It’s just before 10pm on a Saturday night and an impossibly angular man is throwing his impossibly… I can only describe it as inflated… penis around, shielded – temporarily – from a crowd of feral women by, of all things, a Union Jack flag. (This detail makes me think, briefly and hideously, of Nigel Farage.) I am here under duress – or, at least, that’s what I tell myself. For, like the great majority of the baying audience, I am on a hen do.
I hate hen dos. I can write this without inciting the ire of all my friends whose hens I have attended – organised, even – because they are already quite aware of this. I like to think it demonstrates how much I love these women: that although everything in me protests, I still attend. And so it is only because I love you, Katharine, that not only have I spent my afternoon parading around London in a “team bride” sash, drinking prosecco out of a penis straw, but I am sitting on a folding plastic chair in what it turns out is most of the time a gentlemen’s club, for the male strip show Dreamboys.
Over two hours, six “dream boys” parade for our viewing pleasure. They are all attractive in different ways, and I am (pleasantly) surprised to find that not all have body-builder-like body-fat percentages. Some fling themselves around with impressive athleticism; only one can truly dance. They make eye contact with individuals in the crowd while they thrust, so that you think, fleetingly, that they might fancy you – and the lie is intoxicating.
There is, in the end, a lot of teasing, and a disappointing lack of actual nudity. Waistbands are tugged at suggestively. A vest comes off, only for there to be a second underneath. Men stripped to their boxers leave the stage, only to reappear fully dressed in a different costume and begin the whole charade again. The cheats! There is something sweet and funny about the way, bottoms finally exposed, they skip off stage covering what is left of their dignity with clutched hands, like little boys whose clothes have been stolen in the locker room. Much discussion is had beforehand of what… preparations… one might make before waving one’s willy in front of a room of screaming women. When the penises – two, in total – are eventually exposed, they are almost grotesque. No human male looks like this naturally – or, if they do, I have been considerably shortchanged.
Brides take it in turns to join the boys on stage, and I find many of these interactions – the forceful placing of hands, the simulation of sex acts – uncomfortable, even violent. Some women engage with gusto; others giggle nervously; one looks genuinely upset. The only of these moments that is pure enjoyment to watch is with a gay stag; the power dynamic is different, somehow, when two men are doing the grinding. I wonder if all the dancers are straight. I consider, too, consent in this context: yes, the brides agree to go on stage, but they do not know what will happen once they are up there, and it is, I imagine, hard to say no when a gang of vodka-infused friends is egging you on.
Questions like these flit across my mind, unbidden, throughout: the patronising ones – is this really what they want to do with their lives? – and the genuinely curious ones: what does being a “dream boy” do to your ego? What are their dating lives like? What do they think of us? Once the show has finished, women queue to have their photographs taken with the performers, and I wonder what these mementos are for: surely not to be posted on Instagram, or affixed to the fridge?
Looking around me, I wonder if anyone else is thinking quite as much as I am. I hate every minute of it – apart from the few when I forget myself and love it. It is the most conflicting night of my life.
“I miss your normal body,” I later text my boyfriend – or words to that effect. I won’t reproduce exactly what I wrote, because my grandmother reads this column.
[See also: The uncomfortable truths of Hag feminism]
Another night, another group of men on a stage. This time, though, they are – and I mean this in the best possible way – the sort you wouldn’t be intimidated to take off your clothes in front of. I’m at the Bill Murray comedy club in Angel to see an improv troupe called Shoot from the Hip. It is pure, un-ethically-complicated fun, and the applause at the end isn’t accompanied by cries of: “One more dong! One more dong!” In the bar of the pub we spot a woman wearing a “bride” tiara. Well, I suppose if I had to have a hen do…
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out