Pole Dance and Sex Work: An Occasionally Unhappy Marriage
From a Pole Dancers Perspective
By: Aileen Bidwill
Cardi B, J.Lo, FKA Twigs, and Lil Nas X all have something in common. Pole dance! Maybe you enjoyed the Super Bowl halftime show a few years back, have considered attending pole dance classes, are currently a student, or are already an avid poler! Perhaps you’re on the fence and are wary of pole dancing altogether. No matter your knowledge of pole dancing, you may have caught wind of the stirrings of a debate. There exists a seemingly everlasting fight on whether pole dance is either strictly fitness and sport, OR it’s a purely sexualized form of dance. My question is, why can’t it be both? Nothing is ever black and white, we live and exist in the gray. Perhaps it’s more important to ask, why does this argument even matter? It matters because it’s a microcosm that exists in our society to address larger issues at hand, like patriarchy, feminism, and the stigmatization of sex in our society.
Where it all began...
So let’s start at the beginning. I should note that there is no inherent proof that pole dance didn’t originate in different parts of the world independently of one another. Many claim Chinese pole or Indian Mallakhamb is solely to thank for the creation of pole dance. Yet what we see and know as stereotypical pole dancing, no matter how “sporty”, takes many of its moves, style, and cues directly from the clubs (not to mention the classic platform shoes.) Polepedia showcases a timeline of modern pole dancing and highlights the difference between the origin and the history of pole dancing. While its origins can be potentially traced to numerous disciplines, many of those were male-dominated, and today’s pole dance history tracks its connection to movement from the 1920s. According to Polepedia, “(the 1920s), pole dancing started catching up in circuses, in the form of sensual choreographies (Hoochie Coochie). The female dancers used to dance on the poles which supported the circus stage. Those specific dances became so popular that around the ‘50s, they became the core of the Burlesque and cabaret scene. From then on, pole dancing will be associated with sensual dancing and striptease.” It was the sexual and overtly provocative nature of those dances that we can trace back to pole dance’s modern history. It’s an important distinction to note that modern-day pole dance, competitions, and its overall popularity started after strip clubs’ emergence. Any argument to associate it solely with non-sexualized sports or entertainment is likely an attempt to distance it from clubs.
When I started pole dancing over a decade ago, there was already a kind of “us or them” mentality, and an attempt to justify and assert pole dance as separate from club movement. One of my first jobs at a pole dance studio explicitly stated that they would “[take] a lot of organized movements from strip clubs, [exaggerate] them and [pull] them together in this beautiful, sensual workout.” That particular studio declared they had created something entirely new and separate from strip clubs and reclaimed the feminine movement- but the key word there is “take.” Taking from sex workers without crediting them properly, whether purposely or inadvertently, appropriates their culture without having had to endure the same stigmas and lack of social protections. This appropriation hurts not only strippers and sex workers, but I would argue, any female-identifying person, feminist, or person who supports women’s rights. By one definition “appropriation is defined as taking something from a less-dominant culture in a way its members find undesirable and offensive – so that its heritage is misused by those in a position of privilege” (Chesterton). In some instances, newer strippers have even felt they needed to take classes to work in a club. Talk about taking someone’s culture and then profiting off of it. The hashtag amongst some pole dance hobbyists which went around a few years back- #not a stripper,- simultaneously degraded sex workers and perpetuated harmful notions that there was something “wrong” with sex work.
Pole Dance Studios Today
Some pole dance studios purposely try to distance themselves from sex workers such as strippers to appeal to more of the masses, and ultimately to make a larger profit. Lisa Michelle, a sex worker with over a decade of pole experience, states that “ultimately, there is a stratification amongst women [who haven’t made their money through sex work] now have the option to whitewash their businesses to appeal to aldermen, investors, etc,” in order to open up studios. She further notes that without some of this whitewashing, they could effectively be “denying the options of a studio for their community if they don’t comply.” It’s a catch-22. More studios equal more representation (which is a good thing), but often sex workers are completely excluded from this category. The issue lies in the discrimination they can face from landlords. If they disclose where they get their income, many landlords won’t even consider them for a lease- so unless sex workers have outside financial backing, they struggle to even get a foot in the door. If they attempt to bypass landlords and buy property, they run into the same issues but with corporate banks. Lisa Michelle recalls a time when she was denied a lease when she listed her club work as income, while a pole studio branded as “fitness” down the street received a city grant, having separated their business from any of its less palatable sex work roots. What is the solution? She states that “one thing people in the industry can do is reach out to their representatives about their stance on the decriminalization of sex work.” Opening up the larger conversation and starting the process of advocacy is no small task, especially due to the blurred boundaries many representatives take when infusing their own morality into their platforms.
