Women have been spotted at that last male stronghold, the stag party. Not as strippers but participants, cheers ANNE CUTHBERTSON
Something strange has happened to stag nights. Women. Not strippers, not prostitutes, not even the barmaid at The Crown. Women friends.

Sophia Wilkinson, a 28-year-old radio producer, was recently the lone female on a stag weekend in Barcelona. She had known Nick since she was 14 and shortly after the stag she was an usher at his wedding. Although she describes Nick as being like a brother, she was wary when she received the invitation. "At first I said 'No way am I going off with five blokes behaving badly'. Girls don't go on stag weekends. But I was pleased to be asked and soon realised that they were quite a civilised bunch."

Given the honorary name "Steve" for the weekend, she met the challenge head on despite a few early worries. "They talked a lot about shagging and football and G-strings. And there was a lot of admiring of girls' bottoms." The weekend was an alcohol-fuelled bar hop, with one of the party discreetly watering down her Cava. Sophia shared a room with two others who, she says, were considerate and left when she wanted to change. "They were really kind to me and respected the fact that I was a girl." So much so that it was "Steve" who suggested they all go to a sex show. Two of the men declined.

Nick clearly never doubted Sophia would fit in. "There was no question that she shouldn't come. For the weekend she was definitely one of the lads. In fact she out-ladded all of us," he says.

Although women on stags are still rare - the Stag Weekend Company has seen only one mixed stag take part in its organised activities in five years - the fact that it is starting to happen signifies an evolution in relationships between the sexes. One man with an eye on the changes is Andrew Lilwall-Smith, editor of Bliss For Brides magazine. "These days you don't have to be out with the lads. There are more women working on the same level as men and going out after office hours drinking with them. Consequently, friendships have developed differently; they've become more non-sexual, non-gender. It's no longer the When Harry Met Sally idea that men and women can't be friends because sex gets in the way."

Trends in stag functions are becoming more women-friendly, notably the decline in the "traditional" seedier elements. Strippers and topless bars, too, are on the wane. It's no longer a big deal, says Lilwall-Smith, when there's nudity on television.

So is there a formula that makes for a successful mixed stag? A day at the Newbury races was a winner for advertising copywriter Simon Welsh, who invited two girls, Miranda and Tiger. Simon felt the girls took out the macho element. "I've been on traditional stags where there's been real pressure to conform to a stereotype. At mine, people drank what they wanted." It was important, he maintains, that there are no couples or ex-girlfriends. "Marta [his wife] was fine about Miranda and Tiger, but she wouldn't have been happy if certain girls had been there."

Miranda, Simon's friend of ten years, agrees that their presence was security for the bride-to-be and a taming element to the celebrations. "There were no moments when we felt out of our depth. There was no big defining line between girls and blokes."

Or was there? In the course of the evening, the girls went home to change and, according to Tom, the best man, there was a shift in mood. He recalls "one beautiful hour" of bawdy, juvenile banter. "Men can be paranoid about offending women. You can't quite go all the way." In the midst of the raucous men-only moment, he recalls a pause and someone commenting, "maybe that's why you don't have girls on a stag". One month later, Tom had his own stag - it was men only.

There's no doubting that the all-male stag will prevail. You can't easily erase a tradition that's been around since Spartan soldiers feasted together the night before a marriage. And though marriages today do not necessarily toll a farewell to freedom, the male bonding lives on, as business consultant Giles Ruddock and 14 of his friends will be doing this weekend. He believes the tradition part is largely irrelevant today. "These days, the stag is just an excuse to go out and have fun with your best friends. Marriage is not a social-life killer any more - that happens when you have kids."