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A Girls’ Night Out

A couple of weeks ago my wife went out on what she described as ‘a girls’ night out’.  Naturally, I was excluded (though I have a male friend who claims – bafflingly – that he’s been invited to several such gatherings).

The point of a girls’ night out is, I guess, to enjoy a social gathering with a certain atmosphere and tone.   At a single sex event, individuals interact in somewhat different ways, different conversations take place. 

A girls’ night out is presumably a reaction to a longstanding (though dying?) tradition of lads’ nights out.

Now, they don’t seem to me to be objectionable – at least so long as they do not entirely crowd out social events in which both sexes are included.

But we wouldn’t approve (would we?) of a social occasion called ‘a whites’ night out’, or ‘a Muslims’ night out’.    Of course, it may well be that a group of friends all have a religion, race or class in common and that they spend time together precisely because of their common interests or background.  Still, if a non-Jew were to find out that some Jewish friends were going to the pub and wanted to join them, he/she would understandably be hurt by a ‘sorry, it’s a Jews’ night out’ rejection.

I distinguish a social gathering from another type of event – say a Bible-reading evening – where, obviously, it would be acceptable to have a ‘Christians-only’ policy.

Now, I’ve asked a couple of people at the Uehiro Centre whether they share this intuition – that a girl’s night out is alright, or at least not as offensive as a Jews’ night out.  They do.  But like me, can’t put their finger on exactly why.  So suggestions welcome…

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8 Comment on this post

  1. It seems intuitive that exclusive groups/events are permissible provided that their aim is benign (or even praiseworthy) and best facilitated by the restriction, i.e. a knitting circle, advanced yoga class, French-speakers coffee night. When the aim is not benign, and particularly where the aim IS the restriction itself, we are wary.

    Social groups which are exclusively male or female facilitate I would suspect have a role to play in supporting and protecting their members by allowing norms considered to be exclusive to a male or female societal role to be discussed or enforced, and such groups are very traditional. However, where male-only groups form in workplaces for the seeming exclusion of women from their support and/or other advantages to be gained from the network, this is no longer generally considered acceptable; single-gender groups and events are not simply excluded from oversight, however it is again the traditional need/right of a minority and/or oppressed group to organise in this way, so women’s organisations, black organisations, Jewish organisations and similar are normalised, whereas men’s organisations, white-only organisations etc are not.

    This all seems quite common-sense to me; whether or not it is actually acceptable for, say, the women in a workplace to form women’s-only groups and networks whilst men are not permitted to is rather interesting, though.

  2. In work-related socialising the idea of having a single-sex night out would also be seen as unacceptable sexism, at least in white-collar occupations. Perhaps, therefore, it is something to do with the fact that such workplace interaction already constrains sexual expression, whereas in an entirely informal environment social interaction may be significantly affected by it. A girls’ night out is excluding the possibility of (hetero)sexual interaction in order that the (homo)social element can be unconstrained. The fact that lads’ and girls’ nights out are seen as unobjectionable is part of the normalisation of heterosexuality and the corresponding alignment of heteronormativity and homosociality.

  3. I’m not sure there is anything to object about a “christian” night out or a Jew night out…. Maybe instead of searching for a justification for our intuition, we should be questioning our intuition instead.

    So lets figure out where the intuition is coming from.

    My friend and I are the only ones in my circle of friends and relationships that enjoy horror films. For all intents and purposes, it would be a “horror film aficionado night out” were we to go see a movie. I’ve excluded people because I know they won’t enjoy the activity. Now lets say that I have a night out with said friend, but instead of seeing a horror flick, we watch a movie that many would enjoy. If we called this a “horror aficionado night out” then I’ve excluded someone from joining in on us to an activity that they would have enjoyed, for no good reason.

