The State of the Union

JACK RIVLIN asks why the Union is so terrified of sex.

Cambridge Union CUSU Jack Rivlin pole dancing Talk of the town The Union

These are barren times for student politics. Radicalism has become a distant memory; party politics is less fashionable than ever and the turnout for CUSU’s presidential elections barely crossed the 10% mark.

In the face of this declining interest in politics, the university’s most hallowed political institution, the Cambridge Union, increasingly markets itself as a social club. Ostensibly, its decision to offer pole-dancing classes was an inspired one. What a shame, then, that the Union, historically a bastion of free speech and self-confidence, wilted in the face of non-existent criticism and consequently sanitised the classes of all sexual references.

Pole-dancing is a type of exercise: a particularly provocative, sexualized form of exercise. But, what exactly is wrong with that? For some reason, the powerless-that-be at the Union decided that presenting pole-dancing in this way is unacceptable. Why? We all like sex, don’t we? We’re all adults, and the classes will take place after the watershed. Where exactly does the problem lie?

It’s often said that Cambridge’s puritanical culture stretches back to its support for Cromwell in the Civil War. Undoubtedly, there is a prudish attitude towards sex in Cambridge. Continuing in this vein, the Union obviously thought that promoting something sexually exciting would be too much for tabs to swallow. Instead of celebrating the first vaguely risqué event in Cambridge since Alison Richard bared an ankle, the Union has decided to bill pole-dancing lessons as ‘aerobics classes’. Pole-dancing may well be a good form of exercise, but surely the appeal lies in the ‘saucy’ nature of pole-dancing? This is what gives it an edge over dance classes, or boxing, or one of the myriad of other fun ways to keep fit.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that pole-dancing has to be degrading or performed for the sexual gratification of others. I’m assuming this is what the Union’s press officer meant when she said, “to suggest that the Union is in some way guilty of condoning chauvinist attitudes towards women would be as insulting as it is ridiculous.” Exactly what pole-dancing has to do with chauvinism, I’m not sure, but it surely went without saying that the Union wasn’t planning on opening its doors to the regulars of Talk of The Town. Pole-dancing classes are, quite obviously, a light-hearted approach to something sexy. Good-natured fun and sex are not mutually exclusive; only a prude would argue otherwise.

The Union’s overly defensive attitude suggested that they had something to answer for, when, in actual fact, they didn’t. It is utterly absurd that the Union felt the need to gain the approval of ‘CUSU’s Women’s Campaign,’ as if they possess a rubber stamp that determines whether someone can legitimately mention s-e-x without being branded sexist. Even more laughable was the Union’s assurance that, “these classes are of course totally optional.” Well, thank God for that: I was just about to ask my mum for a sick note.

Perhaps the most unnecessary move of all was the decision to make the classes women-only. The fear, as I understand it, was that hordes of drooling perverts would descend on the Union armed with button-hole cameras and mirrors strapped to their shoes. I think I speak for every male chauvinist pig in Cambridge when I say there is no way in hell you’d catch me grinding against a pole just to see some female undergrads doing the same. The idea of filthy degenerates taking time out from loitering in dark alleys to check out students in Jack Wills tracksuits dancing around a pole is straight out of the Brothers Grimm book of paranoia. Surely the only men who would attend these classes would be those who want to pole dance, and why shouldn’t they be involved? Sadly, my lack of both Union membership and a sense of rhythm means I won’t be one of them, but there are plenty who might want to join in, and why shouldn’t they enjoy it with members of the opposite sex?

It’s a sad day when a supposedly open-minded community of students feels the need to strip something as light-hearted and Carry On as pole-dancing of its sexual connotations. Pole-dancing can be pornographic and degrading, but only when it involves people paying to watch others dance naked. The pole-dancing classes the Union is offering will be ‘racy’ but they won’t be pornographic. Surely, men and women can have fun together without anyone being objectified.

Whoever came up with the idea of these classes should be commended; whoever marketed them needs to lighten up. If we really want to reclaim sex from perverts and misogynists, then we need to celebrate it, not censor it.