There was a time, long ago, when I used to go out for dinner and dancing in London five times a week…for free.
My friends affectionately call this stage of my life, “Club Emma.” Club Emma was my teenage alter-ego. She was very blonde, often fake-tanned, and always in the mandated pair of six-inch stilettos that she couldn’t walk in. Initially, she was definitely underage drinking and excitedly exploring the underground world of elite nightclubs, all while about to start university in central London. She did not spend a single penny on drinks or food for the majority of her first year in school. Was she economically savvy, or knowingly participating in a gendered economy that traded beauty for sustenance? Perhaps both.
Women (who are always called “girls” in clubby places) have historically been used to facilitate gatherings between powerful men. This reality is extra prevalent in the elite-party scene — it’s perhaps one of the most visceral examples of gender inequality on display. There’s a very specific type of female beauty that’s expected of “girls” in this world — the tight dresses, ankle-breaking heels, and faces full of makeup are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s worth noting that this look bolsters able-body bias, unrealistic beauty standards, and “velvet rope racism.” If you want to learn more about that, we’ve written about pretty privilege before.
But the elite party scene makes beauty even more transactional — it gives way to an intricate, gendered economy of sex appeal, social status, and money, pieced together and traded by “promoters.” For those unfamiliar, promoters are typically men who befriend beautiful women to bring them to dinners, clubs, trips, and parties hosted by powerful men around the world. In other words, promoters forge entire careers out of access to girls’ bodies. Like all commodities, some bodies are worth more than others based on their perceived rarity.
There’s actually even a clear hierarchy, that adheres to an understanding that not all girls are equally valuable, with models being the most valuable. In her book, Very Important People, former model and sociologist Ashely Mears’ describes a promoter’s role as: “to stage a show of two types of power — wealth and beauty–embodied in the form of rich men and girls, respectively.” (p.15)
“Girls” play a central role in elite men’s pursuit of status and wealth.” (p.20)
There’s a lot wrong with this. Notably, women do not reap the financial and social status of their beauty to the extent that the men commoditizing them do. Unless engaging directly in escort or sex work, a woman’s presence/beauty gets paid in free drinks, food, trips, and occasionally gifts, rather than money. It’s also worth noting that women get close to zero levels of respect for being in a club.
For the purpose of this essay, I want to focus on the idea that girls are utilized as a lever for social status and financial access among men. Let’s start with promoters. Promoters only get jobs if powerful men know they have unique access to beautiful girls. For promoters, girls = currency to access elite worlds they otherwise have no ticket to. For club and restaurant owners, girls create the vibe or a ‘cool factor’ for male excess to unfold. Wealthy spenders at most VIP clubs are heterosexual men and, simply put, beautiful women justify the bill. Any business manager knows that women’s beauty can change the mood of a place to incentivize spending. As a result, women in these spaces are sometimes called “furniture women” — their literal job is to furnish the social setting to facilitate business deals and male bonding. And while that thought is laughable, the trickle-down effects are not funny. The existence of these social spaces for rich and powerful men enables them to develop a close global community, cultivating the shared cultural values and beliefs that drive contemporary capitalism.
“Let’s go dance for our dinner.” (p.5)
So do women have any power here? Do they have a choice in enabling this behavior? Most of the time the answer is yes, they do. You do not have to participate by going to the club — your power is your autonomy. But, while I have never been a model, I do know that participating in the clubbing scene is somewhat par for the course, and on occasion, expected of you in your early career. Beyond the access that beauty grants women in these spaces, their power usually ends there. When I used to club, there were never occasions where I felt unable to leave the club, but I know women who have had vastly different experiences. In these spaces, men buy drinks and then act entitled to the women they bought them for. I did, for what it’s worth, have experiences where my drink was spiked, but for whatever reason, my naive teenage self didn’t really care that this happened (on more than one occasion). But perhaps that’s also the point? Girls who frequent clubs tend to be super young (typically 16–25) in comparison to the men paying for the tables (40+). It’s another power structure at play, one where naivety enables women to be utilized as currency before they recognize it’s happening.
I want to be clear — women participating in this world are not stupid. They know what they’re doing, even if they might not fully comprehend the gendered economy at play at age 17. Women inherently understand the value of beauty and sex, and they frequently use it to their advantage in a world that won’t recognize any of their other attributes. It’s all too easy to imagine ‘bimbo’-esque women in these spaces, but that’s not the reality. We want to believe that women hate this world because it is completely unequal. But what if you don’t hate it? What if you’re actually just in the business of getting your fun paid for? I know that’s how I used to feel. As a curious teen, I wanted exposure to sometimes glamourous — and always obnoxious — displays of wealth in the club. And now that I’m older, I don’t think that early exposure to the power dynamics I outlined above was necessarily a bad thing. I got through most of my university degree in London without spending a penny on going out, a fact that I find amusing. While I am not denying this is all highly problematic, I’m more suggesting that women might actually enjoy it. Because at the end of the day, these girls are all teenagers or young adults. They will, eventually, grow up and leave the club. Will the men?