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.


  1. Love it, Claire! You need to be on Anderson explaining this!

  2. This is so well written. Thank you for sharing! I agree with everyone to keep sexuality secret and safe and you are insightful with wanting to teach young girls how to be in control of and accept their own nature. If we teach understanding then they will be so much better off. Tying in with your observation of people's 'black and white' view of things - I had a wonderful conversation with a contemporary dancer a few months ago. Our young are growing up thinking of everything as 'black or white' and having extreme emotions. We aren't teaching the range of emotion we are capable of and this is also happening with our society around sex. There are so many types: sexy, raunchy, sensual, romantic, power, etc. We forget about the grey in between and act like sexy is bad! Sexy is very good and part of how we are made. We need to teach the different types of sexy and not act like there is one type and it's bad. I think as a pole community we should address this as well. Women ARE sexy- we just are. Men think we are. They look at us in a dress or a swimsuit or pajamas or jogging pants etc. and think we are sexy. Pole dancing or latin dancing or any other dancing has a range of sexy from almost none existent to over the top. We need not be afraid to explore this.

    Anyway- I think I've made my point! Thank you for this wonderful thought provoking article.