inside leg hand

I can actually do this move

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine and fellow pole dancer posted this article, “Stripping Away My Assumptions about Pole Dancing.”  Normally, I’m jazzed about any kind of publicity that pole dancing gets, because it’s so under-recognized as a sport, but the more I read, the more I’m noticing some unfortunate lines of discourse around pole dancing, and desperate attempts by polers to distance themselves from pole dancing’s roots in exotic dance and strip clubs.

It’s not surprising that pole studios trying to attract new clients and build their business would want to deny their connection to stripping.  When I started pole dancing, my parents were plagued by the same associations that I think most people are: that their daughter was slithering around a shiny pole in six inch heels, practicing her hip swivels and shaking her ass.  Of course, that’s not what I do, and after watching a couple youtube videos of famous polers like Jenyne Butterfly and Felix Cane, they were suddenly much more interested and supportive of my new passion.

But the “redemption” of pole dancing for fitness is not really the essence of my story.  What I want to talk about is why that story is hurtful to the people who do choose stripping for their source of income, or for that matter, for their pleasure.

Now I am not one to say that every stripper in a hole-in-the-wall club is finding her source of empowerment and fulfillment through exotic dancing.  There is a lot of abusive practices, a lot of sleezy people, a lot of bad situations in that industry.  But that’s true of many industries, yet we’ve turned sex work into the ultimate demon of our society.

Articles like the one in the Journal Sentinel evoke this demon in harmful and reductionist ways in an effort to make pole dancing seem respectable.

“.. the goal is fun, empowerment and “sensuality without shame,” the course description says, rather than climbing on strange men in bars.”

I don’t know where these pole studio owners get off saying that stripping is only about “climbing on strange men in bars” (especially since most strip clubs now have strict rules about how close men can get to the dancers, and none that I know of involve women climbing on their clients unless they are off the clock and those men happen to be their boyfriends…), but I find it unfair and cruel to use strippers as a receptacle for all the cultural baggage we have about women’s sexuality in an effort to distance themselves and their studios from anything that seems unsavory.

 “Maureen is a breast cancer survivor who credits pole dance with helping in the recovery after her mastectomies. She couldn’t even lift her arms above her head for a year following surgery, but you should see her now hanging upside down from a pole. It’s not the kind of story you’re likely to hear in a strip joint.”

I think this is the most heinous assertion of all.  For some reason, for the author of this article, it’s completely unfathomable that women who strip for a living could have any kind of inspiring stories, any effort to overcome difficulty in their lives, simply because of their occupation.  That’s absolute BS and if you need proof of this, I highly suggest you take a look at the trailer for an awesome documentary that is coming out soon.

Scarlet Road follows the work of Australian sex worker Rachel Wotton, who focuses her practice around providing sexual outlets for people in Sydney with disabilities.  In addition to this work, she’s set up an advocacy group, runs workshops for caretakers and sex workers, and is studying for a Masters degree.  If that isn’t inspirational, then I have no idea what is.

Don’t get me wrong- I love pole dancing with all my heart, and it chafes whenever I see articles from well-meaning feminists saying how I’m complicit in my own degradation, or when I hear snickers from people who assume I must be dancing in clubs during my spare time, but I don’t believe that these worlds have to be pitted against each other.  Rather than trying to distance pole dancing from stripping, I’d rather use it as a means to validate the work that women do in the sex industry.  Stripping isn’t the devil’s work- for some people it’s the most enjoyable part of their day, and some club dancers have the same incredible strength and gracefulness that professional pole dancers need, but without getting the recognition for their talents because of where they perform.

So instead of playing off one another’s insecurities, can’t pole dancing for fitness and stripping become mutual advocates of the art in each other’s performance?  We are in the 21st century after all.


Stay cool, queer kids (and keep pole dancing!)