What To Say If People Judge You For Pole Dancing

As a blogger, very ‘out’ pole performer and instructor, I’m getting an increasing number of messages along the lines of: “Help! My parents / friends / co-workers are judging me because I’m pole dancing!” With Jennifer Lopez and Shakira delivering a killer performance at the Super Bowl and being deemed “inappropriate” by certain people on the internet, and with our loved ones often frowning upon what we do on the pole, I thought it was worth addressing these judgements and sharing some talking points to approach pole dancing with friends, family or colleagues. Hope they help.

Pole Dancing History 1-0-1

Pole dancing originates from Vaudeville and circus shows, subsequently brought to the “underworld” of speakeasies, burlesque shows and striptease bars during prohibition. So, in short, it comes from stripping.

In the past twenty years, the OG strippers began opening pole dance studios and the ‘sporty’ version of pole, which sees people going to a class to work out using what was originally a tool only seen in strip clubs, has become mainstream. Studio owners and pole dance instructors now come from all sorts of backgrounds and training, and pole is evolving and developing really fast.

Trap music, celebrities like Cardi B and Amber Rose flaunting their stripper pasts, a variety of singers appropriating the stripper narrative and movies like Showgirls, or, more recently, Hustlers, contributed to the glamorous side of stripping being translated into pole. However, while celebrities’ involvement with or portrayal of stripping might have helped reduce stigma against strippers, it clearly hasn’t: celebs are praised for their ‘pole bodies’, for ‘making it out of the industry’ and for their ‘skill’, but real life strippers working in the club where Hustlers was shot were not compensated while the club was closed. Plus, while real life strippers are increasingly deleted from social media for ‘sexually suggestive content’, movies like Hustlers, pictures of Cardi B or other celebrities who flaunt the stripping aesthetic of JLo’s performances are going viral on the gram, whitelisted by social media teams, as activist Rebecca Crow told EveryBODYVisible.

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Pole dancing has gone mainstream. It’s in everybody’s faces. But it doesn’t mean we know how to talk about it. Unfortunately, many pole dancers still try to distance themselves from strippers, with hashtags like #notastripper making the rounds on social media. We can all recognise that pole comes from stripping and keep enjoying the sport without engaging in this type of bullshit. While your grandma might breathe a sigh of relief by learning you’re not a stripper, the fact that you’re making clear that you’re not one while judging and offending the creators of the sport you practice doesn’t make you a better person. It is our duty as people who enjoy something created by a marginalised community to not contribute to that marginalisation, to educate ourselves and others about our sport.

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Judging Pole Dancing = Judging Sex Work

So now that we’ve got the pole dancing history clear, let’s get down to business. Why are people so uncomfortable with pole dancing and not, say, with tango?

Well, I haven’t been able to do an actual research study on this, but judging by the comments JLo and Shakira’s performance got (more on that later, also take a deep breath before reading the article I’ve just linked because I’ve had to be zen as fuck not to scream) it all comes down to this: people are uncomfortable with pole because of its stripping origins and, therefore, they are uncomfortable with sex work.

Well, duh, you might say. OF COURSE I’M UNCOMFORTABLE WITH SEX WORK! SEX WORK IS BAD! Right? Well, not so much.

Sex work has always been part of our world and our society, from history to the bible. Sex workers have been depicted as (more often than not) women at a last resort, poor, abused, trafficked, either temptresses or victims. Sex workers, for our society, are never in charge, as one of the sex workers in the sorry, shameful affair that was Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary on sex work argues here. The documentary is a perfect example of how Theroux’s own judgement and beliefs completely eclipsed what the sex workers were trying to say.

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So the documentary is almost upon us. If you haven’t read our open letter to the BBC that we wrote after watching the first edit then pls do that before watching. (It’s in the Babeworld archive on our website or on twitter) It’s important for us that people viewing have the full story and keep our voices our own. This picture perfectly sums up the BBCs complete lack of respect for our time. I (Georgina) took time of work to be present for the photos as we were told I would be in them. Throughout the process we were double and triple checking with the director what my position was in the documentary because we were concerned that I wasn’t being listened to or heard and then unsurprisingly I was erased and my time, unaccounted for. Ashleighs time seemed to stand still for them as they wanting to keep filming when she was telling them she would be late for a client. Our schedules seemed unimportant to them as they would make Ashleigh feel bad for not being available for filming when it suited them. Our time and energy was seemingly bottomless where the BBC was concerned and now all we have is a documentary we are critical of and this photo of Ashleigh BLURRED laying on my bed with Louis and somewhere there is a folder with loads of photos of Louis with Ashleigh, Louis with me and Louis with the both of us.

