Women Unite! Take back … the pole?


Take Back the Night is the most long-standing feminist event that I’m aware of. It energizes the feminist activist in me to walk in solidarity with other women through the streets, chanting things like “Women unite! Take back the night!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho / patriarchy has got to go” while men show their support by standing at the side.

So it disturbed me on Tuesday to learn that the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC), long supporters of our local event (to be held tonight at 5:30 in Victoria Park), had withdrawn because event organizers were considering inviting a pole fitness studio to do a demo. See news coverage here.

The Centre’s view is that pole fitness, with its roots in pole dancing in strip clubs and its promotion of sexy moves around a metal pole, ignores violence against women. Take Back the Night is an event intended to change the climate and culture of violence–especially sexual violence–against women. The Abused Women’s Centre considers the main purpose of TBTN to be incompatible with the pole dancing demo.

Advocates of pole fitness argue that some women find it empowering and that it’s a form of reclamation — an idea familiar to most feminists.

Image from “Tired of the same fitness routine? Try these 3 unconventional workouts,” Fitness.X The Magazine.
In the end, the pole fitness studio and event organizers decided not to have the demo in order to keep the focus on taking back the night, not introducing the more controversial dimension that the pole dancing demo introduces. See updated story here.

But it’s left a division in the London feminist community. The LAWC is still declining to participate as a group. Those who thought the demo was a good idea think that women’s choices need to be respected, and if women choose to pursue pole fitness they shouldn’t be judged for it. It’s a demanding fitness activity in its own right and lots of women find the addition of the sexy moves an empowering way to feel good about their bodies.

I’ve blogged about pole fitness in the past. In my post about “Strippercize,” I said:

Developing our bodies’ strength, grace, power, and endurance contributes greatly to our sense of confidence and well-being.  Tying that development so closely to sex appeal strikes me as promoting the idea that our sexuality is our greatest asset.

I still believe that. And I believe further that as feminists we would do well not to ignore the history of some of the practices we want to reclaim and promote. I’m totally on board with sex positivity and choice. Nevertheless, sexuality is neither our greatest nor our only asset.

More than that,  it’s just ill-conceived to pair sexy pole dancing with Take Back the Night. And as one discussion that passed through my Facebook newsfeed pointed out, why are we considering pairing this event with businesses at all? Do we really want to commodify our activism like this and use it as a vehicle for promoting local businesses that might appeal to women? Why not set up tables for beauty salons, make-up demos, boudoir photography, “girls'” retreats, and so forth while we’re at it?

One of the points LAWC wanted to make, and of course they’re getting flack for it, is that the sex trade involves a lot of violence against women. This is sometimes thought to be an old fashioned view that denies women the right to choose to pursue sex work as their work.

It’s not clear to me that it’s an “either/or” scenario. The fact is, the sex industry does involve lots of abuse and violence against women. It does involve the sexual objectification of women. Maybe not all of the women in it, but a good many. It’s very difficult to separate pole dancing from its strip club history, and even more difficult to separate strip clubs from male desire. Again, perhaps not impossible, but certainly the normative lens through which adult entertainment is viewed does not counter the dominant messaging about the heterosexual objectification of women’s bodies for men’s consumption.

And that does seem to run rather counter to the aims of Take Back the Night even if a more nuanced narrative of choice, sex positivity, and women’s empowerment is available.

I’m relieved that the pole demo isn’t going to happen and saddened that it was ever considered. More than that, I am alarmed that in at least some of the coverage I’ve read, it’s the LAWC that’s being blamed for causing the division in the community. As if taking a stand against the appropriateness of pole dancing demo at Take Back the Night instead of remaining silent about something they see as continuous with practices that support a culture of sexual violence against women is being unduly contrary, preventing women from standing in solidarity.

I’m heading off to the Society for Analytical Feminism this weekend in Lowell, Massachusetts to be on a book panel about Shay Welch’s book, Existential Eroticism: A Feminsit Approach to Understanding Women’s Oppression-Perpetuating Choices. I reviewed the book here. These events surrounding London’s Take Back the Night will be great topics of discussion for that session.

If you plan to attend TBTN this year in London, the gathering starts in Victoria Park at 5:30 p.m., the rally at 6:45 p.m., and the walk at 7:30 p.m. I have a late class so won’t be able to make it, but it’s a great event and worth attending.

What’s your view of the pole controversy in relation to TBTN in particular and the pole fitness idea in general?

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