The Problem with Sex on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ (DWTS)


Full disclosure, I have not been a long time fan of the show, as I’m fairly new to living in the U.S. and unfamiliar with pop-culture. I’ve only seen seasons 23 and 24 (although I’ve seen other clips on YouTube), but I became a huge fan from my first episode (arguably from the first internet clip)! While I have greatly enjoyed the enthralling talent and emotive performances gifted to viewers like myself, I am also dismayed by several patterns of the show.

I have every confidence these issues can be resolved as they may not be realized as problematic. Thus, I undertake this discussion with honesty and, hopefully, not overly accusatory tones. I hope these can be thoughtfully addressed before the new season begins, or at the very least, those participating in the show in any capacity can read this and be aware and try to make a difference. Please leave me comments — I am open to discussion and want to hear your thoughts too!

Sexuality on the show

While I fully recognize (and appreciate) that sexuality is a large part of the show’s popularity, DWTS has numerous problems with the topic of sex. Sexuality should always be respected and celebrated. It is not a tool for manipulation or exploitation. The show celebrates stars who sexualize themselves without boundaries and without restriction but conversely criticize stars who approach their sexuality with more modesty or privacy. Not every celebrity on the show is a star because they are a lifetime performer trained in their profession and therefore accorded a lifetime of developing a personal versus professional life. Likewise, not everyone is a sex icon or wishes to be known for their sexuality.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating or showcasing sexuality, but it is a personal decision. It is not for the judges or audience to make and impose. There have been countless celebrities known for their charity work, athletic skills, and many other things— yet whittling them down to their sexual prowess and then holding everyone else in the competition to the same ‘sex kitten’ typecast is not what the audience signed up for when sitting down to watch this popular family show. There seems to be no happy medium. When seeing national role models condemned for of their sexuality, it hurts the credibility of the show and perpetuates the extraordinarily unhealthy sexualization of (especially young) men and women. Never should someone’s vulnerability be demanded for the sake of entertainment, particularly when it is their most intimate part of themselves. First demanding it, then grading and ranking them on it … is this not a show about dance?

Sexualizing stars inappropriately and unfairly changes the dynamics of the show. Insensitively probing and discussing the sexual development of contestants, and then grading them down for their sexual prowess and not for their dance skills or performance proves poor taste. Some of these stars achieved notoriety during adolescence and have not had the chance to reach their own development naturally, as their celebrated talents were achieved through sheltered seclusion, temporarily stunting their maturation. It is unfair and inappropriate to impose sexual anything onto these stars without constructive encouragement and/or without their consent. Sexual development is not linear, but something that changes; you can be in your 50s and struggle with your sexuality just as much as an adolescent 14 year old. Feedback should be constructive — positivity, privacy, and support are vital!

Everyone should be allowed to reach their development in their own time, in their own way, and on their own terms, and not right now for the purposes of this dance for this show. Many stars have expressed their discomfort but were dismissed and reprimanded first by their partners, and later by the judges. This reluctance is totally understood the audience and at home, and should be respected by the show. Yet it is not. As someone who was sexualized from an inappropriately young age, I know what profound, lasting damage this causes. This complicated destruction is internalized for years and makes you not only distrust yourself, but view everyone around you as a threat.

If your partner first boasts of their trustworthiness and proffers their friendship, but then imposes their sexuality upon you, lashing out with words like ‘you are not sexy, you are not working hard enough, you are not doing it right, try to be sexy, etc’, that is abusive. It does not exist within the show’s mission. It is bullying. It is sexual harassment. Whether they are 20 or 70, a man or woman (or transgender or anything in between), each person has the right to identify on any spectrum, what their sexuality is and how they choose to express it.

Being critical of someone’s sexuality, even through dance, can stunt someone’s development. That these personal judgements are given with inconsistent remarks from the judges and then paired with scores (!) on the star’s perceived sexuality and not on the merits of their dancing was quite a shock to someone like myself (who is new to the show). I was not expecting to see national heroes and celebrities relentlessly faulted for their development and/or maturation. Stars like Simone B. have been harassed, teased, and provoked to tears! Sexuality is an enormous, broadly defined concept. Individuals define it for themselves, usually beginning with confidence and self-worth — not with external grading and validation through audience participation. Shame! Why is it even an issue? If someone dances with enthusiasm, with devoted effort, and gives it their all — then why grade on sexuality at all? Why demonize them for their authenticity? Wow!

Most of the competitors on the show have also been engaged, married, parents (some even recently given birth before coming on the show), and/or dating. Regardless, sexuality is by definition an intimate and personal issue. While some dances are more sensual in nature, they can be performed without exacting unfair or inappropriate demands from the dancers. (In my opinion, there is also a difference between making a dance sexy, flirty, or even hot without being ‘raunchy’ (as Len Goodman puts it) and without being erotic or lewd. It is possible to achieve balance or even play with this boundary without going too far.

