“It’s a dance pole not a stripper pole.” “It’s a sport!” “It’s called pole fitness.” “No, no, no. It’s not like what you think at all.” I use to say this sort of thing a lot when I first started pole dancing. Then I started creating porn in a variety of ways, and I started to re-think some of these things. More specifically, I started to think about the way we as pole dancers alienate those among us who do sex work.
A while ago, on my way home from a pole class, some girls I dance with and I were talking about an instructor’s upcoming performance in which she was going to take off her top. Now for those of you who don’t know, there are mixed feelings about this in the world of pole fitness. The conversation started with “would you ever do that?” but quickly devolved into one girl in particular saying, “Gosh I wish she wouldn’t do that.” I started to cheerily rant (like I tend to do) about the tendency of pole dancers to draw hard lines between themselves and sex workers and how that’s really harmful. “Well it’s gross what they do and I don’t want to be associated with that” she said. In what was my most unplanned “coming out” moment so far I told her that I was a sex-worker and that I didn’t see anything wrong with it. The disgusted, offended, hateful shit storm that followed was completely unexpected and left me feeling far worse than anything I have ever done as part of my work. She told me that what I did was morally wrong. When I told her that was offensive and unnecessarily stigmatizing, she told me that I deserved the stigma I received, because I “knew how society felt about what I did and decided to do it anyways.”
But I digress. This post isn’t necessarily about me or her, but about the many, similarl whorephobic/sex-work negative sentiments that have been floating around the pole community for as long as I’ve been involved.
So here’s the thing… Pole fitness evolved from pole dance- the topless in a club sort of pole dance. And now we talk about pole fitness as though it’s empowering and confidence-inspiring, but I don’t want any part of that if the way that I get to be empowered is to talk shit about sex workers and distance myself as far as possible from strippers. Someone who does pole dance for sport and claims all the benefits of fitness and empowerment anytime anyone questions their hobby while simultaneously saying “oh no, it’s not that kind of pole dance” is leveraging their own empowerment against someone else’s stigma, and that’s not what empowerment is about. It’s not about stepping on the backs of others to create a space for yourself. It’s certainly not achieved by saying “I deserve to be allowed to make this choice because it’s not bad and terrible and dirty like the choices that actual pole dancers make.” That’s a pretty big “fuck you” to the people who made the sport possible in the first place. Now I don’t think the whole pole community feels this way, but I can’t help but think that this is a problem we need to address when pole dancer after pole dancer post articles to my newsfeed that say shit like this: “‘It’s women who dragged pole dancing out of the gentlemen’s clubs. It’s women who developed it and redefined it,’ she says.”; and “Pole dancing may be historically associated with strip clubs, however it has recently been recognized as a type of art form or sport.” (you know, cause it wasn’t artistic or physically demanding before).
Some things I think pole dancers and pole studios can do to change this rhetoric:
- Change the way you talk about what you do. It’s super easy to say, “I’m not that kind of pole dancer, but I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that.”
- Call each other out! Call out your fellow pole friends when they say something unnecessarily derogatory about women working as dancers.
- If you teach make it clear in your classes that language that marginalizes sex workers and makes your studio an unsafe space for them isn’t acceptable.
- Offer discounts to women working in clubs! Despite the idea that strippers are always rolling in cash, working in clubs can be expensive! It’s hard work and can be super unprofitable just as often as it is lucrative. Think of it as a way to say thank you to the people who made your sport possible!
Battling the stigma that pole dancers experience is about battling the stigma of exotic dancing and sex work. As pole dancers (even those of us who just do it for fun or fitness), we’ll never be free of the raised eyebrows and stigmatizing comments about strippers and stripper poles unless we change the actual dialogue about stripping! You will never help your case as a pole dancer of any sort if you keep on making mean comments about strippers. You can either be someone who continues to oppress women, or you can use the sport to start a dialogue about why the stigma is harmful to all sorts of women. I hope that we as a pole community use the newfound attention and respect that we’re receiving to do the latter.