Kim Wells

January 2000

New Year's in New Orleans: Sexual Politics in the 21st Century?

"Laissez le bon temps roulez!" (Let the Good Times Roll)
(Favorite New Orleans saying)

"Show your tits! Show your tits! Show your tits!"
(Phrase heard far more frequently on Bourbon Street)

Editor's note-- the parts in pink are commentary on this essay I've written since 2000-- things I feel should be updated because I've gotten questions via email that show the essay wasn't as clear as I wanted it to be...

     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.

Part Two-- July 2002

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 don't hate men, although it's really interesting that it seems to me that often, when a woman questions aggressive behavior of any group of males, she is instantly assumed to be hating ALL males.

One jerk did NOT ruin my four day stay. It did change my feelings on the last night, when the night was more aggressive, yes-- which is why I spent the night quietly in my room rather than out on the street. The essay's entire tone is not a diatribe against New Orleans-- it has a really nostalgic tone, and most people carefully reading it would tell that there was supposed to be a contrast between my feelings on New Orleans in general and the jerks from that last night. That's the point of the "BUT" being separated out in the text like that-- it's supposed to shift from the things I enjoyed to the things I did not.

I did stop throwing beads the last night, because the fun had gone out of that when there were people who were looking for things other than just beads that I was not personally willing to give. When I was on the street, I literally felt the air was hostile-- and it was scary. And it was and *still is* "one of the most aggressive things" I had seen in a long time. If you'll note, there is a distinction there-- it says "one of the most". Not THE MOST. And even after the horrible events of Sept 11, it's still one of the most aggressive things I've seen in a long time (Sept 11 is ranked higher, but that doesn't make the things I felt that night any less hostile). I DO mean the whole night was scary-- not just the one incident with the guy who called me a whore. But it was an ugly crowd, an ugly mood-- I don't know if you've ever noticed that feeling in the air. I'm sure you've at least been somewhere where the mood was positive, and felt that part (I'm thinking of just before really cool concert, how good everyone feels-- the air seems to pick up the positive energy & everyone glows).

That night was the opposite of that-- everyone seemed angry, and hostile. It could have just been me, but other people felt it too, so I think it was the night. In my article, I mention that even the police seemed less friendly-- they picked up the mood too. If my article fails in anything, it's in getting that mood across properly. And even despite the untimely comparison to Al-Qaeda, I do think it is the same sort of hatred of women that makes those guys beat a woman for showing her face, or talking to someone on the street, and have it be a death-penalty crime for teaching a girl to read-- it's just different in degree. (Yes, there are many degrees of difference there, but it is the same sort of hatred, I think). I am not saying all men feel this way, but it's obvious that some do. As I told my husband when I got an email from someone who told me that I was evil (really-- I did get an email like this) for putting out my website, and that he and all "righteous men" were going to come take back what they had let "immoral women" corrupt, anyone who is going to come after me to try to put me in that same place better be wearing a kevlar vest and a cup, cause I aint going easily.

I am quite happy that it is not ALL MEN and quite recognize that it is different in the US, and am quite grateful. But it makes me nervous, because I do see it as a form of hatred, yes. It's certainly not black & white-- there are shades of gray there by all means, but that is the point of the article-- to point out an experience of mine and wonder if it's indicative of a general trend. So far, the responses I've gotten to the article have been affirmatives. And you don't even say that there wasn't an aggressive nature to the incident, you're just defending it by saying what, that I am the one "hating"? Your letter makes me think that you're feeling defensive for some reason. Perhaps you've been a drunken frat boy who yelled to encourage tit showing? If so, I don't think that makes you a jerk by any means-- just a guy who likes to see boobs. I like to see tits too (even with my affirmative heterosexuality; I think they're pretty). There have been plenty of non-aggressive titshows in NO-- and you may not have ever been party to the mood I discuss in the article.

But I did go back and read my own words, to see where you were getting your impression. The last paragraph is a series of questions-- I myself am not making ANY pronouncements about the state of all males. I said the one guy was a jerk-- and the guys who were in tight crowds under balconies, who wouldn't move out of anyone's way and were pushing each other to get a good view, were jerks. I might have to clarify that part of the essay, but I am not sure. [. . .] I did not say ALL "MEN." I never assume that ALL men would behave this way. Most did not. The one question that I did ask about all men was whether men are mad at women. I was hypothesizing from a small sample to a large one there-- but it was a question that I wanted answered, not a definition. I haven't had anyone answer that question, other than a few people who have written to me in regard of this article completely agreeing with me that the behavior is sometimes a bit scary, but not being able to answer the question.

On your question on the last part of the discussion of degrading vs. consensual sex: showing tits in this particular context *is* a sexual act. The only time in the US tit-showing is not is if the tits are out in order to feed an infant. And there are many states that even ridiculously outlaw that. I am perfectly fine with it (in fact, since 2000 I have myself become much less shy about it) but I know what showing tits *is.* If it wasn't something other than "good clean fun" it wouldn't be illegal (cops can and will arrest you for it in New Orleans if they are in the mood-- they usually don't, because they realize it's dipping water out of the ocean with a thimble, but it's on the law books). Women would, like men, be allowed to walk around on hot days with no shirt if there wasn't a puritan taboo on showing female breasts, that associates them with sex. It's called indecent exposure for a woman to show her boobs-- for a man, it's just fine, even if his boobs are as big as mine. Do you figure Clinton was right that oral sex is not "sexual relations" too? My own definition is anything you wouldn't do with a close relative (say your brother or sister) is sex. I certainly wouldn't show my brother my boobs. But calling it sex is my opinion; it's beside the point on this article, though. I don't mean to say that sex is wrong, bad, anything. But I call a spade a spade... sex is sex, there is no "good" or "bad" associated with the mere word. I was talking about the difference between the consensual, fun activities of my friend the lawyer (to me it's quite clear-- but perhaps my reading is different) and the degrading feeling of being called a WHORE for not showing mine. That's the comparison. I notice you didn't comment on that part of the article, other than to assume that it ruined my whole trip and made me a misanthropist.

Anyway, it still does bother me that drunken college men can be kind & nice in one phase, and get into a group and turn into a pack of jerks. And when they "sober up" and go out into the world where I am, I worry that there is some underlying issue that the intoxication allows them to express, that they normally don't say, but that they feel, still. There are many things drunk people do when their inhibitions are gone that sober ones don't-- but usually, they won't do anything drunk that goes against their basic personality-- so in there for those guys who made me uncomfortable, is a feeling of hostility towards women. . . maybe its just those few individual guys. But the question was, and still is, why? Are they mad at women for feminism? Are they mad because they don't get to see boobs? Are they just jerks? What is it? But I don't think you can deny that the act of the man who called me a whore was hostile, and that it was a jerk-thing to do. So the point was, why? Why would it go from a nice, normal fun feeling of Halloween-like "give me something for nothing" to a nasty name-calling? People often use names, words, to put others in their place (the whole reason for the ban against certain "words of power" in race is that people have used them to keep others in their place in the past). You don't answer my question at all, you just say I'm a "man hater." So what does that mean?

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.

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