The Pole-arizing Taboo of Female Sexuality

It may seem odd to write about female sexuality for our issue on all things taboo, yet female sexuality remains taboo on many levels. For one thing, many women still blush when discussing their body and in particular their genitalia. For another, there is the way that many women struggle with their bodies, what they should look like, what they can do, what feels good and what feels dangerous. Somehow we are, all of us, women and men, still tethered to a culturally driven image of sexuality, and particularly female sexuality — as soft, round, gentle, and pink. It is still taboo to be female and embody sexuality in the 21st century, and pole dancing (really?) offers a potential entry to the owning and embodying of the female erotic. Yes, really.

Pole dancing is something that most of us think of as sexy dancing, bringing physical images to mind of scantily clad women wrapping their limbs around a pole, undulating their hips and torso to sinuous music. See? Even the written description is sexy! Strippers, lap dancers, and burlesque performers seem to know, implicitly, that movement has a sensuous language that can connect the dancer to her sexuality and make others feel it as well. In comparison to these women, the rest of us may continue to be challenged when it comes to fully owning our sex and how we like it, as well as getting down with our individual sensuality and how we embody it. Enter the documentary My Erotic Body by the artist Michele Beck, in which she captures images of the everyday woman – the mother, daughter, bank clerk, CEO – pole dancing, and articulating their erotic sensibilities through movement and dance. Beck’s film tells the story of women finding their desire while dancing and moving within a small group of other women who encourage, validate, and celebrate sexuality in any form. And all of this occurs within a darkened classroom that teaches women how to dance with a pole and aims to help them discover their “erotic creature.” Indeed, the women that Beck captures on film and interviews have done just that.

Kim Wednesday, "The Birth of Tragedy"

Some might think of this as fourth wave feminism, something that builds on the works that first, second, and third wave feminism brought to light (women’s suffrage, equal rights, women as sexual subjects rather than objects, challenging heterosexuality as normalcy, establishing political advocacy, to name a few). The idea of discovering one’s sexuality amongst other women is reminiscent of the women’s groups in the 1960’s that empowered women to look and discover what lay down there and what it might be like to own it rather than be ashamed of it. But this film is much more, it is about the personal journey of woman reclaiming and sometimes, finding for the first time, who she is and what she likes through her experiences with movement and pole dancing. Beck’s movie reveals real women talking about real experiences and doing it for themselves.

Sex and sexuality have been the number one taboo topic since the beginning of time. The body, its needs and urges, has always retained a bit of the prohibitive, the transgressive, the edgy, and the dangerous in its erotic iteration. Furthermore, the female body and its erotic potential has been celebrated only in so far as it has glorified masculine sexuality, but hardly ever in its own right. In fact, for most women, even as I write this piece, sexuality has been a subject of shame and, sometimes, even ridicule. Little girls are often disconnected from their bodies and their sexuality through parental, familial, religious, and cultural admonitions that define sex and pleasure as sources of shame. This is an old and still powerful story: the girl who is called a slut because she enjoys sex, or the woman who dresses “inappropriately,” so she deserves objectification and violence, the woman who is ostracized because she prefers women — the list goes on and on. Shame shuts down sexuality and its embodiment for many women, and many might spend much of their lives in search of it.

Pole dancing and the particular moves that it involves – squatting with open legs, crawling on the floor, swinging and wrapping oneself on the pole — seem to counteract the constrictions that history, society, and culture have imposed on female sexuality. It helps to liberate Woman from the inside. In fact, the classes provide ways of moving that are aimed at helping women to re-experience their bodies within an environment that is about self indulgence, in that it encourages what feels good. For some, this involves re-claiming their sexuality after having children and shedding the idea of motherhood as sexless and/or saint-like. For another, it involves reclaiming aggression as a way to protect oneself and insure that what happened in childhood never happens again. For all the women in the film, there is an element of performance that helps to create the particular erotic creature they become – the clothes, shoes, and other accouterments that they select have a powerful effect on how they embody their erotic.

In the end, this film is about women discovering their bodies and their Eros along with other women, through their validation of desire and sexuality. It is about re-discovering the female body in all of its embodied sexual potential, and needing other women as mentors and co-conspirators on the way to developing a sense of comfort and confidence in being WOMAN.

Perhaps we are still reclaiming the feminist movement. 

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