Thirst Trap: Girls and the Club Economy

I’m riding in the passenger seat. My heart is pumping, both from the adrenaline rush of sneaking out and the enormous crush I have on the boy sitting next to me. It’s a long drive, but shorter than it should be because these boys don’t drive the speed limit. We’re going out, fueled by suburban claustrophobia and the feeling that we might just get away with it. An hour later, a bouncer ignores our obvious fake IDs and pulls apart a velvet rope. The club is cavernous and loud and my heart has never beaten faster.

I’m standing underneath a massive chandelier with my best friend. We don’t have tickets for the night, and we don’t know anybody at the club. Like magic, a guy appears with two free tickets. His friend wasn’t wearing the right kind of shirt, and some cute girls might as well have fun in their place. A different stranger, this time a promoter, whisks us to the front of the line. He walks us in and we disappear into the crowd.

It’s barely midnight and my feet are killing me. This time, when the bouncer pulls apart the rope that leads out to the street, I am mostly relieved. My friends are texting me to try the back entrance. They think they can get me in if I wait around a while. I take a cab home.

It’s my second fall break in New York City. I stop to eat dinner at a Thai fusion place with solid Yelp reviews. I don’t want to talk to anyone. My waiter follows me out of the restaurant and tails me for a block and a half. I have headphones on, so he taps me on the shoulder. He gives me his number so I don’t have to have another silent meal. Later, at my cousin’s apartment, I text a promoter because I’m tired of having nothing to do. I take shots with my cousin’s friends before the club. One of my cousin’s friends kisses me out of the blue. I’m drunk, so I cut him some slack. I leave the bar and get in a cab. The club is full of beautiful girls and fat men in button downs, but the drinks are free.

I’m back home from college, dressed and waiting to be picked up by a boy who used to be a good friend, sometimes more. Soon, the back seat is packed with girls. I go riding in cars, but I’m not the driver. Riding in cars, now I’m the bad girl you wanted. I feel like I’m in high school again, playing out an unspoken arrangement between the boys and the girls. With us, they will be welcomed into the party. With them, we can escape our bedrooms and our mothers and being alone.

The friend picks me up again. This time, it’s only me and another girl. He worries he won’t get in to the club because “the ratio” is so low. I try to flirt with him but he’s not game. He’s counting.

The promoter gets paid for every girl my friend brings to the table. He compensates for this by offering us bottomless glasses of Stoli and flutes of champagne. I get very drunk and go home in a taxi without telling anybody that I came with. It was a better night than I’d have had if I’d stayed home.

Now I’m in the car with my mom, trying to explain why I kind of hate going out. I play her the Speedy Ortiz song that I listened to every time I was alone in New York, the one lead singer Sadie Dupuis has said is about the how the freedom for a woman to do whatever she wants is always coupled with the reality of someone trying to take that power away. What kind of freedom is mediated by club promoters and boys who drive too fast and bouncers who are bending the rules? If I have power at a nightclub, it’s the power of being young and cute in a city that sells $15,000 VIP tables to men who don’t care that I am underage.

Nightlife in Miami pretends to cater to women. Everything is free if you know the right people and wear something low-cut. Of course, all nightlife is transactional in it own way, but there’s something especially sinister about a place that blatantly offers up young, beautiful, drunk girls to the highest bidder. I like to think I was always aware on some level that the scene was fucked up. But it was so easy to go out with my eyes closed, pretending that I somehow deserved the free drinks, that I didn’t notice the men counting dollar signs in their heads. When I was seventeen and insecure, the best nights of my life were the nights I “passed” for 21, coming home in the early morning with a hangover and swollen feet.

I got tired of it pretty quickly, but it was hard to stop. I thought I would feel differently if I flipped the script. I could act like it was a question, who’s using who? It felt like defiance, showing up to these places that wanted to offer me up and not taking the drinks, not taking a seat at the VIP table.

Of course, this was only a coping mechanism. I didn’t want to stop, so I hid behind excuses and rationalized what was happening so it didn’t seem so bad. In a piece for xoJane on why male artists prey on girls, Emily McCombs writes,

Young girls, a traditionally fairly powerless group, wake up one day to discover they wield enormous sexual power, power they may use without the perspective or emotional maturity to fully understand the consequences.

I was never more powerless than in high school, with a strict mom, no car, and a $30 monthly allowance. None of these things mattered, of course, in the underworld of Miami nightlife. I’m lucky that nothing truly bad ever happened to me at a nightclub, but that’s simply a matter of luck. I wasn’t mature enough to be in such an adult environment at seventeen, and I understand now that every bouncer that turned me away was doing me a favor.

I still go out, sometimes to the same places, but it’s different now. My enjoyment is tempered by the knowledge I’ve accumulated in the interval between high school and my first years of college. I know now what it means to be treated like a woman wherever I go. I understand better what is at stake. When I see young girls I know posting club pics on social media, I wish it wasn’t so fun to look sexy and drink champagne and dance all night in a crowded bar. I wish that the safer ways for young girls to explore their sexualities were as easy to do as showing up to a club.

The easy, fun thing is what gets you. It’s a trap that looks like an escape hatch, a superficial feeling of power that masks a deeper transaction where the men win and the girls lose. I’m lucky. The only thing I lost was time. But in the wake of David Bowie’s death and the renewed focus it has placed on his “relationship” with Lori Mattix, I can’t help but feel a surreal and numbing sense of panic when I think about the clubs I went to when I was only seventeen. I listen to Mattix talk about her time with Bowie – “we were so young and into the music” – and I feel like I’m hearing my old self speak. Mattix maintains that, whatever messed up things happened, she felt much older at the time, even special. Didn’t I?