Pole-dancing around gender attitudes

The weirdest part of it was the category that Huffington Post assigned the story to: Weird News. Why did whichever American it was who did that think the news item weird?

Was it weird because Chinese were doing something Americans might associate as Western? Or was it weird because it was men doing what is associated with women? I suspect it’s more likely  the latter.

Click on the image to get to the Huffington Post page, where you can watch the video (which seemed to have originated from Reuters).

Two relatively common mental associations are in play here. The first is that pole-dancing is a quasi-erotic activity, due to the fact that it is often performed by strippers. A lot of people are brought up with the notion that sex is somehow “dirty” or embarrassing. One of the psychological defences people employ when when they want to draw attention to something like that and yet distance themselves from it is to laugh at it. It’s a way of saying:  you’re not going to catch me doing something as unbecoming as that!  Categorising such a video as “weird” does the same thing.

The other mental association in play here is that of the status gap between males and females. The patriarchal attitude is one that is more forgiving of the female performing something sexaulised than of the male. This is because there is the notion — which many will loudly deny ever subscribing to, even as they practise it the very next moment — that females are there to serve males. Providing sexual service to males, while frowned on by the more ascetic ones, is widely considered acceptable to a majority of males, even if only subconsciously and even if most know that it’s not something discussed in polite company.

You see this in the social pressure on females to stay attractive and to dress well, while heterosexual males tend to “let themselves go”, suggesting a sense of entitlement to sex. Performing the erotic is akin to staying attractive — it’s the female’s job. Watching, judging and taking sex is the male’s job.

Thus pole-dancing, with its erotic associations and as a way of titillating males, is more acceptable when performed by females.  To encounter males doing it causes discomfort, both to being confronted by the guilt of sex and by status reversal.

* * * * *

Yet, as the Chinese dancer explains in the Huffington Post/Reuters video, and as you can see for yourself in the Josiah ‘Bad Azz’ Grant clip above,  it is fantastic exercise, giving a workout to many different muscle groups. Here is yet another area where our acquired biases get in the way of seeing objective reality . . .


This is one of those days where I don’t like myself or this website very much. I feel I am being mainstreamed into writing about things that others are interested in (such as politics) in ways the genteel majority can live with (i.e. intellectually), and not push into your face what I want to push.

Pole-dancing is tame and boring by comparison. You should really be watching this — I think it’s from Taiwan:

* * * * *

A few weeks ago, I met someone who was telling me about her plans to start up a organisation devoted to combatting human trafficking. It wasn’t long before I noticed that she was using the female pronouns “she” and “her” to describe the victims, and most of her references were to the sex industry.

I stopped her and asked whether she considered contract substitution a form of human trafficking.

“What’s that?” she asked, leading me to explain what contract substitution is. It’s a situation where a foreign worker is brought into a country on promises of a good job and a good wage, but on arrival is told, no, you have to do something else and for a lower pay. Or that suddenly deductions are imposed without prior agreement. Such switching takes advantage of the fact that the worker is usually broke, in an unfamiliar social and linguistic environment, sometimes with passport taken away.

“Yes, that would  be trafficking,”  she said. I was glad to hear her applying that broader definition — something that the Singapore government, by all appearances, do not consider to be any problem at all.

“If you consider that trafficking,” I replied, “then I’ve got news for you. From what I’ve seen, the majority of trafficking victims in Singapore are male, not female, nor are they in the sex industry.”

This is not to say there aren’t female victims in the sex industry, but in our local context, they are far outnumbered by trafficked men in dirty and dangerous industries.

Yet, hers would represent most people’s views when they have cause to think about trafficking.  One consequence of patriarchal attitudes is to see females as victims the moment consciousness takes one step up. It is slightly paradoxical in the way it flips effortlessly from subconsciously treating women as subservient providers of sexual pleasure to seeing them as victims of sexual demands. Yet, even then, patriarchal attitudes continue to operate, as seen in the way attention is focussed on the female victim (the weaker sex needs to be saved from predators) , while the far more numerous male victim is (a) not even seen as a victim, or (b) ignored in terms of resource allocation.

Complicating the subject further, some people who would go out to combat sexual trafficking are themselves prisoners of the second notion: that sex is unclean. Well-meaning though they may be, there’s a tendency to assume that all women in the business need to be rescued. The controlling belief is that no woman would sell sex willingly. That is condescension of the worst kind — thinking that we know better how others should live their lives.

* * * * *

I was walking down a side alley taking in the neon lights. He must have seen me take a picture of the street scene with my camera. As I walked past him, he called out, “Massage, sir?”

“No, not tonight,” I said, while taking a quick glance at the name of the shop and the chalkboard beside him listing the prices. One look at the prices and at the way he was dressed told me that massage was only half the service offer. No prizes for guessing what the other half was.

Noting that I was at least interested enough to look at the chalkboard, he next said, “Take photo of me?” putting on his best smile.

(Since it was an open-ended offer — he put no conditions on the use of the photo — there’s no compelling reason why I should blank out his face, but nevertheless, I feel it more appropriate if I did so, for privacy reasons.)

Why did he want me to take his picture? I don’t know for sure, but one likely possibility would be that he wanted me to remember his face and come back another day to avail of his services. It’s a time-honoured sales tactic. And if my thoughts on seeing his picture again is any measure, having dug it up for this article, it may be working!

However, the point I want to make is this: Here is a guy — his working name is Bert, by the way — who challenges many assumptions that we seldom interrogate.

