This morning I woke up to an article in our Facebook feed about a college that has banned a student pole dancing club on the basis that the sport “is inextricably linked to the multi million pound sex industry.” You can read the full letter from the university as well as the response from Pole Dance Community here.
It’s stories like this that remind us that pole dance is still considered a controversial subject. For many people around the world, pole dancing is an art form that conjures up images of strip clubs and erotic entertainment. Our friends sometimes ask us how that “stripping movie” is doing and we have to (again)explain that pole dance is not stripping, and how it can be athletic and artistic. What is surprising (or perhaps not) is that an educational institution fell victim to prejudice and fear.
I’ve been worked up about this issue all day, so let me take this time to respond point by point to their letter with real world evidence as documented in our film.
Pole fitness and pole dancing are a direct spin off from lap dancing. Can we separate ‘pole fitness’ from ‘pole dancing’? We believe that you cannot, because whatever you name it, pole ‘fitness’ or pole ‘dancing’, you are still participating in the social context of what the pole represents. Everyone knows where it comes from, that pole dancers are to be found in strip clubs and sex establishments and that pole dancing is a dance form specifically designed to sexually excite the watcher. Pole dancers are almost always women, and watchers almost always men.
If a man dances on a pole in a circus show, people admire him for his strength and flexibility. If a woman were to do the exact same routine, people use adjectives like “sexual” and “erotic”. The movements these women do are no different than other aerialists or gymnasts, yet because it’s a pole it’s seen as being automatically erotic or sexual. This fundamental paradigm is the reason we are having this argument in the first place. We watched Jagged come up against this same mentality when they performed on America’s Best Dance Crew. With the proliferation of pole dance as a sport and a fitness class, we now find people who do think of it outside the strip club, but this kind of thinking can’t move forward if organizations like Swansea University fall into prejudice.
Although ‘pole fitness’ is sold as an empowering activity, we believe that women have been deceived into thinking this is a way of taking charge of their sexuality and their own decisions. Moreover we believe that it is just a further debasement of our culture and another sign of a creeping backlash against women’s true empowerment and a show of misogyny.
This statement is paternalistic and demeaning to the capable, grown, adult women who comprise the pole community . The trustees have clearly never been to a pole class or even spoken with members of this organization. We’ve interviewed and gotten to know quite a few pole dancers over the last three years. From those who have just begun dancing to those who are international stars and travel the globe promoting pole fitness, these women are the true definition of empowered. They own their own businesses. They are entrepreneurs and artists filled with confidence and vision. Every studio owner we spoke to was a woman. Every event we went to was organized by a woman. This is an industry that is completely run and supported by talented, smart, entrepreneurial women.
We believe that this is linked to the rise of ‘Raunch Culture’ in our society and our ever increasing pornified world where women are increasingly being portrayed and treated as objects for sexual enjoyment. This not only normalises the practice of ‘pole fitness’ but encourages and hoodwinks young girls and women into accepting and embracing this behaviour.
I used to think that maybe if pole dance was a little less sexualized, people would come around and accept it more. But after making this film, I’ve come to understand that it isn’t that pole dance is more sexual than other dance forms. It’s that society perceives it as more sexual than other dance forms. This is one of the biggest goals we have for the film, that it will change this perception.
Furthermore, it is my belief that in helping a woman feel comfortable in their own body, pole dance has done a lot to combat the negative stereotypes in mainstream media. Katie and I have always loved the fact that women of all shapes, sizes and ages feel confident performing in public on the pole. It’s a true testament to the confidence building nature of being able to lift yourself upside down and marvel at the strength of your own body. Also, I have never been “turned on” by a pole dance show. I recognize that the dance is sensual, but it’s the same feeling one gets when they look at a nude painting, or a spicy tango dance number. There is an element of art beyond the fitness that the trustees have failed to understand. And speaking purely pragmatically, I doubt very much that the pole class filled with women in workout pants and tops, sweating, cursing, and struggling to land a move is sexual at all. I’ve seen these classes. It’s not.
Even if individual women can separate pole fitness and pole dancing in their own minds, we believe that once context and politics are taken into account they are inextricably linked. Women as a class are detrimentally affected by activities such as ‘pole fitness’ which upholds and bolsters sexist attitudes and behaviours. What is useful about pole fitness – to the sex industry at least – is its association to pole dancing and lap dancing. Whereas we are not saying that anyone who attends pole fitness classes are training to move into pole dancing or lap dancing, what we are saying is that it is normalising the practice to the wider group of young women and girls who see work in the sex industry as a viable option.
Two of the women in our film used to work in the adult entertainment industry. They left that world behind because the explosion of pole dance as a fitness movement allowed them to leave that lifestyle and empowered them to be in business for themselves. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of women who do pole dance for fitness, or art, or to gain self confidence have never worked in a strip club and never will. They are doctors, lawyers, executives, teachers, and all other sorts of hard working professionals who are know the difference between erotic entertainment and a fitness activity. They are not being indoctrinated or brainwashed.
As a Student’s Union, we should not be deaf to the very real issue of ‘pole fitness’ playing a part in upholding this Raunch Culture and objectification of women and girls and the impact of this on our female students. We have achieved some outstanding work on gender equality, notably by banning the sales of Lad’s Mags in the Union, the banning of sexist advertisements and the Zero Tolerance Campaign. We believe that allowing the Pole Fitness Society would not be in line with our gender equality work.
Female students have gender equality legislation behind them in allowing them a student experience free from inequality, sexual oppression and objectification.
I’ve touched on this a bit above. I find it contradictory to say that this university is promoting gender equality while falling victim to the very sexist thinking that is responsible for the prejudice surrounding pole dance as a fitness activity. I will add that in most fitness classes, there isn’t an audience of men ogling at the women. It’s women supporting each other, helping learn a new trick or building strength. In the pole dance shows I’ve attended here in Los Angeles, the audience is overwhelmingly comprised of women, and the men who do attend are boyfriends, husbands, brothers, fathers, and friends who are there to support the dancers, not ogle them.
Swansea City Council has recently passed a ‘Nil Policy’ for the establishment of Sex Entertainment Venues in the City, and Welsh Government has a ‘Right to Be Safe’ Policy which outlines its strategy for ending Violence against Women and Girls. Pole dancing and the sex industry is a part of that and are seen as a form of violence against women.
Evidence also shows that young women aged 16-24 are the group of women who experience the most domestic and sexual violence. This is the age of a large group of our female students. We believe that activities such as ‘pole fitness’ contributes to an atmosphere where women are viewed as sexual objects and where violence against them is acceptable.
I strongly doubt there is any credible evidence to support the claim that women who participate in pole fitness are at a higher risk of domestic and sexual violence. If anything, women who are actively fit are more confident in their physical appearance and emotionally secure, therefore better capable of standing up for themselves. Not to mention the strength of these women, they could surely kick my ass.
The decision of the Trustee Board was unanimous in refusing the Pole Fitness Society official Students’ Union status.
I have to wonder what the gender/age makeup of the Trustee Board is. All of their arguments against pole fitness were based on prejudice and fear.
The film is weeks away from being totally finished and I know I’ll be sending a copy to this university in hopes they will watch it and perhaps change their minds about what pole dancing is and how it really is an empowering movement. To the members of this student society, I want to share a clip from our film and hope they don’t give up the fight.
Pioneers [Off The Floor Clip] from Matthew Celia on Vimeo.