(CW: sexual assault, physical trauma, touch without consent)
Today I want to talk about something close to my heart – the use and importance of consent in pole dance studios.
I want to give a shout-out to my good friend and instructor Gabbie for giving me the idea for this post after a long conversation on Facebook messenger about pole dance instruction and pole dance studios as safe spaces for students from all walks of life.
Go follow her at @dietnukapoler!
Consent occurs when one person voluntarily agrees to the proposal or desires of another.Wikipedia
Consent is being talked about a lot more in the popular narrative – which can only be a good thing.
These days, there’s far more awareness about how our actions can impact others around us, and in particular, those the actions are directed towards.
A Quick Consent Run-Down
- Affirmative Consent – This is an ‘enthusiastic yes’, not an absence of a no. Talked about primarily as a means of consent to sex and sexual activity. For consent to be enthusiastic, the person has to know exactly what they’re agreeing to, express their intent to participate, and voluntarily agree to participate. Affirmitive consent cannot be given if a person is intoxicated, incapacitated, or asleep. Examples – consenting to sex or sexual activity.
- Express Consent – This is typically what we understand as consent. Express consent is clearly stated, unambiguous, and not implied. This can be written, spoken, or gestured clearly (such as a nod, or a thumbs-up). Examples – opting in to marketing communications, nodding at someone in response to a question, directly responding yes.
- Implied Consent – This is consent inferred from a person’s actions and circumstances around those actions. In some cases, this can be a person’s silence or inaction. Examples – following rules at school or college, physical contact during a full-contact sport.
- Informed Consent – Typically used in scientific circles, this is consent given once a person understands all the facts, implications, and potential consequences of a situation. This is a requirement for any form of scientific study involving human participants. Examples – academic studies, medical trials, having an operation.
- Unanimous Consent – Consent given by a group of parties is consent given by all parties. Typically only used within the context of politics and volunteer organisations. Examples – the UK Parliament, trade unions, environmental groups.
- Substituted Consent – The rights of individual consent are granted to a decision-maker in advance of potential loss of capacity. As consent has to be voluntary to be accepted, people with an inability to voluntarily consent can be cared for by people who can voluntarily consent on their behalf. Examples – an adult with a family history of Dementia giving their advance consent for another person to make decisions on their behalf should they be unable to.
Consent in Pole Dance
When we talk about consent in pole dance, we’re talking specifically about express, informed, and implied consent.
Let’s take a look at some examples of where these kinds of consent are used in the world of pole dance.
A student is trying a new move on the pole, and the instructor asks if they want spotting. The student says yes.
A student pays to take part in a stretch and flex class.
A student signs up to their studio’s email newsletter to receive updates, news, and special offers.
A new student fills out a PAR-Q before the class, which tells the student that they might sustain injuries when practicing pole dance, but reassures them of the instructor’s qualifications to ensure they stay safe.
An instructor tells students that, to spot them, they may need to physically touch them to keep them safe – and if students are not comfortable with that, they are welcome to talk to the instructor about alternatives.
An instructor demonstrates a new move and explains to their students how to keep their body in alignment to avoid injury, before asking if their students are happy to learn this.
A student taking a pole class implies their consent to instructors needing to physically touch them to avoid them falling an injuring themselves.
A student taking a doubles pole class implies their consent to be touched by their doubles partner.
A student in a class that allows pictures to be taken in consents to potentially being in the background of these pictures.
My Experience Of Consent in Pole Studios
In my experience, every studio and every pole instructor approaches consent differently.
The PAR-Qs that I’ve filled out vary between a very bare-bones template, to forms asking me to detail injuries and illnesses that might affect my ability to do pole dance.
I’ve had instructors apologise for not asking if it’s okay to touch me if they’ve had to suddenly spot me, but not every instructor has done this. I’ve had instructors only spot when they’re asked and instructors who will spot if they think someone needs it.
And honestly, it’s hard to understand where the boundaries of consent lie in pole studios.
Implied vs Express Consent
There’s definitely an argument to be made between whether physical spotting in pole class requires express consent – or if it’s implied consent, because the student should expect it as part of the learning process.
It’s at this point it’s worth understanding a new pole student’s expectation of what spotting actually is.
If a student has a background in gymnastics or dance, they may understand spotting to be a means of an instructor providing physical assistance to complete a move. In this instance, spotting involves touching the individual in order to assist them.
However, if a student has a background in weightlifting, powerlifting, or any form of free-weights training, a spotter serves to assist the lifter through non-physical means. Primarily, a lifter may ask for a spot if they are not entirely confident with their form or their ability to complete a lift, so one of a spotter’s responsibilities is to take the weight off the lifter should they fail the lift. Spotters in this instance do not touch the lifter.
