It happened sometime during the peak hours of a Friday night party I was DJing in Chinatown. The crowd had been dancing hard to my string of '80s alternative, '90s Britpop and modern indie hits. In haste, I grabbed a record more for its guaranteed popularity than for its ability to fit well with the track that was playing.
Now, several years later, I can't quite recall what those songs were. I do, however, remember the clack-click-clack of mismatched beats. I remember the stinging sensation of embarrassment, like a citrus-infused cut burning for a seemingly endless few moments. I mouthed an F-bomb and tried to get back to work.
The crowd danced without pause, more a testament to the record on the turntable (whatever it was) than to the skill of the DJ who had just trainwrecked. I could have wiped the personal humiliation from my mind, but some guy with whom I was vaguely acquainted stood to the side of the DJ table, shaking his head with disapproval.
In the days when vinyl-spinning DJs were the norm, guys like him were regular features at parties where the DJs weren't tucked away in booths. They hovered close to the decks, arms folded into a security guard pose, waiting to be impressed. They continually stared at your hands, perhaps making mental notes on your technique and your selections. They were the kind of guys who wanted to know what you were going to play before you slid the crossfader. They were there to judge and, in this instance, the guy was not impressed.
Just when I had nearly forgiven myself for the gaffe, he approached to inform me that I fucked up. According to him, though, there was a silver lining. I was "cute" and, therefore, could "get away with it."
I fit a type — a crossbreed of '90s cartoon characters Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane, who happens to own a really cool record collection — that appeals to some Gen X dudes. This means that I sometimes get weird, rude and occasionally disturbing attention from guys at clubs. This was one of those times.
He could have called me out for being a shitty DJ and that would have been fine. I deserved that and told him so. But he had to bring in this "cute" thing, which was sexist and inappropriate. I told him that, too. He walked away, only to return moments later to shout over the records. Maybe he was trying to apologize, but he was upset by my response because — duh! — he was just trying to pay a compliment.
I've been a club DJ since 1996, and a music writer for nearly as long, and over the years, I've learned that both occupations are very similar. With both, you open yourself up to lots of criticism from strangers, and that will be the case regardless of gender. When you're female, however, you become a target for very specific types of behavior. You're called a bitch, maybe even a cunt, instead of a more gender-neutral epithet like asshole. You get unwanted attention from creeps, who think you dig them just because being personable is part of your job. Your appearance is up for scrutiny more often than it should be. Even the compliments can take a good-for-a-girl tone; once a guy came up to the booth and said, "You're pretty good. Did your boyfriend teach you how to play?"
Recently, I spoke with Melissa "Nowhere Girl" Rivera about whether or not women are held to a different standard than men in the DJ booth. Melissa and I have been DJing for about the same length of time and play in the same scenes. She has a Thursday night party at the Lash called Prism (where I guest DJed once), and I currently play at the same venue for the monthly, Sunday-night party, 90s Goth Klub. Unsurprisingly, she shared an anecdote similar to my own. Melissa recalled a night when someone said to her, "You shouldn't be so stressed out when all you have to do is look pretty up there."
Melissa went into her set that night with a mission. "I wanted to prove to him that [looks have] nothing to do with it," she told me. "Looking pretty, no. Having a presence, yes."
There's a very specific strain of sexism that's built into club life. You'll notice it in Hollywood, when you compare the amount of clothing male and female employees wear or realize that not one hired dancer is male. You see it when clubs advertise a "Ladies Night." It's obvious every time you glance at a flyer that uses a photo of a scantily-clad woman to get your attention. The mere presence of women is a selling point for clubs.
Further underground, at the kind of parties that my friends and I have played, that blatant display of sexism isn't an issue. But we're still impacted by it. There are people who treat us as sirens, existing for the express purpose luring guys off-course. There are people who will make snap judgments about our behavior for no other reason than our choice of hangouts.
"Traditionally, women have been viewed as, you're going to the club to meet a dude," says Sarah Toon. "You're not here for the music. You're not here for anything else."
Sarah started DJing in Portland more than a decade ago. In Los Angeles, she promoted and spun at Killing Spree, which helped popularize minimal synth music in the city. Today, she is the talent buyer and event coordinator for the Lash. She DJs under the name Blk Rainbow at Thee Rave Dungeon here in Los Angeles and at Bodyshock in San Francisco. She also has a music project called Xultur. She has been a major champion of underground music, across genres, in Los Angeles, and that comes with a price. "You have to over-compensate and be hard a little bit," she says.
If you're a woman working in clubs, or music in general, there's a pressure to be all-business all the time. Show some friendliness and people take it as flirtation. Worse, they might think you're using your feminine wiles to get a job. Wear clothes that could be construed as sexy and people might look at that as an unfair advantage. At one point, Sarah says that she started wearing baggy clothes to gigs. "I just felt like I wanted the focus to be more on what I was playing rather than what I was wearing," she says. "I also felt like it was a little easier for me to be anonymous and not get bothered so often."
While those of us who have made the clubs our second home see this more often, the sexism ingrained in nightlife is an issue for any woman who sets foot inside a venue, whether it's to check out a new band, dance to your favorite DJ or grab a drink with friends. It's a normal pastime that comes with unfortunate stigmas. For the girls at the clubs, slut-shaming, accusations of feigning interests for male attention, and being told that your looks are all that matters — it's all par for the course.
"Guys go after work and have brews with their buddies and they're watching the game," says Melissa. "It's the same thing, but they look down on us as women."
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Sarah says she's seeing the double-standard fade with younger club-goers. "I think that the people I see worst-behaved, usually, in the club are older men," she says. "I think they're the ones who are still stuck in the mindset of, you're here to hook up."
In the meantime, we have a lot of work to do. In the coming months, I'll be writing about women and nightlife, whether that's exploring the friendships we form at parties, the scenes that are friendliest to women, or what we can do to push for greater gender equality in the clubs.