The Gr8 Pole Deb8: PoleCon Edition

by Red on June 5, 2017 · 7 comments

in Sex Work Sells, Strippers

Three years ago, at this very time of year, this post came across my Tumblr dashboard.  It was the first time I had seen anything like it and I was staggered.

Stripper tumblr (strumplr?) was outraged, and though responses began with the intent of being educational, they devolved quickly as the original poster, Kelly, blasted back with the same clueless defensiveness that most people demonstrate when told they’ve been thoughtlessly oppressive and insulting to another group of marginalized people.

My response then is basically the same as my response now, although the years have honed it and solidified my personal feeling that hobbyists (non-in person sex workers) have no business being within feet of a pole.  If you aren’t going to work fifteen-thirty hours a week in 7” lucite heels; having beer breath burped in your face; learning with each rotation how to do pole tricks, in front of a live audience; risking your position in grad school (“ethical conflict”); your ability to get an apartment (“but your income isn’t documented”); your ability to keep custody of your kids (“she’s a fucking whore who takes it off in front of people for money, she’s clearly an unfit mother,” never mind that that wasn’t a problem when she was giving you her money); then you have no business using us as a costume. You have no business pretending that the performance of labor that wrecks our lower discs and ribs, forcing us to suck in our bellies, point our toes, and arch our back to the point of pain, is somehow relevant to your sexuality. I can’t stop you, but that doesn’t make it right.  We’re not your sexy stripper costume. If you can’t hack the labor, you don’t get the edgy whiff of transgression.

This was my first intro to the “#notastripper” phenomenon, or as I like to call and tag it, “#the gr8 pole deb8.”

It was not to be my last encounter with these people, not by a long shot. It wasn’t even my last encounter with Kelly, who refused to go away or even show any embarrassment and instead proceeded to insist that she “loves and respects strippers, but she’s not just some bitch with daddy issues shuffling around the pole.”

I mean, honestly.  You parse that one.  My life is too short.

“#Notastripper” spawned many articles, because what internet editor doesn’t love that combo of sex work and scantily clad women, especially when it means the lead image can be sexy?  (I may have the only editors of an internet news/pop culture site who do not go for these things.  Bless.) My personal favorite is by Alana Massey, Why is there an ongoing feud between strippers and pole dancers?

All the while pole hobbyists were writing articles and blog posts bemoaning the just truly baffling conflation of pole work with strippers, one woman even daring to say that she was getting stigmatized for her sexuality.  Where to even begin!

In the past three years, however, I have never read anything as ignorant, uneducated, condescending, and blatantly offensive as I did this week, in a post leading up to this week’s International Pole Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.  

In an open letter to her “Exotic Pole Dance Sisters” Nia Burks calls for them to take the stage this weekend mindful of those who came up with their fun extracurricular activity.  All well and good, right?  I felt like finally, an asshole pole hobbyist was taking my demand for them to minimize their asshole-ness seriously and acknowledging strippers.  Righteous. But read on.

You are among the few that are brave enough to step on stage with the vulnerability and authenticity required to perform your raw sexuality before a live audience. Rock on, I’m rooting for you.

That’s…that’s really not what we do, and is as confusing a claim as the one that woman who complained that she was experiencing oppression for expressing her sexuality through her hobby of pole dancing made. Her statement that pole work was an expression of her sexuality is as profoundly stupid as any white woman’s hankering to express her sexuality through belly dance. It’s not your sexuality you’re expressing here, it’s your fetishization of an exoticized and marginalized Other, but okay, okay. Back to Nia.

My dear girl friend, your responsibility here is massive. Your stage performance is using the language of desire that centuries worth of women have used as a form of labor. You are being permitted a space to use this language in a way that is not intended to open the door to your inevitable abuse, discard, and coercion.

WTF?

Nia Burks claims to be an academic at a university in Richmond, as well as a sex work activist and someone who “hopes to write about pole…in a manner that is both informed and humble.”

Despite these professed desires, Nia does none of this in her blog posts, employing language that manages to be both antithetical to the sex workers rights movement and profoundly ahistorical, so cross “sex work activist”, “in a manner that is both informed”, and, as you will see, “humble” off that bio, there, babe.  

