Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Pole Dancer's Guide to the Anti-Poler, Part 1

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.




All right, all right, I know that.  Let’s move on to the guide portion, shall we? 



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.



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?”




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.”




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:

  1. The Moralist
  2. The Male Chauvinist Pig
  3. 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.”


AP: “Ummm…”


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?”


AP: “NO.”

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?”

AP: “No.”

YOU: “I took a pole dancing class.”


Friday, January 15, 2010

The Sensual, Sexual Side of Pole

When I tell people I pole dance, I’m met with a number of different reactions.  Some people say “You mean, you’re a stripper?”  Women will often say, “Good for you, that’s awesome.”  And men…well, men get that sly grin on their face and manage to look lustful and embarrassed at the same time.  It’s exciting that pole dancing is no longer chained to the province of strip clubs, and it’s important that people understand that.  It’s exciting because women get to experiment openly with their erotic side with less of the stigma and shame that working in a club can bring.  It’s exciting because the deeply sexual side of women, the side that for so long was oppressed, repressed, criticized and shamed, is actually beginning to be celebrated instead.  This is good news for all women, whether they pole dance or not.

            One of the major reasons that pole dancing is beginning to be taken seriously is because of the growing number of athletic pole competitions happening around the world.  The strength, grace and coordination of these women is being recognized more and more as a type of athletic talent, much like gymnastics.  This athleticism has given pole dancing a certain kind of legitimacy within society as a whole, and renders it an acceptable form of exercise for people who might otherwise find the subject too risqué or distasteful. 

On the other hand, if pole dancing becomes mainstreamed as just another athletic sport, we run the risk of it losing the sensual, sexual side of the movement in the effort to make the tricks come out perfectly.  Executing a series of pole tricks in rapid succession takes stamina and skillfulness.  But what makes a dancer interesting isn’t just her skill; it’s the emotion in her movement, the story she tells with her body.  And what makes a pole dancer riveting is that the story is, more often than not, a sensual one.  As women, it’s important that we keep telling this story with our bodies.  It’s important because it gives other women permission to do the same.  And because it brings out deeply entrenched biases and prejudices that are embedded into the fabric of our society, people are forced to confront their opinions and emotions in a conscious way. 

Moral obligations aside, a woman who stays connected to her sensuality during a show is more likely to give a stronger performance.  Her transitions will be smoother, her tricks will be stronger, and her overall performance more vibrant.  Why is this?  Because by staying connected to her sensuality, a woman will stay connected to her body.  It’s one thing to get on the pole and throw a bunch of tricks like a gymnast.  It’s another thing entirely to turn that into a beautiful, flowing performance that drips with emotion and intimacy.  One of the key differences is the presence of sensuality in your movement.

Here are some tips for developing sensuality in your pole dancing:

1.     When you move, see if you can stay aware of how things feel in your body.  Are there areas that come alive?  Are there areas that you don’t feel at all?  Learn to be aware of these areas without trying to fix or change them.

2.     Close your eyes and let your hands explore your body while you move.  Pay attention to how your skin feels underneath your fingertips, the way your hair feels brushing across your face, the way your clothing clings to your body.

3.     Take real pleasure in your movement.  Do what feels good in your body and let that pleasure come through in your movement.  There is something very powerful about a woman who can experience and share her pleasure without feeling shame.

4.     Play around with floor work.  Pole requires a great deal of technical skill with a relatively high risk of hurting yourself if you make a mistake.  Floor work is the perfect way to get out of your head and back into your body without risking injury.  And you don’t necessarily need to choreograph your movement.

5.     Explore your clothing options.  It’s great to practice in booty shorts and a tank top, but see what happens when you put on a sequined bikini top or some fishnet thigh highs.  Does your movement change?  How?  Do you feel different?  In what way? 

6.     Try dancing without a mirror.  S Factor studio is famous for this.  It forces you to stop paying attention to what looks good, and instead focus on what feels good.  This can help your movement become more sensual.