If a competitor expresses discomfort with something, this should be respected and a third way found. There have numerous examples of dance couples performing together in excellent partnerships, founded on defined boundaries and mutual respect. For instance, Heather M. and Maks C. were both married with children when partnered, and excellently illustrate a respectful pairing. Their dances were expressive, but were tailored and discussed before hand. They anticipated the concerns of their respective partners and likewise accommodated each other’s boundaries with respect. This example (and those before it) should be the rule and not the exception.

Likewise, there have been examples where a dance professional has demonstrated respect and gentility towards the innocence of his partner, but the couple still received hostility from the judges. (Val C. and Laurie H.) On one hand I understand that technical precision itself cannot reach a high score, but at the same time, you cannot grade performers on experiences they have not obtained (or are unwilling to share with the audience). There needs to exist a balance of entertainment against that of the star’s privacy. They are individuals with feelings, and further still, role models.

The dancer’s comfort and security should be priority. There needs to be a system where partners can be swapped if necessary so that continued harassment or bullying, or any vocal discomfort, can be respectfully addressed without blame. Bad pairings happen, but failing to address it helps no one and condones the situation.

It is confusing when a performer gives it their all, with emotion and precision, but are still downgraded seemingly arbitrarily while others on the show are lauded for enthusiastic performances that are not skilled, but only entertaining. The scores themselves are inconsistent in this regard, bringing me to my next point.

Inconsistent Grading

I have noticed that judges grade some competitors at professional standards and others at beginner levels, holding them to those levels throughout the show, but never raising them to equal footing. It is understood the stars are not equal in talent or skill, but the judges must achieve a balanced approach to scoring or else find a new system.

Some dancers are atrocious, not just technically, but without graciousness or sportsmanship of any kind (even dropping their partners or berating the judges) yet are given high enough marks to continue while better dancers are weeded out. I understand the purpose of the show is the unexpected nature of the dual scoring system. But the judges should grade more consistently and fairly or else they should stop being shocked and dismayed when the results are announced. The accountability lies half with them, perhaps more, as the viewers often follow the influential opinions of the judges.

The issue of grading also ties into the subcategory of physicality of the stars. Not all stars are created equal, not all are up to the physical requirements of the show. It is clear that those without the full physical spectrum required of professional dancers may not win, but they should be allowed to fairly compete as best they can for as long as they can. The cast of each season is chosen for diversity and versatility of the stars, yet this seems to be ignored when the paddles come out. Age alone should be indications of physical ability notwithstanding, but many are athletes who have undergone injuries dramatically limiting movement.

The professional partners are certainly not always understanding of the limitations of previous (or current) injuries limiting a performance. Nor, for that matter, are the judges, who nitpick the scores and undermine a dancer’s confidence by pointing out the very limitations the celebrities attempt to overcome. I now understand that some of this lies in the timed revelation of these injuries itself, where it may not be understood that these disabilities existed. This needs to be resolved and issues disclosed upfront and prior to casting in order to prevent injuries, exacerbating conditions, and so on.

It is understood that this is a dance competition, but each dancer should be held to their best ability. If their ability is limited by physical conditions, that is it — be understanding and leave it at that. Be fair. Be compassionate. Judgement should be accommodating to this information and it should be consistent.

I’m not sure where to put this, so I’ll just leave it here: Public squabbles amongst the judges are not entertaining, but make both the audience and the dancers uncomfortable.

Treatment of The Stars

The stars (celebrities) are not on the show to be used and abused. They compete on the show for the purposes of learning, for fun, and for some entertainment as the audience learns more about them and discovers another side to their talent and personalities. It is not appropriate nor fair to persist in wielding a crowbar to their personal lives in the pursuit of ‘unlayering the onion’ of their lives.

What they share or don’t is entirely up to their discretion and generosity. Sharing it once is not an invitation to replay it to exhaustion. It is insensitive and unkind to force them to relive these experiences again and again. (For example, in Bonner B’s story — he is not just a cowboy and please stop making him relive his paralysis). They are not defined by one notable experience, truly allow them to showcase other stories or talents of their choosing or don’t invite them on the show. Poking them to see if they bleed or teasing unto tears hardly qualifies as entertainment but smacks of bullying. Whatever is shared should be respected, and what remains private should be likewise respected. Respect should remain a constant tenant of the show, and the standard of treatment.

In Conclusion

I don’t wish to laundry list the faults of the show, but these larger concerns have been weighing upon my mind for some time. I publish them now in the hopes that others will read and understand the gravity of these issues. As I mentioned in my introduction, it was not my intention to accuse and villainize, but to address these very real issues for the purposes of resolving them. I believe the show is a wonderful endeavour, one full of gorgeous talent and friendship. It should continue as it does so much good and brings joy to many. Its continuity should be joined with progress, however, and that means dealing with some of these concerns to allow dancing without restraints of negativity and truly celebrating diversity.