Slut-Shaming in the Social (Media) Dance World

fed up woman in shorts

A female dancer posts a promotional photo of herself in her underwear. It helps her sell tickets to her next event.

It also garners criticism. People say she’s contributing to the sexualisation of female dancers, that she can’t criticise rape culture because she’s participating in her own objectification, and that she lacks creativity.

So, who’s oppressing her? A patriarchal dance system that objectifies, sexualises, and commoditises female bodies? Or the critics who will only support her right to sexual agency if she displays it the way they want her to?

Slut-Shaming Is a Form of Sexual Oppression

The slut-shaming of dancers for their social media posts has been depressingly frequent recently, or at least in my dance scene. I’ve come across it in podcast episodes, conversations, and social media threads.

Some of it has been targeted at men who, during a heatwave, had the audacity to dance in their swimming costumes and then share a video of it. The beach is no place for dancing, it seems.

Predictably, though, most of this slut-shaming has been targeted at women: They danced in their bikini! They did a headstand and you could see their naked back! They wore a thong and fishnets!

Some of these comments have been accompanied by judgments on the person’s capabilities as a dancer and professional. Some people have even criticised the dance genre in question, suggesting that it encourages ogling by being simpler than other dances.

Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with wearing a bikini or a pair of Speedos. There is nothing wrong with dancing while in said swimwear. And there is nothing wrong with doing a headstand, or a sultry pose, or sharing a photo in which you feel confident.

woman dancing in bikini on beach

Credit: Darius Bashar

We might consider these things sexy. We might even consider them salacious, although that’s subjective. Given that we fetishise children in school uniforms, it should be obvious that “finding someone sexy” doesn’t mean that they’re actually trying to be sexy.

Yet regardless of our opinions, and the person’s intentions, there is nothing inherently wrong with a sexy photo.

Insulting someone for doing something “sexy”, on the other hand, is wrong. It is an attempt to control them, their reputation, and their behaviour. And while it might be less severe than the prison sentences meted out for TikTok dance videos, it is still a form of punishment.

It’s also an example of something called “the Madonna-whore dichotomy“: the idea that women must either be innocent, well-behaved, and therefore worthy of respect and protection—or sexual and undeserving of respect.

Think I’m reading too much into this? Just consider the personal and professional insults that have hurled around: lacking creativity, talentless, fake, hypocritical… not fit to criticise rape culture.

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That last insult is concerning but not surprising. The Madonna-whore dichotomy is often used to victim-blame rape survivors and victims while excusing their rapists and sexual assailants. There’s a reason for this: it diminishes the humanity and perceived worth of the survivor or victim.

angry woman in bikiniCredit: Christopher Campbell

Sexual Objectification vs Sexual Agency

I both understand and share the frustration at the rampant sexual objectification within the salsa, bachata, and kizomba dance scene. However, we shouldn’t confuse this with sexual agency.

Sexual objectification is when a person is viewed primarily in light of the ways an observer consider them sexy, regardless of that person’s thoughts, capabilities, and personhood. It’s what happens when dance videographers zoom in on women’s body parts during a social, for example, or when a teacher makes crude jokes about the sexuality of two women dancing together.

Sexual agency is when someone decides what they want in relation to sex and sexuality. It’s when someone chooses whom they have sex with, or when they decide to film themselves dancing intentionally provocatively and then share the recording, for example. Situations in which a person’s sexual agency is diminished or punished include sexual objectification, rape, homophobic hate crime, honour killings—and slut-shaming.

Sexual agency and sexual objectification might result in the same thing: a video that focuses on a dancer’s body parts, for example. However, the experience of the person in that video is extremely different depending on the context of how and why it was shot.

Sexual agency should be celebrated. People confidently electing to dance sexily, wear what they want, reveal skin, and to have sex without being judged should be celebrated, just as people’s right to not do so should be respected, promoted, and valued.

Sex Sells—Is That Problematic?

It can be frustrating when we feel that a sexy photo or video has drawn greater attention than good dancing or teaching. And there’s no denying that some promoters and teachers take advantage of this.

Yet what’s the real issue: that someone chose to market themselves based on their sexiness, or that their talent and training is being undervalued?

If we are more frustrated by confidently sexy women than by the fact that it’s harder for a solo woman to get teaching jobs than for a solo man, we have got this wrong. If we’re more frustrated by a sultry photo than by the fact that older people, especially women, report increased rejection on the dance floor, we are not supporting women. And if we’re more frustrated by someone dancing in a bikini than we are about black women struggling to get dances at African dance congresses in which there are no female teachers of colour, we are failing as feminists and anti-racists.

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The most concerning part of a society with endemic sexism shouldn’t be a confident woman.

fed up woman in bikini

Credit: Jernej Graj

“But They’re Brainwashed!”

Some people will argue that if a woman or minority figure chooses to dress sexily, it’s because of endemic sexual objectification that has brainwashed them into celebrating their oppression. It’s true that studies link experiencing sexual objectification to increased self-objectification. However, it is still oppressive—and, quite frankly, ludicrous—to tell other people that we know better than them when it comes to what they want to do with their body.

What’s even worse is insulting them for what they want.

Whether it’s rape culture, victim-blaming, or slut-shaming, it all comes back to the same problem: the removal of a person’s right to decide what they want to do, or the punishment of them for having done so.

If you stand against sexualisation, objectification, and rape culture, then you should also stand against slut-shaming.

Let’s please, for once, stop judging people on how they dress. Instead, let’s celebrate how confident they are, how much fun they’re having dancing, and how talented they are.

Feature photo credit: Joshua Rawson-Harris

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Tanya is a social dancer who adores role-swapping. A non-stop traveller, she loves how dancing allows her to meet people no matter where she goes.