Pole Power and Take Back the Night
Photo is of my pole teacher, performer, British Pole Dance Champion, writer and studio owner Toni Mansell. Toni has a blog called The Political Poledancer.
Readers of my blog will know I have an issue with many feminist organisations who hold the view that all sex work is harm against women.
I agree that we need to examine why male sexual needs are given privilege in our society (and indeed most other societies), but the idea that pole dancing (here, the sport version, not even sensual pole) constitutes violence against women, and all dancers are exploited victims, is a simplistic understanding of gendered power.
We need to resit the idea that women can only be one thing or the other. That we can only be a lap-dancer, or indeed a pole-dancer, or cam girl, or fetish model, or sex worker. Women who work in the industry also have ‘proper’ jobs, they are friends, wives, mothers, teachers, artists, students, writers, volunteers. They are not reduced to the sexual act or performance they are trading.
Interestingly enough, these organisations are not campaigning outside care homes, nurseries, hair salons who provided poorly paid apprenticeships, zero-hour contract employers (hello academia!) and other jobs which are gendered, and pay poorly and precariously.
It is not the ‘exploitative’ nature of the labour they are interested in, it is the ‘sex’ part. I have faced more potentially exploitative conditions as a Ph.D researcher and hourly employed lecturer than I have as a lap-dancer. I have watched young women working 20 plus unpaid hours per week, terrified if they say no, they won’t get any more work. The amount of sexual harassment and violence on university campuses is disgusting. But it isn’t as snappy as ‘objectified women’.
Ironically, many of these feminist campaigns objectify and harm women themselves. These campaigns are often based on sex panics, moral panics and lies, and cause stigmatizing harms to women who choose, to work in the sex industry.
As my recently submitted Ph.D states, I am defining ‘choice’ in the following ways:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, 1858).
“Obviously ‘choice’ is a very problematic and contested term, and I would like to use the work of O’Connell-Davidson here, she argues “..the agency that people (women and children as well as adult men) exercise in choosing between the narrow range of fates available and working for them as best they can to meet their own interests and goals” (O’Connell-Davidson, 2015, p.1; see also O’Connell-Davidson, 1995, 1998).
In effect, it is not so simple as to argue that sex workers, or any workers, are ’empowered’ or ‘exploited’.
We are not going to march into McDonalds or Asda and try and save ‘exploited’ female workers for example. They work to pay bills. They didn’t dream of growing up to work in Asda, they work for low and often precarious pay. But we accept they have chosen what is right for them, perhaps from limited options. It might simply suit their childcare arrangements or they like their work mates and the work suits them. We accept they have made the right choice for themselves.
The Independent article hits the nail on the head, ‘In a Capitalist society, no one is concerned about how empowering someone’s job is- unless it’s sex work’.
I don’t know why we have to have discussions about empowerment constantly about pole dancing as a hobby either. I personally find it extremely empowering; I enjoy the company of other women, many of whom are feminist, and I enjoy performing and the sensual side of Classique pole.
But nobody asks if I find swimming empowering, or horse riding, or yoga. Nobody asks knitters or gamers if they are ’empowered’. Those hobbies are not required to validate their existence.
The idea that all forms of lap-dancing, and therefore pole dancing, are harmful to women is long-standing, and the oft-cited Lilith Report often rears its ugly head despite being deleted from its originator’s website (Eaves). The report suggested there was a causal relationship between the existence of lap-dancing clubs and an increase in rape.
The problem for me as an academic is how these views are often interpreted by policy and the criminal justice system; how some women are deemed worthy, and others as deviant. How women who engage in sex work can accept the label of victim, or face punitive treatment to control, monitor and regulate them. Sex workers should be able to report abuse or rape without their work being seen as the issue. They deserve the same protections as anyone outside of the sex industry. This regulation of bad ‘wayward’ women is historical.
It is the reason I get particularly angry when dancers from ‘pole fitness’ try to distance themselves from lap-dancing and those hobby polers who enjoy stripper pole. We should not be in opposition. You should be standing beside us. I wrote my blog past Yes a Stripper in response to the #notastripper hashtag.
You can be a sex worker and clever and independent; you can enjoy sensual pole without being ‘objectified’ and falling victim to the male gaze. Why does female sexuality scare other women so much? In our Classique pole class we shout about vaginas more than any radical text I have ever read. We know, understand and enjoy our bodies on our terms. If that is not feminist, I don’t know what is.
My amazing pole teacher and friend Toni Mansell has recently started a blog called The Political Pole-dancer.
Pole can be very powerful for the women who find solace, comfort and a sisterhood in its community.
Taking back pole is not just about a hobby, a pleasure or a sport. It’s about resisting the notion that pole dancing must be conflated with the sex industry, and that the sex industry must be conflated with exploitation and violence against women. It is resisting the notion that there are deserving and undeserving victims, and that there are good and bad women. This is not about regulating pole dancers, it’s about regulating all women.