I have wrestled with knowing how exactly to write this post or what direction I want to take it (and have even written it 3 times over), but have ultimately decided that the best way to begin is with the most condensed version of the truth: last Friday night I went to a club in Asheville with some friends and proceeded to get the angriest I have been in a very long time. Angry enough to yell “I AM A WHOLE PERSON, NOT JUST BOOBS!” in a very crowded room. Angry enough to confront an employee of the establishment, and angry enough to part unnecessarily with my money — something I would never otherwise do — because I came face to face with a sneaky form of sexism that had snaked its way into my otherwise pleasant evening, and I was not going to stand for it.
Allow me to explain a little further.
Like I said, some friends and I went to Asheville last weekend and I really had a grand old time; they are some of my absolute favorite travel buddies and I love that we’ve started to form the habit of vacationing together. Friday night when we all got into town we went to Wicked Weed for a few drinks which was simply fantastic. Then some of the members of our group got that deep-down-in-your-brain energy itch that only dancing can ever properly scratch (obviously I was not among their number because I have about as many dance moves as a sock puppet and had not yet had enough to drink to make me forget my inhibitions…so far that limit does not exist). Fortunately, drunk people make for some of the best people watching, so I was happy to go along.
Someone looked up where the nearest nightclub was and we all braced ourselves to step out into the cold mountain wind that our flimsy “Winter in Raleigh” clothes were doing little to protect us from. Now, I’ve probably only been to 2 or 3 clubs in my life — none of which were in the U.S. — but I figured I knew the drill pretty well: pay the cover fee, buy one absurdly priced drink, complain about how expensive the drink is, hold my friends purses while they dance, and try not to get stepped on, creeped on, or puked on in the meantime — easy peasy.
So there we were, standing in line, whipped into the kind of obnoxious frenzy that stems from trying to follow the bouncer’s instructions (about handing over IDs, signing in, and getting checked for weapons) while also trying to maintain our own conversations in disjointed and breathless bursts. Eventually one of the girls in our group who was in the front of the line called back to the rest of us,
“Hey, the guys have to pay a cover of $10 but girls get in free. Do y’all still want to go in?”
We stood there in a confused cluster and clogged the doorway for a minute before ultimately deciding to go in. The guys begrudgingly fished the money out of their pockets and wallets while the girls stood on the sideline watching the transaction go down. My first thought was to be relieved and a little giddy: I didn’t have to pay! Yay me! But that thought was quickly overtaken by a flood of skeptical and angry thoughts: why not me?
Of course, to fully understand why excitement was my first reaction (but not my strongest reaction), you have to know that the part of my brain that was happy has been shaped and strengthened by being lifelong bedfellows with poverty. I like to think that I have never been entirely destitute despite always being poor, but financial ruin has been looming just behind me and breathing down my neck for as long as I can remember — one poorly timed late fee or car repair or lost cell phone would be all it took to send me into an uncontrolled spiral. Living with that constant threat has established in me certain “thrifty” behaviors that collectively formed a barrier against the threat of ruin. It’s a barrier I find I need less and less these days, but one that is hard to dismantle.
I still do things that a normal, thriving person doesn’t do — like accepting anything someone offers to give me (clothes, furniture, dishes, etc.) regardless of whether or not I need them because someday I might. Things like eating all of my food (and even other people’s if they offer their leftovers) if I go out to eat — regardless of whether or not I enjoyed the meal or even whether or not I’m still hungry, because anything that is paid for cannot be wasted. Things like cutting mold off of expired food and eating it anyway; like shopping with a calculator to factor for sales tax on a budget that has no margin of error; like always walking with my head down to pick up loose coins; like not correcting a mistake on a receipt if I’m being undercharged (which morally I have a problem with, but I’m not proud to say I’ve done anyway). Things like religiously shopping with coupons/sales; like bumming rides to save on gas even though I have a car; like sitting in the cold and dark to save on the heating and electric bill; like generously tasting every food sample in a grocery store because walking past free food is stupid and short-sighted; and on and on and on.
Being constantly forced to make choices to keep yourself financially afloat (like whether you should leave your insurance info on a car no one saw you hit or be able to make rent that month) brings out the ugly, animalistic survivor in everyone (which is why I hate and will always have a problem with the saying “poverty builds character” because it honestly, truly, really doesn’t. But that’s a soapbox for another time).
