Gender Pole/itics

Several weeks ago I published a post about Miley Cyrus and Amanda Palmer, which WordPress very generously chose to feature on their Freshly Pressed page. Since then, many cools has been liked and followed by hundreds of people. I’d like to say thank you to WordPress and to all my new followers for supporting my blog – I really appreciate it and I’m sorry I ran out of time to reply to each of your comments individually.

Since then, I’ve struggled to find a topic to blog about that inspired me as much as the last one, and that I thought would be of interest to my readers (no pressure!). But finally this morning I found one, when my friend posted this news story on her Facebook wall.

To sum up, the story is about the Swansea University Student Union banning the Pole Fitness Society. For those not in the know, Pole Fitness is a highly intensive exercise sport based on acrobatic and gymnastic moves and combinations performed solo or as part of a choreographed regime using a tall metal pole.

Swansea University SU’s objection to Pole Fitness is that it is “a direct spin off from lap dancing”. The theory is that something that’s done in a strip club shouldn’t be allowed to take place in an SU-condoned society, regardless of its proven health benefits. Their exact question is, “is it empowering to gain fitness in a way that is inextricably linked to the multi million pound sex industry?”

Their argument hinges on the idea that Pole Fitness is marketed as being “empowering” for women, but that in actual fact it is a degrading and sexually exploitative pastime. Yet, for all the importance they place on female empowerment, the way they discuss women is, frankly, pretty patronising and insulting.

They claim they want to empower women, but they do so by making decisions on their behalf. Saying, “You can’t do this because it’s disempowering” is an equally disempowering act. They talk about women as if they were too stupid to recognise the societal implications of pole dancing. Women who take part in Pole Fitness “have been deceived” and “hoodwink[ed]” into sexual commodification, almost as if they are unable to make any decisions for themselves. “Poor women, look at them being constantly manipulated by evil perverts. We must save them by manipulating them into other activities!”

They condescendingly allow that some “individual women can separate pole fitness and pole dancing in their own minds” (we have MINDS?) but that even these rare intellectually gifted souls are being unwittingly groomed for future work in the sex industry.

This is all because in our corrupt society “women are increasingly being portrayed and treated as objects for sexual enjoyment.” This is simply not true. Women have always been portrayed and treated as objects for sexual enjoyment. This trend is not increasing. Perhaps we are becoming more enlightened and more aware of it, but the suggestion that it is increasing leads to a romanticised idea of an innocent past that never existed. This is a dangerous thing.

Throughout history women have struggled with sexual commodification, inequality, prostitution and slavery. Just because a modern girl has the word “juicy” written on her trouser bottoms does not mean this is increasing. Such a claim dismisses all the terrible things that have happened to millions of women throughout history and suggests that there was once an idyllic time when women were not treated this way. This leads to complacency and a general misunderstanding of what’s going on. Instead of generating hysteria by using loaded words such as “increasingly”, we should be opening calm and intelligent dialogues about women in society – not frantically censoring all activities that could be considered licentious.

In saying this I don’t want to belittle the very real impact of sexual exploitation and the sex industry on women today, or the vital importance of ensuring that women are safe and treated with respect. These are serious issues and I’m in no way denying that. But I feel that Swansea SU’s approach is a misguided knee-jerk reaction that undermines female autonomy in the interests of “safety” and makes sweeping statements that ultimately undermine their own imperatives.

They identify 16-24 year old women as the group that experiences the most domestic and sexual violence (in Britain), and argue that Pole Fitness “contributes to an atmosphere where women are viewed as sexual objects and where violence against them is acceptable”.

That’s a can of worms right there. This ties nicely in to a video conversation that’s been going on this week about “slut shaming”. It all started when well-known and celebrated vlogger Jenna Marbles posted her video Things I Don’t Understand About Girls: Slut Edition. In this video she essentially states her reasons for failing to understand “slutty” behaviour (essentially, sexual promiscuity). A number of excellent video responses were quickly posted, including vlogs from Franchesca, Laci Green and Hayley G. Hoover.

The crux of the conversation between these four women is that while Jenna implies that slutty behaviour can lead to, or even cause, sexual assault and violence, Franchesca, Laci and Hayley each argue that this kind of “slut shaming” is really “victim blaming”. In other words, it doesn’t matter how “sluttily” you act or dress, this never justifies rape or violence towards you. By shaming the “slut” instead of the rapist, this kind of attitude misdirects society’s attention towards the victim and away from the perpetrator, thus making it easier for rape and violence to continue.

