Pole Dancing and Raunch empowering?


I was recently involved in a conversation with a couple of 20y30ysomething women who were espousing the virtues of pole dancing and how it made them feel so empowered and so in control.  “It is such great exercise” said one, to which the other replied, ” it really takes some skill, I heard that they were going to include it in the Olympics”  At this point, I thought that I had wandered into the making of a comedy sketch by mistake and just stopped myself from letting out a great laugh – instead, I marveled at such naïvety.

So I asked them how rubbing up and down on a phallic symbol with little clothes on in front of a mainly male audience made them feel empowered?  They looked confused and asked “what is a phallic symbol?”  At this point, I knew that there was little point continuing the conversation with these “women”.  This is such a large subject so I will break it down into smaller pieces in trying to understand why many think that pole dancing is empowering.

Firstly, let me say that feeling good about your own sexuality can certainly be empowering and is something that we can all strive for.  If you feel empowered enough to take part in pole dancing and do it in your own home or for your partner, then more power to you.  I would just hope that you fully understand the underlying drivers at work that have brought us activities like pole dancing in the first place.  However, when this goes from a holistic understanding and acceptance of your sexuality to an idea that you are “powerful” by expressing yourself through pole dancing, then I think that you have a problem.

I remember being young and having that kind of sexiness that it is only attributed to youth.  It can easily be misconstrued with being powerful.  Having power over men – to make them drool over you – to want you and sometimes to make them do what you want them to.  But this is not power, it is animal attraction and it is as far away from power than you can get.  Many young woman fall victim to this so-called “power” and we often see this played out with some female pop singers who start out as individuals and who just end up pouting, sexy images on our screens, succumbing to the marketing machine “sex is money” mentality.  Sadly they become a former shadow of themselves, and in some cases end up a little confused still trying to do the same ‘act’ decades later.  They get caught up in the ‘machine’ of money-making that fabricated by the media, a view that is largely designed by men and one which creates a gender stereotype of women into a commercialized view of ‘sexiness’.

I think that the concept of how we see gender and power  interesting and from my observation there is some confusion around what it means to have power as a man or power as a women.   I am looking at power in the sense of someone “being” powerful, using their inner power and strength without the need to “exert” power over others by using a false idea of power that they have merely because of their status or their gender.

I think that too many women still succumb to the media’s version of what it is to be a female and that is a construct of a heterosexual (mainly male) view.  Trying to conform to a physical image of sexiness only limits a women’s true power.  A classic example is ranch culture and pole dancing where women think that they are making an empowered and informed choice – but I would argue that the choice just sits within the male construct of power, ultimately disempowering all women.  The same applies to young men who have a view of their true power blurred by social conditioning causing some to act this out by being violent, aggressive and unemotional. This is a view that has been manufactered by society, but does not represent true maleness and male power.

I think that the idea of gender power is dictated by the way our social models and leadership pathways have developed over centuries rather from our sexual differences as males and females.

Unfortunately, I think that most women are so brainwashed to think that we are supposed to “be” and “look” at certain way, that there is so much confusion, and so little support to be authentic.   I have no doubt that many of the women that part take in pole dancing are intelligent, but have they really thought through what they are doing?  How many female sports teams would get sponsorship in our society or get good media coverage  for a team of overweight 40 plus women who didn’t look as “hot” as say the beach volley ball women in their tiny bikini’s?  The beach volleyballer’s pulls in more of a crowd, and more $’s.  From memory, I think that the Australian Netball team were encouraged to change their uniforms by their sponsors for the same reason.  Is this really choice?  I don’t think so, I think is it giving in, going along with what is expected of us.

In terms of women taking pole dancing out of the night clubs and into the ‘exercise’ circuit, I ask myself – was it really women who choose this?  Who makes the super high heels, who manufactures the poles, who runs the advertising agencies, who are the promoters?  Are they all empowered women?  I just worry that activities like pole dancing, which seem to be so readily taken up by “empowered” women are pushed by a powerful male money making structure and by taking pole dancing out of the night clubs, women have yet again just legitimized a male created construct, ultimately at their own expense.  I am an intelligent women as are you I am sure, but do you really think that I would be taken seriously in this world as a CEO of a large corporation if people knew that my sport was “pole dancing”?  Ok, maybe that is unfair (and it is), but there is a stigma to this type of activity.  I saw a movie recently, Crazy, Stupid Love with one character says it all about the way men might be thinking about this ‘power’ or ‘exercise’;

“Jacob: The war between the sexes is over. We won the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise.” (IMDB)

Then I thought maybe I am just a stick in the mud so I raised the subject of pole dancing during my sociology class and here are some of the comments I got.  [Real names have been removed and content reprinted with permission].