All that to say, that’s the part of me whose knee-jerk reaction was to feel a little smug and excited to not have to pay the cover fee. I knew I could afford the $10, but old pinchfist habits die hard. And under my initial celebration, feminist alarm bells began to sound in my head. Why would they only charge the men? My mind started to race.
On first glance, it seemed unfair to the guys — why should they have to pay when we didn’t have to? If you looked at it from the angle that women were being treated like VIPs who were granted free and immediate access, it did seem like the guys drew the short straw on this one. But I think anyone who knows anything about how we as a society place value on things would find it difficult to defend that position in earnest.
We live in a modern age that is driven by consumerism, where we often buy membership or the right to belong, and where the customer is always right. VIP access is never given out for free because preferential treatment goes to the highest paying customer (think about the difference between flying coach and flying first class — you know I’m right).
And what were the customers (men) of Room Nine paying for? Certainly not the environment — a small dark room, hot bad-smelling air, sticky floors, a so-so DJ — no, they were paying (whether they thought of it this way or not) for access to dance partners. For access to us. We weren’t customers at all, we were commodities that added to the package deal that the men were paying to use, and because we were free, we were also replaceable.
I know that may sound like a bit of an extreme interpretation, but hear me out — financially, what could the club hope to gain from only charging half of their patrons to come in? Wouldn’t they make more money if they charged everyone a cover fee? Yes, but only if they were creating an environment that encouraged repeat patronage for all of their customers. It occurred to me after we left to look the club up on Yelp and I was not surprised to find that most of their bad reviews came from women. Many of the reviews read the same — she was having a good time, but complained that some guy was dancing on her or wouldn’t leave her alone and the bouncers did nothing to stop it. And why would they? If she and her friends never came back they could easily be replaced with the next wave of women who had invested nothing to be there. Meanwhile, people who paid would insist on getting their money’s worth.
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. the men were being offered a type of citizenship — albeit one they didn’t ask for — when they paid for entrance. And the rights of that citizenship (the bouncer ensuring your protection, for one) were being denied me because I was not the club’s target clientele. Rather I was the bait in the trap to bring them in. The club had lots of women — women that men would pay to come dance with.
I just couldn’t shake the idea that I wasn’t paying for goods, I was the goods.
“This is bullshit!” I said, “I’m not here to make the club experience better for some random guy. I’M A WHOLE PERSON, NOT JUST BOOBS!” I marched my way back through the crowds of people to the front desk where a woman sat. I slammed a $20 down on the counter in front of her.
“I would like to pay the cover fee for myself” I said.
She blinked at me.
“I would like to pay the $10 cover fee for myself, please” I said, nicer but still firm.
“Why?” she asked, still taken aback.
“Because it’s dehumanizing. If the men have to pay for the right to be here, then I have to pay for the right to be here. I’m a person, just like them.”
She stared at me for a minute more. “Okay,” she said, “I respect that.” She opened the register and gave me my change.
“Thank you” I said, putting it in my purse and making my way back to my group.
The rest of the evening was fairly uneventful: I bought my overpriced drink, I complained about it, and I held my friends’ purses while they danced. I felt a certain amount of satisfaction — both in having spoken my peace and in knowing that I had grown enough as a person to choose moral principle over fear-driven frugality, but part of me was still upset. Just because I personally paid the cover fee didn’t mean that the club was going to change their policy. I had taken a stand, but what about all the women who wouldn’t, or who didn’t realize that they should? What about all the women who would ignore the uncomfortable feeling in the back of their minds when they accepted the free admission, who would leave bad reviews for the club when they didn’t feel safe, and who would let the cycle continue? How could I stop that?
I don’t actually know if I can. But I do know that the experience solidified even more for me my own definition of the equality I will continue to fight for — I don’t just want equal social perks with men (things like voting and salaries and being CEOs) I want equal access to be able to pay the price for those benefits — from nightclub cover fees to registering for Selective Service. I truly believe that women won’t be able to reap the same social benefits as men until we suffer all the same costs, because that’s what it means to be equal.
Until next time,