Ohhhh, you know who I’m talking about. The people who, when you tell them that you pole dance look at you and say anything from, “Why would you want to do that?” to calling you an outright whore. The road to bringing pole dancing into the mainstream is fraught with social and cultural pitfalls and every single one of us will face some form of censorship or prejudice along the way. So how do we deal with this? What do we say to convince others what we know to be true in the very core of our bodies: that this type of erotic movement is an essential part of who we are? Even more to the point, how should we respond, behave, and speak with those who disagree and perhaps even attack us? These are essential questions that need answers if we want to continue to move pole dancing and other forms of erotic expression into the mainstream.
Let me start off by saying that there is no way for me to write this guide without giving you my personal biases on the topic first. You may or may not agree with me, which will make this guide more or less useful to you. Some of these ideas have been discussed in previous blogs, so if you want an in-depth read, you can look in the January archives. Here we go.
While I think there are distinctions between club pole dancing and competitive pole dancing, and while I think it will be initially important to make these differences clear to the general public, it would do women a great disservice to distance pole dancing from its erotic, strip club roots. Part of what makes moving pole dancing into the mainstream so empowering is that it gives women permission to creatively display, play with and express their sexuality with, ideally, less of the stigma and shame than our strip club sisters had to deal with. Taking the erotic sensuality out of pole so that it can be accepted into the mainstream is like doing yoga without ever paying attention to your breath. What’s the point? I worry that with all of the negative strip club connotations floating around out there, people will rush to point out that pole dancing is a sport, nothing like club dancing, and slowly the sexiness, the eroticism of pole will be squeezed out until we are left with nothing but stiff, emotionless gymnasts in sports bras and high-waisted shorts throwing tricks on a vertical pole. Shudder. Even worse than that, I worry that this distinction some of us occasionally make between strippers and pole dancers will drive little wedges between us all, weaken our collective voice, and perpetuate that awful good girl/bad girl split that is so pervasive in our culture. It does not serve us, as women, to make petty distinctions between who did what to whom and whether or not money was involved and technically I don't take my clothes off and no one puts dollar bills in my g-string so therefore, I'm better/more professional/a real artist, etc. and so on. All this really does is perpetuate the madonna/whore myth that keeps our sexuality in chains. Anyone who has ever wanted to pole dance has a little bit of the whore in them. And every time you dance, she comes out to play. And that is true whether you are dancing in a club, a competition, a studio or for a lover. So own it.
If for some reason, the idea of your dancing being connected to the strip club scene is upsetting to you, if you desperately need to distance what you do from what those “other girls” do, if you truly believe that you are doing this because it’s just a really good workout, then I strongly suggest you spend some time thinking about why you chose pole dancing. Because there are a million ways to get fit without putting on six inch stilettos, a bikini and swinging sensually around a pole.
I can hear all of you screaming “BUT IT IS DIFFERENT! AND THIS ISN’T GOING TO HELP ME CONVINCE ANY OF THOSE A**HOLES OTHERWISE!”
All right, all right, I know that. Let’s move on to the guide portion, shall we?
1. THE FITNESS ARGUMENT
Despite what I said above, the fitness argument is a GREAT place to start talking about the wonders of pole dancing. I have pretty strong arms and shoulders and people inevitably ask what I do to keep them so toned. I pole dance, I tell them, while looking them squarely in the eye. In general, I find that assertive eye contact while telling them that you pole dance will ward off the more polite people from making any stupid comments. I then tell them I’m also a massage therapist, which, let me tell you, DEFINITELY makes them think I’m a whore. I have loads of fun with this.
People are generally more inclined to accept pole dancing if they think of it as a good form of exercise. And it is. So please feel free to let that be the first thing out of your mouth. But it’s a lot more than that. And, as I said above, there are a million ways to get good exercise. If you choose pole dancing, I think it’s safe to say that you are not just excited about the great workout. You are also excited about how super sexy and sexual you get to be. Yes, it’s fun and it’s different, but so is pilates, so is ballet booty barre and so is ultimate frisbee. And while most people might just be willing to accept your “It’s good workout” explanation, others will not. And, quite frankly, if you really want to change the way people perceive pole dancing, you shouldn’t either.
- LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX AND THE TEMPTRESS
If we look at the history of women, the temptress archetype (or whore archetype, if you prefer) has always been around, and she hasn’t exactly been held in high regard. I’m not going to go into all the theories of why this is true at this particular moment, but I will say this: There is tremendous power in the female body, particularly in her ability to give birth, and in her ability to move sensually and to arouse. The female body represents the sensate, the life giving, the nurturer, the goddess and the temptress. The temptress is an important part of a healthy female psyche because she puts us in touch with our bodies and our sexuality, both of which inform us about who we are, and what we desire. And it has not always been the case that women were encouraged to explore who they are and what they desire. More recently the temptress has gotten a bad rap in the wake of first wave feminism, which asks that we be respected for our minds, not our bodies. The thing is, I love my body. I live in my body. I would like to be respected for both, please. And I would also like to be able to let my temptress unleash, inform me, guide me and play without being judged by men or women. Because she has a lot to say. And a lot of it is worth listening to.
