Ignorance is bliss? The reality of ‘pole fitness’.

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…


  1. Ray Filar

    Yes exactly. I also had a count of the amount of named women speakers for this term, and its 4/26. And 2 of the 3 debates (excluding the comedy one, which doesn’t have names) are men only. Can we write a(nother) letter of disgust? Or like, I don’t know if there would be a better protest method, or if by protesting we only cement the opinions of people who think it’s fine and we should stop being so feminist about it. Wish we had got those lap dancing posters up at Michaelmas.

  2. Hannah

    Also – yesterday, I saw that quite of lot of people on facebook are attending the Union’s ‘Ulrika Johnson on Men, Life, and the Future of Feminism’. Their short description of Ulrika – ‘An iconic figure in public life, a winner of Celebrity Big Brother and model for Playtex lingerie, Ulrika has been on and off our TV screens for the last 15 years. In 2002 she famously admitted to having an affair with the then-England football manager, Sven Goran Eriksson.’ So she’s famous (I really don’t think you could call her iconic) for modelling, being on TV not doing very much, and shagging someone moderately famous. And that’s who the Union have talking about ‘the future of feminism’ (which is the least important issue here anyway, after men, then her own life).
    When the union do see fit to include a debate or talk about feminism, why can’t they have serious speakers coming? Who was it last year – Abi Titmuss ? Of course I don’t think that these women shouldn’t be heard, but the union just turns feminism – and women – into a joke when they lure the punters in with former models instead of serious candidates whose credentials show that they know, and care, about women and feminism.

  3. Sean Newham

    How difficult can it be to find at least half the number of female speakers to male ones? Not at all, in my opinion, it might get tricky to get half and half, but the union cannot excuse such a disproportionate number of men to women.

    As for the pole dancing, by making it a women’s only activity they have no legs to stand on re: the one sided objectification of women. They probably weren’t even aware of the conditions of the majority of lap dancers when they decided to do this.

  4. Sean Newham

    Just realised I put the comment on the wrong entry, apologies.

  5. Charlotte Lawes

    Although the links with pole dancing/lap dancing industry is a really important part of the debate, I think it might be an interesting aside to consider whether women can take part in pole dancing classes NOT as a fitness class, but as a form of dance. Now, clearly there are issues with the sexual nature of pole dancing, but could we imagine a situation where certain sexual ‘references’ were to be removed in order for this to become more of an art form than a medium for arousing men? In short, could we ever begin to ‘reclaim’ or even ‘claim’ the use of a pole as a prop with which to dance that is not about pleasuring men? Before I go any further I’d like to point out Im just exploring a possibility here.

    (Deep breath:) To put myself on the line, I took two pole dancing courses when I was at Sixth Form. Id been involved in a lot of contemporary work, as well as Ballroom and Latin America from a very young age, so Id always been interested in what I could do with my body (in a non-sexual way). So the classes were purely about me exploring this. I admit this may not have been the case for other women attending the classes. I did not become ’empowered’ – but I did learn that the pole enabled me to explore my body’s physical strength and the ability I had to convey different messages, in a private setting. I could choose to use my body in an explicitly sexualised way (which I didn’t) or I could move in such a way that did not have these explicit overtones at all (if you are of the opinion this is even possible given the links to the pole dancing industry). I completely understand that many people may disagree with this and may argue that anything you do on a pole is sexualised because of the sexually objectifying nature of the industry. However, my personal view is that, on my own, and with nobody else watching who may immediately have assumed I was ‘aiming to please’, those courses were about dancing for myself and for nobody else. Im aware that many women in the industry do not have this choice in the slightest – this is a horrific fact that I dont overlook and would hate to find out I was contributing to this. I would not suggest that even those who do have the choice should be sexually objectifying themselves, for money or not. But I do believe it is possible to separate dancing for yourself, in a non-sexualised manner, from women who dance for money. There is an incredible amount of skill involved in pole dancing and it is possible, with the right music and the right movement, to express something that is actually quite beautiful. I know because at the end of the courses I was experienced enough to develop my own routine.

    Moving on to pole dancing in a non-private context:
    Below is a link to a woman called Felix who has won several of the Pole Dancing World Championships.


