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International Sex Icon Breaks Pole Stereotypes

By on February 22, 2018

Human bodies come in different shapes and sizes, but our culture often tells us that only a handful of them are worthy of our admiration and desire. When it comes to people with disabilities, cultural norms are even harsher. They are frequently desexualized and they are judged by qualities that can feel as presumptuous and arbitrary as the qualities that often determine sex appeal, for example their physical appearance. But being a sex icon takes more than promoting a sexual image. It means taking steps to break stereotypes, and building conversations among communities. To find out more about how this works, Bad Kitty® spoke to Erin Clark, pole dancer and international sex icon, about how society objectifies people with disabilities and what we can do to see them more as people with a full range of sexual experiences and desires, like everyone else.

Bad Kitty: When and how did you discover pole dancing?

Erin Clark: I started pole dancing in April of 2016.  I moved to a small town in Catalunya at the beginning of that year because I felt like it. The town has an aerial studio to train in and the people who own it are cool. They are also both competitive pole dancers and all the people I hang out with from the studio are pole dancers. So it kind of happened by accident when I was just hanging out one day. It was Salima, who owns ArtMove, who had the idea to start doing competitions. Before that, I had been an aerialist for 7 years in silks and rope. I had a show in New York with a friend that was a combination of aerial dance and comedy skits – we were known as Flaming Mermaid Broken Star. We wrote our own shows and did all the aerial acts during the show. And then I moved to Spain where I couldn’t really do English-language comedy and wasn’t sure where to take my aerial performance. So, Pole came at a good time. I was getting bored.

BK: Have you always been active before pole dance? What did you do?

EC: I learned to paraglide last year and am pretty obsessed with that. The guys I fly with are currently attempting to retrofit an old wheelchair of mine so I can fly that when I go back in the Spring. I love to trek around in the wilderness – I grew up portaging in the Canadian bush. I travel all over the place, and it’s either a fancy trip, or I’m crawling around in a forest in the fjords in Norway. My entire life I’ve been a wild animal. I love to really feel the world around me and under me, be right in it – as close as I can get.

BK: What about pole dance culture enticed you? And is there a part of it that you dislike?

EC: Pole dancers are incredibly committed and supportive. I love that. It can feel like a bit of a culture for 1 at times because there’s a layer of adapting that goes between me and pretty much any move. I don’t really get a lot out of workshops or classes or group training. But, I really like how worldwide and into each other we all are. Which is even more wonderful when you consider that so much of how we’re connected is through competitions. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the competitive element. In the aerial world, unless I’m trying to hit corporate gigs, the only standards I have to meet are my own. In a competitive environment, the standards I’m trying to meet – well… in truth, they don’t really exist yet. But the starting point is the way it’s done by a novice able-bodied person. And then what I’m doing is based on the degree of separation between me and that standard. Which doesn’t feel great. And can be very demotivating. But over the course of adapting the sport to myself I’ve come to realize that it’s actually the same – the only standards I have to meet are my own. I set them based on what matters to me artistically, what I feel I can make possible, what I know I’m capable of doing now and improving as I go. And that’s what is going to create the standards for other people. Until I do it, no one has seen it – including me. Which is an incredible place to be in. It’s like, there’s the exhilaration of the pole itself, and then there’s that whole layer where I’m going forward into an uncharted territory to claim it and make it grand. That is extremely enticing.

BK: What do people say to you most frequently when they found out that you’re a pole dancer?

EC: If I’m the one informing them, I would never just say I’m a pole dancer. I would say, “I am the Spanish National Parapole Champion.” It’s more fun for everyone.

