"Law and Order: SVU"
This "Law and Order: SVU" episode touches on sex work, still a contentious issue for many. (Image via Google Images)

‘Law and Order: SVU’ Shined a Light on the Injustices Strippers Face

Pole dancing is becoming widely accepted for parties and fitness, but stripping remains vilified. So, what’s the difference?

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"Law and Order: SVU"

Pole dancing is becoming widely accepted for parties and fitness, but stripping remains vilified. So, what’s the difference?

“Law and Order: SVU,” one of the longest-running dramas to air on television, has entered its 21st season, and it’s still going strong. The recent 11th episode, called “She Paints for Vengeance,” particularly stuck out to me.

This episode of “Law and Order: SVU” was about a painter who stripped to pay essential bills (a typical yet relatable millennial NYC story) that decided to paint the story of her rape all around the city. Aside from the painting aspect, this was a pretty basic “Law and Order: SVU” storyline. Yet, it was still a story that needed to be broadcast.

“Law and Order: SVU” brought to light the injustices that strippers face, such as sexual and physical assault and labor violations. Society continues to normalize the discussion of sex, while it redefines the conversation around what is acceptable versus what is not.

Pole dancing, being one of those subjects, has come a long way from erotic moves for pay, and is now a popular bachelorette party activity and can also be a fun, confidence-boosting fitness class.

For a long time, pole dancing was seen as a Jezebel act — taboo, and the complete opposite of virtuous in the eyes of the Madonnas of the world. Stripping has been an intricate part of the hip-hop world, especially for rappers who simultaneously praise and insult strippers for their looks and job while still attending their shows. But it didn’t start like that.

Pole dancing has always been a form of erotic dance; however, it wasn’t necessarily about making money. According to Ellie Griffiths from Culture Trip,“The striptease is believed to date back to myths of the ancient Sumerian times, when the Goddess of Love, Inanna, was seen dancing and removing one item of clothing, or jewelry, as she passed each of the seven gates on her way to find her lover, Damouz.”

Back then, a woman used to dance for her betrothed or her husband to present her fertility, since reproduction was the central reason for intercourse. However, in other parts of the world, such as Asia, pole dancing was used for sport. In 12th century China, the pole was used for acrobatics. Although these performances were part of the circus, they were no joke and required immense strength to master. Meanwhile, in the 13th century of Maharashtra, India, pole dancing was used as a way to train wrestlers. The training was called Mallakhamb, which literally translates to “wrestler of the pole.”

It wasn’t until 1920 when modern pole dancing came about. During the Great Depression, a group called the Hoochi Coochi dancers would erotically move around the tent poles during traveling fairs. However, this wasn’t formally recorded until 1968, when Belle Jangles performed in Oregon, at the Mugwump Strip Joint. In the 1980s, the trend became popularized in Canada.

The very first pole dancing class was in 1994, instructed by Fawnia Dietrich. Pole dancing is beginning to be recognized again as an art form and sport, and it’s even getting pushed as an event in the Olympics.

Although pole dancing has started to be reaccepted into society, some people feel that there is a contrast between pole dancing and stripping. In 2015, the hashtag #notastripper surfaced on Instagram to create a distinction between those who do it for play and those who do it for work. This, of course, is very harmful and unfair, considering the hashtag was used by women to tear other women (and men) down.

It was pretentious, especially since, at the end of the day, they’re both dancing on a pole. It requires the same amount of strength, precision, confidence and allure to do it for hours on end. It’s just that one pays to dance and the other gets paid to dance.

So why does one get more backlash than another? “Pole is trendy, and social media has increased its visibility exponentially,” says Elle Stanger to Vice. Stanger is a writer and stripper who counteracted the offensive hashtag with her own hashtag: #yesatripper.

She explains how the attempts to make pole dancing more widely acceptable “is motivated by a changing audience, because the primary demographic for anti-stripper pole dance is young, white, millennial women.” This is ironic considering, until recent years, the feminist movement was majorly for young to middle-aged white women.

It is appropriation in full form. Because although it can be argued that pole dancing is a sport, ultimately, its modern-day incarnation started as sexual entertainment. Trying to take a piece of something, call it your own and put down the rest is ridiculous and wrong. Not to mention, one of the most popular reasons an average woman decides to engage in pole dancing classes is to feel sexier and build up confidence in her body.

Why should we as women tear down other women who do so as well? Women that we don’t know, especially — which means we don’t know their stories and how they ended up stripping. It might be a tragedy; they might just do it for fun. But who is anybody to judge, especially when, at the end of the day, we don’t know.

The “Law and Order: SVU” episode “She Paints for Vengeance” brought much-needed light to the plight of this occupation. Aside from the obvious sexual dangers, legally, strippers are more likely to suffer from unjust labor infractions by promoters because stripping isn’t looked at as an actual profession by most of society.

“The distance between pole dance from stripping not only contributes to the stigma against strippers but reinforces the idea that ‘sex work is not work.’ This excuses bosses and policymakers who refuse basic labor rights, putting workers’ health at risk in a number of ways … a reality that those who pole dance for sport don’t worry about facing,” writes Sofia Barrett-Ibarria.

Club owners rarely compensate strippers with a salary; instead, they’re treated as contractors. And that’s not even including the “house fee,” which a majority have to pay just to be able to perform there.

Valeryia Safronovoa from The New York Times documented how 93% of lawsuits brought by strippers against their employers rule in favor of the women, yet, after the settlement, nothing actually changes in policy or environment. It’s like a law that’s passed but never fully enforced. This is not only financially detrimental to strippers, but it continues to put them in danger by perpetuating the message that if you have enough money, you can get away with anything.

Pole dancing is a fun, lively sport that is not only a great activity for parties and fitness; it’s something that can boost confidence and leave anyone feeling sexy and comfortable in their own skin. However, while embracing pole dancing, it isn’t right to dismiss or disgrace the occupation that it originates from.

During Usher’s performance at the 2020 Grammys,  FKA Twigs did a very elusive and beautiful pole dance in front of thousands of people. She was rightfully praised for her performance, but just because she’s not getting money thrown at her doesn’t make it any more or less acceptable. Especially considering that the Grammys are known for their sophistication as a prominent award show.

Summer Walker was briefly a stripper before she became a rising singer. She went viral for bringing two pole dancers on her tour, helping to close the divide between the two occupations. Sammy Picone, one of the two dancers who gained a lot of recognition from the tour and is starting her own classes, doesn’t see the divide. When she was asked in an interview with poletryinmotion.com what she wished the world knew about pole dancers and pole dancing, she answered, “I want it to be clear that all forms of pole are valid, beautiful and deserve to be viewed as art.”

Even in Walker’s Stretch You Out video featuring A Boogie, she is seen dancing for her boyfriend on a pole, dressed and doing exactly the same moves as a stripper. Yes, she’s dancing for one man, but millions of people are watching the video. So, what’s the difference, again?

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