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book club sexuality March 1, 2007

Posted by jenniferlewk in magazines/photography.
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I saw an article in the New York Times the other day which spoke about the new, portable pole. The pole dancing party is geared towards the “Tupperware” generation– our mothers’ generation and their mothers as well. What fascinated me was not the “got pole?” t- shirt the woman in the picture is wearing (no joke), but the fact that these women are finally feeling free to assert their sexuality. I think it is basically awesome. While pole dancing is often thought of as a way to objectify women, because of its use in clubs, I think that many of these women are just excited to find their repressed sexuality. While having these portable poles at “over-the-top bar mitzvahs” would definitely be a cause for concern, why can’t these women get some exercise and feel good about their bodies?

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1. mattwm - March 1, 2007

I noticed in a community college bulletin the other day when I was down in New Bedford that they were offering classes in “chair dancing” as well as pole dancing (chair dancing being a prerequisite). It seemed amusing then, but for some reason considering it in an upper-middle class suburb seems a little disquieting. I suppose its for the reasons pointed out in the article– is it a class specific co-option of a symbol of female oppression that will doubtless continue to be the place of oppression and objectification for many? Or, maybe that’s the fact, and the question is whether that’s good or bad.

2. elizabethwilkes - March 5, 2007

Forgive me for gettinga bit off topic, but this discussion this talk of pole dancing classes reminded me of an article in Newsweek (http://health.talk.newsweek.com/default.asp?item=471667) a few weeks ago that bemoans the fact that celbrities, specifically female celebrities, are becoming incresingly bad role models for today’s youth and are creating an oversexualized youth culture. The author of the article opens with an personal story about her young daughter asking what Lindsey Lohan is doing in a picture and her inability to explain that Lindsey is attending pole dancing class. Though I found this mother’s example to be a bit over the top, she does make a good point that when the idols of young children are openly doing things that are associated with being “bad,” it puts parents in an awkward position.

The article seems to shift its point about halfway through, however, and by the end, after citing some interesting statistics that indicate that girls today aren’t in fact more sexually active than the youth of ten years ago, despite the oversexualization of today’s youth culture.

I guess my main struggle with this article is that I’m unsure what point it’s ultimately trying to make. Is it ok, or even empowering that female icons are becoming increasingly blatant, publicly, with their deviant behaviors, or is this one of today’s society’s problems that needs fixing. And to reference the previous posts, are classes such as pole and chair dancing liberating or degrading in that their exalt women objectifying their own bodies in the name of empowerment. Was it funny or inappropriate that I got my little sister the Carmen Electra Cardio Striptease Workout for Christmas? I’m still struggling with the answers to these questions.

3. andyw - March 5, 2007

“I think it is basically awesome.”
Ummm… I question the awesomeness of this particular grouping of business, fun, and workout as a tool for empowering women. I was looking at Empowernet’s (the company which sells polls and training videos) website, and a lot of what I found confirmed my initial suspicions that there is something cloying about this that makes it exploitive.

It came as no surprise to me that the person who is profiting the most (in terms of dollars) and who is in charge of all of this is a man (Colin Sprake). The business originally sold something else (SPA products), which was also directed at women. The most interesting comment on that line of product is “[r]enew your skin and put your best face forward by using the Spa Luna facial cleansers, polish and alcohol-free toner on a daily basis”. The comment echoes a line from the company’s mission statement: “Pole Lot of Fun parties will enable them to enhance all aspects of their lives and their relationships with others. Once she has rediscovered ‘she’s worth it’, our SPA line offers her the daily indulgences she deserves through our unparalleled, natural body care products.” These ideas are ostensibly bound up in helping women realize their inner potential, or (as Mr Sprake puts it) their “inner goddess”. But there are a number of problems here.
First, it essentializes women. The company essentializes the housewife as a person who has been forcibly asexualized (through giving so much) and who can only reclaim her sexuality through this wonderful product. But, I would contend that a housewife isn’t necessarily asexualized, as Bad Girls go to Hell and common stereotypes (the domain of the woman is the house, and while in relation to her children she cannot claim a sexual identity, in relation to her husband she is certainly sexed) illustrate. Indeed, the sexuality that is ostensibly reclaimed by women who dance on poles denies them agency in an obvious way. While the company tries to bill itself as giving women the ability to workout and chat around with their female friends at various social gatherings, there is a very real way in which the male gaze is allowed to penetrate traditionally feminine spaces through this device. As the article put, referencing a man who signed up for the class, “‘He knows how the men benefit after the party,’ Ms. Huitema said”. This is very disturbing: women are now exercising in front of other women (a place where before they had at least a relative freedom to discuss what they wanted away from the male gaze, although obviously never completely escaping it), given a facile explanation that it empowers them (after all, as Lori said in a section entitled “FUN stories”, “every person found a move they were the ‘best’ at” at one of these parties), and then go home as a reinvigorated sexual object for their husbands’ viewing pleasures. The pole is not only traditionally bound up with the male gaze and oppression, it is constituted by it (this is shown in a portion of a t.v. clip where the male host prefaced an example performance with the comment “I don’t have to have any money do I?”). The pole doesn’t make sense without someone observing the person on it, and while the practice may go on in front of other women, I can’t help but think that the real show happens at home in front of the husband. The exercising and “recapturing” of sexuality make a difficult performance seem fun and exciting (as Yolanda Matos-Moran, who “was sore the day after attending a pole-dancing bachelorette party”, clearly illustrates), when in reality it ultimately benefits men.