People tend to have the exact same reaction to me when they see me grocery shopping alone as they do when they find out I pole dance. It’s all equally amazing! OMG! You’re such an inspiration! It makes it hard to take any of it seriously. The general public’s ability to assess the impressiveness of a disabled person’s accomplishments is notoriously underwhelming.  Online it’s common for a disabled person doing anything to be used as inspiration porn. A little girl using crutches, doing nothing but smiling is cause for the masses of able bodied people to loose their shit with #nolimits this and #whatsyourexcuse that. So, of course that’s gonna happen to me when people see me pole dancing.  There’s a lot of: if she can do it, then so can you. Like any able bodied person is automatically more capable than me by default. It’s patronizing and disrespectful. But it’s the background noise of my life – pole dancing or otherwise.

BK: How do you feel and respond to those comments?

EC: What makes it complicated is that parts of the process of adapting a sport so physical is pretty amazing, but I don’t think it’s impressive that I pole dance period. Some people take up pole dancing because they can and because they feel like it. It’s not unimpressive. But it’s not particularly meaningful, either. But when *I* do it, even though I’m also doing it because I can and because I feel like it, it’s suddenly: So. Meaningful. People cry. Making art, expressing myself, being able to move people to tears is all very important to me. But if they’re gonna cry just hearing about it, it makes it harder to tell when you’re doing *actually* good work or not. My resentment of that fuels me. It’s fueled me my entire life. I’m striving to reach people way outside that narrow tendency to oversimplify my accomplishments because the conversation is bigger than that, and bigger than me. It makes the question: “What *is* impressive or inspiring?” So much more compelling to me because the bar has been set so low, and because the answer is not immediately obvious. I have to go through the process of creating and putting it out there to even get close to an answer and it’s always shifting around.

There are disabled athletes that catch  one of my videos and get in touch to see how they might get into pole dancing. There are able bodied athletes and non athletes who like to follow my training and creating of pieces because they get to see the behind the scenes, the ups and downs, the progress – physically and artistically. Which is a magical process even when you’re the one going through it. There’s something beautiful and human about sharing the process. The disability element is one hell of a hook, but we all have to get ourselves through the process of creating or improving a skill in one way or another, everyone can relate. I love to share what I’m doing and how I feel as i’m doing it and I love the people who want to share that with me, I focus on them.

BK: You present yourself as an international sex icon. How did that start and what does that mean to you?

EC: Being a #sexicon is all about owning my own narrative. As a disabled person stories are always told about us by able-bodied people for other able-bodied people. This is true in all forms of media across the board.  And they not only get it largely wrong, the tropes are damaging and, the worst possible thing – boring. You can either be a hero or a burden. Disability is always the only characteristic a disabled person has. And it’s always a tragedy waiting to be overcome, or they die. Or they catalyze a profound spiritual transformation for a not disabled person. And then they die. People have a tendency to genuinely believe what they are used to seeing. And since disabled people have been only presented in this way, that’s how I get frequently treated. I get treated as a disability, as an inconvenience or an opportunity to practice benevolence. Or as an example that disability is only in the mind. Which is not something you typically hear actual disabled people say. The only way I know how to resist that, how to turn it back toward the society projecting it, to make space for myself to just exist  – is with art.  When someone else owns your narrative, the stories they tell have a powerful ability to decide who you can be, what you can do. Your entire sense of possibility is shaped by what you see. So, if you see nothing at all but what people who don’t think you are capable of anything have decided is true about you – what do you do?  Become an International Sex Icon. That really opens up doors! As an International Sex Icon, I’m the star of my own life. Everything happens to me. All the adventures, glamor, and excellent lighting. I’m the one telling the story, choosing what details matter, what the core themes are, how much of my disability factors in. I tell my stories for whoever likes the way I tell stories. And in the end, I’m still disabled. It’s not a story of overcoming, it’s a story of feelings and a story of selfies, a story of an interesting and magical life. And instead of having to take the wheelchair out of it so people feel they can relate, I just teach you how to feel the chair along with it. We’re riding my wheelchair through life together.

BK: How do you promote a sexual image?

