The Vagenda

The Trouble With Hen Parties

A week ago, while I was lounging around the slightly-falling-apart shared house I struggle to pay the rent on with a guy I sometimes have sex with and scraping the mould out of a mug I’d neglected for two and a half weeks, a friend sent me the inevitable text. You know, that first of many that you get in your twenties, the first gentle roll of a snowball that will eventually crush you under its icy weight as it gathers a terrifying amount of speed. ‘I’m engaged.’

Luckily, I was already sat down. This was the same friend I had been told off with in English class for being disruptive. The friend from a cynicism-making family of divorce just like mine, who had told me in no uncertain terms only a year before that she was happily destined for cat-ridden spinsterhood. So dedicated was she to this future that she had even bought the cats (no, I’m not kidding.) I hadn’t even known she’d had a boyfriend in the six months since I’d last seen her. And suddenly she was telling me – via SMS, no less – that she had ‘fallen in love in a way I never thought possible before.’ My fellow cat-lady had been brutally, irreparably slain by Cupid.

We had to meet to discuss this further, and fittingly enough, it was over breakfast after another person’s hen night. I gatecrashed this post-hen brunch to quiz my friend on her own wedding date and her sanity. Infuriatingly, she seemed entirely sane and blissfully happy. She held hands with her beau and said ‘I love you’ and all that stuff that makes you suspect she wasn’t actually held at gunpoint and forced into an unwanted arrangement. Shit.

Meanwhile, I was treated to a breakdown of the hen party from the night before: it wasn’t a ‘learner driver and penis headgear’ affair, I was assured, it was a classier kind of beast. They had dressed up in wedding dresses made out of tissue. They had played an invented game where you planned your own wedding on a made-up budget, making it as fabulous as possible, and then they had eaten dinner at a civilised restaurant, without a fireman stripper or a fishnet stocking in sight. Although it was true that nobody had fallen out of a nightclub and knocked out their two front teeth while trying to save their Jaegerbomb from the pavement, the two scenarios didn’t seem entirely removed from one another. They both struck equal terror into my heart. And then, of course, was the threat that my own friend would hold one sometime in the uncomfortably near future.

Aside from weddings themselves, the stag/hen do culture has always seemed a bit alien to me. It’s certainly an institution: Ann Summers shelves team with bachelor(ette) party fodder, from the aforementioned learner plates to penis-shaped, well, everything (some serious features from the Ann Summers website: penis bracelets, an ‘inflatable willy ball’, a neon penis shooter, a game called ‘Stick-A-Dick: pin the tail on the male’, ‘Blow-Me bubbles’, a glow-in-the-dark ‘willy hoopla’, and… oh God, the list goes on. And on, and on, and on, like a drunken shag bound to give you cystitis.) Meanwhile, you can’t navigate Heathrow Airport nowadays without bumping headlong into a group of men dressed up in adult nappies with dummies round their necks, or women adorned in pink veils, all proudly sporting T-shirts that promise ‘Sexy Sammy’, ‘Cheeky Charlie’, or some such other proud moniker. 

See, there’s nothing entirely wrong with smothering a penis-shaped shot glass with chocolate body paint, filling it with vodka jelly, and then simulating a blow job on it in front of a fake policeman in a leather thong. But there’s something depressing about how conventional the scandals have become, and how backward-looking they have to be; how a hen night has to be all-out raunch or cupcakes and tissue wedding dresses, either fifties housewife or sixties displays of liberation from the already liberated. The problem with hen nights is not that there’s anything particularly surprising about the latest set of fluffy purple handcuffs that come free with the latest Agent Provocateur ‘hen night survival kit.’ It’s just that they’ve become so tiresomely repetitive of the past, in a way that even weddings themselves seem to have broken out of.