Second, it is sexist that the company targets itself exclusively at women. I think that there is just as much creative sexuality for a man to reclaim. Where men may have access to a form of sexuality, and thus are always sexual beings, while women don’t have access to any (not that I buy either of these premises), then why can’t men work out for their wives, enjoy a good afternoon of pole dancing with their male compatriots, and then pleasure their wives (who could then sit back and relax, yet still be sexual)? This seems blatantly fueled by men forcibly clinging to their position as those who watch, passively, detached from the scenario (indeed, Mr. Sprake refuses to do the poll dance on t.v. because, as he puts it, “I’m married too. I’ll just stand back”, as if his marital status somehow prevents him from putting on a show, while it induces women to put on the same show).

Third, it seems basically exploitive in the good old fashion way that capitalism is almost always exploitive. Women can’t be empowered until they try Mr. Sprake’s products, and after the hard work of poll dancing they might as well “indulge” themselves in his SPA products to make their skin beautiful once again (see the above quotation about women rediscovering that they are worth it). Women are induced to have stay at home businesses where they can “come out of the male dominated business world” as Jenny, the performer on the t.v. segment, says. But, while there is no doubt that it is a male dominated business world, this make it on your own (an illusion, of course, since women buy the training and the product from Mr. Sprake) does nothing to contest that male domination, and indeed perpetuates it by encouraging women to stay out of the ordinary business world (and masking this whole process by making them believe that they have agency). Indeed, I am tempted to conclude that this is just a simple case of the capitalist co-opting that Slavoj Zizek theorizes about (“Is not the history of capitalism a long history of how the predominant ideologico-political framework was able to accommodate (and soften the subversive edge of) the movements and demands that seemed to threaten its very survival? For a long time, sexual libertarians thought that monogamous sexual repression was necessary for the survival of capitalism – now we know that capitalism can not only tolerate, but even actively incite and exploit forms of ‘perverse’ sexuality, not to mention promiscuous indulgence in sexual pleasures… The recent proliferation of different sexual practices and identities (from sadomasochism to bisexuality and drag performances), far from posing a threat to the present regime of biopower (to use the Foucauldian terms), is precisely the form of sexuality that is generated by the present conditions of global capitalism, which clearly favour the mode of subjectivity characterized by multiple shifting identifications.” [The Ticklish Subject, 225-6]).

I would never dream of denying that it is a good thing for a woman to reclaim her sexuality. But this poll dancing business is clearly not an empowering way to go about doing it.

4. jenniferlewk - March 5, 2007

I can see your argument; however, I still believe that this pole dancing business can be seen in a positive light…i’m going to go ahead and be controversial.

By assuming that men benefit from the mass education of women as pole strippers, the existing gender hierarchy of social power is being reinforced. There is no definitive connection between having a pole dancing party entirely composed of women and with men. It’s not as though these women all go out and buy a pole to strip in front of their husbands–the infomercial does not present its product in this manner. i mean, the poll dancing seems to be an entirely social gathering in which women work out using a traditional symbol of male dominance…these women are helping to reconstruct what a stripper pole means among middle aged women. Furthermore, men might be involved as part of the infomercial, but their unwillingness to participate and their discomfort prove that these women are directly challenging the status quo…If the married man on the infomercial is, as the post seems to state, representative of all men, then his reason not to participate is quite interesting…for him, the most fundamental and entrenched institution for male-female gender roles, aka marriage, is the reason he declines. He subconsciously (and i am probably giving him more credit than he should have, but work with me) knows that having men strip would not be the equivalent of empowerment because the pole itself is a symbol for male enjoyment…it would be empowering if the men used a symbol for female enjoyment. In a concrete sense, i doubt that people would call men empowered if they saw men working out by running with a frilly stroller in public, which is a traditional symbol of female empowerment in the home (taking care of kids)….

i dunno, just some thoughts to get more conversation rolling


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