Friday, February 26, 2010

An Olympic Sized Debate

MSNBC recently posted an article in their “Weird News” section about the possibility of Pole Dancing becoming an Olympic sport.  There have subsequently been a number of other news sites, blogs, and websites that have reposted this article and it has generated quite a buzz.  The article was interesting enough, but the comments were what really fascinated me.  After having read hundreds of comments on dozens of different websites (and commenting a bit myself) I think the public’s reaction to pole dancing becoming an Olympic Sport falls under a few different categories.  One popular response was to ridicule the idea, based either on a lack of knowledge for how much athleticism pole dancing actually requires, or based on the exclusion of other sports (i.e. cricket’s not a sport, why should pole dancing be a sport?).  Another common response was to immediately confuse what happens in a pole dance competition with what happens in a club thereby resulting in snarky comments about judges shoving medals into dancer’s thongs.  A few applauded the idea, citing the hard work it takes and making comparisons to gymnastics, etc.  However, the overall response was negative and the negativity, in my opinion, stemmed from our culture’s overall discomfort with overt displays of female sexuality.  One commenter actually said that it would be fine to have pole dancing as an Olympic sport as long as it was stripped (haha) of every sexual overtone.  Um, ok. 

            Let me be frank and straightforward for a moment here.  I know absolutely nothing about what it takes to qualify as an Olympic sport.  In fact, I know very little about sports, period.  I have never danced competitively and it does not interest me to do so.  I dance because it connects me a deeply feminine, sexual part of my self.  I dance because it feels good in my body.  The fact that it gets me fit is just a bonus.  So I’m not really sure how important it is to me personally that pole dancing gain Olympic standing.  With that said, I support the women who feel that it is important, and, I think that this very public push has done something excellent for the pole dancing community, which is to put pole in the public spotlight.  And pole dancing, because of it’s sensual and erotic roots, holds up a mirror to our culture’s sex phobia.

            The overall response from the general public reflects a real discomfort with women dancing sensually and evoking the erotic.  Whether this discomfort is reflected by third-grade comments about women taking their clothes off (nudity! yeah!) or flat out misogyny from both men AND women (those skanky whores need to find a real job!) the message is that we have a long way to go before people begin to accept that an erotic, sensual expression of the female body is worthy of respect.  Pole dancing is, and hopefully always will be, a sensual form of movement, and I think that is why most people balk at it being in the Olympics.  Because in our culture, rather than celebrating the sensuality of the female body, we censor it and we shame it and we denigrate it.  If we could change how we view a woman who chooses to celebrate her sensuality through dance, if we could look at this movement as a celebration of the female body, of its innate sensuality, of its sexual power and beauty, then maybe pole dancing, and even stripping could be integrated into the mainstream and viewed as a practice that is worthy of respect.           

            So I want to know what you, the pole dancers think.   Should it pole dancing become an Olympic Sport?  Why?  Should we sacrifice the sexiness for mainstream recognition?  Do you think if our culture were more sex-positive, the perspective on pole dancing would shift?  Is it possible for stripping and pole dancing to gain the respect of the general public as a legitimate sensual expression of female sexuality and power?  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Pole Story Builds Bridges! Check It Out!

As you will recall, a couple of weeks ago I posted Part 2 of the Pole Dancer's Guide to The Anti-Poler and I called it "Building a Bridge".  In an effort to practice what I preach, I found a an anti-pole dance blog entry and I responded to it.  Go to the link below and check out what happened.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Silent Bodies: Why Pole Dancing Might be Essential for Some Young Women

A while back, I wrote a little tirade about how irritating I found Ariel Levy and her limiting views on female sexuality to be.  I also said that Levy, for all her wing-flapping, fell short of offering any real solutions to the problems she felt were plaguing our culture with regards to women and sexuality.  And I suggested that I might have some solutions.  Which I do.   But first, let’s revisit a topic that dear Ariel and I can both almost agree on:  pleasure and desire in young women.

In her book, Levy takes a chapter to talk about how “Raunch Culture” is affecting young women.  She very astutely points out that female adolescents, who are already dealing with raging hormones, peer pressure, the need to fit in, etc. are being bombarded with images of sexiness in the media and being pressured to look sexy while simultaneously being told through abstinence –only programs in their schools, not to have sex.   Confusing for anyone, I would imagine, but even more so for a teen.  Levy points out that we are doing very little to help girls distinguish their sexual desires from their desires for attention.  The sad thing about this, she says, is that from the beginning of their experiences as sexual beings, they regard sex as a performance that you give for attention, rather than something thrilling that you engage in because you want to.  I couldn’t agree more.

