Governing pole dance: why is it so difficult? 

Following recent safety concerns at competitions, mentions of a governing body for the pole dance industry have been floating around again. My name has been made a few times as someone who may be interested in taking part in it, and while I am running out of spoons, I wanted to write about things to consider when it comes to governing pole dance, why it’s so hard and why it should matter beyond each isolated case or drama.

Governing the ungovernable

As someone with zero political ambitions – ain’t nobody got time, and I am a citizen of two countries where politics are frankly disheartening, Italy and the United Kingdom – I sure find myself caught in the governance space a lot. I’m a platform governance scholar, meaning I research on “the implications and impact of platform features, functions and rules […] and the international regulatory dynamics that currently delineate the freedoms, responsibilities and liabilities of platform companies” (Katrin Tiidenberg, 2021:1), in a discipline that blends criminology, sociology, law, media studies, labour studies, marketing, computer science, Human-Computer Interaction and the arts.

I specialise in social media governance – a space that, arguably, has become ungovernable. As someone who believes the internet should have tits in it while also hiding tits from those who may not wish to see them (sucks to be them though!) I guess you could say I bring a certain ungovernability, or a certain controlled chaos, to my research field.

It just happens to be handy that my pole dance sensei Josh Taylor has also defined my pole dance style as controlled chaos. And so here we are: it strikes me that pole dance too, like platforms, has become ungovernable. It’s even more striking that pole dance and social media platforms – two apparent nemeses who try to outsmart each other, two very strange bedfellows caught in a dance where each player both helps and stunts the development of the other – actually have a whole lot in common. 

Hear me out – I’m not saying this just because I give a regular lecture on what pole dancers can teach society about social media governance. I’m not *that* obsessed, but I am nerdy enough to spot historical and practical similarities between platforms and pole. 

When it comes to the ungovernability of social media platforms, many – like Ben Tarnoff or Evgeny Mozorov – argue that it’s due to the United States government’s laissez-faire approach to telecomms regulation, leading the market to regulate itself. This has resulted in fast, exponential growth of the industry, its customer base and the amounts of content being posted everyday, meaning that nuance becomes impossible, and that regulating in any way is bound to make at least one group of people angry.

Pole dance is similar. An art and a sport originating from the sex industry and popularised by strippers, pole dance is many things: an extreme sport; an art; an ever-growing, multi-layered Big Business; a stigmatised form of entertainment; something that changes and develops so fast, with so many key players, that it’s become ungovernable. 

Governance structures

Given their wider impact on society, you’d expect platforms would have specific regulatory bodies with enough teeth to tell them what to do. It’s not necessarily that simple.

While laws governing telecomms and the digital are popping up worldwide – the infamous FOSTA/SESTA, the car crash Online Safety Act and the Digital Services Act being some of the most well-known outside regulatory circles – the regulation of platforms is still proving to be challenging.

Why? Because social media are more than one thing at once. They are a space for self-expression, for education, for activism, for breaking news. But they are also private companies, data banks, marketplaces, political spaces, advertisements, businesses – and potential sites for harm. On top of this, as global companies and spaces they transcend and challenge jurisdiction inadvertently bringing together countries with different laws, values and beliefs – you can read my research about it here

Because of this and of their initial de-regulation, no single regulator has been set up to govern platforms. The unfair monopoly controlled by Meta, which owns Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Threads, means that the Oversight Board, an independent tribunal funded by a trust set up by Meta, governs a large chunk of the social networks we use, dealing with appeals, overturning decisions and recommending best practices. But how about the other platforms? 

In general, platforms must abide by laws and may be overseen by independent regulators, like the United Kingdom’s media regulator Ofcom. But there isn’t a single, superpartes platform governing body. 

Believe it or not, pole dance is the same. Yes, there are stripping unions popping up in the US, UK, Italy and elsewhere holding club owners to account and campaigning for rights. Yes, there’s the International Pole Industry Association (IPIA) acting like a trade body and finding out information about pole dance as a business – read my interview with them here. But we don’t yet have an all-encompassing governing body, and not for want of trying. 

Back when many of us consciously decided to stop using the word “exotic” on the back of POC polers highlighting its racist history, I wrote a post about pole industry reform. Back then I said: if we all collectively decide something is an issue, how do we collectively enforce change? 

