I was really offended and disappointed by the Union’s decision to hold pole dancing classes, and I feel that many of the people who have supported the classes in the ongoing debate have somewhat missed the point. I believe that sadly, many of these people’s views are borne of the fact that so many of us are successful Cambridge students who are more likely to have come from a suburban, middle-class background and have never been confronted with the reality of lap dancing before.
Countless times participants in the debate have emphasised how it is women themselves who have asked for or defended the classes, and that they are to be empowering. My view is that this is basically irrelevant. The issue here is that the Union needs to stop shying away from engaging with the reality of the sex industry and, as an organisation run by intelligent, educated people, take a stand and make a statement despite the fact that everyone thinks the classes will be lots of fun.
The women who are eager to join the classes have probably, like most of us, only encountered the notion of lap dancing within mainstream culture – through endless references to strip clubs in comedy shows, movies, jokes, adverts; the existence of these ‘pole fitness’ classes; and the fact that many male celebrities from Prince Harry to Simon Cowell have reportedly been customers at lap dancing clubs. This has led to most people only ever seeing a fake, sanitised version of what lap dancing is, hence why the global industry is worth $75 billion – as a result of this effective marketing campaign which has presented people with an image of high-class, respectable ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ where women command fortunes with their sexual power.
The crucial point then is that while these classes are women only, tacky plastic stiletto and nylon bikini-free, and to some women lots of fun, they play a major role in normalising this horrible and abusive aspect of the sex industry. Before any decision was made about these classes I think that somebody should have read the sections on lap dancing in the recent books by Kat Banyard, ‘The Equality Illusion’ and Natasha Walter, ‘Living Dolls’. These books are based on interviews conducted with thousands of women, and demonstrate again and again the frustration of women who work as lap dancers with the way that people care less and less about helping them out of the hateful job they have to do because everyone now seems to think that lap dancing is absolutely fine. Yes, undoubtedly there are some women who choose to become lap dancers just because they want to, and have an enjoyable time doing it – an argument frequently called upon in debates over issues like this. However if we’re being realistic, these women are very sadly in a minority. The fact that some prostitutes have an experience like Belle du Jour’s shouldn’t obscure the fact that the vast majority of the rest do not, and in the same way the existence of happy, fulfilled lap dancers shouldn’t make us turn away from the many more who aren’t.
‘I pay to go to a pole dancing class and I have so much fun, but she gets paid to do it!’ What could be better, right? Did anyone at the Union make any effort to look at some of the facts behind the statement they are making with these classes? Like: lap dancers have no rights. They can be fired for no reason, and have no sick pay or pension. Studies of lap dancers show that roughly half have been molested or raped as children or teenagers. They are not formally employed by a club, but have to pay the owners for the right to dance there. Pole dancing is used as a way to attract men to pay for private dances, a tough competition when dancers are deliberately overbooked to make money out of their entrance fee, fines that can randomly be imposed, and making them buy expensive costumes from the club, for example. This competition to attract clients often encourages rule breaking, like allowing touching and exposure of the genitals. Often dancers leave the club actually out of pocket, as if they don’t make any money from private dances they get nothing for a night’s work. Illegal immigrants are especially exploited, made to pay even more extortionate fees to the club owner to cover the risk of hiring an illegal. Research has found many links between prostitution and lap dancing, and even that prostitution actually takes place in some lap dancing clubs. There is also a high rate of drug and alcohol abuse among lap dancers, which is hardly surprising. This is on top of the obvious fact that this process treats women entirely as sexual objects with no value or worth other than how they look. Did they know or think about any of this? I won’t go on any longer, but I think a good summary is found in an interview with a former lap dancer called Tatyana:
‘It’s not glamorous and exciting at all, it’s a horrible world that is cruel and abusive to vulnerable women. On one hand, you’re this glamorous creature that everyone apparently desires and wants to be like (regular women told us many times they were jealous of us and wished they’d looked like us or could dance/do pole work like us). But on the other, we were openly disrespected, exploited, abused and treated with hostility and contempt.’ (The Equality Illusion, p.167).
I am truly disappointed that the Union is not able to see past the fact that lots of Cambridge women are ok with the classes. They play an integral role in normalising the sex industry and making society care less and less about women like Tatyana – many of whom are working just down the road from us at a recently opened lap dancing establishment. If the policy of holding pole dancing classes is reviewed next term I would beg the Union to reconsider it, and as well as emphasising how many have supported it, to take note of the number of complaint letters you have received (which from my e-mail inbox looks like a lot).
And as for their insistence that the classes will be nothing but an ’empowering’ way to keep fit with no sordidness or sleaze implied? Well I just checked the comments below the Tab article on this – Robert Goldstein: ‘Phwoar, i wanna see some sexy birds straddling a pole NOW. Tab photographer needs to be there.’ Muffman: ‘Hopefully there’ll be a £1 option on a viewing gallery for the LADs rofl’ – yeah, looks like that’s already a huge success…