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While trafficking is an issue, and sex work can be exploitative, this narrative erases the many women who have chosen sex work as a career, turning themselves into entrepreneurs who sell one of their assets: their body. This article from the Vegas Porn Expo by Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a case in point.

If you are uncomfortable with people selling their bodies, think about who buys from them and profits from them: more often than not, men. Yet, men aren’t often the ones we judge. So if you’re uncomfortable with sex work, you are uncomfortable with women taking charge of their bodies and reversing something that has been happening for centuries: objectification. You’re essentially saying that it’s fine to objectify women, as long as they don’t enjoy it / profit from it / take charge of it.

Now, I’m not saying: drop your office job and become a stripper. That might not work for you, for whatever reason. What I’m saying is that sex work is work, responding to a demand in society and profiting from it. That people that engage with it consensually should not be judged or pitied, and that art, sport, entertainment, fashion that are inspired by sex work should not have a negative connotation (aside from when they appropriate the good bits of sex work while keeping a distance from SWers) because they are inspired by a fucking job. As we say in Italian, stealing is shameful. Earning your money shouldn’t be.

Pole Dancing As A Sport

Now, let’s move on to more ‘everyday’ pole dancing, the one you do at your studio.

If your loved ones are worried about where you pole dance, bring them to your studio or to a showcase. Show them it’s a safe space where people grow and support each other. When I took my parents to see my first showcase at Sydney Pole, my mum fell in love with how cute the studio was and bonded with another parent who told her: “As a mum, you’ve got to be brave. There’s a lot of crotches.” My dad fell asleep because he was jet lagged. And that says it all.

Injury might be another worry, especially for loved ones. Tell them that the fact that you pay – a lot, I should add – for pole means the studios should be safe, insured and owned by professionals who will do their best to teach you and prevent any injuries. Pole instructors will be professionally trained or have certifications, so they don’t just make it up as they go along.

There’s a huge debate in the pole community about whether pole dancing is a sport. For me, if you pay for it, push yourself to always learn something new and break a sweat, it is a sport. But it’s a sport whose origins need to be respected, and it can go from sport – the ‘pole fitness’ classes you take every week – to performance – your studio’s showcase, a competition, a cabaret.

If anyone around you wants you to stop, tell them how good for you it is, physically and mentally. Feel free to share your own experiences or mine from this blog. And remind them that other dance styles – tango, bachata, salsa, hip hop, dancehall – can have a ‘sexy’ element about them, but that people don’t rant about them as much.

Plus, pole, like every other dance style, can be done in different ways, with or without heels – and those are all beautiful. Again, I recommend taking your parents to a studio showcase to show them how positive an environment it can be.

JLo and Shakira at the Super Bowl 2020

And now we come to JLo and Shakira. I don’t have to say anything about their performance because you can just watch it and drool.

The skill, the confidence, the sheer happiness that they delivered gets me even hotter than when I’m fucking angry at all the Karens out there writing: “mY cHiLd ShOuLd NoT sEe A sTrIpPeR oN tV!” on Twitter while competing in the very athletic sport of judging other people from the height of your couch. So why were audiences so uncomfortable with JLo and Shakira shaking their fairly clothed asses during the Half Time show but not with Adam Levine’s way less impressive shirtless performance from a year ago?

Rightly, strippers discussed visibility: celebrities are allowed their minute on the pole and they’re praised for it, while strippers are erased from social media. And this is a legitimate complaint to have, and one that I agree with. But the loudest complaint came from people who thought Shakira and JLo’s performance was “inappropriate”. Why?

Because the world is still afraid of women who are in charge of their bodies. And what’s sadder is seeing these comments come from women – almost as if they couldn’t be like Shakira and JLo, so they had to resort to judging them.

Every time I see this behaviour, and every time I hear judgement about pole, performances, or other women’s bodies and use of their sexuality I feel like the world is still uncomfortable with the fact we have sex, and that we can have it without being a passive recipient of it. I mean, it’s not like we’ve been making babies since the dawn of the world. Right?

