Guest blog by Sam Hinrichs
A night out would not be complete without an encounter with a bouncer or door staff. They check IDs, make sure the people coming into the bar or club are not too reckless or too drunk. They throw people out, they let people in, they take drugs off people. Their list of duties is long, and they do this job at unsociable hours.
Often, the door staff are an easy target: we have all heard people pile into a club in an inebriated state and say “well they were a dickhead, weren’t they?”. It’s easy to look at bouncers and think that all they do is stand there, look menacing and impinge on people’s fun on a night out. But their role is much more complex and nuanced than that. They play one of the most understated and underappreciated roles in the night-time economy.
They are the first line of defence when the madness of a night out turns into chaos. In the seminal text Bouncers: Violence and Governance in the Night-Time Economy, a bouncer recounts a story of how a group of women were walking past him on the way to another bar, and all of a sudden out of nowhere one of the group was attacked by someone with a bottle. The victim was covered in blood and lost two teeth. She was 15. The bouncer rushed to her aid and told the authors that this experience has stuck with him his entire career. If that situation happened without the bouncer present, the story could have had a very different ending.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment bouncing became an intrinsic part of a night out, but it was some time in the 1990s. As acid house flooded the UK, the market for a night out blew wide open and as more people started to go out there was a proliferation in violence. It became a necessity that bars and pubs hired some muscle to guard the doors and maintain order.
In the early days of bouncing, there was a bigger emphasis on making sure that the people who worked the doors were able to handle themselves in a fight and come out on top. I interviewed a bouncer in 2017 and he told me that on his first shift, in the late 1990s, his head doorman wanted to see how well he could take orders. The head doorman pointed to someone random and said to the young bouncer to beat the hell out them.
Without hesitation, the up-and-coming bouncer agreed and knocked the daylights out of him. Two days later, the victim of the beating came up to the bouncer and told him that he was not a randomer after all and had been paid to take a beating. It was a test of loyalty and the bouncer passed with flying colours. This behaviour would never be acceptable now and shows just how far bouncing has come in a short space of time.
In the early 2000s, bouncing became more regulated and started to leave the unruly past in its wake. The emphasis turned from using power and violence as the arbiter of justice to attempts to deescalate conflicts and keeping people safe by talking down situations and using force as a back-up. Bouncers became regulated and needed to take a course that was approved by the Security Industries Authority (SIA).
Once they were qualified, bouncers got the badge which must be displayed on their person when they are working. As we move into the present, bouncers are under far more scrutiny than they ever were before. Their role is also becoming increasingly important. As large corporate bars and venues dominate the night-time economy (NTE) and police budgets have been cut, the need for security provisions have increased importance.
Bouncers are the primary policing agents of the NTE. They are there to ensure that people are of legal age, they eject people who are too drunk, they protect people from abuse, they look for signs of drug use and they help people who are injured, overdosing or too drunk.
These are policing actions, but bouncers do not have the same powers or legitimacy as law enforcement, so their role is caught in between the rock of law and order and the hard place of the chaos and intoxication of a night out. One positive to take away from the reform is that bouncers have become increasingly diverse. There are now more women working on the doors than there were in the 1990s.
Bouncers are often demonised as people who are just up for a fight. But whilst people make these accusations, they are also dependent on bouncers to keep them as safe and as secure as possible in an environment diffuse with chaos and trouble. Their role is important, yet underappreciated. They are there with good intentions, yet demonised. Their role is full of oxymorons and they have a difficult line to tow.
Drug taking in clubs is big business, it fuels revenue for bars and clubs. Their role includes policing drugs and making sure that customers are not consuming drugs on premises because ultimately it can have a devastating effect on the licensing conditions of the bar or club.
But they are also aware that without drugs, there would be fewer clubs and as such less work for them. This kind of balancing act would be at home in a circus, but it is right there in our night-time leisure space. The future safety and viability of a successful night-time economy rests on the shoulders of bouncers.
Sam is a PhD candidate at York researching bouncers and how they police drugs in a nightlife setting. The aim is to speak to bouncers who work in bars and clubs and investigate the methods that they employ and the wider effect of their policing and how that interacts with the Misuse of Drugs Act.