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Unmasking Mardi Gras Deviants

In this edition of 'Wonks Gone Wild,' a researcher spends 500 hours at Mardi Gras celebrations to learn what makes revelers participate in deviant behavior.
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In a 2003 paper, David Redmon of Emerson College argued Mardi Gras behavior fits nicely into sociologist Erving Goffman's 1963 theory of "backspaces" — places where people can escape the glare of judgmental neighbors and bring out hidden sides of their personalities. Redmon referred to this out-of-town behavior as "playful deviance," noting it usually occurs "when small groups of tourists travel to symbolic spaces of leisure to participate in temporary forms of transgressions."

To study this phenomenon, Redmon spent a total of 500 hours at seven New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, attending every year from 1994 through 2000. (Academic research is rough work, but someone has to do it.) He interviewed 150 people who had participated in some form of lewd behavior along Bourbon Street — in most cases, flashing breasts or buttocks, though some went so far as to perform sex acts with strangers in full view of the crowd.

New Orleans' annual Mardi Gras celebration has attracted a parade of social scientists over the years. For more on the scholarship inspired by the provocatively licentious pre-Lenten festival, check out in the coming days:
The History of Mardi Gras Beadwhores
Studying Drunken Promiscuity at Mardi Gras (Feb. 14)
The Evolution of Mardi Gras Rituals (Feb. 15)

Redmon reported these situational exhibitionists felt liberated by the opportunity to anonymously defy societal norms. One woman told him: "I get to leave many parts of me back home, like the part where you have to be the wife, the mother, the good girl, the Christian lady who goes to church every Sunday." Beyond that, he discovered they loved the performance aspect of public stripping. "Revelers do not commit playful deviance in public; rather, they perform it as a fun game to attract the gaze of sightseers," he concluded.

In this era of camcorders and Internet videos, many of these impromptu "performances" are now recorded and posted online. What happens in New Orleans no longer necessarily stays in New Orleans. If Goffman's theory still holds, the possibility of being seen — and shamed — by the folks back home would presumably put a damper on such activity. But for the vacationing exhibitionists Redmon interviewed, the thrill of strutting one's stuff for the camera overrode any such concerns. "It gives me a high," one woman told him. "I feel like a star!" boasted another.

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