It’s about time that women took charge of our sexuality, sex life and happiness. And it’s about time that we stopped judging women because of sex. The simple concept that a woman who displays her sexuality proudly is tainted is bollocks: so we have sex with a man and puff, we suck! What does that tell you about men then?

This splitting of women into the Madonna or whore categories is damaging for our identity and it’s just internalised sexism from all the crap we’ve had to go through. The fact that you have less sex than another woman, or that you have ‘morals’ doesn’t make you a better person. It’s time we stop it, and it’s time that when we see another woman of whatever age, whatever background use her body as she pleases we say: “Good on her!”, clap and shut up.

The fact that, in 2020, a woman can’t be both proudly sensual and competent or skilled is frankly quite puzzling and enraging.

Why Some People Have A Problem With Pole Dancing

For some loved ones, it can be hard to accept that you might be doing something ‘sexually charged’ (they clearly have never seen me sweat my tits off while trying to learn an iguana). For some employers, it might be an example of ‘ill repute’, or lack of respectability.

The world has a history of policing women and minorities in all sorts of ways, either by imposing a standard of nudity or a standard of modesty to them. For some, bodies shouldn’t take up space. They shouldn’t be seen except for in certain circumstances.

I am Italian. My country is, mostly, conservative when it comes to ‘morals’: the emphasis on family, the role of the Catholic church and concepts such as “la bella figura” (appearing morally sound in front of others to keep up your and your family’s good reputation) have had a huge impact on my country’s culture and on my upbringing.

Talking about pole in an informed way brings about debates about sex work. Pole’s association with sex work – and sex work’s association with danger, ‘poor’ morals or with needing to ‘sell yourself’ because poverty and necessity – have made pole quite problematic to discuss with more conservative people. My Christmas dinner with my parents ended up being just that: me talking about the fact that my favourite style of pole dancing is stripper style, and my parents finding problems with it because sex work is not their idea of morality.

So how do you move on from this? How do you talk about pole in a way that is respectful of sex workers who have invented the sport, but that is informative to well-meaning but worried muggles?

How To Talk About Pole Dancing To Muggles

I would like to start by saying that even though you have to thank your parents for your body, and even though a partner might enjoy looking at, cuddling and touching that body, your body is, nonetheless, yours. Therefore, it’s your choice what you do with it.

Secondly, if people have a problem with you going to a pole studio, or working out on a pole in your house, I would suggest talking about how pole dancing has been good for you – whether that’s for your mental health, for your physical wellbeing, or for both. Again, you are very welcome to share any articles I’ve ever written about this, and my story too: I, like many polers, suffer from depression and anxiety and pole has been a godsend to keep them at bay. I used to hate my body after an abusive relationship, but realising what it can do, how strong it can be through pole has helped me learn to love myself.

If people bring up the association with stripping and sex work, please avoid any #notastripper scenario. I’m really annoyed because I can’t find the original article where I read this, but a stripper I followed wrote a few comebacks to the “Are you a stripper?” question and some of these are here:

  • “No, but they’re great!”
  • “No, but I love their style!”
  • “No, but those girls have skills! It’s a tough job!”

You could also say: “Fuck off, it’s none of your business,” because, really. It isn’t.

This might throw you into a debate about sex work. In my case, you might often have to agree to disagree with some people: not everyone might believe that sex work is work like I do.

If it’s nudity and sensuality that your loved ones are worried about, remind them that first of all, you need your skin to stick to the pole, and that it’s extremely important it is for all bodies to be seen and perceived as something normal. The more we make nudity taboo, the more our society will be about shame rather than acceptance. A body is just a body, and we all have it. And as RuPaul says…

Image result for we're all born naked and the rest is drag gif

Sensuality wise, once again, there are clear benefits to educating your children about sex as a normal, natural and healthy thing rather than as something to be ashamed of. Seeing something ‘sensual’ like a pole performance can start a conversation. And I’m all for talking rather than shutting things down.

Finally, you may also ask your friends / family / colleagues what makes them so uncomfortable about you pole dancing – chances are that if they respond, they might get caught up in some sexist bullshit, which is easy to debate and debunk.

You could also ask: would you question a man’s behaviour for engaging in any sport / performance related activity? Chances are they wouldn’t. Which, again, proves my point.

