Pole Fitness Classes?

Reader Seagull has sent us this very interesting query:

A group of academics sent a letter to their university’s vice chancellor objecting to the presence of “pole fitness” classes being offered to staff and students in the campus sports centre. Our argument was that a university campus is not an appropriate place for a “fitness” activity which is an offshoot of the sex industry and a manifestation of the mainstreaming of raunch culture which objectifies women. We argued that we had a right to a working environment which enshrined respect for women, and we felt the university’s reputation could be damaged if the press got wind of the fact that we offer courses in pole dancing.

We received a reply from the university’s management which argued that there is nothing remotely sexual about “pole fitness” which is an entirely legitimate and beneficial exercise activity. This was accompanied by considerable documentation from various national fitness and exercise organisations which sang the praises of this wholesome health-benefitting activity which was so far removed from its sleazy pole-dancing roots that our suggestion that it might not be appropriate caused much hurt and incredulity among its practitioners. The most disturbing aspect of the response was the utter inability of the university management and the fitness organisations to understand our concerns about the promotion of raunch culture on campus.

We would therefore be really interested in this blog’s readership’s views on this, specifically,

1. How widespread is “pole-fitness” and other manifestations of raunch culture on university campuses, and how widely does it receive such strong endorsement from management, sporting bodies and fitness organisations?

2. Has anyone else tried to raise concerns about this, and if so, what was the outcome?

3. Does anyone have any strategies for how we could effectively challenge the mainstreaming of raunch culture?

4. Can anyone point us to academic studies or data that could help us show our university why raunch culture of this kind is harmful to women?

5. Finally, is there any point in fighting this fight? Perhaps “pole fitness” has become so mainstream that challenging it is futile and harms the feminist movement/s my making us look like strident old-fashioned harridans out of touch with the modern world?

41 thoughts on “Pole Fitness Classes?

  1. This set of questions really raises complex issues. Let me see if I can help make a start by trying to say a few things that seem right to me now, though perhaps I’ll come to see they aren’t.

    1. I certainly have an initial negative reaction to the idea of pole fitness. The deep connection between pole dancing and the sex trade still exists, and in fact looking on the web, one sees many sites that link pole fitness to lap dancing. (E.g., you can hire out the ‘fitness studios’ for lap dancing parties.)

    2. However, I shouldn’t think it’s going to be easy to get your university to admit that they’re giving classes that promote degrading attitudes toward their women students. I’d bet it would take at least 18 months of exhausting effort.

    3. There are a number of universities giving pole fitness classes. According to one web site, UBC has hired a former stripper – who has a fitness studio in Vancouver – to give classes both in pole fitness and in cario striptease. Apparently, the university’s website originally was explicit about the link to lapdancing, but I couldn’t find it now.

    4. You all might consider doing something that would reinforce your valuable idea that “we had a right to a working environment which enshrined respect for women.” Maybe a series of workshops? Or lectures?

    5. Looking around at various sites, I’m getting the impression that it’s getting promoted by the fitness industry because there is a lot of money in new trends. Non-comercial fitness organizations may be conned themselves, or they may have more commercial motivations that one thinks. It’s dismaying and irritating when one’s university simply and uncritically swallows this sort of stuff.

    Though all this, I’m reminded of Kristof’s argument that rape is not taken seriously as a crime. Well, gosh, if you’re hiring strippers as instructors in striptease and pole dancing, you might be promoting connections between being a woman and the sex trade.

  2. Hello,
    I don’t have answers for all your questions so I’ll just say this : I think it’s very important to fight against this because if we let one pass there will be worst trends emerging from it for sure and it will be even harder to stop.
    I suggest to you the book Female chauvinist pig by Ariel Levy; it’s about raunch culture and it will maybe help you to formulate convincing arguments for your university administration.
    And about being perceive as not modern, that’s a risk to take but if you know and explain your motivations (against objectification of women and the promotion of just one sort of sexuality – the porn and sex industry – that is not even a real one since it’s about faking) people will understand that you are not against sexual freedom but for it, and a real one too.

  3. Pole classes are common in U.S. fitness clubs, but that doesn’t make them acceptable. Women have been deceived into thinking that this is a way of taking charge of our sexuality — but it’s just a further debasement of our culture and another sign of creeping backlash and misogyny. It’s tacky and gross. I’m stunned that a university would show such tone-deafness around the issue, and I recommend you take your fight to the parents and the media. If you are unable to put them right, let the general public outcry do it. This university really has it coming to them. I hope you let us know which one it is.

  4. I think that when we think of changing some decision in a large organization, as I assume the university in question is, then we might ask what’s really going to be effective in securing change. What’s going to motivate them?

