This year at the Charlotte Pride Festival, Whitney Ann was more excited than ever to attend. Her pole dancing studio, Pole Body and Arts, was one of the sponsors of the event, and had a booth there. Plus, it was one of her first ever Pride after having come out as queer. When a little boy came by her booth to try out the pole, believing it was a firefighter pole, Whitney says, it was hot, and he kept slipping off. So she did a pole sit to try to hold him up. “We were out there having a good time,” she says. “And it became an enormous issue.”
That is something of an understatement. A video that Whitney posted to her own Instagram and her business’s Instagram page went viral after it was picked up by Penny Maxwell, a North Carolina-based preacher with more than 16,000 followers. “This is straight-up child abuse and should be investigated immediately,” Maxwell posted. Maxwell is perhaps best known for leading Freedom House, a megachurch that sent out an email in 2013 asking that only white people be at the front door to greet the congregation. (The church later issued an apology.) Last year, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Maxwell also gave a sermon flouting state public health directives requesting that congregants mask up. “This is the only place where people can come and feel normal and we will not take that away from people,” she says in video of the sermon, to tremendous applause.
Maxwell’s post was picked up by Libs of TikTok, the Daily Mail, and Fox News — essentially, all the usual suspects when attempting to cultivate an anti-LGBTQ moral panic. “We have a serious problem in this country,” Libs of TikTok tweeted with a screengrab from the post, which did not censor the minor’s face. The barrage of hate started immediately. “I’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of messages that i need to go straight to jail, that I’m a pedophile or an abuser, which is disgusting,” says Whitney. “[I’m] not abusing a child because he wanted to play on a pole. These grownups commenting these disgusting things are sexualizing a kid being on a pole.”
The panic over the video was doubly bizarre considering that poledancing is a fairly mainstream fitness trend in the United States, as it requires a great deal of muscular upper-body strength. Though it originated among and was largely popularized by exotic dancers, many of whom have criticized the mainstream appropriation of the sport, pole studios like Pole Body and Arts have since become mainstays in cities and suburban communities, to the point that there are even pole dancing competitions worldwide aimed at children.
“You can do any style of dancing with pole fitness,” says Whitney. “If you want it to be a sport, then you do it that way. If you want to do it to be healthy and lose weight and whatever your goals are, do that. It’s whatever you want it to be.”
Any context about the history of the sport, however, is likely lost on right-wing groups, who have freaked out about children on poles before: last month, for instance, Libs of TikTok posted a video of a child going down a pole at a pride parade in central Pennsylvania, causing a similar stir in tabloid publications. Indeed, freaking out over children in innocuous contexts at Pride events seems to be a major part of the right’s playbook, with Drag Queen Story Hours across the country facing threats of violence from far-right groups and even LGBTQ creators preaching love and self-acceptance to children constantly facing accusations of being “pedophiles” or “groomers.”
Despite facing an onslaught of hate, however, Whitney has had no second thoughts about her post. “I do not regret posting the video at all. I don’t regret what I did,” she says, calling the backlash “totally irrational.”
This week on Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone‘s podcast about internet news and culture, cohosts Ej Dickson and Liz Garber-Paul discuss the moral panic over pole dancing, as well as the ongoing Don’t Worry, Darling drama, Yung Gravy’s undying love of MILFs, and the widespread concern over popular content creator Gabbie Hanna. Plus, the hosts chat with actor and content creator Luke Cook about the rise of the himbo, his favorite creators, and what makes a video cringe.