My Parents and Pole Dancing

Many people ask me: “OMG what do your parents think of you pole dancing?” and well… it was my mum who first suggested I did it. I used to do artistic gymnastics as a child and really enjoyed doing dangerous stuff upside down. So when I found myself quite lonely and depressed while doing a MA in Australia, my mum’s suggestion came back to me and I decided to try. The rest, as they say, is HERstory.

The main issue at play here is that my parents like and value pole… as a sport. When I teach classes or dance without heels, or work out, they’re fine. What they struggle to come to terms with is me dancing in a thong at performances or competitions while wearing nipple tassels or crosses on my tits. Go figure.

Very recently, after my fairly NSFW pictures from Exotic Generation 2.0 came out, my mum said she was uncomfortable with them because they were ‘trashy’ and ‘too explicit’. That really hurt me, because she’d seen the video and liked it, and also because pole is my job, it changed my life, and the ability to express myself sexually was a huge part in my recovery from abuse. There were times in which I did not date or have sex, but did pole because it made me feel good. Having been told it was ‘trashy’ by my mum – my best friend – was painful.

So this how I dealt with it. My mum and I speak every day, multiple times a day, so I asked her to give me space for a while to process what I was feeling without shouting (which I tend to do a lot). I took a few days to process my feelings in a way that was helpful and that turned into actual words. Then I called her and explained. And then she apologised.

I know she will probably always be uncomfortable with certain things that I do, and because of the nature of our relationship I won’t hide them from her. But I think she also knows now that there’s only so much she can do about it, because I’m 27, and I’m my own person, and we like different things.

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Dad appreciation post. One of the most frequent questions I get are: OMG DOES YOUR DAD KNOW YOU’RE A POLE DANCER? AND WHAT DOES HE THINK? Yes, he knows 🙄. He came to my twerk showcase in Sydney where his baby girl twerked the shit out of Satisfaction by Benny Benassi – and then he fell asleep throughout the rest of the show cause he was jet lagged. He is trying to install a pole in our garden so I can train in Sardinia more frequently during the summer. He even went on the hunt for G-Strings for my performances while at work in the US because I couldn’t find them in Italy/the UK (not without complaining, but he loved it when the shop assistant told him he’s a cool dad). Most of you will think this is weird and maybe it is, but despite all the shit I’ve had to deal with in my life there has been one constant pillar of support I’ve received and that is my family. I have given him a few heart attacks – e.g. when I crashed into a wall while driving a Honda as a teen or when I made terrible relationship choices – but my dad is probably one of the few men who understand that I can be a messy bitch with loads of skills and interests and enjoy pole and twerk. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t make fun of me and my general nakedness, or that he’s not always keeping me in check to prevent me from ruining my chance at a career, or that he doesn’t feel weird about my routines, but he understands that there’s nothing wrong with being a pole dancer. I am not robbing banks. I work hard like he taught me, whether that’s for jobs, academia, pole, life. He has always been a feminist, cooking, cleaning and dressing me (badly) when my mum was away for work. He sees how hard pole is and how good it is for me, and he wants me to keep doing it because I love it. If a slightly old-fashioned Southern Italian man can do it, y’all can shut up. 🎤 drop.

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There’s No Fixed Solution – Just Keep Talking

I can’t tell you how to deal with your family, friends or co-workers because every relationship is different. I myself do keep a work social media profile and a pole social media profile, mainly because academia is full of old white men who already might not want to give me jobs so I don’t need to give them another excuse to amp up their sexism.

If you thought this was going to be the one-stop shop for one-liners to use when you talk about pole and your right to do so, tough luck: unfortunately, we all have different relationships with our bodies, with morality, with our loved ones. You can’t fix people’s worries with one chat or one blog post.

In my experience, problems arise more than once and you have to cross the bridges when you get to them. If a new comp photoshoot appears with me not wearing much, suddenly my parents will worry. So I will have to start again explaining why I do what I do, what it means to me, what I was trying to do with that performance etc.

This is why it is essential to keep your talk about pole ongoing with people who really deserve a space in your life, keeping an open mind, seeing people’s side of the argument and explaining the importance of what you’re doing so that they get it too. It’s up to you to ask yourself whether you have the energy to keep talking. I personally must keep doing it: I love my parents too much to keep things away from them, but I love the stripper style of pole too much to stop dancing like that.

Would love to hear your stories and feedback on this post! You can pin it here.

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Picture: The Black Light Sydney

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