Is Pole Dancing the Key to Women’s Sexual Empowerment—and Social Change?

Some women argue pole dancing could be key to sexual empowerment. chaoss/Shutterstock.com

Some critics have condemned the trend of pole dancing for fun—via strip aerobics classes—as a perpetuation of misogyny and female objectification. However, the women who practice pole work have a different opinion: By getting in tune with their bodies and expressing their sexuality freely, personal and social change is possible.  

One facet of the modern feminist movement has focused on reclamation—the idea that women should take back words, ideas, and actions that have only served to undermine or even sabotage them in the past.

For instance, Eve Ensler, in her now classic play ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ salvaged a fraught anti-woman slur with “Reclaiming C–t.” Women’s organizations have raised awareness about rape and sexual assault with the Take Back the Night campaign.

Women, both those who identify as feminist and those who don’t, have even commandeered the stripper’s pole though strip-aerobics classes as a way of finding sexual liberation. By taking away a male audience—and, with it, the male gaze—that historically went hand-in-hand with pole dancing (and continues in strip clubs today), these women dance in celebration of their bodies and as a way to get in touch with their sexuality. (And, yes, for some good exercise, too.)

“Pole is subversive,” writes pole dancer and pole dancing advocate Claire Griffin Sterrett, on her blog The Pole Story. “It challenges the traditional ideas of what a woman can and cannot be, should and should not do when it comes to her body. When you have a woman who is smart, articulate and perhaps works as an engineer by day and then who puts on high heels, and dances out the sexy in her free time, you have a woman who is actively breaking down stereotypes.”

Of course, as with any choice women make, the decision to take pole dancing classes is rife with debate within the feminist and women’s studies community. Ever since the trend to use a pole for fun and fitness began to go mainstream about a decade ago (and was even popularized by celebrities like Carmen Electra, who released a series of workout DVDs in 2005), critics have questioned women’s choice to engage in this highly sexualized activity. The main argument lies in how authentic this choice is, given that we still live in a culture where women collectively hold less power than men, and women’s physical attributes are valued higher than their intellect or physical strength.

“Women who pole dance are seen as objects—they are dehumanized,” says Kristin J. Anderson, professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown and author of Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminism in a Post-Feminist Era. “The promotion of pole dancing for fun perpetuates the idea that women are sexual objects and interchangeable bodies.”

On the surface, yes, this may be so. Especially since erotic dancing has a long, misogynistic history. From the naked female dancers and musicians of Ancient Greece, to the Parisian beauties who graced the Moulin Rouge stage in 19th century France, the prohibition-era burlesque dancers to the scantily clad women within modern day strip clubs, these various acts of sensuality and movement have one common denominator: They’re performed for—and for the pleasure of—men.

Anderson explains that “the domestication of pole dancing” is problematic because it separates women’s bodies from their sexual desires, putting the focus on the former and reinforcing that women are merely sexual objects.

“Because of the mainstreaming of porn culture, many young women learn merely to be sexy—the object of someone else’s desire—and do not learn how to be sexual—the subject of one’s own desire,” she adds.

This is a valid argument, in some respects, when it comes to intent. Anderson draws on feminist writer Ariel Levy’s distinction between being sexy and being sexual, which she outlines in the book Female Chauvinist Pigs, to further illustrate this idea. “We can think about the difference between sexy and sexual as the difference between being an object of others’ sexual desire—sexy—and being the subject of one’s own sexual desire—sexual,” she explains. “Being sexy —particularly in a social context of women being so often reduced to being sexual objects in the media—is thus putting oneself in a position of being an object—serving other people’s sexual interests, not one’s own. In contrast, being sexual puts your own sexual desire and interests at the center.”

Certainly, the objectifying roots of pole dancing (and erotic dancing in general) allow the stigma against it, in any context, to perpetuate. And sure, a number of women pole dance might still feel detached from their bodies or their own sexuality, staying on the surface of sexy without ever truly connecting within.

However, many women who actually engage in pole dancing for fun, as a hobby, actually find the opposite to be true: Through the sensual movement their bodies, these women discover their desires and get more in tune with their bodies and their sexual needs, not more separate from them. In fact, pole work could even be an important means for social change as women learn to healthily and genuinely express themselves sexually.

