A Theory-Based Approach to Understanding Sexual Behavior at Mardi Gras

By Milhausen, Robin R.; Reece, Michael et al. | The Journal of Sex Research, May 2006 | Go to article overview
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A Theory-Based Approach to Understanding Sexual Behavior at Mardi Gras


Milhausen, Robin R., Reece, Michael, Perera, Bilesha, The Journal of Sex Research


Mardi Gras is an annual festival in New Orleans that begins 47 days before Easter and ends the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (Gotham, 2002; Sexton, 1999). Its roots are grounded in French culture, as early explorers brought the tradition of Mardi Gras with them to Louisiana (Gotham; Sexton, 1999). The French originated the now-famous masked balls and parties in the early 1700s; however, by the late 1700s, Spanish governors banned these festivities (Gotham). Mardi Gras celebrations returned to the city by the early 1800s, and in order to preserve the festivities, a secret society of men called the Mystic Krewe of Comus planned the first official Mardi Gras parade in 1857. Today Mardi Gras symbolizes a time to celebrate the rich culture and history of New Orleans. Parades, costumes, and beads permeate the environment from morning to night (Gotham). Also synonymous with Mardi Gras, however, are the wild crowds, the abundance of alcohol consumption, and public sexual expression (Shrum & Kilburn, 1996). Noise levels are high, peaking at 90 decibels. The smell is acrid, with beer and alcoholic beverages being consumed, spilled, and crushed underfoot on busy, colorful streets teeming with people (Shrum & Kilburn). Exposed body parts, public sex acts, and flashed breasts, buttocks, and penises are commonplace in many of the parade areas (Redmon, 2003a).

Mardi Gras behaviors have been studied most commonly from the sociological perspective. Researchers have noted that during Mardi Gras, behaviors are permitted that are normally considered socially inappropriate (Forsyth, 1992). In fact, some have argued that the festival actually encourages the inversion of standard norms of public conduct (Jankowiak & White, 1999). Redmon (2003a) labeled this behavior "playful deviance." Playful deviance occurs most frequently when groups of tourists travel to leisure locations and engage in types of behaviors that they would not normally enact at home. Most often these places of leisure are located inside "themed environments" and incorporate a series of normative instructions for how to perform playful deviance. Goffman (1959) suggested that three criteria must be fulfilled for playful deviance to occur: (a) the setting and props for the behaviors must be appropriate; (b) individuals must choose the setting to enact the deviant behaviors and terminate the behaviors upon departure from the locale; and (c) the setting must offer protection from social sanction for the individuals engaging in the behaviors.

All of these specifications are met at Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras environment is replete with symbols distinguishing its unique cultural context. Images and themes of eroticism, public nudity, public sex, and alcohol consumption encourage tourists to participate in the festivities as a part of legitimate fun (Redmon, 2003a). Wearing beads and masks transforms the individual into a performer engaging in behavior that would otherwise be considered inappropriate (Jankowiak & White, 1999). Mardi Gras behaviors are short-lived, specific, and localized to the Bourbon Street area (Redmon, 2003a; Shrum & Kilburn, 1996). Participants in playful deviance feel safe engaging in a range of typically taboo behaviors with relative security (Redmon, 2002). The anonymity of the massive, likeminded crowd protects the individual from stigma and judgement. It is well-known that "what one does during Mardi Gras does not count as a mark on one's character" (Forsyth, 1992, p. 395). In fact, crowds at Mardi Gras embrace and reward sexualized behaviors (Redmon, 2003a).

Mardi Gras has also been considered a "time out" place (Jankowiak & White, 1999) or, similarly, a "backspace" (Redmon, 2003a). A backspace is an area where individuals can transgress norms and participate in playful deviance without fear of reproach. This concept has also been described as "liminality"--a sense of inhabiting a margin or space where social rights and obligations may be temporarily suspended (Apostolopoulos, Sonmez, & Yu, 2002; Ford & Eiser, 1996, Shields, 1990).

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