to get me to the top,” or “It’s lonely at the top.” Conversely, we also say “I’ve hit rock-bottom” and “I’m stuck at the bottom.” How about “I’m slaving away on this project” or “I’ve bottomed out”? Some S&Mers say that “top” and “bottom” are simply synonyms for “active” and “passive,” respectively. I say absolutely! It’s time we all saw the office for what it really is—a complex web of domination, submission, and corporate neurotica. As John Munder Ross notes in his book The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life; Why We Hurt Ourselves and Others—and How to Stop, “Nowhere in daily life is sadomasochism more constantly in evidence than in the institutions that constitute the workplace. It is here that the red threads of individual power and success are woven into a fabric of fixed and often labyrinthine bureaucracies whose function is to ensure institutional stability, viability, and with luck, profitability for all concerned.”

In short, S&M in society has always been present under the surface; but it’s only just started to come out of the dungeon.


Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.
—Tao Te Ching

Power attracts, but it can also detract from your effectiveness, depending on how you use it. While sometimes it is absolutely imperative to fight for what you want, it can occasionally be just as wise to stand down or reassess your approach. Why force a power play when you can try diplomacy first?

There can be power in submitting to authority, as long as the submission is strategic. Every move you make is about advancement, and submission, in some cases, is the smart or only option available. When you are selectively confrontational, your boss and coworkers will see just how serious you truly are. You must flip the self-monitoring switch to see the importance of one issue over another. And sometimes it’s smart to let people think you’ve surrendered. After all, it worked pretty well in the Trojan War. The power to evaluate, to determine priorities, to step up when necessary, and to role-play accordingly is what real control is about.

Most important, I use the phrase “power becomes you” because it does—power becomes part of you and your personality, for better or for worse. Inherently it makes you more magnetic and appealing. Understanding your own power and wielding it can add to your stature, state of mind, and certainly how others see you—and how you see yourself. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”


According to Phillip Miller and Molly Devon, authors of Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns: The Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism, “Pro-domina[trice]s are in the business of fantasy realization and do not have sex with their clients. They are a cross between psychodramatist and therapist. A dominatrix, skilled enough to realize a living in the profession, earns every penny she makes. She must be confident enough to intuit and focus on the needs of many different personalities and strong enough to pull off scene after scene with expertise and finesse.”

In order to put my S&M-workplace theory to the test, I did what any good investigative reporter would do, and scoured New York City for dungeons in order to speak with professional dominatrices about their experiences.

My research led me to Lady Kayla, the owner of Excalibur, an exclusive dungeon, a.k.a. house of domination. Lady K had been involved in the S&M scene, or community, for more than ten years and was interviewed as an expert in the HBO special Fetishes: The Women of Pandora’s Box. Along with most of her fellow dominatrices, Lady K considers the fantasy realism of S&M sessions a form of erotic therapy. She makes no distinction between her highly orchestrated, masterful sessions and the services of a psychologist, social worker, or relationship counselor. She has a point—clients may even get more out of her sessions than they would ever get from conventional therapeutic treatment.

Twylo, a New York City dominatrix, muses: “If women stepped into the pumps of professional dominatrices, there would be a revolution! The things they would learn about other people’s psychological makeup would amaze, confound, and ultimately enlighten them.” Luckily for you, you don’t have to—I did it for you.

Knowing when to be assertive and when to be acquiescent is the trick. Someone like Twylo, who is both a dominant and a submissive, is called a “switchable” in S&M speak. Some dominatrices can seamlessly go either way. They can turn on a dime. That’s where the sense of theater comes in—of being an actress, of being able to roleplay, of being in control of her dominatrix persona within whatever context or “scene” she is engaged.

This concept is inherent to sociodrama—simulating real-life situations to understand how people relate to one another. Sociodramatists study the effect role reversal and role-playing has in solving problems and achieving goals. In short, you can’t be on top all the time and you can’t be on the bottom all the time. You want to become a switchable—that is the key to becoming the Corporate Dominatrix.

From Lady K, I learned that even the most successful men secretly want you to push back; they want to feel powerless for a change. I also discovered that it feels pretty damn good to be the one with total control.

Not a month later my newly conceived method of empowerment with an edge was put to the test when I had an altercation with someone at work. A male colleague had a habit of concealing problematic information only to eventually drop the bomb and have everyone else clean up his mess. But this time I chose to shame him into coming clean with all the details in a public meeting. The humiliation-and-embarrassment strategy worked. Not only did he apologize, he actually got down on his knees right in front of me to beg forgiveness! Okay, so I know he meant this as an amusing gesture, but wow. . . what a textbook slavish response to my challenge. I had really tapped into something.


