When Annelise Normand helped plan her friend's bachelorette party earlier this year, she stayed away from the tiaras, drunken trolley rides and strip clubs that have come to define the last hurrah of the American bride.
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.
"We tried to make everything really meaningful to her," said Normand, a 27-year-old grad student, who followed the hunt with drinks and dessert.
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."
To cater to women who want the party without the raunchy, Brown founded BachelorettePartySupplies.net, a "clean site" that abides by a simple philosophy: "If my grandchild can't touch it, then we don't sell it."
Her most popular sellers, Brown says, are tiaras, boas and personalized sashes — items to celebrate the bride as "queen for a day."
Brown knows she loses sales keeping her site chaste, but she fears the slippery slope of breaking her rule even for the one item that is on every customer's list.
"Everybody wants the straws," Brown said.
Bachelorette.com, founded in 1999, was among the first online purveyors of bachelorette merchandise, said company president Tom Nardone, who claims credit for inspiring those anatomically correct straws in multiple colors, as well as similarly shaped cupcake pans and lollipops. (The site is owned by PriveCo Inc., which markets itself as selling anything embarrassing to buy in a store; its first item was hemorrhoid cream.)
A few years ago Nardone's company worried that bachelorette props were becoming too cheesy and would die a fad, so they follow fashion trends to stay relevant and aim to be "filthy but not trashy," he said. "It should be like cable after 10 p.m."
The market has surged, Nardone said, from some 100 bachelorette props available a decade ago to almost 600 today.
Nardone thinks the silliness of bachelorette parties is a reaction against the formality of other wedding events, giving the bride a chance to have unrestrained fun with her friends without her grandmother's friends looking on. He's not sure why bachelorette parties draw such ire.
"Is it that girls aren't supposed to be loud and fun? I don't know," Nardone said.
But plenty of women are having fun bachelorette parties without screaming trolley rides or acts of public humiliation.
Normand, who organized the "Amazing Race" party, said she doesn't understand why brides-to-be become boors in a veil, throwing themselves on other men after they've long been in a committed relationship. Or hooting to the gyrations of male strippers — which, she notes from experience, aren't all that enjoyable.
"On the whole, male strippers are not very talented," Normand said. "There's a very limited range of what they can do."
Bypassing the bacchanal
What should you do if you want no part of a wild bachelorette party? Sharon Naylor, author of "Bridesmaid on a Budget" (Seal Press), offered some advice:
If you're the bride: Act early, telling your closest friends within the bridesmaid circle that you want a tame party. Telling the maid of honor alone isn't enough because she can face pressure from others who want to surprise you with a naughty fireman; you need to get your most assertive friends on your side. If they insist, stand your ground, saying you and your groom promised each other you wouldn't have raunchy hurrahs.
If you're a guest: It's becoming more common for tamer bridesmaids or friends to come to the beginning of the party (such as the dinner at a restaurant or pre-party at the bride's house), then leave when things start getting wilder. Explain to the bride about your plan to duck out early so doesn't worry that you're upset or offended.