Pole fitness banned in Swansea, part 2: The politics

Credit: Reigate Pole Fitness

In the second half of our coverage of the Swansea pole fitness controversy, Sean Gibson considers the month-long sequence in the context of student reactions and ongoing debates, as well as the lessons to be learned from the drama’s eventual resolution.

<< Revisit ‘Part 1: The timeline’ for more information on this story.

SWANSEA STUDENT POLE Fitness Society (SSPFS) toiled through attempts to shut them down in October and November, and the tale of their eventually-successful defence has raised several key problems – both with external perceptions of pole fitness and with democratic process within the Swansea University Student Union (SUSU).

The club garnered nationwide and international support in a strong backlash against the decision to ban them.

At the beginning of the saga when the SSPFS was first banned by the SUSU trustees, the Swansea Waterfront newspaper quoted the SSPFS committee, saying: ‘“We’ve never been able to put our point forward” as they were “not allowed” to go to trustee meetings or their appeal.”’

Thankfully Zahid Raja, president of SUSU, made clear in a blog post published ahead of the student forum on 7 November that this “lack of clarity” was “what puzzled [him] most about this whole situation”.

He said:

“I will take a proposal to the next Students’ Union Executive Committee asking the committee to develop regulations around affiliation / re-affiliation of societies that will include an appeals process for decisions.”

Raja also referenced the public “outrage” at the fact that the SUSU trustees had the power to make their original decision to ban the pole fitness club:

“There is a whole debate out there on what decisions Trustee Boards should / shouldn’t be making.

But Trustees do have legal obligations to the organisation and the consensus is that they should be making decisions. It is their purpose. It’s also why we have 7 elected Trustee’s [sic] (Full Time Officers) and 2 unelected Trustees who are selected by the elected ones through a process agreed on by students as described in the constitution.”

If the mechanics of Swansea Union’s student politics have been clarified somewhat in this sequence, hopefully so has the definition, the origin and the purpose of pole fitness as a perfectly acceptable practice.

The original furore was sparked by the trustees’ letter that accompanied rejection of the SSPFS appeal.  The trustees were nothing if not specific:

“We believe that activities such as ‘pole fitness’ contributes [sic] to an atmosphere where women are viewed as sexual objects and where violence against them is acceptable.”

And perhaps a mite inflammatory:

“Although ‘pole fitness’ is sold as an empowering activity, we believe that women have been deceived into thinking that this is a way of taking charge of their sexuality and their own decisions.”

So proceeded the great misunderstanding.  The lines blurred between traditional, stereotypical connotations of ‘pole-dancing’ and pole fitness as a physical art.  Most of the backlash to the SUSU decision centred on the fight to distinguish the latter from the former.

The Waterfront’s news editor Gemma Parry took to her Huffington Post blog once the dust had begun to settle:

If a man were to dance on a pole in, say for arguments sake, a circus act, he would be applauded for his strength and flexibility.  If a woman were to do the same routine, people begin the use words such as ‘erotic’ and ‘sexual’.

The movements these women do are no different than gymnasts and yet, because a pole is involved, it is automatically sexual.

letter sent  by the Edinburgh University Pole Dance Society to SUSU encapsulated the problem.  The letter made clear that:

A member of the Edinburgh society added:

“The difference is Chinese pole and Mallakhamb are both traditionally male activities. Would these activities be allowed to have societies at Swansea, or would they too be lumped under the ‘all pole fitness is linked to the sex industry’ umbrella [they] seem intent on erecting?”

However, the very name of the Edinburgh society together with EUPDS member Kate Harrison’s comment that “I and the pole dancing community refuses to let [SUSU oppression] go unchallenged,” probably didn’t help SUSU solve their targetting difficulties.

Meanwhile, Cat Moody, committee member of Edinburgh University Feminist Society, threatened to cast SUSU and their decision into a much broader and more volatile debate with her comments to the Edinburgh Journal (in a news piece delightfully titled ‘Edinburgh outrage over Swansea Pole Dance shafting’):

“My personal opinion is that, women and people of all genders should be able to express their sexuality in any way they choose. Attitudes such as this highlight the stigma and blame attached to sex workers, rather than tackling misogyny and patriarchy which fuel these attitudes.”

With reconciliation and reaffiliation confirmed, this troubling episode should now serve as a positive going forward.  Myth-busting of the definition of pole fitness has received a national platform.  Meanwhile, democratic difficulties within SUSU have been highlighted and should now be corrected.  Students and student media were responded strongly when challenged to engage, and the problem fostered cross-campus communication that will hopefully be built upon in case of future struggles.

– – –

<< Revisit ‘Part 1: The timeline’ for more information on this story.

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