    Similarly, inviting men to a girls night out, hampers their ability to talk about whatever it is that women want to talk about without their significant others, or just men in general, around. So if I invite someone to a Christian night out, who either I know is going to hamper the free flowing discussion (maybe because they’re a new atheist) then it seems right to exclude. But if I’m have a christian night out, and all we do is watch the Avengers… Then perhaps it would be wrong to exclude and really call it a christian night out (unless following the movie there was going to be open discussion about the film and the Christian implications of it).

  4. It strikes me that actually we always have somewhat discriminatory nights out, or in, based on who we invite. Whether it’s Wayne’s ‘horror film aficionado’ or ‘meat eaters only because the restaurant doesn’t have a veggie option’ or ‘they go with work, so I won’t invite them to the show with my other friends’ or anything else. Unless we have very small social circles (and probably even then) we don’t invite everyone we know to everything we do socially.

    The distinction, therefore, for the girls’ night out, or the lads’ night out, is that the grouping is clearly defined, not that the division into who is invited and who isn’t exists.

    This then reflects the question back to you. Why do you find it uncomfortable that other ways of labelling a normal process but not this one?

    I would venture to guess there are several things going on:

    If you discriminate on the grounds of something such as “meat eaters/vegetarians” there isn’t such a neat label as ‘girls’ night out.’ This is also not grounds for any legal discrimination of course. Other such things… “work night out” being an obvious one presumably don’t raise any qualms despite the neat label because there’s no legal discriminatory grounds.

    I suspect as well most of experience the idea of talking differently in single-sex groups than mixed-sex groups – so it makes emotional sense to us that we might want a single-sex social activity occasionally as well as mixed-sex social activities sometimes.

    That contrasts with the idea that most of us don’t have similar responses to mixed/single ethnicity groups. It’s hard for me to generalise about religious groupings, but I suspect the same lack of awareness of differences away from religious settings plus the knowledge for those that experience it that chatting after church or similar will allow them to gain that type of conversation may limit the need.

    Hence we accept the discriminatory same-sex only social events as meeting a clear need and not indicative of wider ranging discrimination. We may or may not accept it for other social activities. Race is one where we largely don’t. Religion is one where we seem to sometimes. Sexuality is one where we do sometimes – we accept LGB clubs quite happily as well as open ones. As an L on that list, I think this is a good thing as it can still help to have a safe space.

    And, in fact, we accept a much wider range of more subtle discriminations. Do you go to a wine bar? Pop bar? Real ale bar? Do you go on to a normal nightclub? The biker club? That goth club?

  5. Thank you all.

    The difference between philosophers and non-philosophers is that philosophers like to draw distinctions. So here goes.

    Distinction A. There are some social gatherings where individuals are not invited because it is felt that they wouldn’t enjoy it – they’re excluded, as it were, for their benefit: thus it would be silly (and insensitive) to invite a vegetarian to a carvery, or a person who only likes romantic comedies to a horror film. Second, there are social events where certain groups are excluded because the others who’ll be present don’t want them to be there. We’re discussing this latter category.

    Distinction B. If you have a knitting night, or French-class night, or a Talmud-reading night, then the aim is to knit, or speak French, or read the Talmud – and it makes sense to exclude non-knitters or those who won’t speak French or can’t read the Talmud. But if you have a girls’ night out, then there isn’t an added purpose, over and above the social event itself.

    Distinction C. There is a difference in values and norms between a formal and a non-formal gathering. There are Muslim societies at universities, say, where it might be odd to have a non-Muslim member.

    Now, would a Jewish person say, without shame or embarrassment, to a non-Jew, of an informal social event, not set up specifically to discuss Jewish-type stuff, “Sorry, you can’t join us for this drink, it’s for Jews only”? I don’t know any – but then I’ve lived a sheltered life.

    1. I don’t think your distinctions are capturing all the relevant context, and I think the context is really relevant.

      One of the functions of an X-only gathering is to let the members of X set the rules of interaction. This can be really valuable where members of X are in a minority, for instance (regardless of what they choose to talk about) since there may be important, ethically desirable ways of flourishing that are unlikely to occur outside some contexts. This is the argument many feminists have used in defence of women-only spaces. But I don’t think you need to show your status as underdog to argue that some issues/voices/conversations might not happen without some ring-fencing.