In order for pole dancing to continue to gain acceptance in the mainstream, there will initially need to be certain differentiations put into place so people can distinguish it from it’s strip club counterpart.  As Pole continues to evolve in the competitive sport arena, there will be rules and regulations that develop, like any other sport.  It would be a shame, however, if the cost of mainstream acceptance is the loss of the sensual, sexual side of pole dancing.  So much of a woman’s sexuality today is already contained, reined in, controlled.  Pole dancing can provide an outlet for women to explore their sexuality in a safe environment.  The beauty of pole is not just the incredible strength and grace that it requires, but the overt sensual display of female sexuality that accompanies a strong performance.  To take that away would, in essence, deprive women of the very thing that makes pole dancing such an empowering practice.


Sunday, January 10, 2010


Read all about it at PoleSuperstar.com!  The Pole Story is being featured in the Lifestyle section as "What's Hot This Week".  That's right! Check it out at http://polesuperstar.com/lifestyle.html

Thursday, January 7, 2010

This Very Moment Is The Perfect Teacher

This piece is dedicated to Judith, my longtime mentor, a phenomenal woman and a true spiritual warrior.


            In 2002 I went on a seven day Buddhist meditation retreat in the Colorado Rockies.  During this retreat, I spent quite a bit of time in silence, observing my thoughts and then letting them go, observing my thoughts and then letting them go (which is exactly what meditation is, by the way).  I meditated in a group, and occasionally the leader of the group would read out loud to us from various books written by people like Pema Chodron and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche - Tibetan Buddhists who have a particular knack for making the Dharma not just comprehensible to the average Joe but relevant to the Western lifestyle.

            The first lesson I remember really taking in and loving was this:  Generally speaking, we regard any form of discomfort or pain as bad news.  And our instinct – the instinct of every living thing in fact – in the face of perceived pain and bad news, is to shut down or run like hell in the other direction.  But, says Pema Chodron, for spiritual warriors – people who have a certain urge to know what is true – feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we are holding back.  They show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we are stuck.  For me, this piece of advice was a true lesson in fearlessness.  A person must be brave to be willing to get close to all of their yucky parts, to explore all the parts of themselves that they usually try to hide from, or feel ashamed of, or run away from.  I loved it.

            With that said, I have to confess that I in no way, even today, practice leaning into my yucky spots anywhere near perfectly.  Au contraire, mes cheres.  I still, with what might seem like alarming regularity to some people, overlook the fact that I am shutting down or running away.  Luckily for me, Buddhism tells me that this is also okay, because the point is to cultivate awareness and then a gentle sense of compassion towards myself in these moments of imperfection.

            All right, so I had better start connecting this to pole dancing before everyone wonders if I’ve gone off the deep end.  Recently, in my dance classes, I hit what my teachers commonly refer to as “a plateau”.  That is to say, nothing new was happening in my dancing.  I wasn’t getting better.  In fact, things were feeling a bit stagnant and uninspired and repetitive.  And I was feeling frustrated, irritated and resentful.  Maybe it was time for me to quit dancing.  Maybe this was as good as I was going to get.  Maybe I was really bad at this after all.  You get the picture.  It felt like a big load of bad news had been dropped on my front door step and yes, it was uncomfortable and even a little painful.  And I wanted out. But my teachers’ reaction to this place (and to every other student who hit this place) was this: “Good.  Stay right where you are.  You are right where you need to be.  Dance.” 

I cannot tell you how irritated this made me.  I didn’t want to dance.  For weeks.  I went to different teachers, hoping to get out of my stuck place.  Didn’t work.  I tried wearing different shoes, but ended up kicking them off.  I played with the clothes I was wearing and just got annoyed.  As Pema likes to say, there was no way for me to manipulate the situation so that I could come out looking good.  There was no way for me to feel on top of things. And so there I was, nailed to an uncomfortable spot.