Firstly, providers and consumers of sexual pleasure do not map neatly onto the sex divide. Providers are not always female; consumers male. This in turn upsets the status ladder. Much male pride is invested in the notion that they are takers of sex, not providers of titillation and pleasure, and for this reason some would think a guy doing pole-dancing is weird. I am also sure there are many among my readers who are uncomfortable about the idea of a guy (and Bert could well be straight, as many in his trade are) selling gay sex.

Thirdly, Bert’s open and easy demeanour undercuts the simplistic equation of prostitution with trafficking and helplessness.

And finally, why the need to be prudish about the sexual?

10 Responses to “Pole-dancing around gender attitudes”

  1. 1 Thristhan 9 August 2011 at 19:12

    I dont think only in China that they are looking for it. But almost everywhere 🙂

  2. 2 Roy Tan 9 August 2011 at 20:30

    I don’t think Singaporeans are “prudish about the sexual” per se but prudish about hedonism in general.

    Sex is perceived to be the most intense form of hedonism and as such, is in the firing line for the most concentrated flak.

    So, begs next logical question – “Why are Singaporeans prudish about hedonism?”

    I would put it down to insecurity, especially economic insecurity.

    Most of our forefathers were indigent peasants from China and India. To them, slackening off from work and drudgery would spell economic disaster.

    And with intense competition from their countrymen originating from overpopulated nations with scarce resources, indulging in a life of pleasure at the expense of work would make them slide down the socio-economic ladder faster than you could say “Jack Robinson”.

    That would also mean a loss of face vis-a-vis your neighbour…and “face” is a huge thing in Asian culture.

    The solution would be to promote hedonism as an essential aspect of the economy of the future. With everyone’s basic needs for food and shelter met, people look next to entertainment to spend their money on and find fulfillment in life.

    This is a fact and is only starting to be grasped by the puritanical PAP. The economic success stories of the future will be those countries which produce products and services for the entertainment economy, and that incudes the sex industry.

    The Government ignores that and clings to its prudish ways at its own peril.

    • 3 Poker Player 11 August 2011 at 22:42

      Visiting prostitutes and keeping mistresses is not un-Chinese – notwithstanding peasant origins.

  3. 4 Quiet whispers 10 August 2011 at 00:40

    I know of a female friend who was single. She is the most righteous person I have ever met because she is a career woman in her 40s, a social worker and everyone best friend among our group. Being a religious woman too, she could be easily passable as perfect model by fundamentalist standard. However, something more than met the eyes to prove all genders are equal – women have sexual needs too – in discrete manner They don’t need people to tell them how to abstain sex, as much as man knows the outlet of getting their own relief.

    Being part time social worker, my friend met many needy but good people in her life. Sometimes, she tried to motivate others with her philosophical thoughts and along the way; she met very good male friends. On different occasions, those whom she helped reciprocated for her effort and kindness by having sex with her, after a good movie or dinner, when they sensed her lonesome which she did not resist. Both parties are matured & single, with no string attached. What my friend actually needed then was to feel like a complete woman even in that short moment of pleasure and her sexual partner understood that fundamental desire.

    I asked why she didn’t want to marry those whom she have sex with and her reply was – she needed short term relief or “getting out experience” before finding the right man of her life. Who say woman are cheap and don’t have high expectation? Being well traveled and a little westernized, she knows her rights as a woman in her quiet way. She would have chased away those who think she was wrong and needed protection. Eventually she is happily married with two kids and a husband of her dream…

    It was when I disclosed to her I am gay, she felt compel to share with me her “dark side” story and motivated me not to be discouraged by who I am. I cannot say it will be easier for me to pursue my dream, as compared to her, due to Singapore discriminative society and especially criminal penal code. As a matter of fact she has all the “righteous” people protecting women than protecting gay people, or probably gay people will come last after all the straight people have been protected.

    The above Taiwanese striptease video has well compensated for the boring national day show with all its politically correct tone and message we heard all our life. For vibrancy, Singapore should have male bar dancing and male tease dancer in this creative wanting society always eyeing for a share of tourist dollars. If Thailand has boxer, Philippine has oblation run and Japan has sumo, we can have male bar dancer or teaser which is considered mild compared to our two very huge gambling dens. It could well provide a very good outlet for my female friend and me to distress ourselves, soaking in this magical and talented male skin performance and only than; we see life worth living everyday than just meeting stressful work in office and forgetting about who we were made of. Sex paranoia has no place in a true cosmopolitan city.

  4. 5 Chloe 10 August 2011 at 11:55

    If you had a son, would you let him watch the “Taiwan” video?

      • 7 Calculon 11 August 2011 at 13:37

        I am appalled you find that agreeable, the video is very suggestive and pornographic, and I don’t think I am a prude, but it should even come with fair warning… If not your child is a young adult.

      • 8 yawningbread 11 August 2011 at 22:29

        Er. . . so what if it’s sexual? Even pornographic? What’s so bad about that? Our kids watch rape, murder, drug-dealing and kidnapping all the time on TV — y’know, activities whereby others, sometimes innocent others, get hurt — doesn’t seem to bother most of us. In many shows (on TV) there are bar scenes with pole-dancing by skimpily dressed females making suggestive moves, with the camera then panning to a bar crowd ogling them lecherously.

    • 9 Poker Player 10 August 2011 at 22:12

      Presumably, Chloe thinks it’s OK for daughters to watch.

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