I stepped into the neon green studio, and felt a little apprehensive about what I was about to do. Black, white and silver poles stood tall and steady on bare wooden floors; they looked both intimidating and exciting. I imagined swinging from them like a dark-haired exotic dancer I once watched perform, and wondered if I would be able to flex and contort my body the way she did. Probably not. I thought about getting the upper body strength to crush 10 000 men, and being a smaller, but no less powerful version of Wonder Woman. I did not, once, consider that what I was about to do could cancel my feminist licence. Was engaging in a workout that is still viewed as performative sexuality me perpetuating patriarchy? Was I complicit in my own marginalisation?
There is an ongoing debate within feminist circles whether women who flaunt their sexuality are empowered free-agents, and reclaiming their bodies, or suffering from internalised sexism, and reinforcing cis-heteronormative ideas about sexual freedom. The debate around sex and sexuality is reduced to a simplistic binary where sexual expression becomes either a source of strength and empowerment or self-objectification; either a means of subverting the patriarchy, or pandering to it. Simplifying complex social issues to binary categories leaves no scope for nuance or critical thought; human beings are multi-faceted, and the systems we produce represent that multiplicity; it’s all fifty shades of grey, baby.
Every feminist recognises the necessity to disrupt the patriarchal order that monitors and regulates women’s bodies, and measures their worth according to cis-male standards. However, the methodologies and approaches feminists employ to challenge such a violent system remains a source of tension. Those who work in the sex industry, in particular, are demonised and accused of subverting the feminist agenda by actively and aggressively catering to the male gaze. First coined by Laura Mulvey, the term ‘male gaze’ suggests that in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male, and passive/female.
The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure which is, then, styled accordingly. In other words, the woman is given meaning by and value in how the male views her. The male gaze dictates that a sexually active and expressive woman is impure and depraved, yet holds that virgins are prudish and dull. It separates women into a Good Girl/ Bad Girl dichotomy, and places them on a spectrum of desirability. On this spectrum, women are expected to locate that sweet spot where they can be sexy, but not whorish, and modest without being pious- a little like Goldilocks; not too hot or too cold, but just right.
Since society is structured according to the male gaze, it is this foundation that determines what sexual freedom looks like and how it should be performed. Whether or not you participate in what Ariel Levy calls ‘raunch culture’ you ultimately respond to the male gaze and open yourself up to criticism in alignment with patriarchal assumptions. Herein lies the conundrum: is it possible to subvert the patriarchy even while ostensibly catering to it? How do I navigate and negotiate the complex and often contradictory desires for gender equality and sexual desire? How do I know that my sexual desires are my own, and not constructed on what cis-males find desirable?
Third Wave Feminism posits that each woman must decide for herself how to negotiate gender equality and sexual liberation. This style of ‘choice feminism’ begun as an acknowledgement and respect for pluralism and self-determination, but evolved into an insidious phenomenon as a result of the commodification of empowerment. I see you, “The future is female” T-shirt for only R200. Apart from the aforementioned, the feminist critique that individual choices have wider social repercussions holds, and needs to be interrogated.
When you (woman, femme or queer) express your individuality, how does that expression feed into/ influence the narrative about marginalised persons, such as yourselves? When are you being your most authentic self, and when are you a mediated body, trying to own the compromises you were coerced into making under a patriarchal system? And is compromising such a dirty thing to do? While recognising that empowerment is not a one-size-fits-all, I suggest that sexual expression does not need to feel/ be empowering; it can simply be.
I started pole dancing because I have a masochistic dream to contort my body into a pretzel while spinning from a chrome pole in 9-inch heels. I don’t know whether or not I am empowered by this sport, since I’m too busy caring for rainbow-coloured bruises and stiff muscles. However, in time I have come to realise that not everything I do needs to either feel or be empowering.
While I’ve heard fellow pole dancers claim that pole dancing has made them fall in love with their bodies again, I haven’t yet felt that way, and it’s okay. I recognise that feminism is not solely an ideological belief; feminism is a way of life. If one claims to believe in gender justice, equality, and freedom, one must practice that belief, especially within the private space. But I am unwilling to renounce a hobby I enjoy simply because it caters to the male gaze. Men cannot be allowed to monopolise sex and sexuality; I will disrupt any male-dominated space and claim it for myself. And I don’t think it gets more feminist than that.
Danielle Hoffmeester is the Project Assistant for the Gender Justice and Reconciliation project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.