    Unfortunately, suggestions that look really good in one context might not work in another. An argument might work with a department. Writing parents and the media might work with a problem in your child’s school or at the YWCA. Your university employer may be a different matter.

    One problem is that it looks as though they’re going to have to admit they’ve made a mistake, and they might really want not to do that, particularly this sort of mistake. Consequently, they’ll defend themselves against lots of arguments, and say that what they are doing is different. Further, they may well go to the legal office, if they haven’t already. Notice that they’ve already employed emotional blackmail – O, you’ve made these nasty allegations and made us feel so bad! So it sounds as though they really don’t want to change.

    The defense may also surprisingly engage much of the university’s administration. They have to work together, etc, etc.

    Writing parents and the media might well be effective, but in my university at least that would be the last effective thing you did. Whistle blowers are not treated well, going to the media and disgracing the university is a huge no-no, and contacting the parents is probably so bad that they’ll seriously consider overriding your tenure and firing you. You’ll be this group of crazed faculty and there will be deep investigations of your career. Notice what happened to Ward Churchill.

    So if one-on-one rational argument and a media blitz are not terribly good avenues, what is? If there’s a powerful faculty government and a strong student leadership, then getting them on your side may be very helpful. Still, at the risk of sounding paranoid, I have to say I would expect a counter-compaign to start pretty quickly. So perhaps the faculty group leader will go to talk to the president and find she/he rolls his eyes and starts talking about how faculty at a certain stage start to feel that they have failed to achieve what they’d hope and so they start instead to focus on perceived defects in their surroundings. (I have heard several versions of this conversation when I was involved with our faculty governance organization.)

    It might be better to try to address a more general issue with a more general audience. How about trying to get more awareness on the campus of raunch culture and its costs. Invite some high profile speakers. At some point in the series ask the administration to talk about pole dancing.

    You could put together a highly visible series and maybe really raise consciousness. The book Anne (above) mentions looks terrific, and it also makes one aware of how deep and wide the problem is.

  5. This was emailed to us but very clearly meant to be a comment on this post:

    I think you need to choose your battle-grounds.
    If a woman wants to develop her upper body strength in an athletic way that gets mass media attention she can opt for being the next Yelena Isinbayeva (google her name and click on the images option). If pole dancing is meant to be a version of modern dance then it’s like dancing with a straight jacket on.

    But pole dancing is up there with Playboy pencil cases for schoolgirls. We have human rights, ethics and equality legislation on our side, but the sex industry is bigger, wealthier and more popular than us. An analogous industry might be the tobacco industry.

    What is useful about pole dancing – to the sex industry – is the very helpful association with lap dancing.
    We’re battling with lap dancing invading Exeter. See the struggle in Newquay http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=18272816092&ref=mf

    The sex industry benefits because the media use pole dancing related images when reporting on lap dancing. Bowlderisation lives on and undermines us.

    Pole dancing is a symptom, the disease needs its method of transmission controlled. See http://www.object.org.uk/

    Moira Macdonald

    Coordinator, Fawcett Devon

  6. This being the feminist philosophers blog I had hope for some more diverse views on the subject than the automatic assumption that because pole dance has connections with the sex industry it is automatically degrading. That ,and the immediate recommendation of ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’, which is not unproblematic and relies on a lot of generalising and condescending attitudes towards young women.

    I am a feminist and have participating in pole dance for about a year and a half now. I was initially curious about it due to the fuss made by feminists (it is worth noting that causing a controversy in your University may lead to more, not less, women trying pole dancing). I was lured back by the sense of accomplishment you can get from it – especially from learning new and challenging ways of hanging upside down – exciting for a tomboy who spent most of her childhood up trees. The rapid accumulation of upper-body strength was also a hook.

    In the UK at least, pole dance is quite wide-spread and there is a dynamic and supportive on- and off-line community of (mostly) women. Many of these women come up against dismissive attitudes from feminists and misogynists.

    There is also a growing emphasis on ‘pole fitness’ which minimises the dance aspect and does resemble gymnastic performances as it about showing off impressive rather than dance moves. I know for example that Kent University (?) insists that only tricks and not dance can be taught in their pole fitness courses.

    The growth of pole fitness is an interesting case study in itself regarding attitudes towards female sexuality. It relies on the virgin/whore dichotomy – that pole fitness is not like what strippers do and ‘we’re not like them’. This is (imo) a pretty rubbish attitude as it diminishes those who developed pole dancing – exotic dancers. In this sense, pole dancing is an art developed by women, initially for male enjoyment, but increasingly for female enjoyment and community (the majority of classes are female only – there are an increasing number of male instructors and students though).

    Sorry for the very long comment, but I thought this needed a dissenting voice!

