Friday, 22 May 2015

On Pole Dancers and Others ...

My last blog posting on the May 13th Conway Hall Debate on Sex Work reminded me of a piece I wrote for Facebook connections five years ago and not published more widely at the time. I reproduce it here with my usual technique of adding notes where I have something to add or I have changed my mind.

May Day 2010

Some weeks ago, there was a thread debate on feminism and I was asked to reproduce, in a more considered format, the general thrust of my argument. The origin was a difference of opinion, largely amongst women, on sex-positivity and its role in liberating women - some might say from the historic dominance of men and others might say from their own self-imposed and inherited limitations in the face of the world.

Could a pole dancer be more fulfilled than a woman who had taken up the law? Not a silly question when a political lawyer, Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of New Labour, has declared war, according to the Times of September 18th, [1] on the culture of corporate entertainment linked to lapdancing clubs.

Pole Dancing & Physical Intelligence

Even a cursory review of the 2010 US Pole Dancing championship's video shows women at the peak of physical performance to the extent that we might say that these women were showing levels of physical intelligence that easily matched the legal intelligence of Ms. Harman. [2]  One female respondent [3] noted that pole dancing itself isn't very sensual --- but I am in awe of the strength and control these dancers have over their bodies. Precisely. I was just immensely impressed with the strength and assuredness ... She added:

I arranged for a group of my girlfriends to do a pole dancing workshop a few weeks back (all of us self-described feminists - and most actively involved with woman's rights movements ... and they all found it an incredibly enriching (albeit somewhat painful) and liberating experience. I think the assumption is that its done by women for men. False. Unless of course that is your choice. It certainly wasn't any of ours."

It is not just poledancing that has been taken up by sex-positive women. There is also the capture of burlesque by arty girly girls for girls and the global girl power of belly dancing.

Progressive Feminists Just Don't Get It

But some progressive feminists just don't get it - you take what was a male demand and subvert it into female choice and empowerment and, above all, sheer fun. The splits, of course, are something that no man can do safely and not end up with a squeaky voice. All men are astonished and not a little envious at this ability ... c'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas sexe. But even if it was 'sex' - what is really so very wrong with that if it is consensual and non-exploitative or at least no more exploitative than any other activity in late capitalist society. If men and women mutually enjoy and play with forms of 'objectification', then why not?

Impressive in skill terms, pole dancing always get this faint sense of censoriousness from some feminists ... someone has 'issues' and it ain't me or my sex-positive female friends. It is always a woman's right to choose and that, in my view, includes a choice between stacking shelves in a supermarket and expressing physical intelligence before an appreciative audience ... the progressive feminist aesthetic must not be imposed on others, men or women.

The Psychology Of The Industry

Now, let's take the view of another woman on the thread ...

... you'd be surprised how many of those panty stuffing bills can add up by end of the night. You won't get rich, but you'll make more than you would answering some dentist's phone and filing his insurance claims. And you get to drink and stare at hot naked chicks all night. lol I've had far worse McJobs ...

Something to consider: there is a difference between athletic displays of pole dancing in a "non-sexualized" context outside of a stripclub environment [...] and how it's rendered in a club.

In a club, there is a lot more raw sexuality being generated from the dancers and the patrons. These currents are both harmonious and chaotic, given that so many different psychologies are bringing their lot to the table. It keeps things interesting.

There is also tons of pseudo sexual posturing and sheer hubris, in place of (or along with) technical skill. When it's done properly, by reasonably well integrated people, it's sensual and 'sexual'.... And if anyone is left feeling a bit sheepish, it's usually the onlookers. ;)

'Progressives' always look for the worst cases of exploitation and then extrapolate backwards to limit freedoms for the rest of society ... like the prohibitionists in America worked back from the drunkeness and corruption of Tammany Hall in New York and banning drink for everyone, resulting, unintentionally in the creation of American organised crime as a political force.

More Positive Approaches

Referring to, say, conditions in, say, Uzbekistan [4] is no help in referring to conditions in London or San Francisco. On the contrary, the Uzbek case also argues for economic development, regulation and normalisation, certainly the end of stigmatisation within the sex industry. The positive policy aim should be to ensure that maximum labour value is transferred to performers/workers rather than the capitalists and that the supply of sexual services (and drugs and risk games such as gambling) is in the hands of legitimate business and not organised crime.

