A Response to Teachers Condemn ‘raunch culture’ for Fueling Sexism


A colleague of mine sent me this article from The Independent titled “Teachers condemn ‘raunch culture’ for fuelling (sic) sexism under the guise of irony and empowerment” by Alison Kershaw. I’m used this kind of criticism and I’d be lying if I said that some of the arguments didn’t resonate on some level. I’m neither an academic nor a researcher on gender issues, but as a pole dancer I would like to respond.

Women’s liberation has been turned back 40 years by a new “raunch culture” that has led to “beauty pageants” being staged by student unions and pole-dancing exercise classes, teachers are expected to claim today.

A resolution due to be debated at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) annual conference raises fresh concerns that sexism and inequality is still shaping women’s lives.

It says: “Far from being ‘ironic’ or ’empowering’, the rise of the new sexism is damaging.”

Pole dancing comes in many forms, some more overtly sexual than others. Personally, I have no problem with sexual dancing. Of course it is damaging to be viewed only as a sex object and to be coerced into the sex trade because of economic realities.

However, I object to the implication that pole dancing is to blame. It may have been an early iteration of the dance form, but while it has evolved, public perception has not. This is a myopic and misleading stereotype of an art form and the people who practice it.

First of all, there is the belief that all pole dancers look like this.

I see nothing wrong with this picture. This woman is clearly an athlete. Her clothing, though adorned, is as full coverage as Olympic volleyball garb, and if the photograph was rotated 90 degrees this might appear to be photograph of a gymnastic maneuver.

I would argue that ads featuring anorexic, teenage girls photoshopped and made up to present an unattainable version of beauty are far more damaging than a fitness class where women get together, laugh and bond while challenging themselves to become stronger and more aware of their bodies.

In my limited experience with studios and instructors, I found they shattered my stereotypes of pole dancing and pole dancers.

Not all pole dancers look like the media’s portrayals. For instance, this is Lulu, and I think she is amazing and brave, talented and strong. I think she is beautiful. Does looking at her make you uncomfortable and want to laugh? Why? Is it because you insist that pole dancers must be thin and conform to our culture’s ideals of sexual attractiveness?

And by the way, this cross-ankle release is a terrifying move to learn. Bravo Lulu!

This may come as a surprise, but pole dancing is not a privilege reserved for only the most perfect of specimens. If it were, there wouldn’t be a place in it for me. Of course, one wouldn’t know this unless one visited a studio and talked to actual dancers. Perhaps relying upon the opinion of commercial media isn’t the most thorough way to inform oneself.

This is Matty Shields, one of seven men who were the first male competitors in the annual World Pole Dance finals and has fought to overcome stereotypes. Do you wonder if he’s gay? Does it matter?

“Teachers are in a good position to empower girls and gay women to be self-confident and to reject stereotypes.”

I would love to see the stereotypes rejected. For instance, the stereotype that pole dancers all look a certain way. This is what many of my students look like. They look great but they don’t look like strippers.

Stephanie Mancuso (c.), owner and instructor at Exotic Curves Pole Fitness Studio in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with students Tracy Caruso (r.), and Reeva G. (l.)   Original Filename: _JAM3895.jpg

Stephanie Mancuso (c.), owner and instructor at Exotic Curves Pole Fitness Studio in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with students Tracy Caruso (r.), and Reeva G. (l.) Original Filename: _JAM3895.jpg

This is me. I’m 41 and have two boys who I would strangle with my own hands if I ever caught them being disrespectful towards another person, male or female.

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I am deeply troubled by the sexualization of children. There are laws in America that protect children from working in clubs and most pole dance studios have an age minimum of 18. There should be no confusion between strip clubs and a dance form, nor should individuals be censored on how they choose to express themselves.

I condemn anyone who excuses reprehensible activities such as molestation, pornography or exploitation because that person danced, exercised, dressed, walked in a perceived sexual manner.

“Schoolgirls are growing up in a world where it is normal for women’s bodies to be seen as sex objects, the union is expected to say – and warns that this affects the way they see themselves and their place in society.”

When someone chooses to respond to a person in a sexual manner, it is on the individual. Sexism needs to be challenged at its’ core rather than perpetuating the practice of blaming the victim.

Pole dancing attire is part self-expression and part necessity. The friction between the skin and pole is necessary to keep the dancer aerial. In my beginning classes women would show up wearing pants and long sleeves. By the second class they had pared down to more appropriate attire suitable for safely executing skills.