      Another piece of context is the formalisation of the boundary. Last week in London I managed to catch up with about half a dozen friends, all male. We talked about things (being married with young families, careers, etc) that we might not have talked about so openly had the composition been different. Was that a “boys’ night”? Who decides these things? I’ll bet that most of you, in your last social outing, drew from a very narrow pool in at least some senses, be it sex, race, education, socio-economic status, culture, language, nationality, religion or politics.

      My other point is just a more general liberal point – if someone wants to have a women/Catholic/whites-only night, let ’em. What business is it of mine or of the state? Where’s the harm? (I’m presuming any objection to freedom of assembly in a liberal democracy is consequentialist, but I’d be very interested to hear deontological or virtue-based objections to the occasional X-only night.) Moreover, if you think X-only nights are shabby form, morally speaking, what is your policy response? To give people personal friendship diversity quotas? To restrict freedom of assembly? Among the arguments for tolerance in these sorts of things is that it’s actually the least-worst choice (as well as being unbelievably cheap).

      Maybe you don’t like the idea of someone saying “sorry, you can’t come, it’s X only tonight.” But if it really offends you I suggest you just do a bit of Bayesian updating on your opinion of that person; if the context for that kind of restriction feels wrong, and if you think there’s something morally questionable about their behaviour here, why try to hang out with them anyway?

  6. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thank you for this interesting post, Dave. 
    I wonder whether the real basis for accepting the exclusion of a «girls’ night out» isn’t fundamentally to do with a notion of fairness. 
    We accept all sorts of exclusions in life : the amateur football team or symphony orchestra that has trials or auditions, and can fairly exclude those who aren’t up to standard, or even excludes those who whilst technically proficient enough, don’t have the right team spirit or other non-technical attributes. But excluding someone due to their being Jewish, Arab or gay would evidently be unfair. (yes, I know the word sounds a little weak, but I want to single out this Rawlsian notion.)
    Equally, an all-male businessmen’s club in a male-dominated world can be seen as equally unfair. A girls’ night out, however, doesn’t enter this category: it doesn’t threaten anyone or pursue the interests of maintaining power. So why not?

    PS: I take it that you’ve asked your baffling friend whether he belongs to an amateur Chippendale group?

  7. In response to this comparison:
    “an informal social event, not set up specifically to discuss Jewish-type stuff”
    I would say that a crucial point of “girls night out” is specifically to discuss Girl-type stuff, or do other things that have to do with common experiences as “Girls”. Another important aspect is to have a little social time away from one’s family, partner, kids, or whatever. Given the most common configurations of relationships and friends, this often means women getting together with other women, and not bringing along male partners. However, it doesn’t have to be like that–some of the women might be lesbians, or have no partners at all, and some of the friends might be male. The key is that members of the group are taking a socializing break, together, from the people with whom they live or interact most often.

    I don’t think a problem arises here unless we try to strip away the identity-label itself from the content of the lived social experiences of that identity. When it comes to being Jewish, for example, an all-Jewish gathering is okay with you as long as it is defined by a specific content like discussing Jewish-type stuff, or “reading the Talmud”, but if all of that shared social or cultural content is removed and only the Jewish identity-label remains, it seems off-putting because people are being socially excluded solely for their identities.

    The assumption seems to be that “girls night out” has no common content beyond the superficial identity-label, but my point is that it’s about a particular social content and shared life experience. Men might be included when they are equally enthused or informed about that content, perhaps like your male friend who gets invited to such events. Judging by some of the “girls night” events I’ve seen in my extended family, if you’re a guy who likes to scrapbook, watch horrid rom-coms, and discuss the details of childbirth, menopause, and the failings of the current PTA, you might fit right in. The social aspect of taking a break from the usual home life is important here, again, as everyone is doing that together for this occasion.

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