Demonstrating that even if she did get a degree in history, she’s incapable of the most basic research, Nia’s claim that pole hobbyists and strippers are “using the language of desire that centuries worth of women have used as a form of labor” is as hyperbolic as it is easy to disprove and dismiss.  Anyone with a wifi connection can look up videos of famous early burlesque dancers, who most certainly are not using the same “language of desire” that strippers in the 21st century club use.  And anyone who’s watched any hip hop videos in the last 20 years can tell you that the moves that are so central to the club and the mystique of the club now—the moves that pole hobbyists so desperately covet and claim as “expressions of their sexuality”—are moves created and perfected by black women which were then appropriated by other women who thought they looked cool. Because they do, they look very cool. But I promise you that no “gentleman’s club” in 2000, let alone 1995 or 1985 and they only date back to the 70s anyway, would have showcased these moves.  There were still rules against pole work at some of the more upscale Manhattan clubs as late as 2013.

The idea that any language stretches back centuries unchanged is a ludicrous one and one that any linguist would laugh at.  Were we to travel back to 18th century London, we would have some trouble understanding the choreography of the women who held sexual poses for money in taverns and at private sex parties—that era’s version of strippers—and we most certainly would not understand their positions as “a language of desire” or “pole.”

But, it gets better.  And by better, I mean worse.  Take a hit of ye olde reefer and try not to give yourself TMJ with the hubris, ignorance, and rank whorephobia about to be exhibited here.

You are being permitted a space to use this language in a way that is not intended to open the door to your inevitable abuse, discard, and coercion.

My god, what is this shit? It’s almost like she’s quoting me—strip clubs aren’t places run for the empowerment of women. The reason pole hobbyists should just take up hoop or aerialism is precisely that they’re tourists using a space made transgressive by whorephobia and misogyny and maintained as edgy by the presence of sexy young things in bikinis. But then she abruptly plummets into the direst of trite and painful cliches without ever once touching on the truth: our transgressive and underground status is the very reason that pole athleticists want  “pole” and find it desirable, having confused dance moves perfected by black women and performed by the last decade of strippers with “the language of desire.”

The very idea that anyone Nia Burks talks to on an even semi-regular basis is representing me or anyone in my community this weekend is horrifying to me.  We have done nothing to deserve this sentiment, I would like to return it, thank you.  No need, goodbye!

It’s true that hobbyists don’t face any of the societal repercussions that actual dancers do, and I want to be proud of Nia for voicing this. Except that in the same sentence she tries to make that point, she undoes it by somehow connecting us to pole hobbyists, saying they represent us when the real power dynamic and problem is that they have no connection to us, nothing to lose, and no humility.

Dear friend, you are being issued a tiny approximation of the labor some women do daily; all of the benefits and none of the responsibilities. This showcase or competition that you are performing in is the closest thing to the dark human vending machines that we call strip clubs that many of you will never experience. Thank goodness for it, too. Your tiny approximation affords you the glorious privilege of ignorance, because you cannot un-know what a stripper knows about people, about men, about bodies, about money, and about consent.

Same deal here: all the benefits and none of the responsibilities—but then, “dark human vending machine”?! My god, what purple prosy 19th century white slavery tract did we just wander into? Is this woman a sex work activist or a sex worker exclusionary feminist? Because her language and her dismissal of our bodily agency reek of swefdom.

You are stepping on stage for the women who came before you and were so cast aside for their sluttiness and simultaneously so exploited for it that their lives ended up in a tangle of addiction. Anna Nicole Smith, Courtney Love, that girl at your local strip club on a Sunday night. You are representing them. You are representing the women who truly believed they were empowered by their stripper career, only to find themselves 3, 6, or 10 years in wondering why they are unable to have a healthy sexual relationship. You are taking the stage for the women who are practitioners of this art professionally who get in fights with their boyfriends over and over about why they never want to have sex. Your exotic pole performance is pulling from the lives and culture of women who, to this day, disassociate when they have sex due to the undeniable need to do so in the club as a means of survival. When you turn the light of presence off, you don’t get to select special places to receive a glow. One cannot selectively numb. You have a duty to be present in your body for the people who can’t be.

Where to even start with this? As a former Writing 121 tutor, I’m glad she can use punctuation and that’s the only positive comment I have so far, because the rhetoric here is as feverish and the facts as off as any 121 paper I ever read.  Any sex work activist (and most feminists) knows that “sluttiness” and sex work are not inextricably entwined; what we do at work is not “sluttiness,” it’s performance.  It’s similar to what pole hobbyists do, only better-looking and actually profitable.  You know, we get paid to perform the current heterosexist understanding of desire, they all pay to look stupid.  I know it’s confusing, but bear with me. I see where she meant to go with this, because whorephobia is a massive problem, and the misogynist backlash against women who act out in any way, let alone sexually, is real, but calling it “sluttiness” elides the real problem and reifies it in a way that is neither true nor useful.