EC: Interestingly, being a sex icon was never exactly about promoting a sexual image. The idea was that people have very strong reactions to the visual of my wheelchair. They see it and it immediately makes them feel all kinds of things about who I am, what I want and what I can do.  And they project those meanings on to me so forcefully that if I didn’t actively resist them, they could make me over in the image of their projection. All because of a wheelchair. A thing which, to me, is in fact incredibly superficial and devoid of all inherent meaning. It’s a metal frame, with wheels that you can sit on and go places. It makes an independent life possible for me. It makes some other practical things tedious. It has absolutely no sentimental meaning. It’s about as superficial and meaningless as sex appeal. Which is another thing that people have very strong reactions to based on the visual.  They see it and immediately feel all kinds of things about who that sexy person is, what they want, and what they can or might do. They project those meanings onto them so forcefully that If you don’t actively resist them, they can make you over in the image of their projection.  All because of some sex appeal. Focusing on sex appeal was a way to direct the conversation and make a subtle point at the same time. The way disabled people are treated is just another form of objectification. Inadvertently, the half-naked selfies became a way of presenting the fact that I actually *have* a sexual image at all. People with disabilities are mostly desexualized by society, which wreaks havoc on our identities and our relationships. It’s really a mess. I have a relationship with sex, sexuality, sex appeal, desire, and my body. It doesn’t even matter what that relationship is – just pointing out that I have one, that I’m a typical animal lusty human in that way – kick starts all kinds of incredible conversations in my community of readers.

BK: What are some of the challenges you face when you present yourself as a sex icon with an unconventional body? How do you push forward?

EC: The whole point is to present as a sex icon with an unconventional body so there’s no challenge to it. If I didn’t have an unconventional body I’d just be… modeling. Not being ashamed or uncomfortable in my skin and letting people see that ease carries a message all it’s own precisely because there’s an expectation that I should hate this body, that there is nothing sexy, powerful or whole about a body like mine. That I therefore don’t have access to the fulfillment, connection and happiness other people do. The challenge isn’t mine at all, it’s people who have that expectation, particularly if it’s subconscious because it reflects how they feel about their own body and bodies in general. If I’m not *supposed* to be happy in this body, but I *am* what does that say about the general relationship people have with their bodies? I’m just the canvas for thoughts and feelings to get splashed all over. When I don’t match what’s expected, the dissonance is an opportunity for all of us to feel a little deeper into our own issues and get free.

BK: What is your response to people who think you’re amazing because you can do physically intensive workout with a “disabled” body?

EC: Bodies are amazing. I marvel at the wonder of them all the time. But they also betray us. They fail. They break down. They age. They die. Disability isn’t something unnatural that happens to some unlucky few. It’s a natural element of aging. It’s a common result of the frailty of the human body. It’s the visual reminder that we are not at all in control. And, in equal measure, the adaptation that is required as a result of disability is an example of the extraordinary resilience of the human body. The creativity of the human mind in how it communicates with the body.  According to society, there is one category for disabled bodies and another category for able bodies. But in my experience it’s all just bodies. There is supposed to be variety. The expanse of possible configurations of capacity and function is a good thing for the whole system. We’re all little experiments being done by evolution. What happens if you make this one so she can’t walk, but her arms are crazy strong and she’s little so she can just toss herself around using her upper body and a mastery of the force of momentum? Being amazed by me being able to do a physically intensive workout is partly a misguided belief that disability means incapable of doing anything physical –  a belief that bodies are either strong or weak and a wheelchair means weak. When in fact, all bodies are a complex, mysterious, interweaving of both weakness and strength and, to me, a wheelchair means empowered.

You can follow Erin on instagram here, and on YouTube here.

Rhyn Cheung

Rhyn Cheung

Rhyn fell in love with pole dancing in Los Angeles, California. He competed in PPC, NAPA, CPDC, PSO Nationals, and was crowned Men's Division Champion of Colorado Pole Championship 2016.

Rhyn now teaches workshops in Hong Kong and is pursing his PhD in marine biology at the University of Hong Kong.

Instagram: @rhyncheung
Rhyn Cheung

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