This idea of pole dancing a means of self-discovery and agency was recently depicted in the short documentary Why I Dance, which features 16 amateur pole dancers, who also happen to be working professionals, including a teacher and a psychologist. These women are anything but one-dimensional sex objects.

Lauded by UpWorthy.com as “a pole dancing video so beautiful, my hair stood on end,” the film has garnered over 1.5 million views since it was posted to Vimeo in March. Its subjects challenge the stigma surrounding pole dancing—particularly the criticisms that it’s objectifying whether there’s a male audience or not and that, as Anderson argues, it separates women’s bodies from themselves.

Why I Dance shows women authentically celebrating their bodies, themselves, and each other. This shouldn’t be such a radical thing—it’s our birthright,” says Melanie Zoey Weinstein, who co-created and directed the film. “I hope that the uncommonness of the vibrant, authentic women we see in Why I Dance speaks for the stakes at play. I hope it serves to illuminate what’s been missing.”

Because, even in 2015, Weinstein says, “female sexuality remains commodified, degraded and misunderstood.” Shaming—from slut-shaming to body-shaming—is rampant. Overt, unapologetic expressions of female sexuality, outside the context of the male gaze are therefore somewhat overwhelming and certainly outside the norm.

“There’s something threatening about the lack of shame when we as women are often told to be shameful,” explains Julia Roth, one of the film’s producers who also dances herself. “We are still as a society rooted in puritanical belief, and there’s a fear of sexuality there, a mislabeling of ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ and need to keep our sexuality contained.”

As actress Sascha Alexander who co-created, co-produced and is featured in the film, puts it, female sexuality is threatening because it is so brilliant.It is hard to stand in the presence of something as divine, bright, and awe-inspiring as an embodied, unapologetic woman and feel worthy of witnessing it,” she says. “Female sexuality is life. It’s the source. It’s alluring on a level none of us can explain or deny. It’s fire and music and tenderness and mostly importantly, it’s freedom.”

Having a reverence for one’s sexuality and being able to freely express it is crucial for a number of reasons. On a personal level, discovering one’s sexuality can bring immense growth and positive change. According to another woman featured in the film, actress and writer Amy Main, who also co-produced and co-created the film, the pole helped her overcome body dysmorphia and allowed her to shift her whole perception of self.

“Through pole, I’ve learned to love and accept my body for what it is—a beautiful, powerful miracle,” she says, in regards to her two-year journey of taking pole classes in New York and Los Angeles. “Sexiness comes from ownership, from love and respect. For me, pole has been about finding that. About feeling free to move about in the world as I really am, about my right to take up space.”

Alexander found transformation in the pole as well. Through dancing for five years and performing periodically in the Amateur Pole Art Showcase at Cheetah’s in Hollywood, she discovered her sexual voice and identity.

“Before I started dancing, my sexuality existed only as a mirror for the men I would engage with,” she says. “There was so much pain for me on that path, so much abuse I endured, so many hook-ups that were driven by desperation to be accepted, rather than by real trust and desire and curiosity, so much isolation, confusion and sadness.”

Now, Alexander says, “I do not have to subject my body to the desires of others just to come home to my own sexuality.”

This freedom for women to cultivate and express their sexuality may in fact be the key to overcoming misogynistic oppression, culturally-rooted fears of female sensual expression, and even sexual violence against women. In this way, power of the pole, goes beyond change on an individualistic woman-to-woman level.

“If we want to empower young women to make healthy sexual decisions…it would be wise to teach them that they can have responsible sexual experiences and that their sexuality comes from within,” Sterrett writes. “Anyone who pole dances already knows this—or is learning it. Why? Because she is getting in touch with her inner sensuality, and learning what feels good and right to her.”

Essentially, Sterrett believes that “when a girl does not know what her own feelings and desires are she is much more vulnerable to the power of others’ feelings and desires.”

Alexander agrees. “If there is no authentic female sexual expression in the world, women remain solely reflections of male desire, only half embodied, only tapping into half of their vitality and potential, and most horribly in my opinion, only giving their bodies from a place of obligation, rather than agency,” she says. “Until female sexual expression is welcomed—expected—we will not see a world without rape or abuse.”