Not all pole artists perform in lingerie and stilettos, many wear short shorts (inner thigh skin must be exposed) and sports bras that allow for the pit of the arm to grip the pole. I detest baring my midriff for personal reasons but I’ve had to get over it because there are moves that are unsafe to do without my waist exposed.

Lots of women enjoy dressing in sexy outfits during class, too. There is a lot of bonding and giggling that happens around a great pair of shoes or a fun bra. Is this a problem?

I’d like to see the same criticism leveled (and to be fair, it has, but that’s not stopping anyone) at Olympic sports such as figure skating, swimming, gymnastics, volleyball and running. The outfits are equally revealing and these events are televised to all ages whereas sexual pole dancing is done entirely in clubs, studios or private homes.

I’d love to see more fitness pole in the main stream, however, because I see little difference between it and gymnastics.

Are these women less of an athlete because of what they are wearing? Should their sports be publicly condemned as harmful to women?

The resolution calls for the NUT (National Union of Teachers) to express its concerns about “the rise of what has become commonly known as ‘raunch culture’, where the old sexism of the past has been rebranded by big business”.

I have taken class at two dance studios which I realize is a small sample. However, I genuinely believe that the intention of the studio owners is camaraderie, fitness and empowerment. I do not see their business models as repackaged sexism of the past. They both go to great lengths to create a safe environment where women can express themselves without judgement.

Despite what some may hope, pole dance classes are not intended to mold women into sex toys for their partner’s pleasure. Pole dance, like any form of self-expression, can be intensely personal and private. I have never felt pressured to perform outside the studio, although I have chosen to.

This might not be the case everywhere but it certainly is at Boulder Spirals and Vertical Fusion. I wouldn’t be there if that was the case.

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As to “raunch culture” some pole dancing is raunchy, but define raunchy and tell me why it is wrong.

Is it when I woman spreads her legs or lies prone? Does that mean she is inviting sex or a violation? Is it okay to for a person to assume sexual availability of anyone who is able to perform a physical feat?

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Because a yogi can put her ankles behind her head, is she saying she is sexually available? What about a gymnast or figure skater?

Why is that assumed for pole dancers? And do male pole dancers suffer from the same assumptions?

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The sublime Gabby Douglas, only a pervert would sexualize this amazing child athlete.

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This is a funny picture, a moment in time as she transitions between moves, but does it mean this woman is inviting objectification or simulating a sex act?

Taken to the extreme, one could argue that a woman must be completely covered up and sitting with her legs crossed to achieve her full potential as an individual. It is an uncomfortably Puritan ethic.

I would love to live in a culture where women don’t need to be beautiful and wear revealing clothes to be valued. However, I don’t want to live in a world where they can’t choose to wear whatever pleases them or serves their purposes.

It isn’t acceptable to use a woman’s sexuality or body as a weapon against her.

The motion says: “In particular, the gains of the last 40 years in terms of women’s sexual liberation are being turned back on women and girls in commodified form.”

This statement leaves little room for women to live complex lives. It engages in the manner of sexism that says that women cannot be sexual (or simply fit) and have a rich professional, emotional and intellectual lives. Where is the liberation?

While I agree that there is too much emphasis put on women being beautiful and sexy in our society, I don’t think that demonizing women who choose to express themselves or engage in a physical activity that others find uncomfortably alluring is the answer.

In fact, from my own limited and anecdotal experience, the majority of my pole dancing sisters are very complex women. I know mothers, doctors, Ph.D. candidates, teachers, business owners, government workers and students, just to name a few. None of these women are strippers or professionals, but all of them pole dance for fitness, camaraderie, community and self-expression.

Some train to compete but most never do it outside the studio. As for those strippers and sex workers out there, I see no justification to demonize them because of their choice in profession.

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whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com

As an instructor, I’ve found that almost everyone who hears about my classes wants to try them, but few are willing to withstand the jeers, dirty jokes and sexist remarks that inevitably come up as a result.

The fact that women face pubic shaming, retribution in the workplace and shunning from their social groups because of a chosen leisure activity is abhorrent. I personally was shamed for being a pole instructor  in front of 50 near strangers – by the fitness instructor – at an aerobics class I used to frequent. The management did nothing.

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Our society’s Madonna/Whore relationship with women is reaching a breaking point. Women (and now men) are being pressured into physical perfection and sex is the lingua franca of advertising. The line between acceptable and unacceptable sexual behavior is so blurry that it creates a minefield that women must carefully navigate. Be sexy, but not too sexy.

Either the solution can be to restrict appropriate sexual expression or it can be to examine a culture that both celebrates and demonizes female sexuality.

