Is Ladies’ Night Sexist?

Ladies Night

Image by infinitewhite via Flickr

A segment on Den Hollander, a lawyer who become moderately famous for his crusade against ladies’s night drink pricing, appeared recently on the Colbert Report. This mocking segment got me thinking about this topic and the philosophical issues involved with the matter.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of ladies’ night, this is a practice followed by many bars and nightclubs that involves free (or reduced prices on) drinks and admission for women. The objective is, of course, to lure in women with the special pricing and use the women to lure in men (who will be paying full price).

On the face of it, the claim that ladies’ night is sexist seems laughable. After all, it is simply a marketing device used to increase business and hardly a device of cruel oppression. To claim that this practice would be on par with claiming that deals limited to children (such as reduced movie prices) or the elderly (such as reduced admission prices to some parks) are cases of ageism. Since such a claim would be absurd, it would follow that the attack on ladies’ night is absurd as well.

It could also be argued that ladies night is not sexist on the basis that men are not actually being harmed by the practice. After all, while men do have to pay more than women on ladies’ night, men typically go to ladies’ night to meet women who have been knocking back the free (or cheap) drinks. As such, far from oppressing men, ladies’ night is actually advantageous to men in two ways: 1) there will be more women present and 2) their judgment will probably be impaired by alcohol.

However, it is certainly possible to argue that ladies night is sexist. After all, what the customer is being charged is based on the customer’s sex and this not does seem to provide a relevant difference that would justify a difference in pricing. As such, this would seem to be a clear case of sexism.

In regards to the analogy to special pricing for seniors and children, there are various replies that could be made. The first is that the analogy breaks down because everyone gets to be a kid (and hence can have access to the children’s specials) and everyone has a shot at being a senior (and hence can get access to those specials). In the case of sex based pricing, men do not get to become women without expensive medical procedures, and hence men will not have access to that pricing. The second is that many of the discounts are situations that involve relevant differences. For example, children’s meals are often less because they are smaller than adult portions. As such, the analogy seems to fail.

It can also be argued that age based specials are, in fact, cases of ageism. After all, in those cases in which there are no relevant differences (such as portion size), then a difference in treatment would seem to be ageist in nature. Likewise for ladies’ night.

Another approach to arguing that ladies night is sexist is to consider whether or not the following would be a case of racism. Imagine, if you will, a night club that offers (in addition to ladies’ night) a whites’ night. On white night, whites get free admission and free drinks , while non-whites have to pay the normal prices. No one is excluded based on race, it is just that whites get special pricing for that night. I am inclined to believe that whites’ night would be regarded as a sexist event. However, it seems no more racist than ladies’ night is sexist.

It might, of course, be argued that whites’ night would be racist and ladies night would not be sexist because there is an established history of racism against non-whites and there is not an established history of sexism against men.

While this is a point worth considering, accepting this sort of reasoning would seem to involve accepting that without an established history of sexism or racism against people of type X, then an action cannot be sexist or racist against people of type X. This would mean, obviously enough, that racism and sexism could never occur. After all, there could be no racist or sexist acts prior to racism and sexism and there could be no racism and sexism prior to racist acts.

It might be replied that ladies’ night is not really sexism or at least not a big deal because it is such a small thing. After all, allowing women to have free drinks while men must pay hardly seems like a big deal. It is not like men are being denied the right to vote or being denied access to scholarships that are only for women. There is no systematic or wide scale oppression; just a difference in drink prices.

That reply does have some appeal. After all, it actually is a little thing and people generally find it laughable that anyone would be concerned about something so silly. However, the fact that something is a little thing does not mean that it is not sexist.

In light of the above arguments, it seems reasonable to believe that ladies’ night is actually sexist. As compensation for years of cruel oppression, I only ask that the ladies buy me a drink now and then.

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18 Comments.

  1. Hmm… the topic of this post has “April Fools!” written all over it, predicated as it is on Colbert. But I’ll jump in with both feet anyway.

    Suppose someone argues: “whites’ night would be racist and ladies night would not be sexist because there is an established history of racism against non-whites and there is not an established history of sexism against men.” You suggest that a plausible interpretation of this claim would be something like, “a history of oppression is a necessary condition for discrimination”. But Mike — why are we reading it this way? Doesn’t it seem more charitable to read it a sufficient condition instead?