Even more fascinating is Levy’s reference to Deborah Tolman, a woman who has researched and written extensively on teen girls and sexuality.  Tolman talks to girls about their experience of “wanting” versus their experience of “sex”, which is more often than not about being wanted.  Tolman (and Levy) use the phrase “silent bodies” to describe the sexual experiences of these young girls.  Whether or not these women were having sex, they had a very difficult time feeling and expressing arousal and desire in their bodies.   They instead chose to muffle these feelings, out of fear for where it might take them, shame and anxiety.  Nevertheless, they were still engaging in sexual activities and more often than not, these activities were described as having “just happened” to them.  Tolman points out that not feeling any sexual desire can put girls at great risk.  “When a girl does not know what her own feelings are, when she disconnects the apprehending psychic part of herself from what is happening in her own body, she then becomes especially vulnerable to the power of others’ feelings.”   Or, as Levy sums it up, you have to know what you want in order to know what you don’t want. 

In her book Dilemmas of Desire, Tolman argues that sexual desire, in and of itself, is not dangerous, essentially masculine or monstrous.  It’s a part of our relational world, a sign of our connection to our own bodies and our connection to other people.   Basing her argument on Jean Baker Miller’s assertion that sexual authenticity (the ability to bring one’s own real feelings of sexual desire and sexual pleasure meaningfully into intimate relationships) is a key feature of women’s psychological health, Tolman says that the body is the counterpart of the psyche in the ongoing process of constructing a subjective sense of one’s sexuality.  “Desire is a form of knowledge, gained through the body:  In desiring, I know I exist.”

If what Tolman and Levy  are saying is true, then a very real solution to the problem would be to educate young women on how to develop a subjective sense of their sexual selves.  In other words, to teach them how to get in touch with what desire and arousal feel like to them, how they experience it in their bodies and how to express what they want and don’t want.  When Ariel Levy talks about the pornification of our culture, I think what she is talking about is the extent to which she sees women, young and not-so-young, imitating or playing at being sexy.  There is a difference between a woman who is “acting” sexy for the sake of wanting to be desired by someone or wanting to fit in to something and a woman who is “being” sexy, that is fully embodying her sexuality and fully aware of and owning her desires, without apology and without shame.  The former becomes an easy target for other people’s desires, because her main objective is to please.  The latter will pick and choose who she wants to share herself with and when based on her experience of what her body is telling her.  But in order to hear her body, she has to learn to listen to it.  Guess what we’re going to talk about now? 

I dance at S Factor studios.  You may or may not be familiar with S Factor’s curriculum, but one of the things they ask their students to focus on is how they feel in their bodies when they are dancing.  They spend a lot of time on floor work, which gets you out of your head, they encourage you to slow down and pay attention to your breath, but most of all, they encourage their students to pay attention to what they are feeling in their bodies as they move.  I feel a lot of different things in my body when I dance sexually: anger, shame, fear, joy, sadness, exhaustion.  But desire is a part of every movement I make.  I move my body in a way that feels good to me.   I learn to touch myself and really experience the sensual pleasure of running my hand across my breasts or my belly.  And by doing this, I not only awaken desire in my body, I become intimate with what desire feels like in my body.  So here we have a very sexual, movement based practice, in a safe, all-female environment that encourages women to gain a subjective sense of their bodies through desire.  Is this not exactly what these young women’s “silent bodies” are sorely in need of?  A way to awaken, familiarize and de-stigmatize their experience of desire?  So why is Ariel Levy getting her proverbial panties in a twist over pole dancing classes?  If it were up to me, some form of all-girls erotic dance class would be a part of sex education for women in schools across the country.  Teenage girls are already bombarded with images of what “acting” sexy looks like.  It’s time to teach them what “being” sexual feels like in their bodies.  The pitfalls of having inexperienced, uneducated, silent sexually active women are too great.   Quite frankly, I think there are women well out of their teenage years who could also benefit from this type of education.  Maybe that’s part of the reason the pole movement s gaining so much momentum in the world. 


Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Pole Dancer's Guide to the Anti-Poler, Part 2: Building a Bridge

This is dedicated to my mother, who continues to remind me that it takes a certain kind of strength to remain kind and gracious in the face of adversity and who has always encouraged me to open my heart to the world.


