Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why We Can't Move Past the Sexy Stigma

In September, three brave women went on Anderson Cooper to defend their kids’ right to pole dance.  I watched the show several times and several things popped into my head straightaway.  First, I was disappointed.

What disappointed me about the show was that Anderson Cooper and Goldie Hawn cast pole dancing into such a black and white light.  Is it sexy or is it not sexy? Well, the truth is, it’s both.  And like everything in this world, what pole is depends on the context in which it is being explored.  And yet, this narrow attempt to define pole dancing in an oversimplified way highlighted not just how little the general public knows about pole but also how the pole dance community lacks a strong defining image.  When Anderson Cooper points out that the adult classes focus on “increasing the libido” and have overtly sexual names like “sexy-flexy” and “babes on bikes”, he is making a very valid point: How can you say what you are doing is not sexual when all of your adult classes focus on sexuality? We cannot, as a community, vigorously argue that we want to move past the stereotype of pole as a sexy activity and then market our classes as sexy.  It makes no sense.  We, as a pole community have to be clear on our message and our definitions of pole, and paradoxically, we have to be able to defend the sexy in order to defend the fitness.

Another problem I saw with Anderson’s line of thinking and therefore his questioning was the assumption that pole dancing will somehow lead girls down a shameful, sex-driven, promiscuous path of harlotry and immoral behavior.  He asked two versions of the same question.  The first was, “Why pole dancing?  Why not something with less of a sexual connotation?”  The second was, “Once they reach maturity, THEN what happens?” 
I love these kinds of questions because they reveal our culture’s innate reaction to female sexuality:  Keep it secret and keep it safe.
As if a woman who learns the art of sexuality and pleasure through dance is also learning to disrespect her body and her sexuality.  I would argue that in fact, the opposite is true.

One of the biggest concerns with young women and sex today is that they often view sex and sexuality as something you give as a performance for attention, rather than something you engage in because you want to.  There is a psychologist named Deborah Tolman who has written extensively on this topic.  She talks to girls about their experience of “wanting” versus their experience of “sex”, which is more often than not about being wanted.  Tolman uses the phrase “silent bodies” to describe the sexual experiences of these young girls.  Whether or not these young women had sex, they had a difficult time expressing if or how they felt desire or arousal in their bodies.  They instead chose to muffle their feelings, out of fear for where it might take them, out of shame and out of anxiety.  Nevertheless, they were still engaging in sexual activities and, more often than not, these activities were described as having “just happened” to them.  This is dangerous.  When a girl does not know what her own feelings and desires are she is much more vulnerable to the power of others feelings and desires. 

If what Tolman is saying is true, then teaching young women how to develop a subjective sense of their sexual selves would actually be a solution to them giving away their sexuality, when in fact we must teach them to own it.  In other words, our culture needs to teach women how to get in touch with what desire and arousal feel like, how to experience it in their bodies, and how to express what they want and don’t want.  Pole dancing is actually an excellent vehicle for such an education.  And this is because sexuality and desire are primarily experienced in the body. 

So to turn Anderson Cooper’s line of thinking on its head, I would argue that it is important for every young woman to learn how to explore her sexuality through pole dance in a safe, all-female environment.  I won’t teach my daughter to pole dance because I want her to go to the Olympics or win a competition somewhere- I will teach her to pole dance because it will teach her about her body and her sexuality in a healthy and sane manner.

Clearly Anderson’s question about where someone would “go” after learning to pole dance is based not just on his lack of understanding about the value of the sensuality of the movement, but is also designed to point out that pole dancing has no organizational strength.  And here, he also has a point.  We are so new that we do not yet have all of the things that other sports have to show their validity: scholarships, corporate sponsors, official coaches, etc.   But that will come, if we want it to.

I think the question is, do we want it to?  Goldie Hawn’s parting advice to the brave trio was to take the sexuality out of the movement and out of the marketing campaign immediately.  But should we really do that?  It brings us back to the age-old debate: Do we jettison sexuality in favor of mainstream acceptance of pole dancing? 

Personally, I don’t think that will ever happen.  But what this interview highlighted was just how confused people are about what pole dancing is

My personal belief is that until we can defend the value of the inherent sensuality of the movement, we will face ridicule and misunderstanding from the general public.  The truth of the matter is the majority of pole dance studios (in the US anyway) are focused on the sensual aspect of pole.  It is impossible to argue that pole is a sport and a form of fitness only while marketing classes as a form of sensual empowerment and putting on shows that highlight the sensual nature of pole dancing.   We need to address the issue of sensuality, the inherent value of the sexiness of the movement before we can defend it as nothing more than a form of fitness.

