Bachelor Parties and The Business Model of Objectification

I spent the weekend in South Beach at a bachelor party for
one of my HBS classmates.  It’s hard for
me to count the number of people who, when notified of these plans, either A)
noted that I wasn’t the bachelor party type, or B) commented, “Wow, that sounds
just like ‘The Hangover.’”

My responses were, A) “You’re right.  Bachelor parties involve spending money,
cigars, spending money, alcohol, spending money, and scantily clad women
without advanced degrees.  There’s pretty
much nothing that appeals to me about a bachelor party except spending time
with old friends.  Fortunately, that’s
enough.” And B) “Dear God, I hope not.”

(Personally, my idea of a perfect bachelor party would
involve great food, playing sports, visiting a museum or two, then lounging
around and having small-group and 1:1 intellectual discussions before retiring
early to get a good night’s sleep, but I understand that I’m a bit atypical in
this respect.)

Fortunately, the weekend went off without any major hitches,
except for damage to our wallets.  As our
fearless leader noted to me afterwards, “We partied as hard as it’s possible to
do without making any truly bad decisions.” 
Nonetheless, I suspect it’s better not to go into any detail about how
Johnnie Walker Blue Label and “El Diablo” played a role in the weekend.

What I will do is to comment on business
models—specifically, the male willingness to pay to spend time with attractive
young females.

On our first night, we went to popular dance club, and were
ushered to our private booth, which came stocked with a dedicated team of
servers (attractive young women scantily clad in black uniforms with a lot of
fishnetting) who then brought us copious amounts of ridiculously overpriced
alcohol.  I had never gone to a club or
experienced bottle service before (this is probably the first and only bachelor
party I’ll ever attend where all the men are financially successful
40somethings trying to recapture their youth), so I found the concepts
mystifying at first, but gradually I was able to unravel the business model.

Unlike a straightforward gentleman’s club, where men
directly pay exotic dancers for specific services, a club caters to two
audiences: Attractive women, and men with money.  I had supposed that men paid for overpriced
alcohol to please the attractive servers (a minor variation on the gentleman’s
club transaction), but the actual dynamic is more complex.  In fact, the club’s primary asset is its
ability to pull in attractive women. 
Most clubs actually seed the market by paying attractive women to go to
the club.  These are not escorts or
performers—in fact, their amateur status is what makes them valuable.  An attractive woman might be paid $500 to go
to a club for the evening; her role is simply to enjoy herself.  Don’t even ask how much the bottle service “girls” are paid.  The club’s revenues come from the men who are
then willing to spend money on overpriced alcohol in an attempt to attract the
women in the club to their table.  To get
a prime table, you might have to commit to spending thousands of dollars on
alcohol which you might otherwise purchase for a total of $500 at Costco.  The club is dark and disorienting, with music
playing at ear-splitting levels.  The
poor lighting helps the participants appear more attractive by hiding physical
flaws, while the noise forces men to rely on their spending to convince women
of their worth.  (The disorientation is
probably similar to the strategy of a Vegas casino—disorient patrons so they
lose track of time and what they’re spending) 
When I shouted into one of my friend’s ears to ask how on earth he ever
managed to have a conversation in a club, he shouted/replied, “I don’t.  I say something, but I understand that I’m
essentially talking to myself.  You can’t
possibly hear what the other person is saying, so you both just nod and pretend
to understand.”  Personally, I see no
appeal to meeting people in an environment where you can’t have an intellectual
conversation, especially members of the opposite sex, but that’s obviously not
a stance that is shared by the majority of clubgoers.

(Side rant: Why is it okay to call women “girls?”  It seems insulting and infantilizing.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be referred to as a “boy”.)


Men who don’t spend a lot of money have to rely purely on
their physical attractiveness and dancing skills to meet women, assuming
they’re even admitted.  Because of their
lack of contribution to the bottom line, these men are tolerated so that the
club can maintain the appearance of being a hot spot for the young and
beautiful, rather than the young and beautiful of the female gender, and the
older but wealthier of the male gender. 
A club is essentially a real estate developer on steroids—each night,
the club has to convince people that it is a good neighborhood, then sell off
its real estate as dearly as possible. 
The good news for the club is that the dynamic ensures a continuous flow
of irrational alcohol purchases—as soon as a table runs out of alcohol, the men
have to spend more or lose the women they’ve managed to attract to their table
to others tables which are more plentifully supplied.