    I take it that a generously spirited bartender who has a Ladies Night policy would respond to you with a history lesson on discrimination in order to motivate a case for reparation of harms in the interests of promoting equity. It seems to me that It would then be incumbent upon you to make the case that the very idea of equity is discriminatory.

    And I doubt anyone will be able to make that case. Complaints of “reverse racism” only have traction when we think that equality is an ideal to be maintained. Unfortunately, equity is a very different concept from “equality”, and equity is what most people are motivated to defend.

  2. I’ve never understood this talk of “reverse discrimination”. The reverse of discrimination is to be completely indiscriminate. The term “reverse discrimination” seems to me every bit as absurd as, say, “reverse murder”. Those engaged in debate on the subject of discriminatory policies should have the moral fortitude to acknowledge where discrimination exists. That said, ladies’ night is patently sexist, but no one really seems to mind. Perhaps the establishments in question could reciprocate with a gentlemens’ night, as well? Strictly in the interest of fairness, mind you.

  3. Honestly, this is the most despicable, tragic waste of mental energy I have read today. And if you’re aiming for satire…you missed, chap. But thanks for giving me yet another reason to be disgusted by identity politics and all bullshit invocations of “oppression”. Worthless.

  4. Wouldn’t it be more fair to argue that Ladies night is sexist because it establishes a “sexual safari” as the encounter between male and female patrons?

    Females are offered cheap drink and men are offered the prospect of women plied with cheap drink. If that prospect has sexual undertones (and I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that in many cases it does)then surely it is distinctly sexist in posing the male as hunter and female as prey?

  5. Bonnie,

    Thanks for the valuable input and substantive criticism.

  6. Liam,

    It could be regarded as being sexist in that manner as well. After all, it is aimed at creating the sort of environment you describe in which women are being lured in to serve as bait for males and could be seen as being based on gender assumptions regarding behavior and economic status.

  7. Benjamin,

    It could certainly be taken as a sufficient condition rather than necessary. However, this would be consistent with men being discriminated against on ladies’ night.

    As far as reparations of harms goes, I am generally suspicious of justifying what appears to be current discrimination on the basis of past discrimination. However, if ladies’ night is designed to compensate those specific ladies (who drink for free) for discrimination by those specific men (who have to pay), then that would be fine.

  8. Okay, but consistency is not helping you. Lots of silly things can be consistent with any given proposition or belief.

    I think that I did not use realistic language in my example. The idea of equity usually isn’t invoked for purposes of reparations, but rather to look at history as a way of telling us something about the present. If women feel alienated, powerless, or otherwise isolated, then they won’t go to a bar in droves. (And, let’s face it, the gender dynamics of bars can be pretty obnoxious, so you can see why that would be.)

    Suppose that’s the current state of the society. So if there is a way of organizing women into all going to a bar at one time, then that seems equitable: then they won’t feel isolated or powerless. And if it’s equitable, there’s no serious case for discrimination. If there’s no serious case for discrimination, then if men disagree, then that is sufficient reason to advise them to take their business elsewhere.

  9. Ben,

    For an act to be an act of discrimination, all that it is required, if you will forgive the tautology, is that it is an act of discrimination. ‘Prior histories of discrimination’ are neither necessary nor sufficient. If you are charged a higher price for admission to, or drinks at, a bar because you are presumed to possess one set of sexual organs or chromosomes as opposed to ‘the other’ then this is a case of sexual discrimination. This seems pretty much an open and shut case – and it is on such grounds that some states such as California prohibit the practice outright. If the practice is, despite being discriminatory, deemed to be promote ‘equity’ then presumably it is deemed to be a case of so-called ‘positive discrimination’. I’m not naturally inclined to think ‘positive discrimination’ is good for either equity or equality but I’m willing to suppose it might be justified in some limited circumstances. But granting that, what I don’t think women really need – however ‘alienated, powerless, or otherwise isolated’ they may sometimes feel – is affirmative action through the provision of free cocktails.