Apart from anything else, the 'respectable' (actually rather self-centred) middle class' refusal to understand how human drives and wants must and can be met legitimately permits the large-scale accumulation of capital by organised crime. This eventually destabilises their sweet cosy world of armchair disapproval. Mexico, for example, is about to plunge into an anarcho-criminal civil war for precisely this reason [5]. I would not fancy being a 'respectable' bourgeois when that happens.

My objection to aggressive policy progressives (especially a certain sort of feminist who claims to speak without authority for all women) is that they are not merely unpleasant and authoritarian but profoundly and deeply stupid.

The Real Rights Of Non-Respectable Women

Men often hold back from comment out of a culturally determined fear of feminist reproach (I do not) and it is women themselves who come slugging back to assert their rights to make their own choices and exploit legitimately the drives and wants of men. In this context, it is women who are being deprived of the right to do what male-dominated business does in exploiting the desire and wants of women for retail therapy and cosmetic improvement. The 1970s feminists rightly demanded that women's desire to look good should not be dictated by male requirements.

Economic liberation has, nevertheless, increased fashionable and cosmetic expenditure because it is women who want to look and feel good for themselves and each other (men really don't notice quite as much as they would think). Same with sexuality - 'progressive' feminists consider all sexual objectification and performance as patriarchal. They are idiots.

Sexual Game Play

Many women, maybe most women when liberated, love sexual objectification and performance (by men for their pleasure as well) so long as they are in control of the image and the play, including games of submission and domination that are safe, equal and consensual. Many feminists are thus not feminists at all, just a-sexual or repressed or ideologically tormented or filled with 'ressentiment' or unable to play the game and don't want others to either. But it is still their right to be as they are.

My only objection is the role that they play in public policy as 'respectable' but ignorant oppressors of others, male and female, in close alliance with male moralists [6] and, dare I say it, sexual neurotics and wimps.  Most educated men have more than adapted to this new game play - the best of them play as equals, the weakest simply act as pawns shelling out their cash for temporary if necessary gratification.

The liberatory process now requires that men and women understand and respect each other's natures and adapt without abuse or exploitation in their personal relations and, if necessary, accepting mutual exploitation on equal terms with full information. Here is the place to refer to Elizabeth Pisani's TED lecture on sexuality and health care - a brilliant exposition of a scientific approach to human rationality - the brief interview with the Indonesian transgender prostitute captures the point perfectly. Sexual services are rational on all sides.

The analysis by my friend (above) of what actually goes on in a Western 'establishment' is spot on. There is a sort of controlled sub-Dionysiac erotic tension that is just play-acting in which both sides get something out of the exchange. Included in this exchange is a powerful sense of domination from the performing side over men in a position of unfulfilled desire - the classic 'tease', only controlled and within bounds. Burlesque once had the same function.

There is a type of person who cannot comprehend the powerful cathartic effect on this play-acting which is certainly not orgiastic, is a game between moral equals, is carefully calibrated and which ends when the performance ends. Men are still often pigs but in real life far more than in the theatre. Personally, I don't get it 'in situ' but then the theatre to me is a relatively uninteresting experience. I am not one ever to suspend disbelief. My reaction is the simple pleasure of observation without any sense of power or control on either side, an erotic voyeurism best appreciated without the audience.

I much prefer a conversation with the person and, if it leads to consensual pleasures, they are, for me, non-commercial. I sell only my alleged charm and genuine interest. I buy with that currency only appreciation and the sensuality towards which a conversation may lead. I truly love and like women even when they mystify and confuse me. I would rather spend my evenings listening to women talk than getting my pleasures from a gang of men watching but not participating in sports or the strip. But then I always was a bit different :-)

The Criminalisation of Pleasure

Some women once earned substantial sums and gained significant social respect in underworld societies through the sex industry before progressives and fundamentalists began to undermine the economic base of that community in the 1920s and 1930s in America. Although this began with Comstock and was represented by the Hays Code's deadening effect in a later period, puritanism just drove women underground, lowering pay levels and increasing abuse and exploitation and control of the 'trade' by larger-scale criminal enterprises.

