Welcome to Debate Club, our new column where we'll be posing club culture's biggest conundrums to an expert panel. We'll be dealing with everything from the ethics of flirting to the spatial-politics of dancing, from the joy of a French exit to the horrors of ketamine. Sort of like The Moral Maze if it was recorded in a smoking area on a Saturday night.
This week's panelists are THUMP UK staffers Josh Baines and Angus Harrison, alongside Broadly UK staff writer Sirin Kale.
The question: Is it ever okay to take your top off in a nightclub?
Angus: So I guess what we're talking about here is lads, in packs, getting gassed about a Bicep edit and taking their T-shirts off and waving them around their heads. How do you both feel about this generally?
Josh: It's a phenomenon I'd previously just seen on the internet—blokes typing "taps aff" underneath tunes—but it wasn't until we went to Croatia last summer that I saw it played out. It was as though the combination of being there, with their friends and members of the opposite sex, put them into a state where the only way they knew how to respond was to take their top of it. There was something oddly innocent about it. Just these intense, homosocial bonds between sweating, gurning blokes.
Sirin: I feel like Croatia isn't so bad in this context because of the hot weather. It's still bad, but not so bad. I feel like the people who are there have just been displaced from another clubbing environment. They're rugby lads basically, aren't they? Only instead of going to a regular club, they've got onto this "dance music is cool" thing and now they're at a music festival in Split. Trouble is, it's okay to take your top off when the Baywatch theme tune comes on at 3AM in Infernos, but now they're at good clubs, and they are doing the same thing.
A: So do you think it's always just shit blokey banter? There's nothing ritualistic or primal about it?
S: It's a thing hetrosexual guys do when they're bonding. Anyone who was at university and had straight male friends will tell you that guys tend to get naked when they bond together, I don't know why they do it. It's really weird, because half the time they're super homophobic as well. As though the thing you fear the most is the thing you do ritualistically.
J: And to make the really fucking obvious point here, nightclubs are spaces derived gay culture. You look at old photos of Paradise Garage, these are clubs full primarily of young, gay men—often topless.
A: Although, to play devil's advocate, if the act is the same—taking a t-shirt off—does the history or context matter? In that moment in that nightclub.
S: I think, it's okay to take your t-shirt off if you're a gay guy in Berghain, or you're in Paradise Garage, but it strikes me that club culture is not supposed to be about huge groups of hetrosexual white guys coming in and dominating the space. I really fucking hate it, because it makes me feel like I'm being edged out.
A: So you feel it's territorial?
S: Yeah, it's so fucking annoying. I went to Ministry recently and there was this guy next to me who was so sweaty, and you know when people are on drugs and their sweaty but also really cold? He was like this horrible ice statue who kept bumping into me, and if a guy is 6ft or more, my head is going to be exactly aligned with his armpits. So I spent the whole fucking night trying to get away from this guy, and he was taking up so much space. But his sweat was spraying on me, on my face, my hair.
A: That's foul.
S: As a woman you already have to deal with so much bullshit. You close your eyes for a second and some guy has his arms around your waist. Now I have your sweat in my face.
A: Okay but what if that guy is like some anxiety-ridden, nervous wreck, who has gone out for the first time, he's not in a big pack of guys, he has his first ever pill, comes up, hears the music all around him and thinks, "this is it, I've found myself." Then he tears off his top because he's found freedom in that moment. Should he still not take it off?
S: If that's happening then that's quite sweet so maybe it's okay, but it's just not what's actually happening, is it?
J: I don't really understand the impulse to take your shirt off. Even late last year when we went out for your birthday Angus, in a big group of predominantly men, all boys who have known each-other for ages, all fucked—at no point did anybody think, I'm loving this so much I'm going to take my top off.
A: Then again none of us have particularly good bodies. Which would contribute to the idea that a lot of the guys who do it are looking for an opportunity to show off how ripped they are.
S: That makes a lot of sense. It taps into the sort of guy who would wear sunglasses on the dancefloor so that he can check out girls without them noticing. I have taken off clothes on a dancefloor, I've been extremely high and taken off a pair of tights because I was so hot. I don't think that's the same as taking off your entire top. I don't think it's an option that's open to women.
A: Is it different if a woman takes off her top. There was a piece on THUMP written by Lindsey Leonard who removed all her clothes at an Arca show as a way of reclaiming the space with her body. Is that different?
J: I think that context is different—an Arca show is inherently politicised based on his performance style. A friend of mine used to go to a lot of gay nights in Manchester and always used to take her top off. She hadn't done that for ages until she recently saw the Black Madonna in London, she said it was that kind of night, a sea of sweaty topless blokes, she felt all the pressure of a normal club sort of vanished. She didn't feel sexually threatened at all, so she took her top off. It was also really hot in there mind.
A: I feel like the reality is mostly men are going to be the ones who do that if it's hot as fuck though. That story aside most girls won't go down to their bra if they are really hot.
S: The other discussion here is about ventilation in clubs but maybe we should save that.
A: It's also weird how much we lionise sweat.
J: Yeah we always write that about clubs. "The walls were dripping with sweat!" That's actually pretty uncomfortable.
S: I went to fabric recently and their air-conditioning is seriously good. I checked my hoodie into the cloakroom and was freezing.
A: That's the solution then, good air-conditioning.
J: Okay, question for you, if you were DJing and you played a tune and you looked out at the crowd and they were loving it so much they were taking their tops off, would you not get a kick from that?
A: I think I would struggle not to get on board with it. To be honest, I'd probably join in. Ironically obviously.
S: Other thing is, if a group of ten guys next to you start taking their tops off you're not going to socialise with them are you? I've had so many great chats with new, random people at a club—you're not going to do that with some 6-foot guy who is taking his top off. You're going to move away. Then this space gets created around them. It's just raging entitlement. Like people who go to supermarkets with their pyjamas.
A: Yeah, we all signed the invisible contract that says we wear clothes to the supermarket. You don't get a free pass.
J: Are we prepared to entertain the idea that there is an expression of male fragility in this?
S: Have you guys ever done it?
A: Not in a club. At a house party. I remember thinking it was funny in the abstract and then once I'd done it I felt sober and pale. So what's different between me and someone who does that and feels "YES! HERE WE GO!"
S: What about women? I kind of support women doing anything transgressive on a dancefloor. What do you reckon?
J: It would feel so less exhibitionist.
A: I'm struggling to imagine the equivalent. A pack of women all taking their tops off in a club, me cowering because they are all sweaty and rubbing against me.
S: I think most guys would be pretty on board with that.
A: I guess—and this is very hypothetical—if there were ten women dancing next to me, and they were getting rowdy, and they started taking their tops off and they were in my space, there's a chance I might be kind of pissed off by that.
S: But it's so ridiculous saying that, which shows how much more men are entitled to behave that way!
A: So, are we concluding no across the board?
S: Okay, so if it's really hot and it's a safety thing, maybe it's fine.
A: Or if it's outdoors? That's acceptable?
S: Basically not when it's a group of lads cheering.
J: I still have strangely fond memories of the Hideout six rubbing each-other.
A: Would you maybe actively say, if it's not invading anyone's space, it's alright as a form of group celebration?
J: Hmm. Still no.
S: Unless you're a girl, then go for it.
A: Unless you're that hypothetical hen party I was just talking about. Then please don't, you're intimidating me.