  7. efeesh, I feel a certain pull towards your take on this. I keep thinking about acrobatics, like trapeze: why can’t pole fitness be thought of like that? It derives from a kind of performance; women who perform it wear skimpy clothes, but people doing it for exercise or rehearsal don’t; and even some of the physical skills must be similar. What on earth difference could it make that in one the pole is horizontal (and swinging about) while in the other it’s vertical?

    Part of me would like to believe this analogy holds, and in another world with a very different sex industry – or no sex industry at all – I guess it would. But in this world it just doesn’t. Women swinging around a vertical pole is linked to seedy bars and leering men, and even if some individual women can separate the two in their own experiences, I think once context and politics are taken into account they’re inextricable.

    (There’s some evidence that even the providers of pole fitness classes know this: a little bird told me that at at least one university which offers it the classes aren’t held in the main sports hall but tucked away in an upstairs room because it’s “too showy”…)

  8. I’m late on this and have only skimmed the other comments due to wine-befuddled bank holiday head. But a couple of things. Pole dancing is really bloody hard. It requires a lot of physical fitness and skill. Lots of people don’t realise that pole dancers are really acrobats. It would be good if people gave pole dancers more respect. I know lots of people who go pole dancing and sometimes go to classes myself. None of us are strippers. Or planning to be strippers. Or give private pole dancing shows to anyone. It’s purely for enjoyment and keeping fit.

  9. Heg, you write: “even if some individual women can separate the two in their own experiences, I think once context and politics are taken into account they’re inextricable.” But surely context includes finer grained context, on which they’re not inextricable, but in fact get separated at least in some cases. And the “too showy” attitude could simply be an awareness of how it might be misinterpreted.

    I wonder if this is an interesting example of reclamation, taking an activity which initially had nothing to do with the dancers’ desires and turning it into one which serves solely those desires.

  10. I’m glad we’re getting disagreement. My wording in my first comment was hesitant because I expect strong defenses of pole fitness that would make me want to retract.

    One thing that really bothers me is that the link between pole fitness and the sex trade is all over the internet. And I’m concerned about the construction of a good female body as one that’s responsive to male desire.

    So that leads one to a concern about what gets promoted that is independent of whether some or many women can and do go in for it for its health benefits.

    I wonder if this would be an analogy for those not keen on the military. Suppose (to follow the UBC example) some ex-military guys decided that it was a great idea to teach close drill with rifle-like objects; no doubt that’s aerobic, strength and strong core training, and even fun. The university agrees with the idea and so a couple of times a week students get to carry heavy weights and execute precise movement in response to verbal commands from ex-military guys. And they don’t have uniforms, but similar blue trousers and white tops are encouraged. (Just as pole exercisers do not strip, but the standard clothes are not exactly loose coveralls.)

    Now MAYBE I AM WRONG, but my reaction whenever I think about this sort of thing is that we would be deluded to think that the intentions of various individuals disconnects this completely from instilling a positive attitude to the military. Sure people who hate wars, etc, can go through it without ending up loving wars, but the point is bringing a kind of training, however reconstrued, into the academy. It’s at least a thin edge.

    Of course, I might also be wrong to think this is an adequate analogy, but that’s a different issue.

    Finally, my university has an ROTC unit, so the example is kind of whacky.

  11. When I read this title in my feed reader I first thought the article was going to be about fitness classes for Polish people!

    Anyhow, are the classes offered at this university just for women? If so, why?

  12. Simon – Really good question and the answer is likely to be quite telling. Thanks for it.

  13. You need your body to stick to the pole to perform some of the moves, so you cannot wear loose clothes (I’ve tried). You’ve got to have enough bare flesh to make contact. I see it as being somewhat similar to belly dancing. Once considered (at least by Westerners) as a kind of exotic lap dance, there are now lots of women who do it as a form of exercise and fun thing to do with other women. New styles have developed which emphasise this. I think it’s right to think of it as being reclaimed. (Although apparently belly dancing originated as a thing women did together, and only became a sort of lap dance later on.) Some of the people I know who come to pole dancing class are professional acrobats. They use pole dancing moves in their acts, but not round poles – suspended from chains on the ceiling.

    I imagine men can’t come to classes because pole dancing is connected with the sex trade. Men being in the class would probably change the dynamic and people would feel like they are being ogled. But I don’t think that fact reveals much about what is going on in the class. I don’t think men were allowed to come to belly dancing classes a while ago for the same reason. But that hasn’t stopped belly dancing changing from exotic lap dance to something different.

    I also think it’s good that strippers are teaching classes. What I was trying to say yesterday (but didn’t really come across due to bank holiday wine befuddledness) is that a lot of these women are talented athletes. But this isn’t recognised by people who just think of them as whores. I had no idea how difficult it is until going to class. Having them teach pole fitness underlines their talent. And I think people should generally have more respect for women who work in the sex trade. Whatever one’s reservations about the trade itself.