It’s time for our next installment of The Pole Dancer’s Guide to the Anti-Poler!  I’ve been reflecting on last week’s entry, and I think, this week, what I would really like to focus on is how to communicate when there are fundamental value differences between you and the person you are chatting with. It’s fair to say that many people who either have no interest in pole dancing or who oppose it outright are not necessarily going to be swayed by an ascerbic, aggressive approach to the topic.  While I had some fun putting my thoughts on paper last week, and while I DO feel angry and outraged by the treatment that many of us get, in the long run it ultimately does no good to escalate a situation or try to “win” by putting someone else down.  In order for there to be real communication across the vast gaps that exist between a pole dancer and someone who steadily opposes it, a certain amount of reflective listening, compassion and willingness to accept differences has to be present in the conversation.  One-upsmanship is fun, it raises a battle cry, but it is not a long-term solution.  I am not suggesting that you all become U.N. diplomat trained in communication.  But what I am suggesting is that you take the time to really understand someone else’s point of view and where it is coming from.  This week I have gotten a number of friend requests on Facebook from fellow pole dancers.  Many of them have different political or religious views than I do. It struck me that pole dancing was building bridges for me.  I was putting my own worldview to the side for the sake of embracing a shared passion. It’s my hope that our shared passion for pole can help us to build bridges not just with those who might not understand what we are doing, but in our own little community as well.


Scenario 2: The Moralist

Remember, the question was what did the person find so offensive about pole dancing.


AP: I don’t think you should be putting yourself out there like that.  Putting yourself on display.  You really must not respect yourself.  And you’re asking for trouble.


YOU: I see.  So you think that by putting my sexuality out there, I’m somehow showing the world that I 1. have no respect for my sexuality or my body and 2. am open and available for any kind of advances, wanted or unwanted.


AP:  Yes, I think you are taking a lot of risks by teasing all these men and whipping them up into a frenzy.  And I think that stuff is meant to be kept behind closed doors.


YOU:  Oh!  So you think that tempting people is a dangerous business.  And that sex should remain behind closed doors.  Listen, why do you think it’s dangerous for me to be openly sexual and sensual and tempting?


AP: Because you are asking for trouble when you do that!  What do you think is likely to happen?  Men lose control in those situations! You can’t go around being all sexual and sexy and then be surprised if something happens to you!


YOU: You know, you have a point there.  It is an unfortunate truth that in our society, women are still at risk of being sexually violated, and even more so if they are being overtly sexual.  But I’m not sure I agree with your solution.  Because what I hear you saying is that if women just kept their sexuality under wraps and didn’t tempt men, then there wouldn’t be any problem.  And what I also hear you saying is that if a woman does choose to put her sexuality in display, she should be held responsible for any bad thing that happens to her because men are incapable of controlling themselves. 


AP: Well…I just think it should be kept private.


YOU: How about this?  How about if we acknowledged that some men, because of their upbringing, feel like there are good girls and bad girls in this world.  Good girls are the kind you marry or the ones you are related to.  Bad girls are the ones who generally arouse all sorts of things in you. And the good girls need to be treated a certain way and the bad girls you can pretty much do what you want with. If you are a good girl, then you keep your sexuality under wraps or you only share it with one other person, preferably a male, and you have nothing to worry about.  If you are a bad girl and you choose to put your sexuality on display or take overt pleasure in your body, then you better expect anything that comes your way.  The problem is (aside from the insanity of this split) that a woman’s sexuality becomes deeply tied up and reined in with that kind of logic.  We can't be free.  The other problem is that men are not required to take any sort of responsibility for their behavior.  Men are given carte blanche to behave like jerks and treat some women, based on those women’s very personal choices, with disrespect.  Don’t you think that all women deserve respect?


AP: Yes, but you don’t treat yourself with respect, so why should I treat you with respect?


YOU: I see, so it’s coming back to that again.  All right.  So because I freely choose to pole dance, to be sensual, to be a little bit of a temptress, I don’t respect myself, is that what you are saying?


AP: Yes.


YOU: Do you know that women used to be celebrated and worshipped for their beautiful, sensual bodies?  Not anymore.  No, the attitude now towards women is either 1. Take it off!! Or 2. Cover it up!!  And neither one reflects respect for the female body.  You are the same as the man who screams for a woman to undress, except you want her to cover up.  You are just as interested in controlling female sexuality.  Perhaps it frightens you to see a woman who can boldly and proudly enjoy her body.  Perhaps it disgusts you. But I’m proud of what I do.  I think there is a great deal of value in it.  And I wouldn’t be able to do this, much less have a conversation about it with you if I weren’t completely clear about that. 