The war on sexuality is a sociopathic war, an exploitative war against the human spirit and, above all, a war on the weak by the 'respectable'. Our biggest child abuse scandal is not in lap-dancing clubs but inside the Roman Catholic Church amongst 'Christians'. Since the 1970s, the emergence of soft visual 'porn', the feminisation of burlesque, stripping as a legitimate business and pole and lap dancing has created a middle way. Good business ensures [7] that the girls are protected (and not as well as they would be if they were recognised and unionised instead of stigmatised) as the best means of getting some men to pay for the yachts of other men through indulging their pleasures and weakness.

The 'harder' end of the industry has a much tougher time now as a result - the internet 'gives away' much material and the new 'soft' industries give outlets for beautiful women with no other prospects the chance to make money without actually selling use of body. Of course, they may choose to sell direct sex and there are still serious issues to do with exploitation but those who do know what they are doing can do so at higher prices with more protection.

The Price of Stigma

Intelligent regulation and enforcement would help stabilise wages but only where the industry is not stigmatised, staffed with migrants and pushed underground under the patronage of criminals corruptly suborning law enforcement, all thanks to the 'respectable' society of feminism and christian moralism. Again, the problem is one of economics, stigma and idiocy ... there is a lot of research that is inconvenient to progressives and feminists on this. There is not only Pisani's common sense approach.  Laura Maria Augustin's book on 'Sex at the Margins' looks set to demonstrate what most researchers know - that the sex trade represents rational choice in a world of globalisation and poverty.

Other British research is conveniently never referred to by organisations like the Fawcett Society when they slip from campaigning (rightly) on equal pay and rights into feminist ideology on matters of sexuality. My sex-positive friend added in my defence as the thread progressed that:

I think Tim (and I know I can say this for myself) would like to see women and men culturally and socially situated where they are being nurtured in all ways that will produce the healthiest and happiest people ...

...who are truly free to make the choices that will please them, armed with the basics of educations, options for earning decent livings.

I agree with her. She added that we were in a time of radical cultural flux:

People are experimenting with different religions than the ones they were raised, or not raised to adhere to. The sexual revolution has it's most recent incarnation in the gay rights movement, which is in full swing, and is no small challenge.

Communication has provided the means for "regular" people to conduct intelligence gathering, which has resulted in the Catholic Church, for instance, being cornered on their numerous, planet wide, long standing pattern of child abuse.

[...] In any thriving society, the able help the able to thrive and conquer. That which is crumbling and falling is in that condition for a reason, and (under many circumstances) should be allowed to continue to deteriorate. I do not mean people. I mean conditions.

[...] on the subject of exploitation. Some of the women you would meet in that industry who have the biggest personal problems would not argue the case that they were being exploited.

In fact, they'd very proudly tell you that they were the exploiters, and having been closer to some of them than I'd ever like to be again, I can confirm that some deeply antisocial personalities who, like other criminal types, are outcast by personality default from "normal' society, wind up in sex work.

So much for the myth of the "sad, forlorn hooker with a heart of gold." I've never met one. They are survivors. And survivors tend to be grazing at the low end of the human spectrum.

They are not living in any sort of constructive way, and they don't want anyone else to be either. Soul crushed people. They get fired a lot, even from strip clubs. ;)

A Hard Realism Required

That hard realism is part of the point. The 'survivor' has a distinctive psychology, one that passes by the armchair ideologist and the theoretician, incomprehensible to the comfortable lives of the middle class winner whose own resentments underpin an essential cruelty towards those struggling below them. The question [8] often is: what are we going to do with the sociopath?. The authoritarian instinct is to contain or militarise, the progressive is to pretend that they do not exist or that they can be 'reformed'.

But there is no evidence that sociopathy can be fully contained or reformed out of society (it even has species-survival benefits) - and it certainly needs to be recognised. This fact really upsets liberals who persist in thinking that 'bad behaviour' can be corrected through imposed love and education. Sociopathy and other inconvenient behaviours (like sexual enthusiasm, gambling, addiction, drugs and so on) need to be noticed as real (the first failing of 'nice' society) and then engaged with and socialised.