  14. When I say ‘professional acrobats’ I mean professional circus performers. They don’t work in sex clubs.

  15. I think that pole dance will end up as circus type performance – it’s already there in cirque do soleil (look up Felix Cane – she performs there). However, there’s already Chinese pole in circus performance. The difference between the two is you need clothes for chinese pole. The pole is coated in rubber and can pull skin off (I’ve done it – not fun). Pole dance is done on metal poles which require you to get traction with your skin. I think it allows for more types of movement – you can do a spins and slides, which you can’t on a chinese pole.

    There is a lot of crossover with other circus arts – a lot of people take up aerial silks and trapeeze after doing pole dance. I want to take up silks – but it’s much harder to find classes for that!

    With regards to men, I know a couple of men who do pole dance – they have an advantage as they start with more upper-body strength. Some instructors teach men in separate classes, others have them in the normal classes. It really depends on the instrutor and their ethos – some like to keep it as women only.

    As regards to contruction of a good body type – There really is a diverse range of body types taking it. Ultimately, it becomes about being a physically strong person in that you can lift and manoever your own weight in a controlled manner. The greatest admiration within the pole dance community is given to those who can do that gracefully!

    In terms of attitudes – I think it ends up changing attitudes towards those who work in lap dance clubs. As I said before, some people do end up drawing a big ‘us and them’ line, which isn’t helpful. Others end up with more respect for strippers, who frankly, don’t get a lot of respect generally.

  16. Let me stress that if pole fitness was taught as part of gymnastics and under the rubric of increasing upper body strength, balance and core stability, my worries would be largely and maybe entirely gone.

    The relevant facts about sex workers seem to be so disputed and unclear, it’s not easy to know what to think. In any case, the objection to having exotic dangers teaching on campus for me is not that they are whores – which I don’t know is right – but that it is hard to detach their teaching from their expertise in something the university can only questionably promote. That’s the objectification of women. And from the desire encouraged by society of many young women to be such objects.

    There would also be worries about have beauty pageant people on campus to teach young women about makeup and clothes, photographers who help women put together sultry pictures of themselves, and so on.

    Thinkiing about the list, one might feel the better approach is not to object to specific actions, but rather to mount a campus educational forum on objectifying women so that young women get more knowledge of what messages are encoded in the culture.

  17. WOW!! Many thanks everyone for your fantastic and incredibly helpful responses to our post; we really appreciate it!!

    A few thoughts that came to me while reading the responses:

    I have trouble with the idea that pole fitness can be ‘reclaimed’ by women; isn’t that simply a way of justifying the internalization of oppression? My personal view of pole fitness (possibly not shared by the other signatories of our letter to the VC) is that it’s the equivalent of having a fitness activity on campus that had its origins in Klan lynchings or beating up gay men. I’ve no doubt that pole fitness confers excellent fitness benefits and upper body strength upon its practitioners, but then so would lynching and beating up gays. The sex industry (of which pole fitness is the ‘Playboy bunny pencil case’ acceptable face) is a brutal, abusive industry which thrives on slavery and human trafficking (yes, there are sex workers who work in the industry by choice and who enjoy it, but they are a minority); therefore I view any fitness activity based on any part of it as ethically and morally equivalent to the hypothetical fitness activities based on race or homophobic hate crimes.

    Another thing that makes me wary of pole fitness as a legitimate activity for developing upper body strength is that there are already excellent fitness activities that develop upper body strength, like rock climbing or weight training to name a few. Women are very under-represented in the latter activities. Is it possible that society has trouble with the idea of women developing upper body strength as a fitness/body-improvement goal in its own right (perhaps because it doesn’t fit into traditional stereotypes of female beauty, nor the traditional justification of female exercise/fitness as a process for making women’s bodies attractive to men)? If there is truth in this, then perhaps it’s not surprising that the only upper-body strengthening activity ‘acceptable’ for women is a fitness activity which comes from the sex industry and reinforces the women as sex object theme.

    Many thanks again for your fabulous comments! We will post an update sometime in the future to let you know how we get on.

  18. Hi Seagull,

    I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean to accuse Monkey and Efeesh of internalised oppression or the moral equivalent of partaking of hate crime re-creations for fun and fitness, but your comment could certainly be read that way. Maybe you could re-phrase a bit so that we keep things clearly within our commenting policies, and so that we can continue with what has so far been a very productive discussion?

  19. Apologies, I wrote that in a rush; I absolutely didn’t mean to accuse Monkey and Efeesh of internalised oppression or the moral equivalent of partaking of hate crime re-creations. I think Monkey and Efeesh have made some very valid & thought-provoking comments, and I have no problem with use of horizontal poles as part of wider acrobatic/gymnatsic work. Apologies if I expressed myself poorly; English is my 3rd language.

