I spent New Year's Eve this last week (2000) in New Orleans, La-- home of the Cafe Du Monde, The Desire Cafe, Lucky Dogs, Bourbon Street-- and one of the world's biggest non-stop parties. New Orleans (especially the French Quarter) is one of the few US cities where you can walk down the street and feel the literal weight of history-- you expect to walk around a corner and see someone who stepped out of the pages of a 19th century novel-- I know I always imagine seeing Kate Chopin's Edna Pontillier when I walk past some art stores; I imagine the sensuous ocean caressing her skin and feel sad for her "solitary soul." New Orleans is often quite wonderful-- street entertainers are amazing and the feeling of stepping along with people like Hemingway and Chopin, Fitzgerald, Whitman and Ginsberg is inexplicably intoxicating. Go on a history tour, see the city's cemeteries, go to Marie Laveau's house of voodoo and learn something. For these reasons, among others, New Orleans is one of my favorite places.
I will tell you that there is something about this city when it is at its wildest that makes even the most reserved person shuck off Puritan morals and turn into someone who Howard Stern would dig hanging out with. One of my closest friends, an attorney who speaks at least four languages fluently, who is the strongest and one of the most intelligent women I know, showed her breasts (which were, I will admit, magnificent) several times. For beads. Yes, for beads. The plastic ones-- the ones you're going to put in a drawer, maybe. The ones that are worth about $1.50 (unless you're on Bourbon street, that is). She was not drunk-- in fact, she made the decision quite soberly because she wanted no regrets. In the French Quarter the concept of showing your breasts to total strangers as barter for plastic beads (some of them are quite fancy and fun) is pretty ordinary. Really, unless you've been to the Quarter at Mardi Gras or some other very festive night you'll think it's weird but it was really fun-- and not degrading at all, despite the fact that the exchange of showing yourself for cheap beads seems a little uneven to me, even now, years later.
At least not that night. Something about New Year's (and I imagine this is the way Mardi Gras feels too) was happy, the shows were free and fun and consensual and all those things that adults like to do.
BUT. (You knew this was coming, right?)
That happy feeling of enjoyment was not long-lived. We spent a total of four nights in New Orleans. We had bought beads of our own and tossed them off our balcony room (sometimes seeing much more than we bargained for in return I'll tell ya'). I took to giving the fancy beads out to anyone who could tell me the name of certain Shakespeare plays-- later, after a few drinks, the authors got more obscure. Since I wasn't willing to exchange boobs for beads, and did NOT want to see anything else, either, in the spirit of exchange, I thought the Shakespeare thing was sort of fun, and who doesn't know at least one play? I like to think those folks I gave beads to will go and read some of those writers but I don't kid myself. They were, after all, just cheap plastic beads.
But on the last night we were in town the mood seemed to change, shift, and really, it turned ugly.
I was tossing beads happily to passers-by who were delighted that they didn't have to do anything in return for them. A group of drunken college-age men (the kind I have in my classrooms, the kind who hold doors open for me, the kind who I often really like) came wobbling down the street. They saw me tossing beads and yelled the typical "throw me somethin'" that is one of the favorites of quarter living. I threw some beads, not asking for anything but a little of the same kind of fun feeling you get on Hallowe'en passing out candy to kids. One of the guys started yelling at me to "show them my tits." Well, sorry, bub, but even when I am drunk I don't show those in public. Now, since 2000, I have gotten less shy about this, and have shown the "girls" a few times myself; but it wasn't a matter of thinking it was wrong before-- just wrong for me who was just shy about it. I don't mind others showing theirs but I'm just too embarrassed-- not to mention the fact that I had as many of those beads as I wanted, and the deal is I throw you something, you show me something-- not the reverse.
When I smiled, shook my head no, and said "Happy New Year" instead, most of the bunch just good naturedly wobbled towards better pickings than shy old me. But one guy yelled "screw her man, she's a hick" (which bothered me less than you would think) but then he changed his mind and decided that I was not just a hick but a "whore" for not showing him my boobs. Man was I surprised! I mean, in my good old Southern Upbringing, it's completely the opposite there-- whores don't keep 'em covered! And, I didn't think that those who showed their breasts for fun were doing anything wrong, either, but the attitude the guy showed really made me think. I was a little surprised and thought I'd stop tossing the beads-- that night the fun was pretty much over for me.
Later, as we strolled down the street, the happy feeling I had on the 31st was gone. The crowd was much, much younger-- many of them were there for an upcoming bowl game and college fight songs rang out in the air. Cops seemed much less cheerful. Groups of men gathered beneath balconies and began chanting "Show your tits" over and over again. They jostled and shoved each other for position and good camera angles. They also would not move out of the way if you wanted to pass by-- and just saying "excuse me," as you tried to make the endless promenade back and forth down Bourbon, earned you a hostile look. It was one of the most aggressive things I have seen in quite some time and my husband and I, who had both enjoyed ourselves the night before just went back to our hotel room to talk to our friends and sip our left over New Year's champagne. It didn't ruin our whole stay, but it did make me really uncomfortable being in that crowd that night.
What I am wondering, and the point of this long story, is why were these two sides of the behavior on Bourbon street? What does the open hostility of the guys who were jerks show us, tell us, about sexual politics in the new century? Are they exceptions, or the rule? We were comfortable and glowing with fun on one night, and the next night, the hostility of the men who were jerks made me wonder how these mostly educated, college type, men-- ultra middle class folks-- could hate women so much. And if they don't hate women, if that's being a little hyperbolic on my part, why were they disguising a natural urge for the heterosexual male (to see women's boobs) with such an attitude?
What do you think? It really makes me want to re-read Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities to see what she has to say about this again. I think she has some theories, and I will have to apply them to this situation. I think probably the person who was a jerk to me personally was just in general a jerk. But what about those crowds of men, many of whom undoubtedly are good guys? Perhaps my discussion with Stephanie Brown about the movie Fight Club is in this same arena. Are men mad at women, to that extent, and are they hiding it just under the surface of civility? Or have these jerks just been around forever, and are likely to stay around? And what about our freedom to do this sort of thing, for fun, if we want to? Consensual sex is great-- degrading sex doesn't seem that way to me.
I'm interested in other people's opinions on it. Write to me, and if we get into a debate on it, I'll post it to the site with this article.
Okay, so there are a few additions above to this article-- one of the few on the site which has ever stirred up controversy and gotten people to write after reading it. A recent email from a guy made me realize that perhaps I was a little unclear on parts of this essay, and maybe I could add a coda to clarify myself-- that's the beauty of the internet in that nothing is permanent. So I've added a few above, but there's more.
This guy's email asked me, basically, why I hate men-- and said that rather than expressing the difference between the boob showing I liked on the first three nights and the different last night, which is what I thought the essay did, that I was degrading and being contemptuous of the whole thing.
Ah, I've been misunderstood! Most people who have written me about this have just agreed with me that this sort of thing can be weird on Bourbon street. A few men have apologized for the actions of the jerk who called me a whore. But the guy who just wrote did make me think. He also asked me about why this was so hostile, and asked me how I could say this was "one of the most hostile things I've seen" in the light of the Sept. 11 violence. So I think that interesting, (if a little out of context comparison) does bear commenting upon, too.
I'll quote most of the reply I wrote to him:
I still haven't had a satisfying answer to any of these questions. Maybe if the guy who wrote the letter that inspired this update of the page writes back and doesn't just think I'm being a defensive man-hater, we can have an intelligent debate and he can answer my question here. We'll see.
By the way-- anything you write to me on this essay could end up here, so by writing, you are consenting to having your words at least paraphrased, and possibly quoted, on this page.