SEX & SPIRITUALITY
Can Religion and Sensual Pole Dance Coexist? By Karen Possessky, LCSW
Howard Stern once confessed on his radio show that he feels dirty after masturbating. Those who hold the popular belief that our existence on earth is temporary, and that the goal of life is to improve ourselves until we meet our ultimate destination, can perhaps relate to this sentiment. Stern’s Jewish faith preaches that God created all people. If this is true, then God probably isn’t surprised by masturbation. After all, it is one of the many ways that humans release tension and its purpose is to create sexual yearnings.
Humans are sexual beings – this cannot be refuted. Being a human requires having a sexual lifestyle, whether it’s homosexuality, heterosexuality, celibacy or any combination of the hundreds of options that exist to manage carnal instinct. Prehistoric beings led open sexual lives, but the evolution of time, people, and culture has created diverse beliefs, values and morals towards human sexual conduct. Sex has become taboo. This has created a social norm that allows us to close our eyes to and hide from our natural behavior.
Humans are also spiritual beings with abstract thinking capabilities. These capabilities prompt our curiosity and force us to seek answers to questions about human existence beyond this earth and the realm of time. Religion is a man made concept that attempts to organize vast philosophical and historic information into belief systems that guide humans on living and explain mysteries of life. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are some of the many religious belief systems helping humans to answer questions about the greater purpose of life and ultimate end-of-time destination. Regardless of religious belief, human spirituality, for the purposes of this article, refers to our inner experience of finding a path to a known destination. Divine books such as the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita and Pantananjali Yoga Sutras offer guidelines and pacify the human awe of the unknown. Whether you agree or disagree with certain philosophies and social mores that have developed over time (with countless complex variables), humanity in its natural state dictates that we are both sexual and spiritual.
Feeling sexual desire and existential curiosity pushes humans to make choices about how they will relate to what it is they yearn for. Modern day religions and cultural norms offer humans acceptable ways to mix sexuality and spirituality. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, authors of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, state that “the conflict between what we’re told we feel and what we really feel may be the richest source of confusion, dissatisfaction and unnecessary suffering of our time”. A holistic and balanced lifestyle blends body, mind, sociology and spirituality, all of which contain aspects of sexual living. When it comes to finding a healthy sexual and spiritual blend, humans are much more likely to achieve inner peace by calling attention to the physical, mental and social aspects of living.
My graduate school professor once stated in a lecture that heroin isn’t bad. She went on to say that it’s just a substance and that it exists no differently than anything else on earth, like a book, a rock or an apple. The social controversy over heroin is about humans’ attitude towards the drug and the potential for it to be problematic when it is used or abused to the point of addiction. Addiction results in the inability of an individual to function physically, mentally or socially. People accept the use of heroin if it is used as medicine to kill pain after surgery. However, if it is used to get high and avoid life, then it is considered socially unacceptable, especially because it is illegal in many countries. The irony is that man creates both the laws on heroin and heroin itself.
This exact same argument could be made about the pole: it isn’t dirty per se – it’s just a pole like a firefighter pole or a flagpole. It’s an object that exists. Why then, is the pole perceived negatively if humans are finding a positive physical, mental, social and spiritual use for it? For many, the vertical pole is an object synonymous with strippers. Most cultures oppose stripping and exotic dance (at least on the surface). Rules on “right vs. wrong” and “allowed vs. forbidden” are man made. Meanwhile, a variety of sexual practices and expressions exist, just like a variety of religious rituals and beliefs exist. Living in a pluralistic world makes it hard to imagine that man will ever achieve a universally sanctioned rule for humans to satisfy their sexual desires and spiritual curiosities, much less agree upon an acceptable integration of both. The pole stifles the public with its “dirtiness” via its kinship to strippers (ironically, a man made alignment). So it exists at the core of the struggle to redefine the role of the pole today. Firefighters use poles as a tool for quickly responding to emergency calls, which makes it an acceptable object. A flagpole allows patriotic expression by waving our flags highly with pride, which is acceptable. A vertical dance and fitness pole offers the ability to increase strength and flexibility as well as dance artistically in a sensual, ethnic, classic or acrobatic style. And this is considered unacceptable?
Crystal Dean, infamously known as the ex-stripper who started the program “Pole Dancing for Jesus,” has been chastised, harshly judged and mocked by the public and the media for her ideas. Dean says that before the media discovered her program, the actual title of her class was “PoleFitnessforJesus.”Perhapsthetitle“PoleDancingforJesus”wasmore alluring to the media when it came to discrediting Dean. Either way, she had several vertical poles at her fitness and dance studio. Dean invited people to take free dance and fitness classes in exchange for verifying their attendance to church by presenting a service program from that day. Participants worked out and danced to Christian music. Her goal was to help others improve their bodies, mind and their faith.
Dean promoted physical wellness and spiritual development all at the same time. At the time the story broke pole was so taboo that the public response was outrage. People shuddered at what was perceived to be the sacrilegious blending of Christian music with pole dancing. Dean says, “My business took a big hit.”
Ironically, many of the people who share Dean’s Christian beliefs are the ones who acted in opposition to Christian values. Several people harshly criticized and mocked Dean. This behavior can be witnessed on any number of YouTube videos. Followers of the Bible are advised not to cast stones, yet these people did exactly that. After becoming an outcast in her own church, Dean reports, “My faith is what got me through and continues to get me through the tough times. I have nothing to hide. Those people can judge me all they want. The only judgment that concerns me is the one by Him, Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Dean no longer owns a dance and fitness studio, but it hasn’t stopped her from mixing her faith and pole dancing together. Dean found refuge and authenticity in a small Baptist church that supported and embraced her idea. Together, they recently launched a pole dance Bible study that discusses their religious faith, ideas and beliefs. Dance is a form of communication. Dancing and interacting with the vertical pole, which is akin to any apparatus used to embellish dance, helps participants emote and express their worldly experience to God. Sensual dance is even acceptable. As Dean says, “God made us beautiful and gave us the gift of sensuality along with the rest of our feelings.” Feelings, like heroin, aren’t bad; it’s how we act upon our feelings that can be either problematic or socially acceptable. When asked about her favorite pole dancer, Dean quickly responds, “Alethea Austin … I just love her style and she is so beautiful.”
Within days of interviewing Dean, I attended Kelly Yvonne’s Pole’ography workshop. We learned to move with artistic intent to enhance our pole dance routines. After watching one another’s performances, we described what we saw in an attempt to identity “the moral of the story”. One student conveyed a back-and-forth “struggle” while making her way up and down the pole. Later, she affirmed that her artistic purpose was using the pole as a pathway to get closer to God, a sometimes easy and other times difficult journey. I realized at that moment that this vertical apparatus (commonly referred to as a stripper pole) offers dancers an unfound range of self-expression whether the intent is to be sensual or to be spiritual. It is the intent and attitude that make the coexistence of sexuality and spirituality possible and permissible. According to Dean, “Judgment day is the business between you and [your] God.”
Amen. Thathastu. Selah. Aho. Allah Akbar. Shalom. Whatever it is that you say in reverence, remember tolerance. There are billions of people on earth with millions of different ideas, beliefs and values.