    I certainly feel no urge to dispute the claim that the ‘gender dynamics’ in bars can be ‘pretty obnoxious’. I would put that point in plainer terms: men in bars can be ‘pretty obnoxious’ to women (though women in bars can be pretty obnoxious too). But the problem is not that women are not going into bars in droves (increasingly they are – as worried health officials will quickly tell you) but, perhaps, that that they will *only* go into bars ‘in droves’. Finding a way of ‘organizing women into all going to a bar at one time’ is neither needed nor desirable – women shouldn’t need ‘safety in numbers’ or to restrict themselves to drinking at socially-engineered woman-popular evenings. Women should be able to go for a drink even if men are the majority of the clientele on a particular evening or at a particular venue – indeed a woman should be able to go have a drink at a bar on her own if she so chooses without being pestered. (I daresay many women would freely gift Mike all the offers of “free” drinks they get from males if only they could enjoy a drink at a bar in peace.) We should not be providing ‘safe havens’ on particular nights for women, but refusing to provide any haven for obnoxious behaviour in bars. Every night should be a night fit for ladies, and men who cannot behave like gentleman should be told to leave. But let them all pay the same: ‘Ladies nights’ is no answer to anything other than the question of how a bar might make some money on a weeknight.

  10. And in that same sense handicapped spaces are discriminatory. But handicapped spaces are both desirable and fair. So who cares about discrimination, in your sense?

    I’ve been arguing that when you ask real flesh-and-blood social justice activists, they will be more likely to describe the issue in terms of fairness and equity, not equality.

    Equity is not an open-and-shut concept, but it certainly admits of more clarity than you seem to acknowledge here. To be equitable is to recognize differences that prevent all persons from having the same legitimate opportunities. For example, if I tell my students that every one of them has an equal chance to meet me during my office hours on the third floor of Waterloo’s campus, then I have satisfied the principle of equality. But if one of my students is confined to a wheelchair and there is no elevator, then I am in violation of equity, even though I did nothing to intentionally discriminate against the handicapped student. Equality is the blind application of a rule, like an umpire at a baseball game. Equity is when you enrich your rules by considering the fairest ways to apply them in such a way that is consistent with the purpose of the rule, like the best instances of jurisprudence.

    Incidentally, I don’t honestly know if any of this is “needed”. Nobody “needs” to get blotto at Philthy McNasty’s on St. Paddy’s Day. But it’s up to the bar owner to decide. So why do we have any sincere and independently motivated reason to say boo about it?

    And yes, it’s true that women should feel comfortable in all spaces. But they don’t, and those feelings are justified by daily tragedies. So we, the would-be architects of social policy, ought to do what is fairest with the resources we have, instead of treating the finer points of human affairs from the point of view of Robocop.

  11. Ben,

    The provision of disabled parking spaces is not justified on account of there being ‘a history of discrimination’ against disabled people. If physical disability were some tragic new phenomena the provision of parking spaces would be as justified as it is today.

    All that I insisted upon, in the context of racism and sexism, is that for an alleged act of discrimination to be an act of discrimination it is neither necessary nor sufficient for there to be a ‘history of discrimination’ against persons of that group. How you derive the claim that I am committed to calling the provision of disabled parking spaces ‘discrimination’ from any of that is unclear to me

    I do not argue against equity. And it is not hard to understand the concept – the notion of fairness seems sufficient. It is fair – and only fair – to provide the disabled with designated parking bays and other measures that allow them equal opportunity of access to goods and services as able-bodied people. Neither the disabled nor women ‘need’ to get blotto at Philthy McNasty’s on St. Paddy’s Day no. But it is only fair that they have the choice. So disabled people need – and the law should demand – that McNasty’s provide wheelchair access and disabled toilets unless it is entirely impracticable. And the law and society should demand that women – along with everybody else – are treated with courtesy and respect at McNasty’s. What the disabled and women would not ‘need’ is their dignity insulted with free cocktails and special nights at Club Equity as a consolation prize – one that helps excuse McNasty’s discriminatory refusal to allow equal access to all who wish to drink there. Women and the disabled should enjoy equal opportunity to get blotto at McNasty’s – and indeed Club Robocop – as able bodied men: to me this seems only fair.

  12. Benjamin S Nelson

    I’m confused. I talked about the history of discrimination when I was playing along with Mike’s initial post, as a way of pointing out that his attempts at analysis were uncharitable. My first post was an attempt to get Mike to understand that the history of oppression is a sufficient, but not necessary, condition for discrimination. And that’s your point, too, when you say “If physical disability were some tragic new phenomena the provision of parking spaces would be as justified as it is today.” So I’m not sure where we disagree.