In the same way that no sex worker or stripper ever actually asked to be represented in this fashion, I have to tell you, none of us asked to have any personal life issues we have, Anna Nicole may have had, Courtney may have, used as reasons to encourage pole hobbyists. There are problems with the industry, as any sex worker already knows. These problems are not unique to the industry, rather, they stem from endemic societal misogyny, disdain for feminized labor, rape culture, white supremacy, capitalism.  

To put pole hobbyists in a position where they are somehow repping for an imaginary mass of damaged-goods dancers is even more insulting than when Kelly From the City (original source since deleted in shame) declared that she respects strippers, but what she does on the pole is better than what we can do since we are reduced to sad shuffling because of our daddy issues.  It’s the cheapest of misogynist digs.  And as an advocate for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, as someone who has my own history of abuse and trauma, I’m deeply disgusted by the casual way she handles our imagined mass trauma, writing it off as caused by the club, erasing it from the history of “pole” as she understands it, leaving it up to her and hobbyists like her to “redeem” our imaginary collective trauma through their performances.

Are you serious with this?

The incoherent nonsense and the misogynist stereotypes here are grotesque, but don’t start thinking she’s anywhere close to her peak. She’s just hitting her stride.

You are the potentially the first generation of women EVER who can spread their legs on a stage before a paid audience and do so without fear of bodily harm or social punishment.

I’m sure it gets her off to think so, but no.  Many of us have taken to the stage before a—what’s that?  A paid audience?  They’re all so bad they have to pay people to watch them?  I’ll be charitable and write that off as a Freudian slip, her own quiet fear of her inadequacy and hubris coming out in her shoddy rhetoric—before a paying audience without fear of bodily harm or social punishment.  These things are a potential reality, but they are not inevitable or unavoidable, thus, you know, so many real live sex workers tearing shit up and getting paid! 

You are permitted this immense responsibility because exotic dance has broken from its main line of labor into a tiny vein of art. Certainly, it has always been art, and if you don’t think seduction is art, I would invite you to step on a stage in front of a hungry audience and show me how it’s not.

The level of arrogance and entitlement and certainty that her knowledge is unquestionably correct is starting to nauseate me, but I’m nothing if not dogged.  It’s why I have so many dogs and annoy so many people.  So no, it hasn’t broken from its “main line of labor into a tiny vein of art.” Strippers have perfected pole work and made it look cool and people like Jessica Alba and Diplo, both eager to turn a profit off someone else’s body, spread it around.  But pole work has nothing to do with seduction or sexuality. Any stripper will tell you it’s the least profitable thing to do onstage (the most profitable, depending on state obscenity laws, being humping the ground while making eye contact, fingering yourself, or pretending to go down on another dancer, in order of least to most profitable: pole work is not on that list). And being able to hustle a crowd into paying you is an art and a skill, but is it seduction?  Do we really know of what we speak here?  I think not.  


Historically, “seduction” is not an unloaded word or act; it was used as a euphemism for rape in legal cases up until the early 20th century.  To seduce a woman was not solely to make her fall in love with you, it was to do so, fuck or rape her, and then abandon her to her ruin.  Lydia Bennett was seduced. Clarissa was seduced by Lovelace. And Kierkegaard, in Diary of a Seducer, was not simply making Cordelia fall in love with him; he was doing so with the objective of ruining her happiness for his own pleasure.  Even today, “seduction” implies effort expended on an uninterested subject, someone who doesn’t want you.  

While strippers are at work, is what they do seduction?  I prefer to think of it as hustling.  I dislike the deliberate mystification of sex work by high-end workers intent on cultivating their own glamour and image, using words like “seduction,” “intimacy,” and “authentic pleasure” when all of that is a facade put on the better to sell a commodified sexual or sexualized service to a man who thinks it’s what he desires.

