Club toilets illustration by Parys Gardener
It’s a commonly recycled joke that nights out are peppered by women only capable of migrating to the club toilets in large flocks of chattering and wild hand gestures. With arms raised and my dress adjusted so it doesn’t ride up, I know I’m guilty of needing at least two or three of my friends to head to the toilets with me – and it’s for more than a leak. Past a joke, what this light play cloaks is a home truth that illuminates our position in nightlife and the interactions it creates for us. Toilets are more than a watering hole (albeit a pretty grim one) – for women and femmes they’re a space for new and random friendships, collective validation and borrowing lash glue; but also a necessary escape to safety in numbers.
Finding friendship in strangers comes as an unexpected surprise, even for the most antisocial of us, myself included. An unspoken solidarity between women manifests itself in the way we relate to each other in these spaces. Half of my Snapchat contacts are women I met years ago at university freshers parties, all of us refusing to delete another like-mindedly wholesome babe even though we no longer see each other around, because the while the ways we met were so random, they were also unforgettable. My favourite lavatory acquaintance is actually a specific honey from the University of Leicester who I bumped into after we both lost our friends, so decided to spend the rest of the night avoiding the invasive stares of cis, straight men until we found both our friends again; I know her name and the story of her boyfriend-but-not-boyfriend, but couldn’t say what she actually studies.
“Toilets represent a temporary escape from the noise of glaring eyes and invasive hands”
The club space is not neutral. Existing as a woman subject to desirability politics makes the way in which we experience nightlife inherently political. At clubs, bars, gigs and festivals, harassment is a prominent feature of our experience, characterised by unwanted attention, escalation and untrained security that rarely enforce punishment for perpetrators. The irony of being in a barely-lit area yet feeling the pressures of hypervisibility is often due to the gender imbalance of most nightlife. In “straight clubs”, men significantly outweigh women in their presence, hence the commonly-used term “sausage-fest”. Group movement is an intentional reaction to this – which guy wants smoke from five girls with twice the lip?
Most of us know our friends well enough to be able to tell when we want a cis, straight guy to stop talking to us or trying to get us to dance with them. Strategic positioning can easily cut these unwanted interactions short or, if necessary, escalate them when things get too persistent or forceful. Contrary to popular belief, we know when our friends are cockblocking us because we’re asking them to save us from awkward rejections and people who just don’t understand “no”. Being able to observe your friends closely enough to read whether they are uncomfortable is a skill honed by situations like these cropping up repeatedly.
“With unimaginably dirty surfaces and queues longer than is reasonable, all it usually takes is a small compliment to spark animated conversation with another woman and her friends”
Toilets represent a temporary escape from the noise of glaring eyes and invasive hands. With unimaginably dirty surfaces and queues longer than is reasonable, all it usually takes is a small compliment to spark animated conversation with another woman and her friends. Conversation usually moves from complaining about the prices of drinks to realising you distantly know the same people, before exchanging social media and liking posts before the queue for a stall moves along.
The chamber of secrets (honestly sounds far better than the word “toilet”) is subject to heavy speculation regarding what exactly is discussed within its walls. The truth is, it depends on the type of women you meet there. There’s usually one drunk texting someone they can’t face in real life, someone adjusting their boobs to a level that looks entirely suffocating, someone crying over an ex and that one friend who just can’t stop bruking off in the mirror. Whatever the content of these conversations, everyone leaves with twice the energy and self-esteem. Sisterhood can be temporary and fleeting, and sometimes the club toilets are juicier than the club.
“Everyone leaves with twice the energy and self-esteem. Sisterhood can be temporary and fleeting, and sometimes the club toilets are juicier than the club”
Men’s toilets are apparently a matter of getting in and out making as little eye contact with anyone else as possible, which you wouldn’t guess considering how putrid they smell.
Of course, non-gendered cubicles are the safest bet and, ultimately, for anyone to feel more comfortable moving around individually in clubs and related nightlife that’s not specifically designated safer spaces, there has to be a change in the surrounding culture. Safety in numbers shouldn’t be a last-minute resort to underlying heteronormative narratives that suggest we are there to be stared at and touched. Naturally, everyone feels more confident around their friends and while it’s gratifying to strike up new friendships at the drop of a ‘hi’ in the toilets, feeling scared when you’re on your own shouldn’t be part of the package. Venues can enforce change by ensuring their staff are fully trained and prepared to handle adverse events and that it is clear there is a zero-tolerance policy towards personal violation – campaign groups like Good Night Out are pushing for this.
Personal experience is a formative teacher, and learning how to navigate spaces that aren’t designed to keep us safe means employing weird strategies such as the overwhelming-group-thing mentioned above. And although it brings its own challenges, connecting with strangers in the most unlikely settings can inspire weird and wonderful friendships. Even if it’s in yucky toilets. So yeah, we’re going to continue moving in groups like penguins. Move or be moved.