The problem is the temptress is dangerous to most people. Women who unleash their sexuality and take pleasure in it are immediately suspicious. The ones who get paid for it are even worse. Under no circumstances should a woman sell any part of her body. Never mind that if it is done under the guise of motherhood, such as donating your eggs, or becoming a surrogate mother, no one bats an eyelash.
When people think of women being paid for their sexuality, they often think of it as something that has been forced upon the women by dire economic circumstances, sexual slavery, etc. I would like to say that under no circumstances do I defend or support these practices. When I talk about women choosing to take pleasure in displaying their sexuality, I am talking about just that: The choice. And if that choice is in any way compromised, then I do not think the arguments I am making here hold nearly as much relevance. There are three requirements that I think need to happen in any sexual exchange, paid or unpaid, public or private: It needs to be safe for any parties involved, it needs to be sane for any parties involved and it needs to be consensual.
I think the way in which you approach a subject is as important as what you say. I’m (hopefully) going to give you a lot of information that can help you to outsmart people, but if you scream at them, you still won’t come out on top. One of the things I mentioned in The Fitness Argument was having fun with people. It’s really hard to keep your sense of humor about you when someone is 1. Behaving ignorantly and 2. Attacking you. But I must say, the more I keep my cool, the more they look like the jerk. It is not in my nature to stay cool. I have a fiery temper, I’m impulsive and I’m passionate. But I have found that if I stay cool in the face of someone’s attack, two things happen: 1. They run out of steam, because they have nothing to push against. I’m not fighting back, so nothing escalates. 2. They inevitable end up looking like a huge, aggressive jerk who has lost their mind. Think of it this way: Someone who is having a strong reaction towards your decision to pole dance is dealing with something very personal around his or her own sexuality. Your decision to display, play with or flaunt your sexuality stirs up some very deep fears. If you can stay calm and cool and rational while they have a little aggressive meltdown, then it becomes very clear who is struggling with what. You are not struggling with your decision to be a pole dancer. You do not care that it is affiliated with sex work. You are comfortable and confident in the decision you have made with your body and you are happy to share some of your beautiful, feminine sexual energy with the world. And you do not feel ashamed of that, because what you are really doing is giving the world a very beautiful gift. That guy (or girl) has a problem with it. That is his or her problem. They need to work it out for themselves. You can give them the facts, the explanations, the rundown, and if, at the end of the day, they still want to call you a whore, then maybe the best thing to do is to straighten up, look them straight in the eye, smile, and say, “Yes. I have a little bit of the whore in me. Every woman does. Now what?”
4.THE ANTI-POLER ARGUMENTS
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between dancing in a club and dancing competitively or in a studio is the end goal. In club dancing, for the most part, you are trying to make money by doing a stage show and then hopefully getting some clients for a lap dance or a table dance, etc. There may or may not be pole work involved. In general, you gear your dancing towards whatever your client’s fantasy may be. In competitive dancing, you are trying to beat out the other dancers for a cash prize, by expressing athletic grace and strength on the pole. There is generally no lap dancing, and you are free to express your sexuality as you see fit (as long as it is within the rules of the competition). In studio dancing, you are exploring different moves, exploring your body and sometimes the accompanying emotions, training to get stronger and, exploring floor work and lap dancing. There are no rules around what you can and cannot wear (except for nudity in some studios) and you are oftentimes encouraged to explore that naughty part of you and to let her come out and play. Most importantly, you are learning to take pleasure in displaying your sexual side.
As you can see, there are similarities and differences in what happens in each venue across the pole dancing spectrum. And I haven’t even talked about burlesque or acrobatic classes. Or male pole dancers. The common thread is not just the pole, but also the overt expression of sensuality and pleasure through dance and movement. And when people react negatively to the fact that you pole dance, this is generally what they are reacting to. This is also why the fitness argument, in the long run, fails. Because, to the anti-poler, that’s not really the problem. The problem is all the sex.
So how do we get around that? Well, one solution is to get rid of the sexual aspects of pole dancing, make it a competitive sport, a type of gymnastics, nothing more. I think you already know how I feel about this solution.
Another option is to begin to shift the way people perceive the entire pole dancing industry. From strip clubs to dance studios to competitive dancing. How would it be, if, instead of condemning and shaming women who had the courage to playfully and wholeheartedly display and share their sexuality, we celebrated them? How would it be, if, instead of marginalizing and pushing away that temptress/whore part of ourselves, we were able to proudly own her as a part of being a woman? That is what you are doing every time you dance. And, as dancers, we have the power to change how the world sees us. The more we inform ourselves, the more we speak clearly and graciously and intelligently about our work – no matter what the venue is – the more the world will have to listen. And perhaps, as they get past their own fears and prejudices around sexuality, they will come to see the value and the beauty in what we do.
A tall order, I know. And it can only happen one person at a time. So what are some ways to open up people’s minds? I always like to start by asking questions. Let’s role-play!
YOU: “I’m a pole dancer.”
