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Politics of the Pole November 5, 2006

Posted by Winter in media, sex industry.

Apparently Tesco has moved its home pole dancing kit from the entertainment section of its website to the “exercise” one in response to complaints. The friend who e-mailed me this information observed that at first it seemed an example of public prudishness about sex because pole dancing being considered acceptable if it’s defined as excercise rather than entertainment or games is plainly daft.

Of course pole dancing has recently been proclaimed a new fitness craze among young women. Recently my friend (who is an academic) also became aware of an outbreak of pole dancing and lapdancing at UK universities. A number of institutions are following US universities by including pole dancing as part of their sports/exercise facilities. See Exeter for example. Elsewhere female students have been busy establishing pole dancing societies: UWE, Bristol and Cambridge – where it is called “The Fellowship of the Pole”- for instance. Now Exeter, Bristol and Cambridge are all universities heavily populated by privileged, wealthy, middle-class students. While we, as feminists, may object to the “Fellowship of the Pole” for various reasons, I would hazard a guess that many of the young women involved have enough social and economic clout to get away with a few pole dancing classes without putting themselves in serious danger. They’ll still be able to dance off to jobs at the Home Office and Saatchi in a couple of years time. What we have here is raunch culture style dabbling in the transgression associated with sex work by young people who will never actually have to do it for real. Calling the society the “Fellowship of the Pole” suggests to me a group of young women who would think of their activities in terms of post-feminist “irony.” OK. The repackaging of activities associated with sex work as faddy fun for middle-class women is an issue that needs to be addressed in its own right, but there’s something more sinister going on here.

At the same time it would appear that lap dancing/pole dancing clubs in a number of university cities are soliciting students to put these”skills” to good use by attracting hard up female students to work in them to supplement their incomes. Leeds is one university concerned. While some wealthy young women may be able to do a bit of pole dancing for (what the media currently defines as) “fun” and walk away without a second thought, this fad is linked in with the potential exploitation of poorer female students who may be drawn into the sex industry for real.

A student who works in the clubs claims that she can £500 for two nights dancing, she says: “I earn more in one night than the average person in a week.

Of course the young women involved claim that they are not in any way being exploited and can stop any time they like (then what would they do for the money they so desperately need?) but there is little doubt that the sex industry is a dangerous place for very young women (largely 18 – 21 year olds) at a vulnerable time in their lives. However they personally feel about their work, we need to examine a system which still encourages poorer women into sex work because that’s still the only place they can make a lot of money fast. Little has really changed. Rich young women (who can apply to Mum and Dad for cash when they get into economic trouble) may do a class for a “laugh,” while poorer young women may actually have to pole or lap dance their way through university.

There are so many issues here I can’t unpick them all. One thing that does concern me, apart from the idea of young women entering the decidedly dodgy world of lap dancing clubs to pay their student fees, is the fact that our society attaches enormous stigma to sex work, even as it pretends to be OK with lap dancing. We all know what happens when it turns out that a famous woman was paid for a few glamour shots in her youth — the dogs of misogyny are unleashed; the media has a feeding frenzy and she is no longer taken seriously. If it comes out that a woman who has become a judge was once a lapdancer, it will have an impact on her life and work. This is an aspect of sexist oppression. Scratch the surface and you soon find out what people really think of women who have been even slightly associated with the sex industry because we still have aggressive double-standards in this area. I am against perpetuating the stigma associated with sex work, but I’m worried by the serious long-term implications for the young women who enter this world.

What effect will it have on the lives and future careers? Will they have to keep it a secret? Will they have to live in fear of it coming out? What role does this fad play in maintaining the economic and social status quo?

Thanks to K for the links.



1. Professor Zero - November 7, 2006

YES. I’ve got students who pole dance for tuition money and it is not just (possibly) bad for their futures – it. is. not. safe. for. them. now. ! Remove stigma, yes. Glamorize / trivialize, no.

2. Winter - November 7, 2006

No it’s not. There are no protections for them at all.

The insistence that they are not being exploited is striking because it indicates a notion that as long as one is being paid money, one is not being exploited. Now it is perfectly possible to be paid a lot of money and exploited at the same time.

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