The issue still stands. In countries like Italy, where whorephobia in and outside the pole industry is rife, “exotic” is still in use. Recently, change-makers in the Italian pole industry like Daniel Langdon have been called “vulgar” and too filthy by OG Italian polers, who engaged in fatphobia and whorephobia to criticise a series of pole dancers whose styles they didn’t like while trying to distance themselves from strippers. The appropriation of twerk and other performance styles without credit remain an issue everywhere, just like the stealing of polers’ and strippers’ choreos. Poles keep falling off on people at competitions, and performers are still paid a pittance while being asked to bring their own equipment all over the world. Yet, beyond social media call-outs, we haven’t really found a way to actually make sure things change apart from keeping the score. 

I was once part of a Zoom call with other industry leaders and my friend Beanie The Jet. The aim was to come up with a code of ethics, but the call itself ended up taking up our time for free, while Beans was spoken over multiple times by another pole celeb and ended up leaving. It all went nowhere, and if the discussions post-falling pole gate are anything to go by, the attempts at a governing body for pole were many and fruitless. 

So what should we be considering when governing pole dance? 

Governing disparate fields 

Just like platforms, pole dancing contains multitudes – multitudes that need governing. On the safety side, there is a disconnect among event organisers, venue owners and pole dancers / rigging experts, meaning that everyone acts surprised when poles need to be weighted or fixed a certain way. This means performers have to worry about their own safety, something that barely happens in any other field and that makes travelling with or testing the equipment more onerous. 

On the teaching side, there are disagreement about the validity, necessity and pricing of instructor training qualifications. Some prefer not having them altogether, and find them a gentrification of the art that was stripping, while others judge them to be a mere piece of paper to show for insurance purposes – and others still find them crucial. Differences in qualifications and perceptions of safety in teaching also vary from country to country. 

On the workers’ side, teaching and performing rates vary greatly according to country, clout or experience – and we’re left to our own devices, or word of mouth, to work out base rates even though Blackstage and the IPIA are trying to figure out what we should charge by interviewing polers everywhere. 

Competitions are also an unregulated minefield, with very few judges being briefed to judge something we all hold so close to our heart. Definitions and understandings of pole dance styles vary greatly everywhere and are in constant flow, but these also greatly affect marking schemes. As if this wasn’t enough, safety standards keep falling short for both new and established organisers (who should be equally held accountable for something that isn’t a minor oversight, but a major safety issue). 

And don’t get me started on social justice. Representation of various ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, sexualities, abilities, sizes and professions is still a long way off from being perfect in our industry. Ideas of what’s acceptable – e.g. no blackface on stage, no whorephobia, etc. – seem set in stone, but are clearly not as soon as the next scandal breaks out. 

An ethics of care is badly needed, but sadly I don’t have an answer about where to start apart from the fact that there really needs to be a union that pole dancers, businesses, brands, performers, sex workers, event organisers etc. can turn to for back-up when a problem arises. 

However, a union won’t have as much power as a governing body. Something that the IPIA’s Colleen Jolly mentioned during our interview stuck with me: pole is about excitement and love for our craft, but it’s also about business. Yet, many of us get into it with no business expertise, so the excitement takes over and this is where best practices fall through the cracks, and people start taking advantage. 

The same can be said about governing. We are all so excited about what we do that we don’t plan for worst case scenarios. But a truly effective governing body needs to be able to administer punishment, fines and request for public apologies, accountability and monitoring of this accountability – and no one wants to be the bad cop about something they love. 

So who’s governing?

The truth is, I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be an industry leader. In fact, as I’ve mentioned recently, letting go of several aspects of my pole life has been crucial to my and my passion’s survival. 

Leaders have to make on-the-spot decisions about issues that will affect people. As a nerd and as an academic, I like to take my time instead of coming up with hot takes or quick fire solutions. So if anything, I see myself as an industry thinker. I’d be open to advising or consulting a leader, but I don’t have the time, energy, expertise or brain power to lead anyone apart from myself right now. 

It strikes me however that, just like for social media platforms, the more we put off governing pole dance, the more ungovernable it will be come – and the reins will be held (as they already are) by a small selection of monopolies, which are not diverse or inclusive and often do not have everyone’s best interests at heart. So even if this post isn’t a solution, or a way to say “I volunteer as a governor,” I hope it does help industry leaders who do want to lead towards change consider what’s at stake. 

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