Whether you like it or not, pole dancing perpetuates sexism

Image: Doll House Pole Fitness
Image: Doll House Pole Fitness

Since Monday, staff at the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC) have been inundated with angry comments on their Facebook page. While one might assume the natural enemy of a feminist organization would be men, you’d be wrong. Rather, the hundreds of comments were coming from women — “polers,” they called themselves.

A “poler” for those not in the know (and I’m going to go ahead and guess that 99.999% of the population is not in that particular know), is not a self-referential term used among Santa’s elves, nor does it describe labourers at Dynapole, Mississauga’s leading lighting pole manufacturer. No. A “poler,” in this case, is a (rather amusing, let’s be honest) term invented and used by pole dancers (also known within the “pole community” as “pole artists,” “pole performers,” and “pole athletes”). Another fun fact about polers: they really don’t like feminists.

Up until last week, I didn’t know any of this. I was aware that pole dancing classes were now being offered to women and girls as young as eight, normalized by those who ran “pole fitness” businesses as a neutral form exercise, despite the fact that this activity is marketed almost solely to females and exercise gear includes what are commonly known as “stripper heels” (even when the “polers” are young girls). But I was not aware of the awkward lingo, the fact that there was a “pole community,” or the fact that “polers” wished to be included in the feminist movement, despite their apparent distaste for it.

But on Monday, all this came hurtling to light when LAWC withdrew from London’s annual Take Back the Night (TBTN) after the Women’s Events Committee (the body responsible for organizing TBTN in London, ON) announced they were considering including a “pole fitness demonstration” in the event. Behind closed doors, LAWC had already explained to the committee that they did not feel pole-dancing was a good fit for TBTN, but some members of the committee claimed they wanted to “stay relevant to younger feminists” and felt this was a way to do it, according to Megan Walker, executive director at LAWC.

Take Back the Night began in the 1970s as a feminist protest against male violence against women. Many of the early events protested pornography and other forms of violence against women manifested through the sex trade. Last year in Vancouver, women marched down Granville street, carrying signs that read “Pornography is propaganda against women,” “Prostitution is violence against women,” and “Johns are scum.” We stopped outside a strip club and a sex shop, as some sisters surrounded the buildings with caution tape, protesting the oppressive messaging and impact objectification has on women everywhere.

In other words, TBTN has always taken a holistic approach to violence against women. Rather than plucking various issues and incidences from their context, feminists made the undeniable connections between objectification, male power, rape culture, and domestic abuse visible. So when the Women’s Events Committee proposed a “pole fitness” demonstration (to be put on by The Pole House), LAWC immediately objected. Despite internal disagreement, the committee went ahead and put their proposal to social media (in a notably biased way, arguing that pole dancing is an “empowering” form of exercise and a way for women to “reclaim their bodies”), publicly denigrating and marginalizing LAWC’s position in the process. This was the last straw for LAWC. In a Facebook post, they stated:

“Pole fitness emerged from pole dancing in strip clubs — where women, whether there by ‘choice’ or not, are sexually objectified by men. They are leered at and groped at by men who view them as objects for their own sexual gratification. Women and girls are also sex-trafficked into strip clubs and other areas of the sex trade. Pole fitness cannot be separated from this history and context.”

“Polers” responded by claiming that their practice is empowering because women “choose” it, no one has “forced or tricked” them into doing it, and because is it an “expression of female sexuality.” But “choosing” to participate in any given activity doesn’t necessarily make that activity feminist. Beyond that, it’s worth asking ourselves why all these practices presented today as “expressions of female sexuality” (from burlesque, to pole-dancing, to the sexy selfies young women post on Instagram) are rooted so firmly in male-centered ideas about what “sexy” means. Why does our so-called “sexual empowerment” look so very similar to the pornified imagery men have long imposed on women? Just because we are choosing to accommodate now, of our own free will, doesn’t change the message — it just means we’ve internalized it.

One might ask why, if the Women’s Events Committee were so interested in highlighting women’s athletic ability and showcasing female empowerment through sport, they specifically and only looked towards a version of “fitness” that is sexualized and exists as a means to give men chubbies. I mean, why not bring in female weightlifters or soccer players? Why is it that third wave feminists (the “wave” most closely aligned with the “young women” the committee is trying to reach) seem only able to conceive of forms of “empowerment” that are sure to please men? Why bother pretending to “reclaim” sexist practices when there are so many other fun and empowering activities that have nothing to do with male-centered sexualized performances? How about getting some female skateboarders to do a demo (those are some badass women) or, my favorite, no sports at all but instead beer?

In response to LAWC’s statement, The Pole House decided to withdraw from London’s TBTN event. Instead, they wrote in a Facebook post that they planned to “host an Open House event on Saturday October 1st, where individuals who want to learn more about pole fitness can come and try a free class.” One supposes that it was only out of respect for the thousands of women murdered, abused, and raped by men every year (i.e. the reason TBTN exists) that The Pole House elected to cheekily name their event, Take Back the Pole.

TBTN took place on Thursday, minus a pole fitness demo, but the damage had already been done. One “poler” went so far as to create a meme claiming that LAWC didn’t work with women who are prostituted, work in strip clubs, or are pole dancers. To further compound this smear, the meme claimed LAWC believed that women who worked in the sex trade deserved to be raped. These lies are harmful not only to an anti-violence organization that truly does support and work with all women, but to abused or otherwise victimized women who might see this meme and think they now cannot turn to LAWC for help. It is a venomous lie that only hurts women. Is protecting pole dancing more important than protecting women’s lives?

Pole dancing was born in the strip club — a place that exists solely to exploit women for male pleasure. This is not something the women’s movement needs to “take back” — it’s something we need to put an end to. There are so many more ways to celebrate women that don’t involve showcasing your crotch for an audience and writhing around on the floor in stripper heels.

Instead of repeating vacuous claims about “personal empowerment,” ask yourself how power really works. Here’s a question that should spur you in the right direction: When was the last time a man sought power by doing his workouts in seven-inch heels?

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.