I stand on the cusp of an age where I will inevitably be asked to these events. And hen parties are now serious events: week-long Ibiza trawls have long taken over from the modest 60p shot crawl round Newcastle. Hen and stag do’s are bastions of girlishness and laddishness, separated by veils of neon pink and blue, hypersexualised displays of cocks and tits and arse and parodies of ‘the single life’ that become more extreme with every year (anecdotally, prostitution is now weeding its way into a part of the stag/hen ‘sphere of normality’ nowadays.) Either that, or you’re planning your imaginary wedding while the boys go paintballing. The way in which the genders suddenly separate when faced with an actual gender union is astounding. One click of a diamond-ringed finger and everyone instantly becomes a cartoon of themselves.

When the bitterness of losing my cat-companion has abated, I may find myself pouring out the jelly vodka shots, and enthusiastically jumping up on the bar to perform the first questionable karaoke version of It’s Raining Men. But just before I start planning the first of many, has anyone out there ever experienced a hen party that wouldn’t make me vomit? Can cyberspace bring forth some reassurance that we’re not all destined to dive headlong into ‘fairy wings versus combat pants’ the minute someone mentions commitment? Or am I doomed to trample along in the back, holding on to the learner plates and the bondage tape, until one day I’m wearing one too?

32 thoughts on “The Trouble With Hen Parties

  1. My schoolfriend just got married too, for her hen party we had a scavenger hunt during the day, a cocktail making class, and then for the night out we all had to wear black dresses and everyone wore a different coloured pair of tights. It made for some good photos, and thankfully there was nothing pink or penis-shaped in sight!

  2. For my friend from university who was not only getting married, but also moving to a semi-detached in the suburbs, we arranged for a mechanic to teach her how to change tires, a gardener to teach her about gardening and a housepainter/decorator to show her some tricks in that area. I can’t remember what the “boys” did , but it was something similar. We all met up later for dinner and drinks. It was all okay and I definitely prefer that party to their wedding, but that’s another story and I still hate hen-nights…..

  3. Yes! I’m so glad you asked. Have been to two very lovely hen do’s recently. Bride no 1 had- a lovely craft workshop with friends in the morning, mr & mrs quiz complete with crudites, champagne and non sordid jokes at her house, followed by an expensive meal and a night out in a very cool indie bar in Manchester. Dress requirements- wear something spotty as the bride to be loves spots. Bride no 2 booked us into a spa hotel, her mother in law and mother came out with us for a meal and then left the young un’s to party. Little did they know cabs were booked to collect us at the wild time of 1am. (The bride to be plus a few others got a later cab at 2am startlingly sober!) We did see some of the hen do’s that you describe but there is hope! Its an individual choice- if you really don’t want a certain type of hen do, your nearest and dearest aren’t going to force you. I want to have my closest male and female friends on my hen do anyway!

  4. We enjoyed a spa day, everyone pre-chose from the menu of facials, massage, manicures, etc. There was champagne and lovely music. In the evening we enjoyed dinner and conversation at a restaurant chosen by me, the 38-year-old “bride,” because most of the “girls” were from out of town. We didn’t talk about the wedding, because what’s to talk about? We weren’t virginal, so why have the stupid sex toys/games/stunts? So civilized, you have to have guessed it was more than 20 years ago. I don’t know what happened in the past quarter century to make women think they absolutely have to be drunk to have a good time 2 or 3 days before the wedding.

  5. A colleague of mine did a watersports weekend for her hen, surfing and sailing off the coast of Ireland. My housemate and I have decided that in the unlikely event that either of get married we’ll have our hens at one of the small local beer festivals in Bavaria. So much more fun that pink neon and feather boas!

  6. i’m currently in the middle of a long engagement (2 and a half years and counting!) but i am not looking forward to having to deal with the hen’s do. i don’t particularly want it organised for me, and when i mentioned to some friends that maybe we could go to the zoo or something fun, they asked me “can you drink at the zoo?” i like drinking as much as the next lady, but this is one event i kind of don’t want to have snowball on me.

  7. I’ve been to a lovely hen night a few years back. We had cocktails then a very civilised dinner, then the closest friends adjourned back to the hen’s house and sat around in PJs and a pile of sleeping bags and consumed wine and later tea and biscuits and passed on to the hen what we thought at the time was sage advice about how to cope with challenges she might encounter in retaining her independence and living with a bloke full time and so on. I think we rapidly realised none of us had the sleepover stamina we’d had in our youth and so we all fell asleep before we ran out of advice. Great stuff.