Sex work is work, real hard work in often uncomfortable conditions—freezing in the summer because the customers are all clothed and who gives a fuck that we’re naked, also freezing in the winter because why pay a heating bill ever? Have you ever met a generous strip club owner?  I mean really, one who was willing to spend top dollar to make sure everyone in the club was comfortable and having a good experience?  I haven’t either, and I don’t think Drake is starting a new trend. We hustle.  We’re car salesmen, except our product is fleeting and ephemeral and our customers are drunk.  We’re artists of the drawn-out sentence and the implicit but never-spoken promise. We’re tough broads with our eyes on the bottom line and a lot of greedy hands demanding payout before we get to leave. Are we seducers?  I’m a hustler; you can be a seducer if you want.

Strippers create a sexual connection on a stage without touching anyone at all. They make their audience aware of their own desire, awaken it, and make them mindful of their need for touch. Strippers go into a room of 300 men and make each of them feel like they’re the only one in it.

Do we create a sexual connection?  Nia exercises a total lack of understanding of the reality of the work of sex work in her offensiveness when talking about our imagined trauma histories and her extreme starry-eyed naïveté over what she considers the artistry of seduction and pole work.  None of that rings true. Working as a stripper will quickly disabuse you of all of these notions should you be so unfortunate as to have them. When stripping is your job, your income, your day-to-day reality, you meet so many women from all over. You meet women stripping for reasons as trite as a college degree, or as pressing as keeping housed, or for better hours with their kids, or to buy a new car, to pay off loans, to get better credit, or to get a mortgage. Stripping is some of the best-paid work that women of any education level can get.  I know a realtor who quit because stripping was better money, I know a high school drop-out who quit Rite Aide because stripping was better money (that’s me, by the way. Only I only worked at Rite Aide for one day because I’m quick on my feet and it was obvious that anything would be better than that).  

The bottom line is, we strip because it’s better than minimum wage. And when any group of women is together, the odds of sexual assault survivors being among them go up too.  That’s not hard math, and it doesn’t make us traumatized waifs who need to be represented by Nia and her pole-dancing ilk. 

You learn to respect women, as a stripper.  Even women you don’t like, they have their own hustle and their own shit and they’re living their own lives. They’re people who actively engage in their lives, they aren’t being dropped out of a vending machine, however much Nia Burks may have loved that metaphor.  It’s hard to see how someone could strip and walk away from the industry seeing women as so passive and helpless.  It’s hard to see how someone could call themselves a sex worker activist and see sex workers as so passive and helpless.

The sex industry is bad for the reasons that the world is bad: misogyny, rape culture, racism, white supremacy, capitalism.  Strip clubs are a closed market circus with all of these elements in play. Sexual assaults happen. I was assaulted a lot at a few of my clubs, mostly by staff, sometimes by customers.  But this, the callousness of this:

They literally put their bodies up for rent to the highest bidder.

We put our bodies up for rent for the highest bidder?  You go onstage, you get tips, you circle the crowds, and hustle the men.  Ain’t no one got time for an auction here. Stripping is money earned in $1 and $20 dollar increments, more if you get VIP. He didn’t buy you off the auction block, you both negotiated for your time with conflicting interests: he wants the most bang for the most minimal buck, you want to give as little bang as possible for the most amount of money (hence upselling).  I have never in all my years in the industry heard of anyone auctioned off to the highest bidder.  Jokes about auctioning off virginity, yes.  Putting our bodies up for auction, no.

Strippers work to make drunk men horny enough to pay to get their dicks ground on by our asses: that’s it, that’s the job. If she wants to call that sexual connection, that’s her business, but everyone I know would laugh at that.  “It’s hustling,” my friend says.  “Don’t overthink it.”

Their resilience in the face of abuse is uncanny. Strippers are magicians. Have you ever met a woman who was physically assaulted in VIP then told to take the stage right after, only to perform sex like it was her destiny to do so? I have. The ability to be bitten and then immediately go right back into the snake pit is nothing short of magic. Conjuring that is a skill set I hope you will never need.

And this?  This?  I’ve met many women who’ve been assaulted, both in and out of the club, and let me tell you: the expectation is that women will always carry on with our lives because we live in a misogynist rape culture which doesn’t take sexual assault seriously and doesn’t give us space to process trauma. Treating a woman’s ability to continue to work despite sexual assault as if it’s a magical skill set unique to strippers and a trauma unique to strippers is hugely insulting to every survivor ever and deeply minimizing of the actual brutality of sexual assault.  