    Now, some of this certainly does have a sexual feel to it, although its not as explicit as you’d find in a strip club, but I think it would be interesting to see whether, minus that, you can look beyond it to some quite incredible movement. With a bit of editing (and probably a bit more clothing, although contemporary dancers often don’t wear much more) could a dancer challenge an audience as to whether this form of dance can only be about the latter’s sexual gratification? Maybe. Could we put in a contemporary dance show to challenge current perceptions – without suggesting that what women in the industry do is ‘normal’ or ‘okay’? Pushing it further – could it be incorporated into a piece, the stimulus of which is actually about the very problems inherent to the industry?

    The pole and our bodies are ultimaltely mediums for expression. In the wider debate we need to consider whether we simply want to eradicate ALL pole dancing because of the damage the industry causes to the women directly involved, and in general to the sexual objectification of, and violence against, women; and/or if we want to argue that, as a dancer (admittedly, not in a strip-club), you should be able to convey the message that YOU want to – just as a woman should be able to wear short skirts without it being assumed she is ‘asking for it’.

    Food for thought.

    • Faith

      I really, really enjoyed your comment Charlotte. I personally think it would be wrong to equate all forms of pole dancing with a replication of sex industry practice. Much as though I think pole dancing clubs probably do contribute to representations of women that are not particularly empowering, it is not useful to appropriate the agency of many women involved in the industry to serve our various feminist stances. For me, the point at which I can be reasonably outraged is when pole-dancing is pinpointed by an allegedly repectable institution as the sole gender-exclusive female activity endorsed. It limits us, and it misrepresents us.

    • Ray Filar

      Yes, I agree, and a lot of the same thoughts have been going through my mind. I think the best way for it to be genuinely reclaimed as a form of dance would be under the contemporary banner – in virtue of it being very intimate movement that is desexualised by the nature of the dance. But I think in terms of quality, it has some way to go yet. I think one of the most important ways they could go would be to make it completely mixed gender, and obviously things like heels coming off/it not being epitomised by strip clubs. But, and this is obviously a very subjective opinion, I still think it is much more limited than most other dance forms. It’s something about the fixedness of the pole – it just seems like more of a confine than an enabling piece in the dance. I love contemporary, but I get bored half way through these pole fitness videos. Maybe it would be better as a form of gymnastics?

  6. Charlotte Lawes

    Thanks. I completely agree. Even if whoever proposed it did not think ‘What do women like to do? Oh yes they like to pole dance’ I would like to know the exact process the Union went through to make the decision to go ahead. Did they even consider alternatives or seriously debate the sensitive nature of the class? For me this is the bigger problem. The Union does not consider what it is doing and why it is doing it, which calls for some long needed self-reflection.

  7. Holly


    You seem to be under the very misguided impression that pole dancing classes are for lap dancers!

    Please let me enlighten you. I have been attending pole classes for nearly 4 years, and I have never stepped foot in a lap dancing club, nor do I ever intend on doing so. Out of all the people who I’ve met who attend pole dancing classes, not one of them is a stripper in a lap dancing club.

    Pole dancing is incredibly athletic and gymnastic sport and takes a lot of dedication and skill. You’ll find the kind of dancing performed in a strip bar is a million miles away from the kind of moves practised in an average pole dancing class which is far more similar to Chinese pole or Indian Mallakhamb than simply grinding up against a pole as your image seems to suggest. You’ll also find that the average pole dancing class is performed in shorts and a t-shirt, bare-foot or trainers. In fact there are also 3 men who attend classes at my pole school (all 3 are professional dancers).

    Whether you like it or not – pole dancing is a growing sport – with national and international competitions taking place, and a campaign to get it in the olympics, which I’m sure will happen in a few years, once there is more standardisation across the industry which is still very young at this point.

    I actually find it ignorant and laughable that you’ve written the above article without doing any research at all into what actually happens in pole dancing classes, before going on to not only link us with lap dancers – but with prostitutes! I hope from reading this you make the effort to investigate more into this and maybe even go to some classes yourself, you never know – you might even enjoy yourself!

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