This is exactly what Swansea SU is doing in their justification for the cancellation of Pole Fitness. Pole Fitness doesn’t cause violence towards women, rapists and violent people cause violence towards women. It doesn’t matter if a woman chooses to take part in Pole Fitness, pole dancing, stripping, lap dancing, or anything else – none of these activities make sexual violence acceptable.

If anything, by banning the Pole Fitness Society, the SU is perhaps creating a more dangerous situation. In a university-sanctioned society, activities are carefully regulated and are run by fellow students and trained staff in legal venues. Now, the women at Swansea who wanted to take part in Pole Fitness must go elsewhere for their training and performances – and now the SU has no way of guaranteeing that those places will be legal or safe.

By banning Pole Fitness, Swansea SU are only limiting women’s choices and undermining their decisions. If they want to keep women safe from sexual aggression and exploitation, they shouldn’t further inhibit them. This suggests that women are the architects of their own demise and that by restricting their activities they can be prevented from making more “bad decisions” (Jenna Marble’s words).

This is not dissimilar to the attitude that led to women being legally “owned” by their fathers and husbands in the past, because when “under the protection” of a responsible patriarch they were supposedly “safe” from sexual exploitation. But even if it were based on genuine good intentions, this convention only disempowered women, making them unable to act, speak or think for themselves. It rendered them utterly defenceless and dependent upon male control and domination. Today women are more independent than they have ever been, yet the desire to “protect” them by restricting their choices and belittling their opinions and intellect continues to proliferate among men and women.

Addendum: This and other issues have inspired me to write a vaguely on-topic follow-up to my Flashing the Flesh post, which can be read below.

The Pole debate relates to the Miley Cyrus topic I’ve talked about previously. Sinead O’Connor seems to have engaged in some kind of battle-of-wills with Miley Cyrus, which started when she wrote an open letter to the young performer warning her about being manipulated by the music business. I can’t link to the letter or quote properly from it because it seems to have been taken down from Sinead’s website. But no matter, I believe the main gist was a friendly warning that Miley’s Wrecking Ball music video suggested that she might be being “prostituted” by her managers and handlers.

In response, Amanda Palmer herself has defended Miley Cyrus in her Open Letter to Sinead O’Connor. Sinead O’Connor said similar things about Miley Cyrus that the Swansea SU have said about pole dancers – in short, that she is being unwittingly manipulated into sexually exploitative behaviour.

In her letter, Amanda Palmer grants Miley a bit more intelligence and autonomy, writing, “Miley is, from what I can gather, in charge of her own show. She’s writing the plot and signing the checks, and although I think it’s tempting to imagine her in the board room of label assholes and management, I don’t think any of them masterminded her current plan to be a raging, naked twerking sexpot. I think that’s Miley All The Way.”

Ultimately, Amanda Palmer is reluctant to get on board with Sinead O’Connor on this point because she believes it’s important for female musicians to take control of their own art, regardless of whether or not other people think that what they’re doing is a good idea. She wants “female musicians to feel like they can do MORE with their mad artistic energy, not LESS.”

By restricting access to Pole Fitness, Swansea SU is giving women fewer options and allowing them to do less, and so by this measure, Amanda Palmer, Miley Cyrus’s twerking and Pole Fitness are three sides of the same coin. Maybe they stem from an expression of female sexuality that makes some people feel uncomfortable, but that in and of itself is no bad thing. Any exploitation that might go on as a result is the fault of the exploiters, not the exploited – no matter how much twerking they do.

Amanda Palmer argues that we should “give our young women the right weapons to fight with as they charge naked into battle, instead of ordering them to get back in the house and put some goddam clothes on.” By banning Pole Fitness, the SU is essentially prescribing a set of standards about what behaviour they think is acceptable for women, and by doing so they’re complicit in the discourse that situates women in certain roles, such as homemaker and childbearer. If Pole Fitness isn’t a suitable activity for a woman, then what is? And how do you draw that line?


The female body is a highly political space, and even more so when it’s naked. I fully support Miley Cyrus’s (and any woman’s) right to take off her clothes if she wants to – but as I’ve written before, I felt that Amanda Palmer’s naked performance made better use of the inherent politics of female nudity. That said, Miley Cyrus has sparked a lot of debate, so perhaps her performance is just as legitimately political. The fact is, no one except Miley herself understands her true motivations for her performance because it has been neutralised by the giant de-politicising force of the popular music industry. By contrast, Amanda Palmer’s more underground performance made her political message very clear, and it is that clarity which I admire and applaud.

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