            And my teachers’ responses continued to be:  “Good”, “Stay There”, “Dance”. Nobody told me what I could do differently, or how I could escape the situation – no, on the contrary.  I was forced to stay in that uncomfortable place, to get to know it really well, until I found a way through.  In fact, staying in that uncomfortable place was the way through.  And the teachers, through all of it, fed neither my hopes about getting out of this place, nor my fears about being in it.  They simply encouraged me to dive into that unknown, uncontrollable territory and move through it. Who would have thought that Pole Dancing could be a vehicle for a Dharma teaching? But there it is.

            Pema Chodron (I love her, in case you couldn’t tell) says that the most important aspect of being on the spiritual path may be to just keep moving.  Usually, when we reach our limit, we freeze in terror.  Out bodies freeze and so do our minds.  But a way of working with our minds in these places is to neither indulge nor reject our experience, but rather to let the energy of the emotion, the quality of what we are feeling, pierce us to the heart.  And, as she reminds us, that this is much easier said than done.  But it is the path of compassion – the path of cultivating human bravery and kindheartedness.

            When we are encouraged to dance through our emotions, whether they are the frustrations of a plateau, or the grief of a loss, or the pain of a rejection, when our teachers say to us (no matter what shows up), “Good.  This is good.  Feel that in your body.  Keep moving.” we are being given a rather tremendous gift.  We are being taught, not just on an intellectual level, but also in our bodies, how to be kind to ourselves.  We are cultivating a certain kind of fearlessness when it comes to being intimate with our dark, uncomfortable parts.  And as we begin to touch in and feel whatever it is that we are feeling with some kind of compassion and kindness, our protective shells begin to soften.  Things that were previously thought to be unworkable and impossible suddenly seem possible.  And as we move through these difficult spots and our capacity for kindness towards ourselves expands, so too does our capacity for kindness to others. 

            I finally got out of my plateau, right before Christmas.  I had gone to a very advanced Pole Tricks class at a different studio (I normally dance at S Factor) and I was pushed so far beyond my comfort zone that I literally almost burst into tears.  The class was too advanced for me, but I hung in there, determined to finish it and determined to stay with my discomfort.  When I came back to S Factor for my regularly scheduled classes, I felt a certain amount of relief at being back in a more predictable environment.  I might be uninspired, but at least I knew what to expect.  And then the unexpected happened.  I had decided to dance in a heavy, faux-fur lined sweatshirt, which I would peel off early on so that I could both grip the pole and not overheat.  As I went to unzip the sweatshirt during my dance, the zipper got tangled in gauze top.  I could not move it up or down.  It was stuck.  And I was stuck, inside my increasingly warmer and warmer, bulky awkward sweatshirt.  Shit.  All of the frustration, all of the tension and irritation came back with fierce intensity.  Only this time I didn’t fight it.  I had to dance with the damn sweatshirt on. I wouldn’t be able to throw tricks the way I normally did.  I was dripping in sweat.  Go.  It was one of my best dances.  I rode the emotions, I let them take over my body and I let myself really give in to what I was feeling in the moment.  I let it pierce me to the heart.  And I found my way through.



Friday, January 1, 2010

I Have a Bone to Pick with You, Ariel Levy

If we look around at popular images in television, magazines, billboards, we can see that the objectification of sex runs rampant in American culture.  Women in particular have been influenced by a surge in what has been coined “stripper culture”, or the glorification of pornographic, sexually explicit representations of females.  This phenomenon has created quite a bit of controversy and, for some women, raises the question: “How far have we come in our feminist struggle?”