I wish Anderson Cooper and Goldie Hawn had been far more curious in their line of questioning.  I wish they stuck to their promise of having a “chat” about the topic with these ladies, rather than assault-style questioning.  Because perhaps then, all the beautiful aspects of pole could have been shared and understood by people around the country.  Next time ladies…next time.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

How To Look at a Woman

I almost posted this picture without any words.  But you know how I like to have to have an opinion on things. 

This picture argues that based on her hemline alone a woman can be judged on her moral character and her sexual nature.  Of course, this kind of thinking is not new.  And while the idea that a rape victim is “asking for it” based on her clothing choice is considered unacceptable by many in the U.S. today, if a woman dresses provocatively and then complains about the attention she receives, most people are less than sympathetic.  Because she was asking for it, right?

It’s complicated.

On the one hand, many women acknowledge that dressing provocatively will almost always result in male attention (if the men are straight).   But men are going to notice a woman no matter what she wears. Whether it's an ankle or wrist underneath a burka or super cleavage, the female body draws attention. The question is, what is that quality of attention? Is it respectful and admiring of a woman's beauty? Does it change depending on how much of her body she is willing to expose? Do we make assumptions about where she loses her rights to be treated with respect based on her level of dress or undress? Because that is not right. Every woman is deserving of protection and respect for her beauty no matter how she is dressed.  And men will always look. 

Personally, I don't think it is problematic that men look at women. It think it is the kind of attention they give a woman and all the assumptions they carry with them about her based on her appearance, occupation, or whatever that is troubling. Women do it to women too.   How many times have you been called a slut by another woman because you pole dance?  Here is the thing: Overt displays of sexuality by a woman do not give you more of a right to judge, touch, shame or violate that woman’s boundaries in any way.  But they also don’t mean that you have to act like they are not happening.  There is a way of turning your gaze towards a sexually provocative woman that is neither demeaning nor dismissive.  There is a way of appreciating a woman’s beauty that acknowledges your own feelings without disrespecting her.

There are women who dress and behave in provocative manner because they are sexually disempowered.  There are women who dress conservatively because they are sexually disempowered.  There are also women who dress provocatively and conservatively because they are sexually empowered and clear in their values, desires and boundaries.  It would be nice if we could acknowledge and honor these choices.  It would also be nice if women felt truly free to make these choices from an authentic place. I cringe at superficial displays of sexual empowerment as much as I cringe at attacks on pole dancing that make it out to be the latest development in raunch culture.  But even if a woman is choosing to put it all out there because she is deeply insecure, needs attention and feels worthless isn’t carefully choosing to ignore her behavior versus shaming her for it the kind and right thing to do?

Another issue that comes into play with the male gaze is that women, because of a their fear of being threatened physically or judged or otherwise bothered, are not receptive at all to male attention and respond to it by becoming angry. At times this is justified. If someone is belittling you, of course you are going to be pissed.  At the same time, I think women are so conditioned to respond negatively to any male attention that they reflexively shut a man down, even when he is simply admiring her beauty.  The opposite side of that coin is that they feel they have to say yes or accept any advances because they don’t know how to set boundaries.

I used to get really angry when men would whistle at me or try to pick me up or say "Dddaaaaaammmnnn" when I walked by them. If I was wearing something revealing I would inevitably feel shame too.  I was sure that I had “asked for it” and that this meant I was a very bad girl.  (Turns out I am, and that’s a good thing, but that’s another blog.)

Today, I smile back at whoever is paying me the compliment (because, yes, I think it's a compliment when a man notices my beauty in a playful way) and say thank you.  I have had men hang out of car windows and yell at me about my beautiful ass, I have had them wave politely from trucks, I have had them smile at me across cafes, I have had them stare unabashedly at me in bars and I have had them stop me in the streets to tell me I’m beautiful and ask me if I have boyfriend.   I always respond with kindness.  If they try to pick me up I politely tell them I am not available.  Most men back off. Most men are grateful that I did not verbally emasculate them for paying me a compliment and taking the initiative to try and introduce themselves. 
I don't find most male attention demeaning or threatening. Even more importantly, because I engage men, I know when it IS truly threatening (versus judgmental, or just playful, or a little rude) and that makes me feel safer in the world.  Maybe I sound completely na├»ve. But let me tell you, my approach towards men today works far, far better then the shut down, fear-based responses I used to take with them.

And yet, while I think women need to be more open to positive male attention, and recognize that most men do not want to hurt them, it’s my belief that the ultimate responsibility for safety lays not in a woman and her choice in dress and behavior, but in the man who is giving the attention. The idea that it is EVER a woman's fault for any kind of boundary violation - including unwanted, unkind attention - is the same mentality that puts rape squarely on the victim's shoulders. "She was asking for it." Bullshit.  As men, it is your job to learn to control your instincts, learn to respect women in all their states of dress and undress and take responsibility for your reactions to your own arousal, disgust, pleasure or whatever else comes up when you see the female form. And until that happens, not a whole lot is going to change in the world.