An athlete performing on a vertical pole is immediately sexualized even though that may not be the intention.

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What is her intention? She’s executing a move on a vertical pole. Does this mean something about her?

Speaking after the debate, Ms Blower said: “It is important for all children and young people to learn, in an age-appropriate manner, about respect for their own and other people’s bodies and emotions.

“This is all the more important given the rising levels of pornography which is very much in the public domain. There also continues to be a high rate of sexual harassment and homophobic bullying in society at large, despite efforts in schools to address and reduce it.”

I agree, much has to be done to reduce sexual harassment and homophobic bullying but I don’t think that pointing fingers at a dance form is the answer. It’s too simplistic, too easy, and doesn’t address the scope of the problem.

Women should be able to walk topless on a sunny day like men do without being harassed, or breast feed their babies in public without being labeled as disgusting or inappropriate. Until this happens, passing a resolution that condemns dance is laughably inadequate.

The resolution urges the union’s executive to take action, including working to increase teachers’ confidence in giving sex education lessons and campaigning to raise the profile of sex education in schools.

Bravo to this. Education, sexual and otherwise, is empowering and brings positive change. Why this is tied to commentary on pole dance, though, is beyond me.

In all of this dialogue, I hear very little about men. There are many fine male pole dancers out there and they must face their own challenges (homophobia, trying to break into a field that is largely dominated by women), yet I hear little discussion about how they might suffer from bullying and social stigma, simply for doing something they love that happens to have a female association.

Read this wonderful piece from Kenneth Kao, a doctor, writer, musician and pole dancer. Why does he pole dance?

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I’m a doctor, an author, an athlete and a husband. I’ve been a community leader and a counselor, even a musician.

This is Bob and I have the pleasure of knowing him. He works at  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a research meteorologist in the area of improving flood forecasting. He is married, works a government job and is passionate about pole dance. Read what it is like for him to be a man who pole dances.

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Lastly, I would like to apply the same concerns that some have around pole dancing to other activities. Here is a sampling of rhythmic gymnastics where an athletic women execute moves in skimpy clothing to music while contorting their bodies. Spectators are there simply to watch these women perform. At what point does admiration become objectification? When are we going to shift the responsibility to the spectator instead of the performer?

Is it sexy? Does it matter?

This is the incredible Janyn Butterfly.

I argue that while this performance is amazing, inspiring, beautiful and joyous, it isn’t sexy. I doubt that was ever her intention.

There are so many styles of dance out there, to demonize one particular style because it makes you uncomfortable is unfair to the athletes/dancers/artists out there that take their work seriously, whether it is sexy or not. As a dancer I have chosen to dance and the spectator must choose to watch. If it bothers you, don’t look.

So far pole dancing has been pigeon holed as a spectator activity whose sole purpose is to sexually excite men. There are many parallel activities out there that are now accepted into the mainstream such as yoga (once considered a sexual practice) and Americanized Middle Eastern or “Belly” dancing to name two. Shall we place the blame for the failings of society on women yet again?

Pole dancing isn’t the problem, our culture of sexism and gender inequality is. This is hardly news. All you can do is come from an authentic place and ask yourself why you are doing something. Is it to fuel in inner passion, is it for fun, does it feel good, is it good for your body?

Or it is to win approval of others and stave off insecurity? Shall we leave it up to legislators to decide this for us?

To conclude, I’m posting this video of Alfie Sosa because I can’t stop watching it. He is amazing. His performance is sexy but it also undeniably skilled. He may or may not be gay, it’s not for me to say or care. For all I know he could be playing a part. If you have issues around homosexuality or sexuality at all, don’t watch, it’s your choice. Be aware that I will not tolerate hateful comments on my blog or in my life. Now enjoy.

Featured image courtesy of www.themomstandard.com

29 thoughts on “A Response to Teachers Condemn ‘raunch culture’ for Fueling Sexism

  1. You are amazing. Thank you for deciding to post this. While I enjoy when you do rant, this was a well written argument.

  2. Wow, awesome post! I think it is important to feel comfortable in our own bodies, and be who we are. I agree with you in that society is the problem – not individuals or their life choices. People have a right to their opinion, but I don’t understand why we have to have an opinion and JUDGE. I am a dog trainer, and the methods I have chosen to use are because I done my own research and chosen that path. There are trainers of all kinds, and some all-positive, some are all-negative reinforcement. And then there is is broad spectrum in between. For example – prong collars or choke chains: A positive-only trainer will not use them. I have no problem using either, but I will also use a flat collar with a leash or a martingale collar (like a nylon pinch collar) or a head collar as well. I will use any and all equipment to be able to train.