Only then can we contain harm, not through idiot prohibitionism or burdensome and moralising regulation but through practical and rational incentive-based policy, much as Pisani suggests. This seems to be impossible for the limited brains of politicians, churchmen or liberal ideologists to comprehend. The middle class liberal often cannot face the extremity of evil to be found in the world. So they cannot punish serious harm. Serious sociopathy is just 'understood' and killers roam the streets within a few years of acts that cripple and destroy the lives of others.

It is axiomatic, for example, to these 'wets' that the death penalty is always and absolutely wrong. Those on the margin have no such illusions. They know there are tolerance boundaries and they set them firmly. For the liberal, there is no margin because of the silly belief in absolute equality and in redemption - stupid inheritances from Christian theory - and a genuine fear of 'struggle', the necessity for persons to make mistakes, take risks, gamble, to get out of Hell and into the 'Community'.

Most people's experience of Hell is romanticised and mediatised through film and television. It is sanitised through the portrayal of extreme horrors when the reality is far more grinding than anything these 'nice' people can contemplate. The high point of this romanticisation of Hell is that filmic work of genius Sin City where the heroisation of Hell is cathartic and given an almost Soviet realist feel by the end. It is not like that.

It is about hundreds of thousands of people living in mental states that require drugs, who seek transcendence through risk and where sexuality is part currency, part creation of identity. My point is terribly simple - these people are people. They are not objects [9]. Their struggle has to be respected. They also have to be shown routes that they can take out of Hell. They need protection from their own worst cases - the exploiters, the abusers, the killers, the authorities' own corrupt agents in the field. It is not sexual objectification that is the crime but liberal objectification of persons!

What Is To Be Done

The first stage is to remove stigma, accept a greater degree of risk in society, integrate. The second stage is to regulate, educate and guide. But the second stage is dependent on the first - it depends on risky and sociopathic behaviour being out in the open, observed, with boundaries drawn that are realistic and not based on the latest idiot contribution of anal obsessives in the health and safety culture. If it was good enough for Christ to include hookers in his Heaven, it is good enough for us to have a drink with a lap-dancing single mum who is making a rational economic choice in working in a club.

Furthermore, she might get to enjoy her work and turn a necessity into an art, an affirmation that she can do some things well on her terms and can accumulate her small bit of capital to open up her own shop, cafe or dance school (as one bright lapdancer I met clearly intended). This woman (so she said) went to a major charitable trust(perhaps naively) and asked for the same sort of help that they give freely to young toughs in Lewisham but was rejected. Why? Was it because it was helping a young woman move from lapdancing to owning a dance studio, making best use of her physical intelligence (and a lot more intelligence than that, much more than I have experienced amongst the cliche-spouting university-educated hausfrauen of Middle Islington)?

Maybe not. Perhaps the Business Plan was just not good enough. But I suspect that she was stigmatised - our whole culture is stigmatising the rational choices of working class and vulnerable women because it cannot face the truth that, out there, life is not only not perfect, it is not perfectible.

Standing Up To The Bien-Pensants

If 'progressives' were truly serious about climate change, they would raise petrol and airline ticket prices to astronomical levels. If they were serious about 'exploitation' they would undertake a massive tax-based redistribution of capital. Instead they tinker at the people's expense. Life is a struggle but struggle is good and many of these strugglers do, eventually, not end up in the gutter but with good and productive lives. There is the instructive tale of the Russ Meyer starlet who became a grade school teacher and spent her life fearing that her past would be exposed. When it was, it was no great deal - she was a good teacher. That's all we need to know in common humanity.

So why make it so difficult for these people? Why not encourage them to see their lives as way stations to something better instead of marginalised holding pens for those who have no voice. Where were these 'liberals' and churchmen when they were first abused? Nowhere. They have no right to judge. Only these women have rights. Any decent feminist would respect them and their choices - and only seek to get them out on their terms from under the heel of their own pasts and the gang bosses that the establishment effectively hires though neglect to run these inconvenient industries. I have nothing but a profound contempt for the feminist hausfrau's obvious disdain for the most vulnerable simply because they use their few assets to give themselves a decent living.

