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.
(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?