There is no single definition of what it means to spot people within the sports world.
As implied consent relies on the context in which the individual’s actions take place, it can be argued that in a pole studio, a student gives implied consent to being spotted physically.
However, in the vast majority of cases, pole dance is an individual pursuit.
Unlike with other full-contact sports in which implied consent means an individual consents to being touched, punched, or otherwise handled – because the full-contact aspect is key to the sport in question – there is not necessarily the same assumption about pole dance.
While implied consent to being touched definitely comes into play as part of doubles pole classes, doubles stretch sessions, or any other class that implies being touched will be involved, pole dance lessons do not have any such implication.
While pole dancers know that spotting involves physical touch, new students may not know that.
Consent vs. Safety
Now, I’m not saying that every instructor should ask for consent if they need to prevent their student from being injured.
There are situations in pole classes where a student may be in immediate need of outside intervention to prevent sprains, broken bones, or dislocated joints.
In situations where an instructor needs to immediately intervene, it’s not always practical to ask a student if they’re cool with being touched – because, by the time you have, they may have already injured themselves.
What I am saying is that instructors need to make their students aware that, in an emergency, they may have no other option but to touch them in order to keep them safe.
Why Is This Important?
You never know what past trauma people are dealing with.
While a large portion of your students will be okay with being touched as a means of providing assistance, every instructor will, at some point, teach a sexual assault survivor.
While every survivor’s trauma is unique, we cannot assume that every survivor is at the stage in their healing where they are comfortable with being touched.
Even outside the sphere of sexual assault, in which a person may be a survivor of other physical trauma, being touched without their express permission can be a very triggering experience for them.
Being touched without prior consent can bring back extremely harmful memories of their past trauma.
And if survivors find themselves in a space where these memories come flooding back, is pole dance really as empowering and healing as it claims to be?
Various chronic illnesses other disorders can also mean people are hyper-sensitive to touch, so the physical sensation of being touched can feel extremely uncomfortable – or even painful.
Plenty of people have a dislike of being touched, and each have their own reasons for that. They don’t owe anyone an explanation, but they do deserve to be listened to and have their preferences respected.
Consent is about respecting people’s personal space, and understanding that “no” is a complete sentence.
The Trauma-Sensitive Model
I definitely believe that it’s about time pole dance studios adopted a trauma-sensitive model moving forwards.
Don’t get me wrong – this will feel awkward at first. You may have students new and old wondering why you’re asking them to agree to physical touch – but for the students who have experienced physical trauma, this can mean the world.
Trauma-sensitive models aren’t new.
When I was researching this blog post, I came across this fantastic article from Vice, explaining how yoga studios and massage therapists are beginning to shift their practices to give survivors the space they need to heal.
While this isn’t industry-wide yet, it definitely shows a shift towards a more empathetic health and wellness industry – one that pole dance should, in my opinion, adopt if we are truly dedicated to helping survivors heal.
The basis behind a trauma-sensitive model is simple –
Allow your student to become an active, rather than passive, participant.
Adopting the Trauma-Sensitive Model For Your Studio
There are plenty of ways you can begin to incorporate trauma-sensitive, and consent-focused, models within your studio and your teaching.
While some will take time, training, and research, others are simple changes you can make to your teaching today in order to ensure your studio is welcoming to polers and new students with previous trauma.
Consent forms for students
It’s standard industry practice for new students at a studio – whether they have poled for a long time, or are new to the practice – to fill out a PAR-Q and/or sign a disclaimer, signifying they understand the risks involved with pole.
However, we don’t regularly ask our students what they consent to.
Onboarding a new student is a great time to ask them for their consent to physical spotting, involvement in doubles sessions, and involvement in partnered stretching sessions.
It is also an opportunity to make students aware that, in an emergency, an instructor may have to catch, break the fall, or otherwise touch them in order to prevent injury.
As this is an activity with a greater chance of injury to the participant, it isn’t practical for an instructor to not touch a student at all during their time in class.
Why should studios do this?
You’re giving power back to someone who may not feel like an active participant.
By giving them the space to tell you that they don’t consent to being touched – except in emergencies – you’re allowing them to make the choice over what happens to their body in class.
This also gives you the opportunity to make new students aware that, in some cases, they will have to be touched in order to keep them safe. So, if anything does happen in class, they’re not taken by surprise when an instructor has to step in.
By including this in your onboarding questionnaire, you’re also taking the awkwardness away from the conversation.
You’re not forcing the person to directly tell you they’re uncomfortable with touch – instead, you’re giving them space to write it down, so they don’t have to explain anything to you in person.
If you have more than one instructor who will teach this person, though, you need to make your new student aware this information will be shared with those instructors – but nobody else.