  20. The idea of reclaiming and/or approriating hostile/derogatory, etc, forms of speech and action seems to me very important. It would be worth considering at some point what distinguishes these from internalizing the hostility, hatred, and so on. It would be great, in fact, if we could describe differences that gave a way of assessing real life examples.

    One thing that does drive me crazy is when the oppressors look at, e.g., AA’s appropriate of the “N” word and say that it shows their use is perfectly ok.

  21. I think the analogy with exercise based on lynchings is a bad one. For one thing, what kind of exercise might that be?! Perhaps a better, although not perfect, analogy is with the garment trade. The garment trade is a brutal, abusive industry. The majority of sewing machinists employed in it are women. The skill involved in sewing is often undervalued. But if a woman from the industry came to give classes in using a sewing machine, I don’t think the fact that her skills were developed in, and as a result of, the brutal and abusive garment industry would mean that anyone attending her classes was somehow colluding (or being duped into colluding) with that industry.

    As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that I’m not convinced by what you say about lynchings either. Suppose that the people carrying out lynchings developed a martial art which they used in their lynchings. Later on, people started teaching that martial art to people in the context of exercising, learning a bit of self-defence, doing some enjoyable physical activity with some like-minded people. I don’t think that would be problematic, even if the martial art were originally developed by lynchers. Perhaps my view is controversial :)

    To be frank, I’m not surprised by the majority of commenters’ reactions to the pole dancing classes. I felt the same as lots of you until I started going to classes. But having been to classes, I now feel differently. One thing that is probably worth bearing in mind is that ‘pole fitness’ isn’t a monolithic entity. The classes vary a lot in what they emphasise and teach, and how they teach it. No doubt individual women have very different reasons for going to classes. But I think its entry into the mainstream of ‘exercise culture’ actually lessens its connection with the sex trade, rather than being an example of raunch culture going mainstream. As Efeesh and I have said separately – based on separate experiences, as we don’t go to the same classes and we’re not based in the same city – there is a strong connection with circus skills: lots of my friends who go to classes are circus performers. But aside from this, the classes I’ve been to have a really nice atmosphere of women enjoying themselves together. Also, some of the people who go are not young and thin. Seeing unthin, middle-aged women laughing and twisting themselves upside down around a pole strikes me as equally subversive.

    And finally, yes there are other ways of developing upper body strength. But for me at least, pole dancing is loads more fun than lifting weights.

  22. Hi JJ – Yes that’s an important and interesting question. Perhaps there should be a post about it?

  23. First, many thanks, all – this discussion is really making me think! And here’s a random selection of the thoughts it has generated…

    So far, analogies have been drawn between pole fitness and:
    • gymnastics;
    • playboy pencil cases;
    • circus performance, like trapeze;
    • military boot-camp style fitness programmes;
    • belly dancing;
    • hypothetical fitness programmes based on Klan lynchings or gay bashing;
    • upper-body-strength activities like rock climbing;
    • reclaiming the ‘n’ word.
    (And I may have missed some.) This has made me wonder what work these analogies are doing – and whether their use can contribute to misunderstandings, if we aren’t clear about how we’re using them.

    A simplistic claim might be that there’s a sort of scale of badness – with lynching-based activities at one end and wholesome rock climbing at the other – and the project we’re engaged in is trying to work out where pole fitness belongs on the scale. In that case, to suggest it lives near the lynching/gay-bashing end of the scale would clearly be offensive to someone who has taken part.

    But that’s surely not what we’re doing, is it? To make an analogy productive, one has to work out what it’s being used to say, and try to identify the features that make it relevantly similar or different. It seems to me that this discussion is fundamentally about the nature and possibility of reclaiming (activities, and maybe words, too), as both Jender and jj have suggested.

    So for instance, it seemed to me that Seagull’s klan/gay-bashing analogy might have been used to say a few different things. First, she might simply have been drawing on our extreme reactions to Klan violence and gay-bashing in order to emphasise that the sex industry is horrifically violent, oppressive and discriminatory. Second, she might have been saying that nothing derived from such a terrible industry could *ever* be reclaimed. Or, third, she might have been saying that pole fitness has not as a matter of fact been reclaimed, though it’s not impossible that it could be, one day. And these seem like distinct and interesting things to bring out, which makes it “a good analogy” in one sense: though perhaps in failing to say what she saw as the salient points of the analogy she left it open to interpretations that were offensive. But what we don’t get from it is an idea of the things that might make reclamation successful – for that, the belly dancing analogy might be more fruitful.