The Perceived Morality Clause
Unlike other forms of dance, there isn’t a morality clause inherent in participation like there is in pole dancing. So let’s take the morality out for a second and confront some common issues associated with sex work. As Zeina Khalem suggests, “If you lose the arbitrary idea that sex is immoral, why stop two consenting adults from engaging in the exchange of consensual sexual labor for value? Sex work offers many benefits for clients, such as physical touch and companionship. A sex worker may be someone’s only access to one or both of those basic human needs.” When we can destigmatize sex work, it benefits sex workers themselves as well as the industry itself. Sex work, stripping, and pole dancing are all feminist issues. So if we want to talk about the buzzword of how “empowering” and “freeing” pole dance is, then we shouldn’t also actively seek to disempower its’ predecessors and peers.
There will always be some form of debate surrounding the extent to which sex work can be a feminist act especially until “the [women] are protected by strict regulations and paid fairly for their labor”(news7h). I won’t go into detail but suffice it to say sex workers are not afforded any of the same protections as other professions and often are subject to “high house fees, labor violations and lack of employment rights to name a few”(news7h). Still, any efforts to criminalize sex work while taking away someone’s livelihood are problematic on so many levels. In an interview with two UK sex workers, the author states, “Denying sex workers their right to bodily autonomy leaves women even more open to exploitation and situations where their safety could be compromised, dangerously so” (news7h). So if you consider yourself a feminist or a SWERF- Sex-Work Exclusionary Radical Feminist- consider the real-life implications of your activism. Sex work has been around for centuries and likely will continue, so isn’t it better to protect those who will choose to participate in sex work rather than set them up for at best failure and at worst serious harm? Oftentimes, this debate exists between people who have never met or even talked to sex workers (although they likely have and didn’t know it). The lack of representation of sex workers’ voices is particularly glaring in some feminist circles.
Bodily Autonomy and Sex Work
Sex remains an important component of our society so denying its existence in the form of trade hardly seems practical. It could be argued that even without the exchange of money we engage in transactional sex in dating, relationships, and even our marriages. That is beside the point though, as Elizabeth Roe notes “The point is not about normalizing objectification or not calling [sex work] out as wrong. The aim is to normalize treating sex workers with respect and dignity, and give them labor rights, regardless of what work they do.” She further goes on to challenge our notions of bodily autonomy when she asks “If we are so concerned about bodily harm and gender imbalance, why is the same stigma and disgust not attached to predominately male occupations like boxing? Male bodies are literally destroyed for public entertainment.” It comes right back down to bodily autonomy, men are trusted to make decisions about their bodies and women are not. Our innate and often deep-seated discomfort with women's bodies can be traced back to Puritan values and heteronormative ideas of how women’s bodies should be policed.
If we are to seriously question our aversions as a society to sex work we need to consider that perhaps “It is not the money that can turn the transaction into an objectifying act. When we hire cleaners, nannies, etc, we don’t assume we can just treat them like shit because we are paying them”(sex worker Mercedes Valentine). So why do we think we can treat sex workers and their profession with such disdain? Why do we need to separate pole dance from its origins to legitimize it? Sex workers are just as likely to be highly accomplished individuals across fields as any other profession. Some strippers holding doctorates cite their choice to stay in sex work as a way to claim more autonomy over their bodies, create financial independence and even subvert a patriarchal society by commanding the male gaze and their incomes.
