Fetish and Fiction

What does being a pole dancer online in the age of oversharing mean for your perception of self? For this post, I’ve decided to dig deep and share things that have hurt me and made me think about the ‘attention economy’. So get ready for a short essay about living as a woman online (and, later, a pole dancer) under the fetish and fictionalisation of the male gaze.

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Online Fiction

The idea for this blog post was born earlier in the summer, where I got quite mad at someone I have now met for telling me that, because we’d first interacted on Twitter, his idea of me was somehow “fictional”.

At that time, I was dying for someone I had fallen for to write to me more often. I was dying to keep a connection with him, but got bombarded by intrusive messages by other men trying to force unwanted dialogue. Somehow, that reference to “fiction” really angered me, and made me reflect on how often women – particularly women whose online presence includes some sort of nudity, or some sort of experience-sharing – are fetishised, fictionalised and almost denied their personhood online as much as IRL. Because if someone is fictional, you don’t have that much of a moral responsibility towards them.

Full disclosure: I had misunderstood that person. We are now OK. But the idea of fiction and fetish still bothers me, hence this post.

IRL Fetish

There was a time where I wasn’t as self-aware as I am now. When I moved to the UK, I think I had some sort of identity crisis. I was starting to date and trying to make sense of who I was in a massive city like London, while also attempting to build a career and have fun. I was slowly moving away from the person I thought I was as a teen – a quirky metal-head with a passion for creepy stuff – but I didn’t want to lose that aspect of myself because… well, I had no fixed career yet, no apparent defining trait. Who was I if I wasn’t that?

Dating for me became a sort of performance, a constant portrayal of that person I thought I was against people who saw me as a commodity. Yet, despite all the efforts I put into asserting my character – what I thought I stood for, what I wanted – men didn’t seem to be interested.

I remember countless dates with the older men I’d decided were going to be more mature, more prepared to be in an exclusive relationship with me than students, where I talked about stuff passionately but was given ‘the look’ – you know, when you’re virtually undressed at the dinner table. Not because I was particularly good-looking, but because of the commodification of bodies in a city where nobody wants to settle down, and where human connections are about fast sex, ghosting and “not being ready”.

At the time, I felt very much like an object. I didn’t feel in control of who I was and I didn’t understand why. I kept wondering: why is it that I try to introduce myself to these people, to really share my passions and interests, but the result is always virtual undressing in a restaurant, a prelude to more meaningless sex?

Only later, when I got older, I realised this wasn’t about me specifically. I was a nineteen-year-old seeing men in their mid-thirties when I wasn’t a formed thing. For them, I was probably a young, foreign sensation to sleep with every once in a while, but nothing more. I was a fetish, a story they could tell themselves and their mates, not someone whose feelings they needed to consider. And I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Fetish After Pole Dancing

Mindfuck alert: being a pole dancer helped me realise how the male gaze perceived me back in those days, when I was half-formed and had no idea of where I was going but I was still very much someone’s fetish. I’ll try to explain it in the following paragraph. But bear with me, it is quite the mindfuck.

Picture: Pratik Gupta (@graylab) via Unsplash

It may seem like a paradox, but when I started practicing a sport that many people see as sexualised (and it can be, it comes from stripping and sexy pole is my fave style), I became more aware of the way people perceived me and I started feeling less like an object. In deciding when, where and how I was going to over-sexualise myself, I suddenly felt like I became more aware of others’ sexualisation of me, preventing them from sexualising me in their own way when I felt they had no reason to.

It’s this self-awareness for me that makes pole so empowering. It’s realising that a lot of life has an element of sexualisation in it, but that at least I can somehow control it, by choosing when and where I can be sexualised and refusing to engage in that way in other scenarios. Told you it was a mindfuck.

The Public Eye Online

Since I’ve rebranded this blog as Blogger On Pole, taking up a variety of performing, teaching and writing commitments, my following has been growing – something I’m grateful for, because we all love writing for ourselves, but having people who read your stuff is also part of the fun. With the following however – even a small one – has come a certain idea of being somehow in the public eye. Something I, a BA Journalism grad and an academic focusing on social media and media perceptions of things, feel very ambivalent about.

Recently in the UK, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have expressed their pain at constantly being in their public eye and described through narratives they don’t own, with their lives always under scrutiny. While obviously on a smaller scale, I feel like being a woman with an Instagram profile set on public can result in similar issues.

I have chosen to have a public Instagram profile. It was a business decision. Having a public profile means that I can use my platform to promote my writing (blogging, books, articles); my events (workshops and classes); and my views, anything that I might be campaigning for or selling. For me, it’s an online business card, allowing me to grow my audience and make connections through organic interaction, hashtags, you name it. As a blogger, independent writer, activist and pole dance performer it makes sense for my profile to be set on public.

However, having a public profile also means that I will be ‘up for grabs’. Just like celebrities or Meghan and Harry had to trade their fame and platforms for public scrutiny, people like me, who have a smallish Instagram following, have to trade their growing social media presence with a mistaken perception of constant availability.

Seeking Attention?

Online life and pole dancing have a lot in common. Being online, being a pole dancer, or being a pole dancer with an online presence somehow always attract the: “Oh, he/she/they must be such an attention seeker.”

Well, who doesn’t want attention, in some way or another? You might not like to be at the centre of attention while you’re walking down the street, but you might want your job, your art, something you care about to be at the centre of attention. Because sometimes, attention – getting noticed for what you do – is pleasant, productive, lucrative.

If I didn’t have a public platform, I wouldn’t have been able to find jobs as an academic, as a twerk / lap dance teacher, or gigs as a blogger. So, technically, I need the attention. Yet, the stereotypes that women online need to deal with are sometimes exhausting.

Instagram VS Reality

This perceived availability has multiple facets that I am not entirely comfortable with. This is how certain behaviours make me feel.

I’m Not Always DTFSo Please Don’t Assume Things

Some people feel that because I show myself and my body, I therefore must be available to flirt / meet up / send nudes. I’ve recently had to tell someone fairly nice on Instagram that even thought I was “out there”, IG was work for me, and I didn’t really enjoy entertaining him and wasn’t going to meet up with him ever.

In a recent post, I wrote about how the pole community has taught me a new idea of consent; how being constantly exposed to naked bodies doesn’t prevent us from asking the other person if they are ok with being touched. This should apply to communications too: if I clearly state that I don’t want to chat, and if I don’t show any sign of wanting to chat, please don’t just assume that, because I am there, I am down to chat, down to fuck, down to dance the macarena with you or whatever.

Think About Who’s Reading Your Stories

Others feel that because I share my story – whether that’s my experience of abuse, my mental health, my relationship with my body – I am available to listen to everybody else’s stories and experiences of trauma. While I would like to think that by sharing my experiences people can learn they are not alone, unfortunately having to read strangers’ stories, sometimes without warning, is re-traumatising for me: it all becomes triggering, and upsetting, so please be kind and consider this while sharing this type of stuff.

Instagram IS (A Form Of) Reality

I cannot stress this enough: for many people, social media are work tools / ways to share their journeys / to express themselves. Yet, as I argue in my PhD, it’s unrealistic to see these platforms as completely unattached to reality so… just like you wouldn’t continue talking AT someone in the street even if they didn’t respond or show engagement, don’t do it online.

We Are All People

The fact that pole dancing has made me more self-aware about sexualisation doesn’t make it less hurtful or annoying. Hopefully, this post is a reminder that there are people behind your fetish, and that those people are not there to please you or to entertain you. They might be going about their daily lives and jobs. So be kind.

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