    Finally, and by the by, I think this discussion has reflected a debate that has had a fair bit of publicity recently, in the form of Jezebel v. XX Factor (see e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/17/feminism-america-sex-promiscuity-drinking ) Isn’t that also a debate about reclaiming? And it gets nasty when it seems like a particular take on the possibility of reclamation becomes a necessary qualification for calling yourself a feminist. It seems to me that caring enough about women’s equality to argue about how and whether reclamation fits into it is entirely qualification enough…

  24. Sorry if my comment about Seagull’s analogy being a bad one sounded rude. Reading back through my comment, I realise it might have done. I simply meant that for me it wasn’t illuminating the salient features of pole dance. I should have expressed my point more carefully.

  25. Monkey, I wrote my comment before reading yours (no.23) and I think your point engaged in just the relevant ways with Seagull’s analogy. I mean, you disagree with her, and your analogies – with sewing and the garment trade, and with a distant marshal-art descendant of lynching – bring out precisely the ways in which you disagree.

  26. Ok good. I was worried my rather blunt ‘it’s a bad analogy’ remark might have seemed hostile, when no hostility was intended.

  27. Friends,

    Apologies (particularly to Monkey and Efeesh) for explaining myself poorly; this is an excellent lesson to me as to how counter-productive a poorly-expressed argument can be. As an astrophysicist who dabbles in gender studies research, I frequently crash headlong into the fact that astrophysicists have much more poorly-developed skills than philosophers and gender theorists when it comes to presenting well structured arguments. (Perhaps because we rely on numbers and equations to make our arguments, which are very much easier tools to wield than the English language?)

    Therefore, as an astrophysicist who not infrequently ends up looking like a clumsy oaf in the company of gender theorists and philosophers (despite her very best but so far futile efforts to improve her mastery of the English language which is like trying to juggle a nest of slippery eels), let me try to clarify what I tried to say so clumsily in post 18:

    In my experience of academia (particularly as a woman in a very male-dominated discipline), it became apparent to me that views are often held and expressed about women that would be considered completely unacceptable if expressed about other oppressed or minority groups. The strategy that I developed over the years to challenge these views when expressed by my colleagues was to find an analogy of the same statement/attitude/situation in another oppressed or minority group, and then throw it into the ring for consideration. This was often a very useful technique that enabled people to understand why the original statement/attitude/situation about women was discriminatory, sexist or offensive.

    For example, in 2005 when Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, suggested that innate differences between the sexes might help explain why relatively few women become professional scientists or engineers, the overwhelming view in my astrophysics department (at a different university to where I am now grappling with pole fitness) was, ‘Good for him! High time someone stood up to this political correctness social engineering silliness and told the truth!’ (this was pretty much the overwhelming majority view of UK physicists generally, even the female ones.)

    I was the sole dissenting voice in the department and lengthy debates and endless email exchanges (copied to the entire department) ensued, in which arguments drawing heavily on evolutionary psychology were presented to justify women’s exclusion from the hard sciences on the grounds that we’re just not as intelligent as men: women are quite capable of producing good astrophysics research, my colleagues graciously conceded, but we simply don’t have the ‘capacity for genius’ that men have.

    I deployed many counter-arguments, and found that the most effective one was simply to send around the identical email arguments but with the word ‘women’ replaced by ‘black people’, ‘Jews’, ‘gays’, ‘the working class’, ‘the Irish’, etc. It wasn’t 100% successful, but certainly made some of my colleagues reassess their views.

    I should stress here that my colleagues were all overwhelmingly decent, likeable, intelligent, left-leaning Guardian-reading men who would never intentionally discriminate against anyone, and who were – and continue to be – my close and very dear friends. I have no doubt that when they said ‘women aren’t as intelligent as men’, they honestly believed they weren’t referring in any way to me, their mate, because to them I was an ‘honoury male’. (I think most gender theorists don’t appreciate quite how dismal things are on the gender issues front in the hard sciences.)

    Anyway: whenever a gender issue comes up in which there is disagreement over whether something is sexist or discriminatory, my immediate response is to find an analogy in which ‘women’ is replaced by ‘black’, ‘Jew’, or another minority/oppressed group. My personal view is that pole fitness is a front for an activity (i.e. the sex industry) which oppresses, traffics, enslaves & kills women (I accept that not everyone who contributed to this discussion agrees with that). Therefore, in line with my strategy to challenge justifications of (what I percieve to be) gender oppression, I tried to find equivalent oppressions of other minority groups. Hence, the hypothetical fitness activities I proposed.

    Does this help to clarify what I was trying to express?

    I would be very interested in your views as to the usefulness/appropriateness of my strategy of interchanging oppressed groups, both generally and in the specific case of pole fitness.

  28. Sorry, I should have clarified: in my sentence “Therefore, in line with my strategy to challenge justifications of (what I percieve to be) gender oppression, …” I’m referring to the justifications that my university’s manageament has made, not to any comments on this thread.