  8. Apart from Irie’s suggestion, all of the above are still falling into that 50s schtick. I am now divorced (my sage advice? What the hell do you want to get married for anyway?) but as my friends were mostly gay men, I had a fag night instead (apologies for any offense. The boys named it) We trawled the gay bars & clubs & ended up bumping into the groom’s party where my best mate Drew promptly tried to chat up my father in law to be. Best hen night I’ve been on…

  9. My wife’s hen stared with a spa evening on the Friday with her two closest friends, followed by a day long treasure hunt on Saturday that visited places across London that were significant to our relationship. A few stupid dares along the way (run up to a random rugby game in Regent’s Park and give a player a red card because she was about to marry a rugby referee, etc.) but nothing penis related. Followed by a meal out and a jazz trip to Ronnie Scott’s. Still nothing penis related. And then Sunday she spent working as a corporate lawyer on a sh!tty transaction, because, y’know, real life and all that.

    Yes, I went paintballing for my stag – not out of cartoonish laddishness, but because I’d never done it before and thought it might be fun (and it was). That was followed by a civilised meal out at the restaurant where my wife and I had our first date, a sampling of as many Dutch beers at De Hems as possible (because my wife’s Dutch), and then a rugby match on the Sunday (watching, not participating!).

    Note in my descriptions of both hen and stag do the utter lack of anything stripper-like, penis/vagina related or in any way smutty, and nothing especially twee either. Instead, we each did stuff that celebrated our relationship and that we thought would be fun, and also used the events as an opportunity to spend some quality time with out-of-town friends. And we both had a great time.

    Regardless of any arguments about the actual institution of marriage and its place in society and why the hell you want to get married, etc., etc., it strikes me as quite depressing that strippers have become routine for stag/hen events, and as the article notes, prostitution is creeping in there too. How is ogling/shagging someone else an appropriate way to celebrate your imminent lifelong (hopefully) commitment to your partner? Baffling.

  10. It seems to me there are three different principles one can apply to a pre-wedding party, which have all been illustrated in your post and the comments so far:

    1) the ‘game’ – living out a gender cartoon (which seems to be the default assumption for most people, depressingly)
    2) the ‘event’ – trying something new, or building the day/week around a big, memorable activity
    3) ‘staying normal’ – doing the kinds of things you know you enjoy with your friends

    Of course, the three often overlap in practice – hence paintballing has been described on here as coming under number (1) and number (2). My ‘stag do’ was definitely a number (3) – we played a very long game of football, had dinner, went out dancing and then the next day had a game of crazy golf. These are all things I haven’t done very often since I’ve been in a relationship (well, apart from having dinner), due to time constraints and differing common points of interest; indeed, in the four years since my wedding I haven’t played football, been in a nightclub or played crazy golf!

    It was all blokes, though this was mainly because my two good female friends were both living a long way away and had recently become mothers. It does make me wonder how the activities would have changed had they been able to come, as neither of them likes football or crazy golf. Anyway, I can genuinely say I had an amazing time, and I think (hope?) that everyone else did too. Thinking about it now, really the whole ‘stag’ thing became an excuse to get a load of friends together and have a great time. Others, however, may want their party to have some kind of explicit connection with the wedding or relationship itself.

    The key points for a good pre-wedding party are really staggeringly simple, I think: (1) throw out the window any sense of what it ‘should’ be like; (2) do a bunch of stuff that the people involved (and obviously most importantly, the bride/groom to be) are going to enjoy.

    But of course, if you’re going on someone else’s hen do, you can’t control any of this! Hopefully you will find that at least some of your friends have the same outlook on life and sexual politics, and will serve up something that sounds like a good idea to you.

  11. I went to a nice one recently. We went to a spa for the afternoon, then out for dinner, then round a few pubs, then all crashing at the hen’s house and having a barbecue before we all headed home. Nobody really even mentioned anything wedding-related, and there were no ‘L’ plates, or penis-related products, or hilarious t-shirts. Just a lot of people who get on but who live hundreds of miles apart, catching up and having a good time with a wedding as an excuse.