In her book, “Female Chauvinist Pigs”, Ariel Levy talks about this phenomenon but uses a different phrase to define it: Raunch Culture.   According to Levy, examples of America’s inundation of Raunch Culture include the popular video series “Girls Gone Wild”, porn star Jenna Jameson’s success as an author, the recent upsurge in popularity of X-rated books in the publishing world, the increase in plastic surgery procedures, Reality TV, Olympic athletes posing for racy magazines, Victoria’s Secret Lingerie Show being aired on primetime televisions, and, last but certainly not least,  the surge in popularity of all-female erotic dance classes.  Says Levy, “Because we have determined that all empowered women must be overtly and publicly sexual, and because the only sign of sexuality we seem to be able to recognize is a direct allusion to red-light entertainment, we have laced the sleazy energy and aesthetic of a topless club or a Penthouse shoot throughout our entire culture.”

Have we determined that as a culture all empowered women must be overtly sexual?  This would suggest that the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, which has run rampant in our culture for centuries, is no longer an issue in America.  It would suggest that we, as a culture, embrace the whore in all of her overt sexual power and allow her to be as much a part of the sisterhood as the Madonna.  It would suggest that we no longer refer to women who choose to explore and possibly share their sexuality with the world as “whores”.  But as is evidenced by Levy’s scathing words towards women who choose to play with the whore archetype, we are far from having reconciled that deep split in our psyche.  In fact, the judgments that Levy tosses at women who choose to explore their sexuality through overt means demonstrates that the Madonna-Whore dichotomy is in fact alive and well and that we are still shaming women for overtly displaying their sexuality.  Says Levy about Olympic Models choosing to pose for FHM magazine, “Bimbos enjoy a higher cultural standing in our culture than Olympians right now.”  Is it possible that these women were choosing to share their sexuality for pleasure or for profit or both?  And why would we condemn these female athletes for wanting to be seen as sexually desirous?  Female athletes work in an extremely masculine environment where their feminine sexual essence is tightly reigned in.  Does it not make sense that they might want to experiment with being seen as hyperfeminine representations of sexually desirous beings? 

Levy goes on to say that “some version of the scantily-clad temptress” has always been around and there has always been a demand for “smut”. But this was once a guilty pleasure on the margins, she protests, and the province of males.  Today it has thoroughly penetrated the mainstream and that mainstream includes women.  Levy wonders why this is happening and what women could possibly be getting out of all of this objectification.  Her answer is simply that smut is trendy and women want to be “cool”.    This dismissive and derisive critique of striptease culture as “smut” overlooks the crucial point that sex can be a ground for exploration and experimentation for both men and women.  In a culture where women have always had tighter moral constraints than men in the realm of sexuality, is it not important to begin to value forms of sexuality that lay outside the traditional, acceptable norms of heterosexual monogamous fidelity?  Should we not be willing to embrace a more diverse practice of sexual behavior, including sex work and promiscuity, whether or not we choose these practices for ourselves?

When linking “raunch culture” with the swing to the right our country has taken Levy argues that people are voting for how they “wish things were in America, rather than how they experience it”.  A more solid argument would be that the people who reside in the red states are so far divorced from their bodies and so heavily policed in their sexuality that they develop an obsession with the objectification of the body.  That which is taboo becomes an obsession.  Levy also complains about the fact men do not have to parade around in their skivvies to attain power, so why should women?  This is in line with the feminist argument that stripper culture is yet another indication that we exist in a patriarchal culture where women are still viewed as sex objects for men’s gratification. Here she misses another essential point:  Men don’t parade around in their skivvies not because they don’t need to, but because it would never have the same effect.  This is not where masculine power resides.  And that’s NOT necessarily because we live in patriarchal society where only women are exploited for their bodies.  It’s because the essence of feminine power (whether this power is being expressed in a male or a female body) lies in the body.  The feminine represents the sensate, the giving of life, nurturing, the wild and chaotic and she demonstrates these feminine qualities most readily through her body.  The naked woman, says Carrie Roach, conjures up pre-patriarchal goddesses and temple priestesses who proclaim power and honor in the female body.  “In this context, the popularity of stripper culture becomes a testament to the timeless fascination and perennial appeal of the female body:  mysterious, soft and sensuously curved, magically able to create and renew life through the primordial power of female sexuality.  Striptease culture then is one important part of popular culture where women can use their power playfully, erotically – even religiously – for their own financial, emotional and spiritual fulfillment.”   And this is a problem because…? 