[Taran]

“Hi everyone, just caught up, so interesting everyones talking about what pole dancing does or doesn’t ‘mean’ and what it says about women. if people wear what makes them feel the way they want to feel in that setting, then I don’t think the women who participate are necessarily perpetuating the women-are-sex-objects sterotypes, also, there is no audience. Sensuality, my goodness its been commodified to within an inch of its life, has been commodified mostly by men-sorry guys I know most of you just want your lover to be happy-into something intended to please a man. I like that women are ‘reclaiming’ (I hate that word used in that way it implies we are ‘stealing’ it back)-their sensuality/sexuality, I like that women have found an arena to celebrate sensuality that isn’t ultimately about an end product to sell, but pleasing yourself, expressing yourself. There is competition among some women but not others and I guess it’s up to the individual if they want to participate with that frame of mind but you also work as a team, and you also learn to learn from each other, and learn to be comfortable and appreciate your body in a sexual way through your own eyes, rather than through your girlfirend or boyfriends eyes. I realise the sex industry is mostly for men and perpetuates and stigmatizes women as objects of sex, the pole is a phallic symbol historically and has all those sex industry associations yes, but I guess it’s up to the individual if thats what they see. This is embarassing- I tried pole dancing a few times and was really crap at it but I did learn something. I guess what I found most telling is that it exemplifies a need for women to have spaces available in which to collaborate and learn sensuality from each other (as opposed from tv etc or the male orientated industry in general). Pole dancing may have emerged from the male-orientated sex industry but some women want to own the sport/art/means of sexual/sensual expression for themselves, independent of male ownership.”

[Emma]

“I actually pole dance for a living and by no means think i have lost my power to the whim of male desire. I’m really surprised at how many women think so badly off this activity. I do this job because i choose to and when i no longer enjoy it or it is no longer convenient I’ll stop. I think that perhaps there is such a terrible stigma attached to this line of work and activity because of social stereotype about what men and woman should and shouldn’t do. I think perhaps some people think being a strong female and empowered means avoiding anything that is taboo or seen as pandering to the opposite sex. I’m sorry to  seem annoyed or like i disagree so much but i know exactly who I am and what I’m doing and I understand that most of my clientele are male yes. I think you might be surprised to know however that a lot of the customers are women also who whilst thinking stripping is degrading to the dancer as a woman seem to have no trouble or issue with frequenting these places and watching the shows? What does this say about empowerment? Perhaps it should be seen as empowering that women are allowed to do this for a living and sit and enjoy the show w3ithout fear of being judged for being less of a woman. Or maybe we just feel its so stereotypically demoralizing because we are jealous we don’t have any clubs featuring males for our amusement.”

[my response]

“Thanks everyone, this is good stuff, thanks for sharing it. Interesting, I think that these activities can be empowering in the right hands and clearly you are choosing to do it and it is good for you.  I guess where some of the stigma is coming from is where woman over centuries have been forced to do things (all sorts) that they don’t want to do and that they feel is degrading to them when they do it – so not at all empowering.  How would you feel about your 15 year old daughter doing it and would you have a different view on it in that situation?

I don’t find it hard to image why women would do it for a living, but my original post was about gender and power and I think that I mentioned raunch culture and pole dancing as an aside.  There is still plenty of gender inequality around that needs to be dealt with and I guess that many of us ‘old” women (not feminists) would prefer that these other issues of power imbalance are dealt with in preference to the less important ones in terms of business, politics, and how society is control and managed and what freedoms we all experience.

Generally when I speak to younger women (ie: 20y30y) I get similar push back and discussion around power, and pole dancing and slut marchers are often the examples that I am given, but there is much more at stake than this.  In the corporate world for example, where I work it is still common (particularly in Queensland) to invite clients to strip clubs, etc and this has to be handled very carefully by the corporate woman.  So pole dance if you choose, but spare a thought for those that are still bearing the brunt of discrimination and subtle power imbalances, or go to Thailand and see how it is viewed there.  We are not all equally empowered unfortunately.”

I still think that it is one of those strange things that women have taken up as their unique way to express their sexuality, without realizing that has been somehow designed by men for that exact reason and are now laughing all the way to the bank at our expense.  Or like the character, Jacob says ‘we won when they took up pole dancing for exercise”.  Don’t let this become a spectator sport at your child’s school or the Olympics, it’s just plain sexualisation and objectification of women and girls.

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