Josephine went through the archives and found another gem by Nia, “The Christopher Columbus-ing of the Pole World and Its Effect on Stripper Natives,” a headline already so loaded I’m shaking my head, but let me just give you a taste of the madness within (emphases added):

I find it imperative to start off by stating that by no means do I aim to compare the history of the pole world to the genocide that enabled the establishment of this country; I have simply noticed a similarity in the narrative of the discovery and subsequent Manifest Destiny of pole, and I find it essential to acknowledge troublesome histories through comparison. With that said, I must also acknowledge myself as the messenger of an idea which I cannot entirely claim as my own. I have multiple terminal degrees, straight white teeth, no addictions, no baby daddies. The home I have created for myself is relatively stable and I have no immediate Earth shattering crisis to deal with that threaten my physiological needs. I am a well written, well spoken, pedigreed artist, theorist, and educator, so the messages that I have here will be conventionally more palatable coming from me than from my stripper sisters who fail to articulate these ideas in a way that is appreciated by a world that lends less credibility to the voices and experiences of women with “questionable” moral integrity and unsophisticated language.

I feel like she found my Gr8 Pole Deb8 tag and thought I was onto something but didn’t like my swearing.  Fair enough, some people find it off-putting being called a fucking twat.

But she’s so cluelessly classist and racist she can’t even do a good job plagiarizing.  Her concept of U.S. history is jacked, her condescension to strippers beyond palpable. This is more insulting than Kelly from the City ever dreamt of being, feeding off cliche after cliche to write this masturbatory post, simply making up history where she isn’t sure of it, fatuously comparing pole hobbyists and strippers to Civil Rights Era activists is a metaphor that needs to be flushed, and finishing off with:

Here’s the real history: Fitness enthusiasts, failed gymnasts, and folks bored with Zumba set sail to find new movement based inspiration. They got lost, stumbled upon friendly strippers who invited them to hang out. Strippers shared, because when you know what it’s like to have nothing, you give everything.

What do any of we strippers have, really? To paraphrase a former sex worker made good, Michelle Tea: we’ve got our truths and our bodies, and I think that’s it. Nia Burks and her like have no right to either.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Ariel June 6, 2017 at 5:08 am

Another great article by Red!

Reply

Amanda Brooks June 8, 2017 at 12:38 pm

Wow. I have no words, and I applaud Red for climbing into the dark vending machine of Nia’s mind. Ick.

Stripping is the furthest thing ever from an expression of my sexuality (though I never learned to do pole work). It was a JOB. JOB. The most boring, routine job I’ve ever had, but still, a JOB.

Even though escort work, by its nature, comes closer to my real sexuality, it’s still a JOB, it’s still WORK. And when I’m off work, then I can sexually express myself however I like, or not.

There’s so much more here to touch on, this is just what caught me: how all civvies think sex work is about sex and not about work.

Reply

Lux ATL June 13, 2017 at 2:56 pm

Who the hell did the research for this article? Nia was a stripper for a decade. Like me, she doesn’t portray stripping as some inherently feminist act of WOW FUN EMPOWERING.

I myself was a stripper for 16 years. I have a podcast called Stripcast that tells my stories. Y’all at T and S have in fact covered my art numerous times.

Yet here you are, flaming one of the FEW ACTUAL STRIPPERS who represent for us within the pole hobbyist community?

The seemingly deliberate misreading of this piece truly boggles the mind of this former English professor.

Way off base with this one, T and A. Waaaaaay off base.

Reply

Red June 13, 2017 at 10:18 pm

hey lux! i actually never explicitly stated that Nia isn’t a stripper. I’m not sure what to make of your argument that I misrepresented Nia’s essay, as I literally quoted it! What interpretation would you suggest?

Reply

Red June 13, 2017 at 10:23 pm

maybe next time you can proof read for her so she doesn’t describe strip clubs as human vending machines?

Reply

Red June 13, 2017 at 10:43 pm

also i want to add, without any glibness, that while it’s obvious that Nia’s intentions with this were good, intentions don’t change what is an excruciatingly offensive, and almost entirely factually inaccurate, blog post. So maybe you can talk to her and help her to see why characterising all strippers as sexually assaulted bodies being auctioned off to the highest bidder who need to be represented by people who aren’t themselves, is objectionable?

warmly,

Red

Reply

JS June 14, 2017 at 3:54 pm

Yeah it doesn’t matter if she was a stripper. It’s still an appalling piece of writing. I’m shocked you could be a stripper for so long and write about your coworkers like this.

Reply

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