What could this look like?
This is just a simple addition to make to your onboarding questionnaire.
All you’d have to include is:
Your instructors may physically spot you from time to time if they see you struggling with a move. This will involve them using their hands to support you during the move so you can focus on the technique.
Do you consent to physical spotting during lessons? Yes/No
Do you have any comments about the use of physical spotting during lessons your instructor needs to know about?:
In case of emergency, your instructor may have to catch you, break your fall, or otherwise physically touch you in order to prevent injury to yourself or another student. While there are crash mats available during class, our instructors are fully trained in how to prevent injuries that you may sustain should you get into complications while on the pole.
By signing this form, you agree that you are comfortable with an instructor needing to touch you in order to prevent injury to yourself or another student.
This is a safety issue and we are fully aware that, while students may be uncomfortable with being touched, there are times in class where this may be unavoidable. As such, if you do not give your consent to being touched in this situation, this class may not be for you.
Ask for consent when spotting
Always ask a student if they’re okay with where you need to place your hands in order to support you, as they may not be comfortable with your hand placement in certain areas.
Even when students have listed their consent on a form, instructors can easily forget in the middle of a class when they’re worrying about the safety and progression of a group of students. And, if your studio doesn’t yet use a consent form when onboarding students, it allows an instructor to get to know everyone’s individual preferences and boundaries.
Why should studios do this?
Again, it gives the person being spotted a level of control.
They have the opportunity to say if they’re comfortable or not, and the awkwardness is taken away by their instructor directly asking them. While it may not be entirely comfortable to talk about it in front of a group of people, having the instructor ask for consent makes the class a consent-focused space, and therefore, a safe space.
It also helps others in the class feel more comfortable with asking consent, and normalises the conversation.
Plus, you’re not assuming what the person you’re spotting needs – they might just feel more comfortable with someone there if they fail, or they might need the reassurance of someone supporting their weight so they can focus on the technique.
What could this look like?
“Am I okay to put my hands [here] and [here]?”
“I need to hold you [here] in order to spot you in this move, is that okay?”
“Do you need me to physically support you in this move?”
“Are you after a spotter or a catcher?”
I also have great memories of my last Roz Mays workshop, where she demonstrated how her spotting technique for inverts worked, before encouraging our groups to talk about how we’d like to be supported before we tried to lift into our inverts.
Ask students if they consent to partner work
In my experience, studios can – and do – include partner work in classes. This can be both on the pole or during flexibility sessions.
However, as I talked about earlier, it’s difficult to argue that students are implying their consent by taking part in these lessons – one, because pole dance is widely seen as a solo activity and two, because these classes are not disclosed as having partner work elements.
This is why it’s important to ask for your students’ consent to be involved in these activities.
Why should studios do this?
We’ve already established that, as part of a trauma-focused model, studios should know what level of physical touch your students consent to – and this includes class activities where they will be put in a situation where they will be touched by other students.
It also sucks, from a student perspective, to be put into a partnered exercise without much of a choice.
What could this look like?
Save your doubles and partnered lesson ideas for specific lessons, either during your normal class schedule or one-off workshop classes.
If you use them in your class schedule, make sure you advertise them as a doubles/partnered session, either in whole or in part.
If you don’t have the time to put on additional classes at your studio, then you could always make one class in your normal schedule a monthly special where you work on doubles moves, or do partner stretches.
Partner stretches could also, in some instances, be replaced with other PNF stretching techniques that can be done solo.
Pole studios and instructors have a responsibility to their students.
The amount of people who have suffered physical and/or sexual trauma is depressingly high. So high, in fact, someone in your life has probably experienced some kind of trauma – whether you know it or not.
Combined with pole dance being an activity through which survivors can heal and work through their trauma, it’s likely that, at some point or another, every instructor will teach a survivor.
However, studios and instructors shouldn’t just ask for consent when one of their students may be uncomfortable and/or triggered by physical touch.
We need to be creating a culture in our studios and classes where asking for consent is not only comfortable – it’s expected, from both students and instructors.
I think the pole industry would be greatly served by a community atmosphere in studios where everyone’s personal space is respected. I want us to live up to our talk of being one of the most inclusive fitness communities around, and we can only do that by listening.
I know this might be a divisive topic in the community, so I’d love to hear what you all think.
Survivors – what do you need from your pole instructors? What do you wish they’d do, or stop doing? If you feel comfortable talking about it, I’d love to hear your input.
Instructors – how do you ask for consent in your studio? What advice can you offer to other instructors?
Students – do you ask your fellow students for consent? Did you know physical spotting was a thing when you started pole dance? What did you wish you knew when you started pole?