A few days ago a headteacher at a primary school in north Kent arranged a pole dancing display for the school’s summer fete. The youngest performer was four years old and The Daily Mail reported that a twelve year old performed in gold hot pants and a crop top with one shoulder cut off. The show associated itself with children’s popular culture by using songs from Disney movies, including The Lion King and Frozen. A commentator and pole dancer at Kentonline.co.uk believes a father’s criticism of the event is ridiculous as we allow kids to do maypole dancing. Another asks what’s the problem, we allow kids to do the splits in leotards.
I wrote about the trend for pole dancing clubs at university campuses seven years ago. The student clubs rebrand pole dancing as pole fitness or pole exercise yet I remember York University Pole Exercise Club selling stripper shoes on their website, branded with a sexy lady logo. As the drive to get pole dancing seen as an Olympic Sport continues, seeing four year olds watch four year olds pole dancing is the result seven years down the line.
So, let’s start with the Maypole comparison. Pole dancing and maypole dancing are incomparable. The original motivation behind Maypole dancing no longer exists. The historical motivations behind pole dancing do still exist. Pole dancing is rooted in the sex industry, which harms all women. (It makes no difference is boys get involved in pole fitness, it’s girls and women who suffer because of its place in the sex industry). Pole dancing and lap dancing usually go hand in hand at the same strip club. If it wasn’t for the work of Object, there’d be a lap dancing and pole dancing club on every high street, as they used to be licensed in the same way as cafes. Object drew on research from Julie Bindel’s report, Profitable Expolits, and interviews with lap dancers and pole dancers to expose the truth about pole dancing in the sex industry. And it is not glamorous or empowering or well paid. As a general rule, you’ll only hear positive stories about pole dancing in the media because the many women who had a soul-destroying, degrading, horrible time to work second jobs don’t want to tell the world about it. And it doesn’t make for a sexy story.
I write about very unsexy stories so, like Object, I wanted to get the common reality of pole dancing out there, and interviewed a former pole dancer who was willing to admit how utterly shit the job made her life. Read her story here of how dancers have to pay rent to the clubs just to be there or prostitute themselves to get picked for a dance. She says that the empowerment and liberation that pole dancing promises have no value in the real world. The porn and sex industries love to use the language of feminism to sell us their objectified view of women. And I say, hey sisters, that’s great you want sexual empowerment, really super, but there are other types of empowerment y’know! Equal pay, equal childcare, the right to go out at night free from fear of rape, the right for a school girl to walk to school without being sexually harassed, the right to be free of porn culture in every shop and street, this is what true empowerment looks like.
As well as being a devastatingly crap experience for many women working in the clubs, lap dancing and pole dancing clubs promote all women as sex objects. When I say this, I mean objects that are not seen as fully human and deserve to be harassed and hurt and abused. Objects that men have rights to. Throwaway commodities. Just look at some porn and you will see how the porn and sex industries make squillions from telling men to see women as valueless fuckholes. Promoting sexual objectification of women is not OK when one in three girls and women experience male violence and even mild objectification is proven to make men more callous towards women. It not OK when we live in a dangerously sexist society. Women don’t just live in fear of male violence (and that includes verbal abuse and controlling behaviour), we are subjected to harassment at work, surviving life on low wages, and the consequences of appallingly low representation in all halls of power.
While the ‘pole-exercise’ community quibbles about what clothing to ban to gain acceptance in the Olympics, how, in this pornified culture does pole-dancing really enter the lives of little girls and teenagers? Could it be through a music video showing hyper-sexualised black women? Kylie, Robbie and Justin Timberlake all feature overtly sexualised pole dancing in their videos. Could it be through Tesco’s toy department, which sold the Peekaboo pole kit complete with sexy garter? Could it be through the videos and pole kits sold by Carmen Electra? She’s so pretty! Or by wanting to be like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton or Kate Moss? All these women are valued for their sex appeal. Mummy might take them to ‘pole-fitness’ but the cultural messages are impossible to ignore.
Let’s be clear, the sex and porn industries are inextricably linked. For some reason few fail to recognise that they are prostitution. This is about so much more than a pole dancing display at a school. It’s about joining the dots between all forms of sexualisation and women’s unequal place in the world. The former underpins the latter. Alas, like most people, pole fitness enthusiasts have zero clue how sexist the world is. So here’s my one easy step to follow: as long as the harmful sex industry continues to exist, just find another way to keep fit. Oh and find a truly effective way to be empowered. Join campaign group Object if you’re not sure where to start.