I didn’t enjoy my club experience, not just for the reasons
above, but also because I was repulsed by how we might be seen.  If I were to look at our table through the
eyes of an attractive 25-year-old woman, I would see a bunch of 40something men
with greying and/or thinning hair, not nearly as attractive in their eyes as
younger, fitter, more stylish men their age, but who are willing to provide
free alcohol in exchange for being around me. 
Now I’m an old married guy who has no need to impress single women, but
even if I were single, I would want to attract companionship based on what I
view as personal merits such as intellect, sense of humor, and conversational
skills, not simply my willingness to open my wallet.  (Side note: This is a fundamental problem for
the wealthy, and one of the reasons they like to associate with each other. One
of the only ways to be sure that someone isn’t spending time with you because
of your wallet is to spend time with people who are equivalently rich)

Yet as we’ll see, this business model repeats and repeats
itself.

The next day, we spent all afternoon in a private cabana at
our luxury hotel.  Each weekend, this
famous hotel transforms one of its pools into a giant beach party.  As with the club, we secured our prime real
estate by committing to spend thousands of dollars on alcohol and food, which
were delivered to us by attractive young women wearing skimpy uniform bikinis.  As with the club, the hotel carefully curated
the guest list to obtain an optimal mix of the young and attractive, and the
older and wealthier.  As I looked around
the pool, I noted that the people with private cabanas were disproportionately
male and older (there were parties of older women as well as older men).  Again, conspicuous consumption was a key
communication tool.  One of the options
was for a champagne spray.  When you
ordered this option, four bikini-clad servers would come out, each riding the
shoulders of one of the young male employees of the hotel (who, while young and
handsome, were dressed in shorts and polo shirts) and carrying a bottle of
champagne.  They would then parade around
the pool to the cabana that had placed the order, open the bottles, and shake
the contents onto the people at the cabana. 
In other words, this was conspicuous consumption in its purest form—the
champagne wasn’t even being drunk, and could easily have been replaced with $1
seltzer water.  The cost of this
performance was an even $1,000.  The
benefit is that it would attract the attention of everyone at the pool, and
thus convince more attractive women to make their way to the cabana. (I will
note that we did not purchase this option, considering it wasteful.)

As with the club, I pictured how attractive 20something
women in bikinis would view a cabana full of older, largely-out of shape
gentlemen.  It’s also a matter of
perspective.  At one point, bespectacled
gentleman in his 60s, bald and pot-bellied, sauntered past, and I joked, “Look
guys, it’s Rupert Murdoch!”  This got a
good laugh, but then I realized that while he looked old and fat to us, we
probably looked the same to the young women of the pool, who were exactly as
far from us in age as we were from “Rupert.”


Finally, one of my friends related to me his take on private
equity and hedge fund conferences.  At
these conferences, potential LPs such as family office managers, travel to Las
Vegas, Miami, or some other vacation destination to meet with fund managers,
who send their investment professionals (who are largely older men) and
marketing directors (who are largely younger, attractive, well-educated
women).  As my friend put it to me, “Fat,
balding family office guys are allocating 10% to alternative assets
anyways.  It doesn’t really matter who
they give it too, especially if they have a good brand.  They just want a pretty woman to take them
out to dinner and pretend to flirt with them.”

What all these stories have in common is a simple theme: Men
are willing to pay money to be around attractive women who wouldn’t otherwise
spend the time.  This isn’t prostitution;
none of these examples include sex (at least in the case of our bachelor party).  In fact, I suspect that the men who are a
party to this transaction would never consider patronizing a brothel or paying
a sex worker.  They would see it as
either immoral or reputationally disastrous (think of Eliot Spitzer AKA the “Luv
Guv”).  Yet social hotspots and business
meetings are seen as perfectly acceptable (or at least acceptable enough to
admit to patronizing, while still trying to hide the receipts from their
wives).

Needless to say, this is sexist, atavistic business model,
whose only virtue is that it is voluntarily entered into and viewed as
attractive employment.  I believe in
freedom of choice, and that people should be able to pursue business options as
long as they aren’t illegal.  Yet I can’t
help but feel that the world would be better off with fewer such
transactions. 

Back when I was an undergraduate studying philosophy and
literature, we often discussed the problematic way in which works and
institutions tend to objectify women. 
The business model I describe above objectifies women by using their
physical attractiveness as the coin of the realm in what is essentially a
financial transaction, aided and abetted by environments that are carefully
designed to reduce the participants options until all they can do is
participate in those (lucrative) transactions. 
But the irony is that the same thing is happening to the men that
provide the money that fuels this model. 
They too are being objectified, reduced to a disembodied wallet with no
intrinsic non-financial value.

If you’re currently a man who participates in this economy,
you might want to consider how the rest of the economy sees you.  I know that I wasn’t very comfortable with
how it looked on me.