    Just like in pole dancing, where people judge. I am also in an industry where you have to explain why you use certain methods a lot – to clients and to fellow trainers.

    Either way, I loved this article, and I’m happy that you posted this!

    • I have to fight my own judgements about other things. I feel like we are cultured to judge, and complain. One of the things I love about getting older is I’ve mellowed on so many things. There is nothing like walking in someone else’s shoes every now and then.

      As for collars, I don’t know what I would do without Blue’s Holt leader. I call it his “snouty.” I wish you were nearby, I’d hire you to help me with his problems.

      • Awww 🙂 and I love your Blue too! You can always ask me questions! I love the Holt and Halti head collars.

      • I tried Gentle Leader but I couldn’t get it to fit right. Plus it feels like I’m putting tack on him, like a big horse. The Holt means time for fun.

  3. As you pointed out this goes way further than pole dancing. A women cannot breast feed her child in public- that is one of the most fucking absurd and literally retarded examples of how our society is messed up. Its one of the most natural and life nurturing things that one could hope to see……except apparently its considered rude in some places.

    And Dont even get me started on the way that the menstrual cycle is tabooed, ignored and belittled. Maybe we forget that without those monthly bleeds, mankind would not exist. Ignoring menstruation is ignorant and rude. tabooing it is plain stupid.

    How does that relate to pole dance- well, in the same way most women will not stand up for their periods, they dont stand up fro their bodies, sensuality and sexuality…all these things are not only relevant and needed for healthy functioning- they are crucial for human life and expression of energy- whether it be done ‘sexy’ or done ‘workout’ style is important for the balance of the physical, the emotional and the mental….

    Yah….it’s all Yoga!

    • My rant is that in order for a woman to have succeeded in the business world or to work closely with men, she must be sleeping with them. What is the most insulting for me in ALL of this is the women who do it to other women. Seriously? Come on. This hit very close to me this past year and not only was I shocked that this was coming from a woman, it is that the way it was treated was to punish the woman. Haven’t grown much have we?

      • Without getting too “conspiracy theory” about it, I think it is ingrained in our culture to do this (i.e. cut other women down) so we don’t focus our energy on more important things.

  4. I got so feminist ranty that I forgot my actual comment was supposed to tell you that the year before last I was involved in what turned into a very unfortunate experience at the Eisehower School in Boulder, I was involved in a performance set that A Place to B Studio put on (at the schools request) and one of the sets was belly dance. The headmaster was horribly rude to the dancers and to the studio owner afterwards- and then to me when I addressed his attitude in a letter the following week. He said belly dance was inappropriate (the performers were 12 year olds!) and I retaliated that it wasn’t the dancers but that it was his mind that was inappropriate…..which as you can imagine went down like a lead balloon…..ho Hum..

  5. Awesome post! I have one minor quibble, though: to call your piece “a rant” doesn’t do it justice. What you’ve written is a well-reasoned argument in rebuttal of some really sloppy thinking. Oh boy, I could put in my two cents & then some…but it’s probably enough to point out that current-day PC prudery is just as misguided & small-minded as the prissy, repressive, self-loathing variety rooted in what people like to pass off as “traditional values.” Anyhow a great job, this is a fine piece of writing that easily could (and should?) be published elsewhere.

    • Thanks (insert nom-de-plume du jour). And yes, what you said! One of these days I hope to write for a larger audience but I doubt they would be as kind as you.

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  10. I’m really inspired by how well you were able to execute this article. It’s really well written, and point by point tears down a lot of the “issues” people have a with an art that tehy [generally speaking] don’t even seem to understand. Thank you because this not only clarifies a lot of interesting points. The only thing i really took issue with here was the blanket classification of all pornography as reprehensible.

    • Let me clarify, I don’t think pornography is reprehensible and it is a failing of my writing that you came away with that impression. I believe that sexual activities that result in coercion (financial or otherwise) are problematic in that it forces a person to commodify themselve in an intimate and potentially harmful way. However, not all pornography is produced in this manner and I believe that it has a place in many healthy sexual lives. I believe I cast my net too widely as I was speaking of child pornography, which is illegal.

      Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  11. That was an amazingly thorough response. And I learned a lot of pole dancing too. Janyn Butterfly is a very powerful dancer. Thank you for sharing that video. No need to reiterate what you stated so beautifully… let’s just say I think you are spot on. Cheers.

Really? No way.

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