    The one I went to before that involved penis straws, pin the penis on the picture – and the mother-in-laws. Bejaysus, it was awkward. It also involved everyone taking a lucky dip item – I won a load of penis-shaped marshmallows, which I’ve been trying to get rid of ever since. In fact, would anyone like them? Anyone… Please?!

  12. A very good male friend of mine got engaged last year. I know and like his fiancée, but HE’s my friend, not her. It came as a real surprise to him that I assumed I’d be going on his stag-do, rather than her hen-do (“Wouldn’t you rather go to the spa?”). It was a real surprise to me that he’d assumed, despite having known me for ten years, that having little in common except lady-parts meant we would all want to hang out together in spas!

    He finally understood I’d rather spend my day with him and our friends rather than a bunch of girls I didn’t really know. In the end he made his ‘party’ mixed gender and we all had a great day out walking in the countryside, ending up in a pub. Nothing girls couldn’t do in the first place.

    Odd how the stag/hen do is so imprinted in the ‘How to be a lad/lady’ subconscious that many don’t question the stereotypical. It can’t just be me who finds it weird to spend long periods in an enforced all-woman group in my mid-twenties, surely!?

  13. My hen night was a mixed gender group (hooray) taking part in 2.8 hours later – a citywide zombie survival game that was hosted in Glasgow. It was great fun but I wish I had of known beforehand becasue I would have put my sports bra on – there was a lot of running.

    I got infected in the end and got cool zombie make-up done for the after party. No veils, no L plates, no comedy cocks. I couldn’t have asked for a better night!

    On the flip side, my friend in work had to go to Magaluf for a stag do where they took turns wearing a giant vagina suit. Good times.

  14. My friend from work had a mud assault course in the morning, followed by a bus tour round Pembrokeshire pubs, ending in Tenby. Pretty standard? There was a “combat” theme too. Army pants and that. It rained.

  15. Yep. And then everyone has kids and enters an era of total gender segregation. Pink for girls, blue for boys; adventure toys for boys, miniaturized domestic/beauty items for girls… and if a parent should EVER allow their boy to play/dress like a girl, they will definitely make him gay (which is, just to clarify, BAD).

    If only women could grow up a bit, and make the huge sacrifices of not having a segregated hen/stag night, not having a big white wedding so that they can be a princess for a day, not pandering to the most patriarchal institutions in the western world so that they can have a ‘church’ wedding, not taking their husband’s name so that they can fulfill their adolescent fantasy of being ‘Mrs’, and NOT buy gendered clothes/toys for their children… then the feminist revolution would come.

    Until then, not a hope.

  16. It’s your hen do, do what you want. I went to Chessington, my other half to Alton Towers. I wanted something which would be a good laugh, appropriate for my sister with learning disabilities and not boring. It was great.

  17. I fear that I find the whole basis of hen/stage nights (as is often expressed) a bit bemusing – the ‘last night of freedom’ and all that. Hopefully, when you get married, ‘losing’ your ‘freedom’ is not something you should worry about (if the husband/bride-to-be isn’t going to let you out to have whatever fun you feel like in the future, there’s something wrong going on!!). I also see the distinct separation of the hen and stag do’s a bit odd – to the extent that men/women are typically told they can’t contact their spouse-to-be on that ‘all-important’ night. Personally, I see no reason why hen and stag parties shouldn’t be combined, as a chance to celebrate with shared friends in a setting that is less pressurised than the wedding.

  18. Seeing as a good deal of my mates are blokes, it seemed rather silly to have a gender-exclusive party. I had what might be described as a suburban 1950s stag do. BBQ, whiskey and beer in my mate’s back garden. We stayed up all night drinking and trading old stories, and fell asleep on the lawn. No themes, no costumes, no exclusivity. It was grand.