How well do the S&M principles fit into our corporate schema? You’d be surprised. I’m sure you’ve had a sadistic boss or had to work with masochistic colleagues before, and chances are, you do now. As the former vice president of Marketing and Communications at a major publishing house, I’ve navigated and survived my share of corporate mergers, department shake-ups, political infighting, corporate misogynists, and office deadbeats. After years of participatory observation, I noticed certain trends about supervisors and their subordinates. Some of the best managers usually started out as exemplary, hardworking, devoted assistants who learned from good mentoring, while some of the worst managers usually began as devious, sycophant assistants who learned from tormentoring.

In other words, fascist bosses—those who take delight in supremacy—create a sadistic management ethic and spread corporate vampirism, sucking the life out of employees. Democratic bosses, on the other hand, create a more even playing field and supportive work environment. Subordinates expect to be dominated to a certain degree. More interesting, though, supervisors often need—and secretly crave—to be challenged. Women seem to want to reconcile their authority and power in the workplace without sacrificing their femininity or individuality. A woman who can walk the line between hard business tactics and soft people skills breaks the office code and rises to the top. These realizations forever changed the way I manage and the way I want to be managed.

How do you want to be managed? Let’s review your corporate makeup. Are you thick-skinned or do you bruise easily in your interactions at work? If the color of your corporate personality is black-and-blue, or just blue, you need to check yourself. How long have you been meaning to express a few concerns to your boss or colleagues? Do you share new ideas or ask for more senior executive responsibilities?

We all encounter stressful situations at work, and how we handle them affects not only our professional effectiveness, but our own wellbeing and sense of self-esteem. Corporate Dominatrix training will enhance your ability to be more successful on the job, using resilience and objectivity as your protective shield. Dominance training is based on the idea that by changing your roles and reactions (whether firm or flexible), you can change the dynamic of your relationships. I’ve developed a chart to compare the striking differences among the Corporate Dominatrix, the Corporate Masochist, and the Corporate Sadist, so you can see for yourself the clear distinctions.


Corporate Dominatrix

  • Has clear boundaries; doesn’t allow others to restrict or violate boundaries
  • Conveys thoughts and opinions directly and clearly
  • Expresses gratitude and appreciation graciously
  • Uses direct eye contact, sturdy posture, assured gestures

Corporate Masochist

  • Allows boundaries to be ignored, violated, and regularly exploited
  • Is inept at expressing thoughts and beliefs firmly and honestly
  • Seeks validation and permission regularly
  • Has shifty eye contact, sloppy posture, nervous gestures

Corporate Sadist

  • Invades others’ boundaries on a regular basis without remorse
  • Expresses thoughts and actions in an overbearing, offensive way
  • Belittles, marginalizes, and diminishes others
  • Uses steely glares, finger wagging, fist pounding, aggressive mannerisms

For our purposes, here’s how we will define dominance, submission, and sadisticbehavior:

DOMINANCE is standing up for your rights in an open, honest, and direct way, which does not violate another person’s rights (remember the S&M motto: safe, sane, and consensual). You have a responsibility to ask for what you want, make your feelings and opinions known, and act in a manner that is worthy of respect.

SUBMISSION is tactical compliance and appeasement; knowing when to back down or back off while keeping your rights intact. Express your feelings and concerns respectfully. Do not constantly submit to another person’s needs or wants at your own expense.

SADISTIC BEHAVIOR is spewing feelings or stating directives in a manner that is demeaning, patronizing, discourteous, or offensive. The focus is exclusively on the outcome without considering anyone else’s opinion or position. It may seduce you into thinking it’s effective at first, but it ultimately spells disaster for yourself and others.

Regardless of the neurotic or dysfunctional behavior you run into at work as the Corporate Dominatrix, you will be able to analyze every situation, determine the best course of action, break down barriers, and move toward the best outcome possible.

Now you’re ready to get up close and personal with the roles the Corporate Dominatrix uses to get what she wants when she wants it. Get ready to hang out with some ladies who are going to make your life a whole lot easier.

Find out the mistress archetype that best suits you with The Corporate Dominatrix quiz, or
click on one of the icons above to learn more about each of the Corporate Dominatrix sisters.

Home | The Book | The Institute | Lisa Robyn | Media | Contact | Blog | Links |

The Corporate Dominatrix is a registered trademark. All rights reserved.