It’s a problem because as a culture, we are not quite ready to accept or embrace the idea that women should be able to share their sexuality in any overt manner and still be considered respectable members of society.  The argument that empowerment = overt displays of sexuality=smut is simply another way of saying what “the patriarchy” (as defined by Arial Levy) has been saying to women for years: If you choose to engage your feminine sexual power, then you are a whore.  Overt displays of sexuality=smut=whore.  How fantastic that, after centuries of men telling women that they may not engage in this sort of practice, we now have women telling other women not just that they should not engage in this sort of practice, but that if they do, they are doing the rest of the sisterhood a huge disservice.  As long as women continue to judge one another for their sexuality, as long as women’s beauty and sexuality remains something to be contained, controlled and judged things like misogyny and chauvinism will continue to flourish.  

            Jack Holland, in his book Misogyny, makes the argument that if choice is central to women’s evolution, then so to is her sexuality, and her right to display it.  He goes on to say that one of the characteristics of a society where misogyny is “the common sense” is that they seek to suppress that right.  Items that invoke any aspect of female sexuality create a tremendous amount of fear, and are therefore banned.  This fear is associated with confining a woman’s sexuality to the procreative role, and they often have problems relating to a woman at any other level than the mother.  This opposition is disguised as wanting to “protect” the women from male chauvinism, but the actions reveal their own inability to relate to sexually mature women.  Ambivalence towards women’s beauty remains as part of the Judeo-Christian hostility towards the body and is echoed in many of the feminist writings that call on women to give up the frivolousness of beauty and prove through their minds that they are equal to men.  The solution is not to jettison beauty or pleasure or to place constraints on women’s sexuality or their bodies.  The solution is to change our attitude towards all of these things and to reconnect with our bodies.

Levy’s biggest bone to pick seems to be the use of the red light industry as a role model for sex. One of her arguments against this is that the women are “acting”.  They are playing at being sexy and presenting unrealistic models of female sexuality.  While the sex industry may present unrealistic models of female beauty and sexuality, it could also be argued that the women who are acting in these films are better equipped than the average woman to teach people about sex.  They are paid professionals.  Their job is to have sex.  They must then be able to differentiate between the sex they have at work and the sex they have in their private lives.  They, more than anyone, must know the difference between sex they enjoy and sex they are having for a paycheck.   I am also quite sure that these two things overlap quite a bit.  The idea that porn stars are “always acting” is naïve – in the same way that assuming most strippers are abused or don’t like what they do is naïve.  But it is much more comfortable for most people, I suppose, to assume that the woman participating in a sex act for money is there because she has no choice or is being victimized in some way than it is to realize that some women just really enjoy sex and fucking.  Because of course, that makes her dangerous. 

            Nina Hartley is a porn star/educator.  She has been making porn for at least twenty years, has written books on sex and also teaches workshops on things like blowjobs, spanking and anal sex.  In her classes, she covers technique and anatomy but she also talks about some of the stigmas surrounding these activities.  While Ms. Hartley has a made a career out of “acting” in pornography, she isn’t teaching other women how to pretend to enjoy giving blowjobs, she is teaching them how to truly enjoy giving them primarily through increasing their knowledge, skills and confidence.  Ms. Hartley is in an excellent position to do this because she has s great deal of experience both on the job and off, and she knows what works. 

            With that said, I don’t think that the red light industry even begins to cover the spectrum of sexual exchanges that can be had and that the exclusive use of pornography as a role model for sex for Americans falls tragically short of providing a solid sexual education.   Levy and I even agree that having this be the only access Americans have to sex education is in fact, quite detrimental.  But Levy falls short of offering any solutions.  Which is where I come in.  Stay tuned, my pets.