  29. Hi Seagull,

    I understand your strategy. I’m just not convinced by your arguments in the case of pole dancing for the reasons stated above. But it seems we’re probably going to agree to disagree on that one.

    In general, the strategy sounds useful. Have you ever come across this paper by Douglas Hofstader?

    How depressing to hear your news from the world of hard science.

  30. Seagull, you may know that the male superiority and genius line was promoted by some serious researchers, including Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge. One major support was that men tended to far outnumber women at the highest end of the maths apititude tests.

    We’ve tracked some of the evidence that in fact the difference in scores is disappearing now that women are not so heavily discouraged from doing maths. Other evidence is emerging that women’s scores come closer to men’s after 10 hours of playing video games. All of this is amounting to saying that the evidence of men’s innate superiority is turning out to be evidence of strong environmental influence that’s fading.

    Some of this you can find by searching this blog for maths or mathematics. There also ought to be a relevant post somewhere with “video games.” The category “science” might also be a source.

    I must run. Perhaps someone else can be a bit more helpful.

  31. hello fem philosophers. I just wanted to say that I think that you may be overthinking the entire issue on vertical dance fitness. Have any of you objectors either gone to the class to see what is going on in there or possibly taken the class yourselves? One of the hallmarks of a true intellectual is their ability to intellectualize anything and the ability to look at both sides of an issue before coming to any hypothesis.

    I will first state my rebuttals and then elaborate after I have laid out the premesis of my argument.

    First, and for the record you are incorrect about the origins of pole dancing.

    Second there is an enormous difference between pole dancing, striptease, lap dancing, and vertical fitness and the fact that you don’t know this is because you are reacting to what you believe the class and its instructor represent. Just because you are opposed to such a class on your campus does not mean that before you set yourself in opposition to an idea that you do not need to do a little research to at least understand the variations in terms and to possibly glean the true origins of the activity before you launch your argument.

    Third there is absolutely nothing morally, mentally, or even socially wrong with either strippers or former strippers. Strippers are not whores’, most of them do not even associate with patrons outside of the club and when they go home they have real lives, kids, hopes, dreams, and aspirations which you may be surprised to discover mirror your own.

    Finally fourth just as no one has forced any of you intellectuals to throw down your standard and attend and/or participate in the class in question. Do you then have the right to quash a fitness class that they are enjoying, independant of your ideals or your indignation. The school certainly does not solicit an opinion from you in regard to any other class that they choose to add to the curriculum or to the recreational activities roster, the reason for this is that for those who have no stake (no interest in and no intention to enroll themselves) in the activity really haven’t much basis for objection as learning is learning and physical activity is one of the best things that you can do for your body and mind.

    Now illumination and details:
    1. Pole dancing has its origins in tribal dancing as far back as recorded history goes, the ancient tribes of both Britain and Scotland held celebrations which centered around a pole known as a maypole around which celebrants would circle and dance on the 1st day of May each year. Modern pole dance and pole fitness have their origins in circus’ and carnivals as well as for the entertainment of nobles, kings, queens, and their courts. The first pole dancers were acrobats, who using a variety of common articles, ropes, silks, trapeze, trampolines, poles, etc. sought to amaze and entertain crowds with their acrobatic and graceful performances on the various aparatus in which various acrobats of a troupe would specialize. In fact I remember a time (1989) when most gentlemen’s clubs had neither a pole nor lap dancing. While pole dancing was going strong, as it had for hundreds of years, under big tops and on stages both famous and infamous. It was Burlesque dancers early in the twentieth century who adopted and adapted the acrobats moves and tricks for the entertainment of more mature audiences.

    2. The differences- pole dancing carries the stigma of being an activity that only takes place in adult clubs that cater to “the sex industry.” The only reason that pole dancing is considered a rung of the sex industry is not because of prostitution or any illegal activities that some few dancers may participate in, but simply for the reason that partial or full nudity is incorporated into the performance. Looking at live nude women is no more sex than looking at photos in a mens magazine, or a racy Calvin Klein ad for that matter.

    Vertical fitness-there is no nudity or even performing for a public audience either intended nor a venue for that provided. The routines and workouts center around the pole and doing strength building pole tricks and combinations. Neither lap dancing nor collateral classes for it are any part of vertical fitness, and though I can tell you from personal experience that pole dancing both in a club and for fitness is a heck of a strenght training workout in which you are pulling, pushing, lifting, and holding your entire body weight in a cardio building activity that engages every muscle in the body.

    Striptease-does not neccessarily include a pole or it would be called pole dancing, it is the art of semi-erotic gyration and percussive movement while disrobing for the entertainment of an audience.

