Here comes the bawdy bride-to-be
Why have so many bachelorette parties become so raunchy?
A bachelorette wins a prize while celebrating her bachelorette party in March of 2009 at Circuit Nightclub, 3641 N. Halsted St. At right is Honey West, the emcee. (Candice C. Cusic/Chicago Tribune)
Instead, Normand organized an "Amazing Race"-inspired scavenger hunt that sent the bride-to-be and her friends, clad in homemade race bibs, scurrying through Boston on tasks celebrating the couple: Order food from the spot where they had their second date; take a photo with the celebrity who was present when her fiance proposed (it was Tom Cruise, on TV in the background); purchase the chocoholic bride's favorite candy.
It was a low-key party for a low-key bride — and quite different from many of the other bachelorette parties Normand has attended. She recalls one in which the bride wore Lifesavers strategically stuck to her shirt and cruised the bar looking for men to bite them off.
The bachelorette party, part of the endless procession of pre-wedding festivities, has evolved (devolved?) in some circles into a brides-gone-wild phallus frenzy. (Case in point: Last year, one website tailored to these parties sold 200,000 penis-shaped drinking straws.)
Anyone who has watched a bride-to-be publicly titillate a banana on a dare from her girlfriends can't help but wonder: How did it come to this?
The origins of the bachelorette party are quite feminist: It was a leveling of the playing fields, an assertion that if he was going to go to a strip club, she would, too, said Beth Montemurro, associate professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University.
It also was an acknowledgement that there is more to women than their relationship status, and they, too, give something up when they marry, Montemurro said. Though the bachelorette party rose from the sexual revolution and the increased female participation in the labor force, it took several decades to institutionalize an event that showcased women having any ambivalence about closing the chapter on their single life.
"We're so mired in our ideas about femininity and weddings and what brides are supposed to be, and that marriage is what really validates women," Montemurro said. "The bachelorette party was starting to resist that the bride isn't just about anticipating marriage eagerly."
Montemurro started studying bachelorette parties after witnessing her sister-in-law's bridesmaids challenge her to complete ridiculous tasks, like approach strangers and get their boxer shorts. She was initially put off by what seemed like embarrassing and demeaning behavior, but the more she researched bachelorette parties, the less disgusted she became.
"I realized how much fun women had and how good it is for their friendships," said Montemurro, who wrote about her findings in her 2006 book "Something Old, Something Bold" (Rutgers University Press; $22.95).
Though it's hard to know how long brides have been having pre-wedding last hurrahs with their girlfriends, it wasn't until the 1980s that the term "bachelorette party" started to creep into the collective lexicon. The first printed mention of a bachelorette party Montemurro found was in a 1981 New York Times article about the wedding of New York Gov. Hugh Carey and Evangeline Gouletas.
The explosion of the bachelorette party into a wild, often highly sexualized affair came in the '90s, part of a broader trend toward more elaborate weddings. It's not clear if a hunger for lewd props sparked an industry happy to provide them, or vice versa, but soon packs of women were parading around bars with phallic paraphernalia.
Montemurro believes women aren't just mirroring the male ritual; they're mocking it.
"They use these sexual props as humor and bonding and making fun of how men feel like they have to do this," Montemurro said. "They're hypersexualizing it so it's just play, not really sexual."
To Ariel Meadow Stallings, bachelorette parties are about doing whatever the bride enjoys, so let her eat X-rated cake if that's what makes her happy.
But Stallings, author of "Offbeat Bride: Creative Alternatives for Independent Brides" (Seal Press, $16.95), said that as brides skew older they're steering away from "the cutesy 'tee-hee' expressions of sexuality" and toward a more sex-positive celebration of gender and sensuality. One bachelorette party trend in recent years has been to pose for a boudoir photo shoot.
Others are offended that public displays of male private parts have become the stereotype of the giggly bachelorette party.
"I think they think it's supposed to be funny," said Pat Brown, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "But I don't think it's funny, and I don't think guys think it's funny."