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“So, Like, Are You A Stripper?”: A Pole Dancers Guide To A Very Common Question

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So, are you like a stripper?

“So, like, are you a stripper?”

I conducted a survey for a talk I did at a conference in September, and 65.5% of those surveyed have been directly asked if they were strippers upon sharing the fact that they were pole dancers. It isn’t surprising that a curious friend, family member, or coworker would ask this. Pole’s ARE, in fact, often found in strip clubs and strippers DO use them while at work ( crazy, right?). Asking that question is usually harmless curiosity, and based in a desire to want to understand what it is we do. While this question isn’t a stretch for someone who has limited knowledge of what we do as artists and athletes, I would like to spend this blog post discussing why engaging in a conversation that begins with it could be problematic and dangerous for both strippers and studio pole dancers.

I’d like to call this writing a precursor to the talk that I will be doing at Pole Con 2015. While at the conference in N’awlins, I will be specifically discussing how a non sex worker can respect the lives and work of sex workers. Yes, y’all. Strippers are sex workers. For now, I will dissect the “are you a stripper?” question, and make suggestions on how to navigate this discussion in a manner that is positive and respectful for all involved.

“What does it mean and why is it problematic or dangerous when someone asks me if I am a stripper?”, you ask?
First off, the question calls your autonomy into question. Autonomy is defined as a person’s capacity to make informed decisions for themselves. By posing this question, the asker is suggesting that they should have permission to access the decisions you make about your body. Though this is often very innocent and based purely in curiosity, it’s important for people to set healthy boundaries for themselves and the people around them with regards to their own ideas of how they govern themselves. This question queries your agency as a person.

Further, the question puts the askers moral compass at the center of the discussion, and that is actually a huge problem because all of our moral compasses can and should be as varied and awesome as our dance styles. Its what makes us unique and amazing. Ammiright? Yeh? Answering yes or no generally creates a sticky situation. Here are some examples:

– If you say yes, you run the risk of having to deal with the askers (potentially ignorant) judgement: “Wow. I can’t believe you would do that. I would never do that.”
– If you say yes, you could also potentially be (innocently!) objectified by the asker: “Oh, really!? Like, you really do that? OMG!” or “Woahhhh. Hey, (insert friend’s name here), she’s actually a stripper!”
– If you say no, you might be enabling someones moral superiority: “Oh good. You know how those girls are!”
– Depending on the tone of your no, you might even be perorating your own moral superiority: “NO, and I NEVER would!”

This last example is possibly the most detrimental to pole dancers and sex workers alike, as it contributes to the already stigmatized condition that strip clubs exist in. I’ll be talking about stripper shaming specifically at Pole Con.
Lastly, the question assumes that stripping/sexy dance is the singular purpose of pole. This is where we have an opportunity to connect and educate others about our art/sport. This assumption-in-the-form-of-a-question isn’t unfounded, actually. The media represents pole dancing as something that only naughty emotionally damaged or “morally questionable” (just so you know, I am rolling my eyes so hard as I typed that) women do at clubs for money. Its natural for someone who knows little about us to assume thats who we are. But its a massive and dangerous problem—not because stripping and sexy is a problem, but rather, because singular identity is. When people make claims, decisions, and questions that are uninformed, then the result is inaccurate to the actual condition of the thing in question. Stripping and sexy is a facet of pole’s identity, not a reflection of it.

When someone asks you if you are a stripper, whether conscious or not, they are really saying “I am asking you what you with your body on your time because I need to classify you in order to make myself more comfortable in this situation.” Again, this can be quite innocent and usually is not malicious, but at the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if the comfort of those around us is more important than our own actions and convictions. Obviously, this has to be determined on an individual basis.

So, what can you do when asked that oh-so-common question? I have a few suggestions and a few qualifiers to previously mentioned answers. Some of these will spark positive discussion, while some are good ways to avoid discussion in an uncomfortable situation, and others might just down right shut someone down (politely, of course! We are all nice boys and girls! But this does not mean that we are required to be ambassadors of pole every minute of the day). Every person has to decide where and how they want to navigate this space. I’d be happy to hear other way’s this has been handled by pole community members.

“So, like, are you a stripper?” List of Potential Responses:

  1. Please do not ask me to answer to you regarding the decisions I make about my life.
  2. Is it important that know that about me?
  3. Yes. Is that a concern for you?
  4. No, but they sure do work hard.
  5. Is there a specific answer that you’re looking for?
  6. I can see how that would be the first thing that would come to mind, would you like to come take a class with me and see what its all about?
  7. Actually, I draw my main inspiration from ballet/modern/contemporary/lyrical, but sexy/stripper/exotic pole dance is awesome to watch too.
  8. Why? Do you need some lessons!? (Say this while hip rolling or booty smackin for extra comedic relief!)
  9. Pole dancing is actually really expanding to many movement based disciplines, isn’t that awesome that so many types of people can come together in one place?
  10.  Wow, thanks. I am glad that you can see my confidence. I work really hard on loving myself this much.

Nia Burks

Nia Burks

I am a professor of Digital Art and Media Theory at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va, where my research includes (but is not limited to) gender politics and identity, body positivity, and mediated images of women. I am a sex work activist, a pole dance instructor with specific focus given to theatrical performance as well as plus size performers, and a video/sound artist. I am interested in the "art" side of pole, though I do love the trick/athletic side as well. My interest in academia and art theory has led me to consider pole in the same manner as I do any other fine art medium. I hope to be able to perform and write about pole in a manner that is both informed and humble.
Nia Burks

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