Posted on 07 October 2016

Does Pole Dancing Perpetuate Sexism?

Our society is hard-wired to sexualize pole dancing – a fact that, in the 21st century, disproportionately affects women.

In a game of word association the phrase “pole dancing” is more likely to elicit connotations such as “hot,” “sexy,” and “erotic” than it is “strength,” “poise,” and “grace,” all words that are often used to describe other forms of dance.

Many feminists cry foul, as pole dancing is rarely recognized as anything other than a performance for the male gaze to prey upon, and yet women are beginning to embrace this style of dance by the thousands.  

So in the 21st century is pole dancing simply sexist, or is it an empowering art form?

The History of Pole Dancing

By now you’ve probably seen Timeline’s viral video, “The History of Pole Dancing,” which notes that this art form dates back all the way back to the 12th century when Chinese circus professionals would wow crowds by performing strength-based tricks on a rubber-laced pole. Pole’s historical origins in the Eastern world are an important nod to one aspect of modern pole dancing, namely strength and acrobatics, giving basis to the increasing popularity of pole dancing as a form of fitness. While many advocates for the sport stop the narrative here, it does a great injustice to an equally important part of pole dancing history in which the exotic dancer was given new life in the Americas.

Pole dancing’s introduction into the Western world has much steamier origins dating back to the traveling fairs of the 1900s. Here, girls would dance suggestively on the poles used to hold up their tents. These “hoochie coochie” girls, as they came to be known, began to incorporate elements of striptease, and burlesque into their performances, making it the sexy affair we know today.

It’s important to acknowledge that pole dancing is not so one-sided as to be merely a form of fitness, or just a kind of exotic dance. It’s a dynamic art which pulls from many different inspirations and should be celebrated as such. It’s also important to note, that no aspect of pole dancing’s rich history is definitively sexist. Many women engaged in the art of pole dancing throughout the years have flouted society’s rules to do so, taking power into their own hands.   

A look at modern day pole dancing which includes elements of acrobatics and exotic dance. Pictured here, instructor and performer Megan Breanna stuns in a pair of Artista Active Wear Black Ruched Shorts. Photo courtesy of Moments by Keeley.

The Uniform

There’s a practical reason behind the limited clothing worn by pole dancers, whether they are exotic dancers or fitness-fanatics. It’s something called skin grab.

Clothing to pole contact creates very little friction, making one’s ability to hold onto the pole nearly impossible. While introductory spins, tricks and poses can typically be performed fully-attired, as a performer becomes more advanced, they’ll require more skin grab across their body.

Some body areas that are commonly used to create friction with the pole include the upper inner thighs, gluteal fold, stomach, inner-bicep, knee pit, elbow and shoulder. This makes attire such a sports bra and shorts with a small inseam appropriate for performers and not a feminist setback.

A practical pole uniform. Brand Ambassador, Dez Raven rocks the Artista Active Wear Sugar Skulls Purple Set.

The Objectification and Exploitation of Performers

There will always be controversy over whether or not this type of performance objectifies and exploits performers, because one can never control the audience’s reaction. In order for pole dancing to advance the progressive narrative of empowerment it comes down to a simple question of consent on the part of the performer: are they performing of their own volition?

A pole dancer’s choice of attire can certainly be used to elicit a hyper-sexualized response, as is the case with strippers. However, this choice is purposeful and intentional on the part of the performer. There’s nothing wrong with tapping into and celebrating one’s sexuality. By choosing to make their performance a celebration of their body, the power lies in the hands of the performer and not the audience.

On the flip-side, there are plenty of performers who aren’t looking to show off their sexuality, but rather demonstrate an art in which this limited clothing is simply the uniform. Here, a performer is showing off a little explored purpose of the body; that our largest organ – our skin – can be used to create art on the pole.

Just as professional swimmers, gymnasts, wrestlers and runners often wear revealing clothing, it serves a practical function allowing the athlete to perform at an optimal level. And let’s not forget the male divers at the Rio Olympics whose tiny speedos weren’t even visible thanks to the results bar covering them up? In the aftermath of this incident, there was little backlash calling for these men to put on more clothes, yet praise was abundant.

Male Divers at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games who were praised for their limited clothing. Photo courtesy of The Daily Mail.

The Male to Female Ratio

It’s no big secret that more women participate in pole dancing than men. But consider how our society defines masculinity and the ridicule a male faces for doing something so stereotypically classified as “feminine,” when in reality the strength and conditioning required to be a successful pole dancer is something I challenge anybody of any sex to try and conquer. The problem here doesn’t lie with pole dancing itself, but with our social norms.

We live in a world where women still face many challenges in their fight for equality, the glass ceiling and the pay gap are but a few of the problems that continue to evade women in the 21st century. Pole dancing is not one of these issues.

It’s time that we let go of the notion that pole dancing perpetuates sexism. It is equal parts strength and sexuality, dance and sport, but it is 100 percent empowering.


Ashley Steel fell into the world of pole dancing in the same way she once broke her foot – completely by accident and with much bruising. Currently a novice she hopes to be a performer someday. She’s continually amazed by the cast of characters she meets within the world of aerial arts and loves exploring the topic of female empowerment within the industry. When not pole dancing she can be found painting or playing with her pig, Henry.  

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1 comment

  • Sarah: November 29, 2017

    Thanks for this insightful article. I wonder if you could perhaps help me out or give some advice…I’m thinking of subscribing to an online pole dancing class, I heard it is great for fitness and fun too. Problem is, I don’t know much about it though I keep reading reviews about it but can’t make up my mind as to which course or lessons to go with. Or does it not matter and they are all kind of the same? I would like to get your personal opinion on this. I have read a review on which covers some recommended courses. Which one would you say is the best to start out with, I don’t have the type of budget to sign up to all of them and I am no expert. I would love to hear your reply and your recommendation. Kind regards.

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