During the past decade, stripper culture has gone mainstream, making its way into popular Instagram accounts, fitness studios, and the pop culture consciousness. Pole dance exercise classes, in particular, are incredibly popular among people who might be looking to express their sexuality and stay fit through physically challenging creative movements without actually making, what would be for many, a drastic career change.
If you’ve ever been to the club or on YouTube, you know that pole dance, in any form, requires immense core strength, skill, and technique. The US Pole Dance Federation regularly hosts events and competitions that showcase the athleticism of pole dance as a physical feat, and near the end of last year, the Global Association of International Sports Federation made pole dancing a provisionally recognized sport—the first step of many that could one day help make pole dancing an Olympic sport.
Back in 2015, however, the emergence of the Instagram hashtag #notastripper pointed to a huge division between those who dance for sport and those who do it for a living. At the time, pole fitness enthusiasts and other proponents of the hashtag claimed they were pushing back against the “stigma” of enjoying a form of dance that looks provocative but is strictly for exercise, a movement that appears to be alive and well on Instagram. Unfortunately, the majority of the stigma associated with pole dance often falls on those for whom dancing is a primary source of income, such as strippers—as well as those performing other types of sex work.
“Pole is trendy, and social media has increased its visibility exponentially,” says Elle Stanger, the writer and stripper who started the hashtag #yesastripper in response to the earlier social media movement to distance pole dance from its strip-club origins. Stanger says the efforts to make pole dance more conventional “is motivated by a changing audience, because the primary demographic for anti-stripper pole dance is young, white, millennial women.” Those are the women who really need everyone on Instagram to know they are #notastripper since they want nothing to do with the connotation that goes with the actual profession.
Stanger adds that the monetization of suburban pole studios and pole fitness classes taught by non-strippers, for example, could be driving the movement for separation from stripper culture. These owners are making money off a culture and then purposely distancing themselves from it.
“The push to reframe pole dancing as an edgy—but not too edgy—form of exercise is part of a bigger story of non-sex working women appropriating sex workers' cultural and theoretical innovations while at the same time doing all they can to distance themselves from sex workers,” says Heather Berg, a lecturer at USC who researches labor, sex work, and public policy. She adds that the mainstreaming of pole dance, including its adoption of aesthetics originated by strippers, “should mean less stigma for people who dance for a living,” but instead it “appropriates an art form sex workers developed, directs profit at non-sex workers, and reinforces stigma.”
Dancing professionally for hours on end is physically demanding, and Stanger says she has the scar tissue in her body from nine years of pole dance to prove it. However, she argues that the stigma associated with being a stripper puts strippers at much greater risk for harm than the dancing itself. “Dancing is not inherently harmful. Dancing nude is not inherently harmful. Dancing nude for money is not inherently harmful. And yet I’ve spoken with so many strangers who have insisted that I must be miserable, abused, a victim of trafficking and Stockholm Syndrome, of low self-esteem,” she tells me.
A 2017 paper published in Annual Review of Sex Research indicates that, for women who exchange sexual services for money, exposure to anti-prostitution stigma can affect many aspects of their quality of life, employment status, and income, and could contribute to varying degrees of social isolation as well as “an array of physical and mental health problems.” The study’s findings are not an indication that all women in the sex industry suffer from mental illness. Rather, they point to the wide-reaching impact of social stigma not only against those working in prostitution but, as the research indicates, on dancers and other types of sex workers as well.
For “conservative feminists who lament recreational pole dancing as evidence of the ‘pornification’ of culture,” the worst thing that could happen to a woman is that she'd be compared to a sex worker, Berg says. “This has serious implications for sex workers in general, since it reinforces the idea that sex work means violence and degradation, thereby naturalizing violence when it does happen.” Stanger adds, “When society holds the notion that some people are worthy of abusing, those people will be targeted for abuse.”
The distance between pole dance from stripping not only contributes to stigma against strippers but reinforces the idea that “sex work is not work.” This excuses bosses and policy makers who refuse basic labor rights, putting workers' health at risk in a number of ways, Berg says—a reality that those who pole dance for sport don’t worry about facing.
Some dancers may find sustainable, gainful employment as pole dance instructors themselves. However, Berg says the movement to recognize pole dance as a competitive sport far removed from strip culture doesn’t do much for those fighting for basic labor rights, or protesting the “racial discrimination that’s rampant in the erotic dance industry” as some dancers did last fall during the NYC Stripper Strike, Berg says. “What dancers say they need isn't for pole dancing to be recognized as a sport, it's for it to be recognized as a job. This would mean labor protections for dancers facing independent contractor misclassification and coverage under workers' compensation when they get hurt at work.”
As Stanger points out, pole dancing for fitness or competition and pole dancing for tips are both forms of entertainment, but only one will likely outlast social media and fitness trends. “The people that come in to strip clubs to interact with women like me are looking to be titillated,” she says. “The human body can be art. This is why I don’t worry that my job will be outsourced by robots or AI. There’s no thing in the world like positive sexual human energy, and my clients know this.”
For those interested in dabbling in pole dance for the incredible workout, Berg suggests finding a professional erotic dancer who's willing to give classes and pay her, not a fitness instructor trying to expand her market. Tip well. Then, with your rock-hard abs, do your part to support sex worker organizing.
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