    What I think has led us to cross-talk is that fact that, for the purposes of responding to Mike, I assumed (contrary to reality) that history played some non-trivial role. That was necessary in order to be speaking directly to Mike’s train of thought. But actually, from a more realistic point of view, we look at the history of cases in a trivial way in both the case of Ladies Night and the case of handicapped parking spaces. Hence, I said that “I think that I did not use realistic language in my example. The idea of equity usually isn’t invoked for purposes of reparations, but rather to look at history as a way of telling us something about the present.” In the trivial sense, “history” just means “experience from reading about tragedies in the newspaper”.

    I’m glad you support equity. But you said “If you are charged a higher price for admission to, or drinks at, a bar because you are presumed to possess one set of sexual organs or chromosomes as opposed to ‘the other’ then this is a case of sexual discrimination.” Now consider the following: “If you are forced to occupy non-optimal parking spaces just because you are healthy in life and limb then this is a case of discrimination agains the able-bodied.” If we accept the latter as being a justifiable use of the term “discrimination”, then we should conclude that “discrimination” (in isolation) is a silly complaint. That’s why I asked: who cares about discrimination, in the sense you were using it?

    When you argue that ideally women should feel safe regardless of the situation, I am in full agreement. So how do you propose making that happen? What practical alternatives do you advocate which allow for people to flirt with each other without fearing being roofied? Here’s one practical alternative: women should all carry shotguns into bars. Here’s another: replace big cities with communes. Another: put your bar right across the street from an all-girls college. Etc. And another alternative is Ladies Night. Now, I don’t particularly care which option people decide upon, so long as the would-be social engineers have their fingers on the pulse of the society around them. But as far as solutions go, Ladies Night seems the most obvious and most efficient.

    Finally, I just wanted to point out the inherent absurdity of speaking about people having dignity while getting blotto at Philthy McNasty’s on St. Paddy’s Day. I challenge you to scour the Earth to find anyone who has ever fit those terms.

  13. Hi Ben,
    Yes I think there have been some crossed wires, sorry for my part in causing any confusion.

    I would say that NOT providing parking spaces for the disabled is discrimination. And I would deny the charge that the able-bodied are discriminated against in any way by the provision of parking spaces for those who are less mobile. Parking spaces are provided to individuals who are recognized as meeting a certain level of medical need – this is not the same as handing them out because you happen to be part of a given racial or sexual group (whether that group has historically suffered from discrimination or not). Initially my position was that men who are charged higher prices at Ladies’ Nights are discriminated against but not in any way that really matters, it seems strictly – and obviously – correct to call it “discrimination” to me but it also seems a silly complaint: basically, who gives a flying? I will reconsider my position on the question of whether Ladies Night could actually serve some public good, I am not convinced that they do but I think your arguments are worth further consideration.

    As for “the inherent absurdity of speaking about people having dignity while getting blotto at Philthy McNasty’s on St. Paddy’s Day” – I do take your point in the spirit intended. But I would insist that disabled people should have the right to throw away their dignity whilst drunk at McNasty’s, not to have it robbed from them by McNasty’s refusal to provide a wheelchair ramp or a suitable bathroom.

  14. Of course the need to provide adequate bathroom facilities for women in bars, nightclubs and other public areas is a non-trivial issue too, and one that brings up questions about equality, equity and the difference between the two.

    ‘Potty parity’ isn’t a subject I want to get onto but most certainly, actual discomfort caused to women by having to stand in long queues in order to urinate, is further indication of the fact that there are worse forms of discrimination in bars than that supposedly committed against men who have to pay a small entrance fee to gain access to a room full of merry women.

  15. To let someone in an establishment free of charge based soley on sex IS sexist. Regardless of the reasons for doing so. Same goes for priviledges for certain ages or races.

  16. I find it absurd to suggest that men attend these nights ‘hunting’ for ladies with judgement impaired by alcohol. I know several ladies who do not drink excessively but still go to these functions thinking there will be an excess of single men attending. Who is doing the hunting?

  17. Probably both.

    Saying it is absurd is just an appeal to mockery while noting that you know “several ladies” is just an appeal to anecdotal evidence. :)

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