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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.

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Today’s post inspired by The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge.

This week The Daily Post’s writing challenge asks us what we think about Miley Cyrus‘s controversial performance at the MTV VMA Music Awards. The singer, once the innocent face of teen pop icon Hannah Montana, has been criticised for an overly sexualised performance involving flesh-coloured swimwear and some bloke’s crotch.

TDP asks us “Did Miley’s performance cross the line, are we making too much of it, or are we missing a chance to have a more important conversation about race and sex?”

I’ll admit, I was made only vaguely aware of the issue by various oblique references on my Facebook feed and it was only today that I actually watched the footage from the show. That is to say, I watched the first couple of minutes of it, then felt compelled to switch it off.

For me, this isn’t so much about female sexuality and/or there being too much of it, but more a basic matter of talent and intent.

From what I could make out from Miley Cyrus’s over-produced vocals, the song she was singing was about having a jolly good house party, and her wild and slightly embarrassing gyrating was some kind of visual metaphor for the song’s general “we can do what we want” theme that seems to fly in the face of conservatism.

Now, I’m all for flying in the face of conservatism, don’t get me wrong. But is this really the way to do it? On the stage of a popular music awards ceremony? It’s about as mainstream an arena as you can get. It’s the kind of arena that nullifies pretty much any controversial statement you might want to make by turning it into either a farce or a stunt. Which makes me think that the song/performance isn’t really about stating any kind of sociopolitical message, but rather about selling records and getting in the papers.

My main point of comparison is the peerless Amanda Palmer who recently, in response to some typically thick-witted journalism on the part of The Daily Mail, performed completely naked at London’s Roundhouse venue in July.

The Daily Mail had written a piece about Palmer’s 2013 Glastonbury performance, in which they focused solely on the fact that her top had popped open to reveal one of her breasts, and made absolutely no mention of her music or her performance.

Quite rightly taking umbrage with this lacklustre attempt at a music review, Palmer penned a special song entitled “Dear Daily Mail / Up Yours!”, during the last verse and chorus of which she flung off her kimono and continued to sing in the buff.

Am I offended by Amanda Palmer’s naked body? No. Am I offended by Miley Cyrus’s “sexy” dancing? Yes, I am a little bit as it happens. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with a woman expressing her sexuality in public, but because it seems like she was doing it for all the wrong reasons.

Amanda Palmer got her kit off because she was making an extremely intelligent and well-thought out point about journalism, female sexuality and the music industry. Miley Cyrus appears to have based her performance either on being controversial for the sake of it or lewd for the sake of it, with some base vanity and an ill-formed publicity strategy thrown in.

There is nothing smart about Miley Cyrus’s performance and, frankly, nothing sexy about it either. By contrast, Amanda Palmer’s nuddy fling is both sexy and challenging, forcing us to confront our ideas about female sexuality and the way it’s portrayed in the media.

While Amanda Palmer’s nakedness challenged The Daily Mail‘s observations about her Glastonbury “wardrobe malfunction”, Miley Cyrus’s exhibition only enforces and encourages bland voyeuristic journalism and negative impressions of female sexuality. It’s all surface and no substance.

I’m not sure if Amanda Palmer’s video is still up on YouTube (it might have been censored for being too brilliant), but I encourage you to listen to both women’s songs and make your own judgment about which is making the more valid observations about sex in our society.