P.S. This criticism doesn’t mean that didn’t enjoy the
weekend.  Our fearless leader and the
various hospitality professionals we worked with got the weekend to run like a
well-oiled machine (the grease, by the way, was copious amounts of money).  I had a great time catching up with old
friends over fine meals and while enjoying the Miami sun.  I even enjoyed the various cab rides, because
they gave us more chances to talk.  I
also had a number of interesting conversations with the women we met, including
one far-ranging talk about what we thought of different philosophers.  We touched on Socrates, Plato, Kant, Mill,
Locke, and many others.  I dwelt on my
concerns above because they made for a more interesting and important
intellectual discussion.

P.P.S. I’m also not criticizing the individual
participants.  As I noted, the
environments are carefully designed to reduce their freedom of action.  I just want to help them be more aware of the
implications of their activities.

P.P.P.S. If you think it’s inappropriate for married guys to
go to clubs or pool parties, might I recommend that you read Mark Twain’s
story, “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg”. 
If you’re short on patience, skip to the end for the punchline.

UPDATE: This Reddit AMA from a Miami nightclub doorman gives you good insights into the mindset of the club:

“If a well dressed fat woman and an equally proportioned well dressed fat man go into a club, which one do you think is going to make the club more money? The woman, who is probably expecting someone to buy her drinks and will likely be disappointed, or the man who will be buying drinks like they’re bringing back Prohibition next week in an attempt to blunt a physical shortcoming during his social interactions?”

7 thoughts on “Bachelor Parties and The Business Model of Objectification

  1. This is such an interesting post. I share your distaste for the business model you describe, and for the widespread objectification of women you observed (and for the ways in which that is apparently just a-ok). I dislike it for me, but even more now these days, I worry about what it will be like to be a young woman, as Grace is rapidly becoming, in this environment. xox

  2. Found this extremely accurate, and hilarious!

  3. Lindsey, I think all we can do is encourage our daughters to be strong, independent thinkers. They need to understand that they don't have to accept the absurd norms of our society.

  4. James

    Why do we call women "girls" but we don't call men "boys"? Um, HELLO. What do you think gay men call desirable (usually, younger) men? You think this business model is "sexist," then explain to me precisely how it is replicated nearly exactly in the gay world, obviously without the gender differences. Older gay men pay copious amounts of money to spend time with and objectify their younger counterparts, and the latter are all too happy to indulge them.

    Oh, and if in the back of your mind you feel that gay people are just a "special case" of your observations, ask yourself if that idea is not itself homophobic and exclusionary.

    As to the business model – I find you to be the sexist one here. Women without advanced degrees? How do you know? Many of these women are ambitious and entrepreneurial. The last one I chatted with in a straight strip club was studying physics at Stanford (you find out this information the second they realize you aren't into them, sexually).

    Maybe atavistic strip-club-going is a bad look on you, but I think prudish, sexist judgements are worse.

  5. VD

    Your comment about, "Women without advanced degrees" is what caused me to lose credibility in this post written by you. Graduating from HBS in 07 made me well equipped to identify hypocritical thoughts.

  6. James,

    If the same business model applies in the world of gay men, it is also the same kind of objectification that damages both parties. Not having been to a gay bachelor party, I'm afraid I can't comment.

    I was also speaking not of strip clubs but dance clubs–big difference. But regardless, I'm happy to take the bet that the proportion of women who are either exotic dancers or regular clubgoers have a lower index of advanced degrees than their demographic equivalents. Saying that, "The last one I chatted with in a straight strip club was studying Physics at Stanford," is the rhetorical equivalent of saying, "My black friend says…."

    VD,

    I'm curious what you think is hypocritical about a factual observation? At worst, you could claim that I was elitist (guilty as charged!) but that would have no impact on whether or not the business model in question is sexist. If only those without any sin can judge others, then I'm pretty sure very few of us could ever pass that test.

  7. Rudi

    Nice analysis Chris.

    Expanding into your post, I have adapted the good old 2×2 matrix to the market dynamics you wrote about in the article. As a result, an interesting insight has emerged:

    http://imgur.com/W2RJeHl

    In the matrix we can clearly see that apps like Tinder are in the same objectification industry but with a radical different positioning: in that app, not-rich males that are not old either don’t need to buy overpriced alcohol to engage in a conversation with attractive members of the opposite sex — in the Tinder context all it takes is a nice pic and a decently written bio for a start. Texting is also a suitable medium of conversation for shy people, which also makes alcohol (overpriced or not) unnecessary in that case as well.

    The matrix clearly proves that Tinder is well positioned to continue to disrupt the entire (or at least, an important quadrant of the) OaaS (Objectification as a Service) industry!

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