    3. Strippers are women, people just like yourself, many who are raising one or more children on their own and who are smart enough to know that they are not going to be able to support the children or themselves on a minimum wage earners salary. They are willing to endure the social stigma and the low opinions of people like yourself who know nothing about either them or their lives and livlihoods because the money is good and they know what they do is athletic, graceful, entertaining, and difficult requiring skill, stamina, determination, and a lot of practice. In closing to this section I will give you the same reply I have given to hundreds of men in strip clubs over the years. “Honey, the reason that my friends and I learned all these fancy, smancy pole tricks is so that we can entertain you and get paid for it, not so we can go to bed with you after having worked 8 to 12 hours at a very physically demanding job. The shows over and I am going home, alone.”
    Additionally I have supported myself for a number of years dancing in clubs and have only recently retired to concentrate more of my time and energy on completing my AA degree in Information Technology, which I am 2 credits short of earning.

    4. Last but not least, this class’ prescence at “your” college is neither a reflection upon you, the student body, or a challenge to either your morals or your belief system. In a country with the highest rate of obesity in the world, getting people to exercise and keeping them interested in any way they can is the objective of most fitness instructors no matter what discipline they teach. Pole fitness is ideal for college students with limited space because it requires one realatively inexpensive apparatus in a small space (in fact most home poles are removable) that will appeal to young people.

    In closing I will leave you with this piece of information and a question:
    “One of the best pole dancers I have ever seen is male, he is neither effete, nor naked when he is performing and he is amazing.” You can find him and several other male pole performers on youtube by simply searching the term “male pole dancer.” He is neither degrading your debasing women, in fact he is validating the beauty and the power of the activity in which they both spend countless hours perfecting and practicing their hobby.
    My final question is, were you aware that the Olympic Committee is considering including vertical dance fitness as a gymnastics event in the 2012 Olympics to be held in London, England? Is that demeaning or debasing women, or objectifying them, in order to be an Olympic sport there must be both men and women competing.

    Now you can consider yourself informed and thus better able to support or abandon your opposing argument to this beautiful sport.

  32. sorry I forgot, also take a look at the video “african pole dancer.” This performer is also male, also amazing, and he is crippled and apparently he uses to pole to support himself also as one of his legs is damaged and atrophied.

  33. Sharon, thanks for the interesting references. Two further points:

    1. I wish you had had the time to read our discussion more carefully. You would have seen that a range of views have been presented, some of them from academics who do participate in pole fitness.

    2. It would be amazing if human beings had not used poles in various ceremonies and rituals before now. To show that pole fitness originated in some earlier form you need to do more than show it has some similarity with the earlier form. There’s a difference that is often called the difference between analogy and homology. Pole fitness may, for example, have some analogies with Morris dancing, but that does not make it homologous to Morris dancing, or descended from it.

    It’s a really interesting and sometimes exciting question whether a case of similarity is one of mere analogy or actual homology. One way to do that is to show that the later case is a complicated phenomenon composed of certain elements and such that (i) it couldn’t have just started off in the presented complicated form, while (ii) many of the elements do occur in earlier cases with a similar form. A second way is to track some path of transmission.

  34. I’ve seen jazz/hip-hop routines done by young girls at recitals put on by mainstream dance studios that were more sexed-up than actual pole-dancing. All forms of dance can be made legitimately athletic, or borderline obscene — it all depends on the creative decisions made, and the way the surrounding culture interprets it. With it showing up in mainstream gyms, I think pole-dancing has been sufficiently reclaimed from its raunch roots.

    So I feel that the classes are fine. Instituting a soft ban on pole-dancing comes begs the question why all dance is not banned… you know, just in case. In reality, some people/groups will be tasteless about all forms of dance, and others won’t.

    I think arguments could be made about high-heels and the traditional lead-and-follow in ballroom dance being just as anti-feminist as pole-dancing.

  35. […] Some feminists say pole dancing is wrong and that women shouldn’t do it for fun, exercise or profit; that the current fad for pole dancing classes, of all things, is symptomatic of a culture gone entirely to raunch, since pole dancing has traditionally been the province of strippers. […]

  36. I dunno you guys… I think every woman has the right to make the decision for herself whether we should use pole dancing as fitness… I mean we are grown-ups with functioning brains, and if, as an individual, a woman is comfortable with it, interested in it, or thinks it will be fun or a good way to stay in shape, who are we to tell pole-dancing classes they are right or wrong for teaching it? I say lighten up and let everyone make decisions for themselves. Personally I doubt I’d take a class but I don’t condemn anyone who wants to, or teaches it. Heck I’ve seen a few exotic dancers and those chicks are FIT!! If that’s how they got fit, more power to them.

  37. I think there is no point in fighting the “pole” exercise controversy. People are going to do what they want, where they want. Personally, i enjoy feeling as sexy as a stripper and getting fit at the same time.

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