AP: “You do what?? That’s whore work. You’re dirty. You should be ashamed of yourself. Why would you want to do that?”
YOU: “Well it’s a good workout.”
AP : “There are lots of ways to get a workout besides degrading yourself.”
YOU: “You’re right. I actually have a lot of fun pole dancing. I think it’s really fun to play around with my sexuality, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I’m sorry if that bothers you.”
AP: “SINNER! WHORE!”
YOU: (cool as a cucumber) “Look I’m just curious. What exactly do you find so offensive about pole dancing? “
Now, depending on your anti-poler, you will have a variety of answers here. I’m going to go with 4 different scenarios, but of course, there are hundreds. Below are the four scenarios. This week we will talk about scenario number 1:The Outraged Feminist.
In the following weeks we will discuss:
- The Moralist
- The Male Chauvinist Pig
- The Concerned Family Member
If you have suggestions for other scenarios, please feel free to message me on Facebook and I will happily write them out for you!
Scenario 1: The Outraged Feminist (my favorite!):
Remember, the question you asked was, what exactly was so offensive about pole dancing.
AP: “What you are doing objectifies women, degrades them, and makes it socially acceptable to do so! You are undoing everything your feminist sisters have done for you! Shame on you!”
YOU: “I see. So you’re upset because you think I am a traitor. And you think I am a traitor because by displaying my sexuality and taking pleasure in displaying it, I am somehow degrading myself?”
AP:”YES! Degrading yourself and making it ok for others to degrade us by expecting this type of behavior. And you are turning sexuality into something that can be bought!”
YOU: “I am? That’s funny, because I don’t get paid to do it. Let me ask you something, do you believe in a woman’s right to choose what she wants to do with her body?”
AP: “Yes. Of course, I do. I’m a feminist.”
YOU: “So could you please explain to me why sexuality doesn’t fall under that right? As a woman, should I not have the right to make an informed decision about what to do with ANY aspect of my body, including my sexuality?”
AP: “Not if it’s degrading, no.”
YOU: “Oh, I see. So, you believe in a woman’s right to choose, as long as it falls under your own personal moral umbrella of what you deem to be acceptable behavior for a woman. Well that’s great. So, before the feminist movement, men who, in the name of “protection”, placed all sorts of restrictions on my body policed my sexuality. Now, it’s being policed by women who, once again, think they know more than me about what’s good for me. Does that make sense to you at all? Because I’m failing to see the logic here.”
YOU (interrupting): “Have you ever read the book Misogyny by Jack Holland? No? Well you should. He goes through the entire history of the ways women have been persecuted and mistreated over the centuries. And at the end of the book, he has this great little discussion about how women should be able to freely express and display their beauty and sensuality without censorship. He actually criticizes the feminist movement for trying to strip women of this choice. It’s really kind of an eye opener.”
AP: “You know all you are doing is encouraging men to have a very one-dimensional view of how women should look, behave and act!”
YOU: “Really? Would you like to tell that to the 60-year-old woman in my dance class? Or the woman who, at 35, after two kids, is in the best shape of her life and more sexually confident than she has ever been? Anyway, I’m not sure I understand your point. What do you do to arouse interest in your partner? How do you behave when you are turned on, hmmm? How do you express pleasure in your body? Because that’s what this is about. It’s about finding ways of moving that feel good to you, that give you and maybe someone else pleasure. Oh and as for the objectification part, could you please define that word for me?”
AP: “Turning women into objects.”
YOU: “Close. Objectifying means taking a physical sensation – in other words, something that is experienced in the body, internally – and turning it into something that is external. So there is this kind of dehumanizing quality to it. You are taking it out of the body and turning it into an external object. I feel like this is something that men and women do every day when it comes to their sexuality, don’t you?”
AP: “Yes, but that’s because men turn women into objects to be devoured and consumed, instead of seeing them as humans that have brains and feelings.”
YOU: “That is true, that does happen. But I don’t think we can blame that on pole dancing or men, exclusively. And I just want to suggest to you, that maybe, just maybe, women might occasionally like playing with the fantasy of being devoured and consumed. Think about it.
Do you know what the opposite of objectification is? Subjectification. The act of experiencing something internally, in one’s own mind and body. A woman who has a strong subjective sense of her body and her sexuality is a woman who knows what feels good and doesn’t feel good in her body. Don’t you think someone like that is going to be in a much better position to set clear sexual boundaries with others, yes?
AP: “Well. Yes.”
YOU: “And of course, sexuality is primarily experienced where? In the body! And what is a good vehicle for exploring the body and can be inherently sexual? Dance! Have you ever seen anyone pole dance?”
YOU: “Oh. So you really don’t have any idea of what it’s all about, then. You have a lot of preconceived ideas. You know, I think it’s a good idea for you to get some first hand experience in all of this.”
AP: “Yes, and I think it’s disgusting.”
YOU: “Oh. Wow. So it’s really hard for you to tolerate open displays of sexuality. It makes you really uncomfortable. I totally get that. I used to be that way. Do you know what I did to help myself?”
YOU: “I took a pole dancing class.”