Sex And Mardi Gras – Throw Me Some Beads, Mister!

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This week marks Mardi Gras and its notorious celebrations in New Orleans. IU researchers asked, "Do large festivals bring out sexual behavior in people?"

Women with beads at Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Photo: Philippe Leroyer

At Mardi Gras, many women flash their breasts in exchange for beads from onlookers.

As many of you know, this week marks Mardi Gras and its notorious celebrations in New Orleans. When you think about Mardi Gras, what comes to mind? If you’re like many people, images of floats, big crowds of people, drinking and beads may come to mind. And those beads, as you know, often come with a price.

At Mardi Gras, many women flash their breasts in exchange for beads from onlookers. Well, in truth, men or women may flash various body parts for beads. Collecting beads can reflect a bit about what you’ve been up to that week which some people find adds to the festivities. But wait a sec… if you were home at your local restaurant or bar and someone offered you a string of $1 beads in exchange to see your breasts or genitals, how many of you would oblige? Probably not nearly as many as might oblige at Mardi Gras.

What’s The Difference?

Several years ago, some of our colleagues in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation here at Indiana University actually studied sexual behavior in the context of Mardi Gras. Using a theory that takes notice of the influence of a person’s environment (the people around them as well as their surroundings) and perceptions about what’s appropriate in a given context (say, on Bourbon Street), they examined people’s behavior at Mardi Gras.

New Sex Partners

They found that about half of men in their study expected to have a new vaginal or oral sex partner while at Mardi Gras and about 20% expected to have anal sex with a new partner. Fewer women had such expectations. What happened is that more women had new partners than planned to – and, as you might guess, some of the men overestimated their chances of hooking up at Mardi Gras.

A person’s situational conditions (in this case, feeling as though they were in a sexualized environment, drinking and being a part of the Mardi Gras culture of beads and costumes) was also linked to their sexual behavior at Mardi Gras. (Read the full study here.) In other words, context matters.

Similar research has been conducted looking at how peoples’ sexual behavior changes when they attend big events that have a culture all their own (such as Spring Break). Even if you don’t have any intention of hooking up with someone, it might be wise to show up prepared with condoms and friends who can watch out for you in case you drink more than you planned to and start going back to someone’s room even though you planned to stay solo.

Avoiding Sexual Assault

Given that sexual assault is more common when people have been drinking, it’s wise to have at least one (but preferably two or three) friends in your friend group who are committed to staying sober and helping each other get through an evening – or a week-long event – in the safest way possible. After all, Mardi Gras, Spring Break and other festive events should be just that – festive and celebratory. With a little planning, you can maximize your chances for a fantastic getaway.

Dr. Debby Herbenick (M.P.H., Ph.D.)

is a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, Associate Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and author of several books including Sex Made Easy and Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.
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