The Sex Worker's Experience
Some argue the idea that it would be best to make a full departure from sex work and embrace pole dancing solely as a hobby, an empowering form of dance, and/or a fitness activity. Those who advocate for this cite sex work as anti-feminist because it purportedly objectifies women in a solely exploitative manner. The reality is much more nuanced and complicated. For a lot of sex workers and strippers, it’s not even about empowerment, it’s just a job with pros and cons, up and downs, and likes and dislikes. In an interview, Mercedes Valentine aptly put it, “Supporting other women in however way they choose to make their money is good feminism.” Or put another way from Sabrina Jade, another sex worker’s perspective, “This has nothing to do with sex work itself; sex work is not exploitative, but the systems we have to operate in are. We are not victims of sex work, but we do want better working conditions.” Instead, we should be trying to bolster women’s ability to make and earn a living in whichever capacity they choose. It is the systems themselves that reflect back to us old patriarchal ideas that devalue women, and imply they are disposable. The push for women and queer-owned clubs, the unionization of strippers, and the decriminalization of sex workers are perhaps better ways to subvert the more harmful realities some sex workers experience. There is so much more to discuss in terms of the nuances and problems of the strip club industry, and the exclusion and discrimination rampant within many clubs against multiple marginalized populations including but not limited to fat, black, and queer people, but it’s something to consider in terms of discussing actual solutions to these problems.
Pole Dance and Appropriation
So what does this have to do with pole dancing? As pole dancers and feminists, we must support sex workers if we are to profit (financially or personally) from their labors. If you are active in the community or benefiting from pole dance in some way, shape, or form, then it is your responsibility to question your own biases and try to understand some of the intricacies of the industry. George Chesterton claims that “[a] particular culture is increasingly fetishized as something that can only be understood by people who are exactly like you, whereas history shows empathy and growth comes from trying to understand people who are not like you – it is the grasp of difference. Of course, the onus should be on the dominant cultures to take the initiative.” In this case, it is on us, the pop culture pole dancers if you will (the more dominant and accepted versions of pole dancers) to try to understand those who are fetishized. It is equally as important for us to create a space in which sex workers feel safe to share their culture with us. You can look to the fashion industry for further proof that sex workers, dominatrixes, and others have been the inspiration for couture in the forms of latex, bondage looks, Pleaser platforms and even incorporating G-string dresses created by Alexander Wang. In her article, Gigi Fong states that “being inspired by sex work is not surprising or wrong, but until sex workers can exist without shame, lack of safety and fear of imprisonment, the appropriation of their lifestyle and aesthetic will continue to be offensive.” The same can be said for the “sport” of pole dance. If you accept pole dance as a sport, then you should be able to accept the sex work profession. One wouldn’t exist without the other.
Even if you are not drawn to the sexuality of pole dance and strictly participate in sportier classes, support kids’ classes, or experience other arenas in which the nature of pole dance has been more separated from its origins, it’s still important to support sex workers and embrace pole dance’s true history. Some conservative outlooks will use try to use the argument that unless we do away with pole dancing altogether or at the very least completely separate it from its history and make it merely a “sport”, we run the risk of objectifying women and sexualizing children. Some think it is inappropriate to even have kids’ classes. That is another blog post entirely! But suffice it to say, anyone who sexualizes a child is the problem, not the object, sport, or subject matter itself. People are the problem. We have lost our ability to reason and see things from a multi-faceted perspective. It’s like saying that getting rid of strip clubs will help men be “better” or that if women dressed a certain way we wouldn’t experience disproportionate violence. Humans are the meaning makers. If we want to solve the problem, we have to look at how we treat and view things like sex and bodies in our society. If we can normalize those things and teach our children to treat theirs and other bodies with respect, we are much more likely to avoid the issues at hand. And let’s be honest, we have just as easily seen those who would sexualize gymnastics as we have pole dancing. The issue isn’t the sport or the level of skin exposure (in pole dancing it is needed to stick to the pole)-the issue is the lens through which adults are viewing children and their participation in these sports.