AP: Well….


YOU: You know what would be nice?  If we could have a place where women could be sensual and enjoy their sensuality and not be judged or be putting themselves at risk.  I kind of think pole dancing is moving us in that direction.


AP:  I think that’s immoral.  Sex, sensuality, all of that stuff is a private matter!


YOU:  You know, I understand that sentiment, and I respect your difference in opinion.  Sex , pole dancing, whatever – it should be a personal decision.  It’s not for everyone, right? But I guess what I would ask, is that you respect my decision to pole dance.  I’m certainly not going to tell you what to do, and I don’t think you should tell me what to do either.  Do you believe in freedom?


AP: Of course!  It’s what our country was founded on!  But I don’t believe in freedom that leads to immorality.


YOU: I see.  Do you believe in pleasure?


AP: Under certain circumstances, yes.  I enjoy a good book, a nice slice of pie, walks in the morning.


YOU: A nice of slice of pie?  The freedom to enjoy a nice slice of pie! Nothing immoral about that is there?


AP: No.


YOU: What is it that you enjoy about that nice slice of pie?  And what kind of pie, by the way?


AP:  Blueberry.  I like how it tastes.  I like how it smells, if it’s coming right out of the oven.  I like when it’s still warm.


YOU: What about when you get a nice scoop of ice cream to go with it and it kind of starts to melt and it makes the crust this buttery, flakey, gooey deliciousness?


AP: Oh yeah!  That is nice!  And then the blueberries kind of melt and pop in your mouth at the same time and that sweet yummy glaze stuff mixes with the ice cream…MMMMMMMMMMMMMM!


YOU: Pleasure.  You are experiencing sensual pleasure when you eat that slice of pie.  Is there something wrong with that?


AP: Well, no.  But there is a huge difference between pie and sex.


YOU: Yes, but what they have in common, and what seems to upset you so very much is that element of sensual pleasure.  So tell me why it’s ok for you to take overt sensual pleasure in the experience of a piece of pie, like you just did, but it’s not ok for me to take overt pleasure in my own body.  What makes my body an inherently immoral thing to take pleasure in? 


AP: I…don’t know.  I guess because for me, sex or sexual pleasure is something sacred and private between two people.  There is nothing sacred about pie.


YOU: Well I will NOT repeat that to any pastry chefs.  Look, I don’t know if I will ever convince you that you should try pole dancing, or let your daughter or mother try pole dancing.  I could spend quite a bit of time explaining to you all the benefits but it would still require you to get around the privacy issue.  To some extent, it would seem like part of what you are talking about here is that love is a very important part of any sexual exchange for you.   And you don’t really see how love has anything to do with a pole.


AP: Yes. 


YOU: Ah.  What you are suggesting is that what I am doing is emanating purely from my physical body.  It’s sex without the heart or the soul. But you are wrong.  When I dance, my heart is in every movement my body makes.  Love and pleasure are joined integrally.  But the love I feel is for my own body, for the amazing capacity it has to experience a huge range of emotions and sensations and for its gorgeous ability to respond and tell a story.  When I dance, I might be trying to entice someone or maybe to win a competition, or maybe I’m dancing for fun, but above all I’m dancing because I want to share what is in my heart and my body at that particular moment.  So you see, love is the basis of what I do too.  It’s just that I choose to share that part of myself with more people than you do.  We have different limits.


AP:  Yes we do.


YOU:  And I guess what would be wonderful is if we could accept that our limits are different, without judging them.  I think we all struggle privately with sexual desire and expression.  What a shame that we displace the anxiety this creates in us by judging others for their decisions.  It would be wonderful if we, as a culture, could place limits on our sexual desires that are derived from joy and pleasure rather than fear and anxiety.  That way our limits are determined by a positive choice in life, rather than by fear and a need to control.  I understand that you would never choose to explore pole dancing.  But I don’t think any less of you for it.  I would love it if you could extend me the same courtesy.  If you could allow me the freedom to make informed decisions about what I choose to do with my body, my sexuality, my free time, even if it isn’t something that you would choose for yourself. 


AP: I’m not so sure I can do that.  I feel like you are asking me to ignore something that I think is fundamentally wrong.


YOU: No, I’m not asking you to ignore anything.  I’m asking you to think about pole dancing as something that is not right for you, rather than as something that is just plain wrong.