Sex Work and Sensuality in Sport
by Mia Kennedy Sports Editor
In 2017, the Global Association of International Sports Federation (GAISF) officially recognized pole dancing as a professional sport. The battle for pole began in 2006 when Katie Coates petitioned to get it into the Olympics. She amassed more than 10,000 signatures. Thus, pole fitness began its rebranding journey.
Today, pole fitness has a scoring system, rules and anti-doping procedures. The International Pole Sports Federation, run by Coates, hosts world championships. Pole has even found its way to Dawson.
Saskia Morgan, a first year in Arts and Culture, found a love for pole at the beginning of the pandemic. “You don’t need too much space for it, so that’s why it’s accessible and a good method to workout during COVID times.” Gesturing to a silver pole set up in her bedroom, she explained its physical benefits. “Your full body is working out. It’s hard to find a sport that you can do inside that’s actually fun. For me, lifting weights gets boring. With this, you can watch your progression. You can play around, be creative and feel comfortable in your body.” Pole dancers make it look easy but lifting your body by the strength of your shoulders, wrists and legs is quite the workout. Not to mention the flexibility and endurance it takes to make the effort look graceful.
Unlike other sports, pole doesn’t only focus on the workout aspect. There is also an inherent sensuality to pole, which unlocks a world of confidence on and off the mat. To Saskia, this is a fundamental part of the sport. “I’m doing it for myself and not for anyone else. I’m doing it to get strong, but I’m also feeling comfortable in my sensuality.”
The sport’s benefits are sometimes overlooked by its role in sex work, which has led to an ongoing debate within the pole dancing community. Some argue that the association with sex work makes pole fitness more difficult to take seriously. In 2015, pole dancers voiced their concern by using the hashtag #Notastripper on their Instagram photos. Strippers spoke out, claiming the tag stigmatized sex work. They also felt that it took credit away from their influence on pole dancing as an art form. Despite the backlash, some athletes continue to push away from pole’s origins.
Others, like Saskia, recognize the value of the sport’s roots but highlight that pole dancing doesn’t always imply sex work. “When I talk to people about it, it’s always ‘Ooh, do you put that on OnlyFans?’ That sort of thinking is really frustrating.” OnlyFans is a content subscription service. It has become a popular platform for sex workers to sell photos and videos of themselves.
Some propose destigmatizing sex work as a solution. After all, isn’t pole dancing in strip clubs just as physically challenging as pole fitness? Saskia points out that pole dancing could be empowering for strippers, too. She proposes that issues within the stripping industry and inappropriate clients could be at fault for the stigma around pole and sex work. “For example, the person who got me into pole is now considering stripping. She’s extremely smart, a fantastic person and super creative. She’s considering it because she loves pole and she can get money for it. It’s not to get gross looks from men. She’s doing it for herself. I think that’s fantastic.”
In recent years, Katie Coates, president of the International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF), has pushed to get pole into the Olympic Games. Pole employs the same precision and attention to detail as Olympic sports like acrobatics, so pole dancers think it would fit in at the international event. “It’s such a fun sport and so easy to do. For that to be widely seen is pretty awesome. I don’t know anyone else who openly speaks about doing pole and the Olympics would change that,” says Saskia. For now, pole remains out of the Olympics, but I would love to live in a world where platform heels are considered Olympic gear.