  19. A college friend of mine had her hen party a couple of years ago. Six of us drove out to the Glastonbury Tor from our native Bristol, set up a couple of tents in a nearby campsite, and cracked some wine and/or cider open. At dusk we climbed the Tor with the bride wearing a veil (and jeans and t-shirt and hiking boots). We had a cheeky drink as the stars came out and the electric lights twinkled on across the carpet of the Somerset levels. Then we climbed back down by torchlight and sat outside our tents with drinks and nibbles until the wee hours. It was lovely. :)

  20. I hate hen nights. I hate cupcakes and cocktails almost as much as I hate L plates and Girls On Tour t-shirts. I also hate hen “weekends” which cost you a bomb (I am permanently skint) and, since they are entirely choreographed by someone else, aren’t even enjoyable enough to justify having to live on lentils for the next year. That said, one of my mates had a really nice hen night. She went to see a film, then have dinner at a restaurant, then a good pub, then a club. People could come along for part of it or all of it, there was no pressure, it didn’t bankrupt anyone and everyone was relaxed enough to have fun. I’m intending to do something similar for my own soon (although another friend is planning to drive a tank for hers, which I’d love if I could drive.)

  21. Do you not think this is a class issue too? The “civilised” spa day vs tacky plastic willies? You’re right that they’re both equally boring and predictable, but shame on anyone thinking that they’re any better because they went down the middle class route.

  22. There are loads of exceptions out there, as I hope the comments are showing. My ‘hen do’ consisted of spending a weekend in Philly with 2 of my best friends, having a nice pub meal, a bit of shopping & seeing one of our favourite bands. It was brilliant. My husband didn’t have a stag do at all, or a best man for that matter. One of his good friends from uni was his witness at the wedding, but is incredibly shy, so my husband wasn’t going to force him in to doing a speech or anything. We didn’t have a lot of money and it seems unfair to bankrupt friends for such things when most people were travelling a good distance to our wedding anyway.

    A friend who lives in Wales went quad-biking for her hen do, which she loved. My sister’s getting married next year and says she’s not having one, as most of the bridesmaids live thousands of miles from each other. My wallet’s relieved, but I’d like to try to do something with her, like afternoon tea or other activity of her choice, before the wedding.

  23. isn’t getting engaged so 19th century ? I’ve been married twice but never engaged and was frankly shocked when my daughter told me she was engaged

  24. I organised my best friend’s hen do two years ago; she was the first one to get married out of our group. We had a scavenger hunt during the day, afternoon tea and then went to a club. The whole thing was floral themed. It sounds very girly but I don’t see anything wrong with that: my biggest aim was to keep it as cheap as possible, whilst being enjoyable for a group of girls who didn’t know one another. Apparently I succeeded, since everybody who came seemed to really enjoy themselves. I don’t want to be forced into spending vast sums of money on an activity I don’t care about and I must admit that lovely as a spa day sounds, I know this sort of thing costs upwards of £100 so I’d be pretty gutted if I “had” to spend that in order to participate. And since we went to an all-girls school, the majority of our friends are female, so it doesn’t really seem all that strange to have a woman-only party. I actually really enjoyed it.

    On the complete other side, a guy I know organised his brother’s stag do and made the groom wear a t-shirt which said “I’m a big fanny” and put the rest of them in matching ones which said “I’m with the big fanny”. Now if that isn’t incredibly depressing, sexist and puerile, I don’t know what is. He’s a nice man, but I guess he panders to the status quo.

  25. A friend and I organised a hen night for a bride to be who is tee total and doesnt like to be around drunk people at all. We took her for afternoon tea, then manicure (she’d never had one before) and went back to hers with sushi takeaway and watched films. This is the only hen night I’ve actually been to so far and I don’t think I would like the pink sash, plastic willy, L plate wearing kind as I’ve seen too many of those trawling round bars in Brighton.

  26. Last year my buddy’s hen do consisted of us dressing up as Zombies (not ‘sexy’ ones, just proper gory blood fests), walking to a dance studio to learn the MJ Thriller Routine, then filming it for future lols. Followed by steak, chips and wine and dancing on the tables at a latin club. Far surpassed the ‘cupcake and giggles’ do’s that I’ve been to.