I am by no means saying that kids should participate in adult classes or that there isn’t a need for boundaries. There are and should be differences between pole dancing in clubs and recreation. What I am saying is that the adults who put those kids in classes shouldn’t purposely cut down sex workers or try to distance themselves from pole dance history. This is the gray matter I mentioned earlier, it can’t be black and white. So let me appeal to your self-interest. Unless you want society to move backward and for women’s right’s to be undermined, it’s in your own interest to support sex workers, because it’s a fast slippery slope down from governing sex workers’ rights to monitoring what women are allowed to wear in fashion.
Where do we go from here?
As a society, we continue to want to participate in the seemingly transgressive nature of pole dancing all while getting to make our commentary on its issues. The age-old stripper jokes about fathers not wanting their daughters to be on the pole, or husbands getting caught at the club just highlight how narrow the mindset that remains regarding sex work. Women are not immune from making these jokes. As a pole dance studio owner, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had bachelorettes want to enjoy a pole dance class only to someone in their group feel the need to make a “mandatory” token joke about it turning into their day job. To which I ask you, what would be wrong with that? Why do we have to cut others down to feel superior? All jokes have an element or a grain of truth to them and while I no longer feel the need to respond to every instance, I do want to challenge our notions of what it means to partake in pole dance. For so many people, pole dance helps people to gain confidence, creates a community of acceptance, fosters a healthy body image, and empowers many with a sense of freedom. So let’s embrace it all and try to examine our own biases so that we can create a more accepting, healthy community that truly embodies freedom.
Truly this is just the tip of the iceberg. As overwhelming as it can be, what are some practical steps can we do to help as participants, future participants, or just supporters of such a rewarding form of dance? It starts with educating ourselves, questioning old beliefs, and not sanitizing pole dance.
Here are a couple of practical tips to support sex workers and strippers if you decide to take up pole dancing while ensuring that the pole studio you choose supports them.
Ask your studio if they hire strippers. If they don’t, ask why.
If your studio does employ strippers or sex workers, take their classes! Show up for them! The more attendees to classes, the more likely those classes will stay on a studio’s schedule.
Ask if ownership takes a stance on crediting strippers for the art form or if they purposely distance themselves from sex workers.
Discover what the studio culture is like. What sort of language do they use to describe classes? Do they shy away from certain terms? Are all voices heard? Is there open communication?
If derogatory language or comments are made at the expense of sex workers, are instructors and students empowered to respond?
Follow sex workers on your social media and amplify their voices!
For more tips on who to follow and ideas for supporting policy changes look to Socially Rockward’s Blog Post which gives a comprehensive list of ways to get involved. *It also goes into more depth on how certain laws like FOSTA/SESTA conflate sex work and sex trafficking.*
Go to house.gov to Find your Representative and advocate for sex workers.
Reach out to your alderman to encourage more open conversations and representations of sex workers and sex-worker-owned businesses in your community.
Chesterton, Geroge. (2020, Sept 1). Cultural appropriation: everything is culture and it’s all appropriated. https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/the-trouble-with-cultural-appropriation
Fong, Gigi. (2022, April 7). SEX WORK AND FASHION ARE MORE CLOSELY LINKED THAN YOU'D THINK. https://hypebae.com/2022/4/sex-work-appropriation-fashion-met-gala-louis-vuitton-pleasers
Khalem, Zeina. (2022, April 8) 8 Steps to Sex Worker Allyship for Pole Dancing Hobbyists https://sociallyrockward.com/pole-dancing/8-steps-to-sex-worker-allyship-for-pole-dancing-hobbyists/
News7h. (2022, March 11) Why work for the Patriarchy when you can make the Patriarchy work for you. https://news7h.com/why-work-for-the-patriarchy-when-you-can-make-the-patriarchy-can-work-for-you-what-its-really-like-to-be-a-stripper-from-the-women-who-know/
Origin of Pole Dancing. Polepedia. https://polepedia.com/origin-history-pole-dancing/
Roe, Elizabeth. FEMINISM AND SEX WORK: DEBUNKING SWERF ARGUMENTS
Stein, Anne E. (2007, June 26). Sensual workouts that stress the feminine.