Our first commentator above noted that ...trying to oversimplify the sex industry and paint everybody's experience as the same is extremely myopic Indeed - so you must remove the stigma AND the abuse: two sides of the same coin. And you do this through the integration of this community into society and economy and improving the conditions of 'white trash' (as they are sneeringly considered even as they are being 'reformed') instead of leaving them to fend for themselves. 'White trash' are people too. They have rights to free choice.

To summarise, sex positive approaches to feminism are not substitutes for economic equality or basic rights but they are a corrective in two directions against the tendency of progressives to drive essentialist feminist ideology in directions that are, bluntly, anti-human. At one level, sex positive feminism permits women to make their own choices about pleasure and objectification that best suit their economic conditions as they really are. It allows them to make rational economic choices without stigma.

At another level, sex work helps many of the poorest and most vulnerable in society to find routes out of social and economic marginalisation through making use of their limited assets, ultimately accumulating sufficient capital or connections to become the social equivalent of the grade school teacher. In the former, we are talking about mental, social and emotional liberation against the preconceptions and demands of mother and big sister as much as, probably more than, those of men. Getting it right about sex-positivity is also about self-confidence and getting it right about family and marriage.

In the latter, we are talking about removing the block on mobility from below created by an excessive reliance on education and 'respectability' and an opportunity to help the process of turning back the tide of social misery that progressivism and churches have done nothing to reverse. Sex-positive feminism is not the be-all or end-all of human liberation but it is an important component of it, one in which women themselves decide what is acceptable in the use of their own bodies at the time when they hold maximum market value in an imperfect world.

I suspect that women will feel very free to respond and with some vigour but I hope that this time we get a few brave men to say something intelligent and not behave like fearful self-censoring liberal whiteys at a black power meeting.


[1] This would presumably be September 18th, 2009, when New Labour was still the Government of the country. This now seems like aeons ago. We breathe easier in many ways despite the excesses of Theresa May. 

[2] In the original there was a link to a remarkable performance on YouTube. Some copyright troll appears to have taken exception to the music and the world is now deprived of the experience ... the effect of copyright trolls on simple pleasures over the last half decade is incalculable. Naturally, subsequent references to the video have been removed. 

[3] This refers to those women commenting on the hidden Facebook thread and they are not named because they do not have their consent to be named.  However, it is I who am being discreet, not they. They were frank and open and I admire them for that.

[4] This perhaps obscure reference has sex work in Uzbekistan stand for all emerging world sex work as different from sex work in the West because of the different social conditions. I count pole dancing as a form of sex work not in order to diminish it but, on the contrary, to describe it. It is the use of sexual allure or attraction to part others from their cash. Much of Hollywood's acting is sex work in this sense. 

[6] Mexico still teeters but has not yet fallen. Meanwhile we have a quasi-organised crime state in Islamic State and Europe is being destabilised by the mergence of organised criminal smuggling rackets out of Africa and through the Balkans. Add the emergence of similar racketeering corrupting the South East Asian states and we see the situation is getting worse on a global scale without actually tipping over yet to system collapse in the West - but maybe it is just a matter of time.

[6] The links between contemporary ideological feminism and faith-based religious fundamentalism are particularly disturbing and were raised at the Debate on May 13th. 

[7] I should have written 'should ensure' - it cannot be 'good business' at this present time because it remains stigmatised and unregulated.  

[8] I was not, of course, meaning to suggest that pole dancers or, indeed, sex workers are sociopaths. What I was trying to say is that sociopathic behaviours as defined by conventional morality are often rational situational responses to social conditions and that moralising about them is meaningless since many moralists would behave in precisely the same way if they found themselves in those same conditions. In some ways, I approve of sociopathic responses in some extreme conditions of socially generated poverty and exploitation as necessary checks and balances on those who turn a blind eye to such conditions. The organism must survive and reproduce ... it is possibly the only human right that is not invented. 

[9] One of my frustrations is that feminist objectification theory is selective and false in two senses. First, that it fails to recognise the normality and 'rightness' of general objectification as a general means of surviving in the world (which I have discussed elsewhere). Second, that the anti-objectification camp themselves treat their enemies - males and sex-positive or vulnerable females - as objects. The first is stupidity and the second is hypocrisy.

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