How a Bunch of Male Strippers Invented the Bachelorette Party
It's about 10 o'clock on a Saturday night in a bar in Jersey City, and some dude has just noticed our small clique of 20-something girls. Admittedly, we’re kinda hard to miss: all of us are wearing matching navy tank tops reading, "Team Bride," except for our friend Kasey, who's got on a special white tank and a matching mini veil straight from the racks of Party City. Clearly, we're throwing a bachelorette party, except it’s obvious from this man’s disappointed tone as we smile but then return to our drinks (which are nondescript gin and tonics, not flaming pink cocktails) that we’re not living up to the hype.
Over the past few decades, bachelorette parties have attained a legendary reputation that rivals -- if not exceeds -- bachelor parties. It’s a night where loud, lascivious women bust into bars with sashes or maybe even a penis crown, suck down as many shots as they can, and then push their engaged friend into increasingly embarrassing situations with single men and/or strippers. This tradition helps feed the travel, restaurant, and liquor industries and it’s been covered time and again in the press, movies, and Bravo’s entire Real Housewives lineup. But for such a well-established rite of passage, bachelorette parties are a relatively modern invention. In fact, based on the measly information out there on their origins, you might assume they materialized out of thin air 25 years ago. But the simple truth is bachelorette parties did not -- and could not -- exist in their current form until America got cool with a bunch of new things -- not the least of which was the presence of groups of women waving dildos around in public.
Personal showers were the closest thing women had to a modern bachelorette party... until male strippers entered the game.
While research indicates bachelor parties have existed since Ancient Roman times, ladies were stuck with little more than stuffy bridal showers for ages. It came with the retrograde territory: brides-to-be were expected to be virgins, so they didn’t need a wild party celebrating their final night of sexual freedom. And they were also expected to become housewives, so showers, where they would receive gifts to set up their new home, just made more sense. Although the term “hen parties” had been in the public lexicon for decades by the time Eleanor Roosevelt was throwing them in the White House in 1940, brides were still expected to look and behave like wedding day Cinderella.
it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the first generation of bachelorette parties started to spawn -- and we have women’s lib to thank for it. In 1960, the birth control pill came along, making it much easier for women to have sex with men who weren’t their husbands. And that was just part of the larger sexual revolution, where everything from pornography to public nudity became way more acceptable. Women entered the labor force in greater numbers, which really screwed with the whole housewife ideal, and eventually they went on strike for better workplace equality. They also nearly got the Equal Rights Amendment ratified and brought reproductive rights to the Supreme Court with Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Indeed, sisters were doing it for themselves, and that meant a harsh reexamination of marriage -- including the festivities surrounding it. "In the early to mid-’70s we have a society transformed in terms of thinking about what marriage is about, what roles men and women should play in marriage, and whether or not marriage is automatically about forming a family," says Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University and author of It’s Our Day: America’s Love Affair with the White Wedding. "By the time we get to, say, 1975, there are very different ideas from 1955 regarding marriage."
For some forward-thinking brides, all this revolution translated to updated vows, or an informal hippie ceremony in the park. But for others, it meant a new spin on the traditional bridal shower in the form of a so-called personal shower. These were house parties where friends of the bride gathered to present gifts, except they weren’t handing out toasters. This was an opportunity to exchange lingerie and other risque items that would embarrass the grandmas at the regular bridal shower. Personal showers started showing up in the 1960s, and they were the closest thing women had to a modern bachelorette party until the next decade, when male strippers entered the game.
Reality shows where "a guy jumps out of a cake and pleasures himself" are prompting bachelorettes to try to either replicate those things or outdo them.
Although they risked getting slapped with an indecency charge, men began breaking into the world of stripping in the early 1970s. Strip clubs would set aside a few nights for "ladies-only" shows where male dancers took center stage, and the trend of traveling dude revues hit a major milestone in 1979, when Chippendales arrived in Los Angeles. The brand rapidly expanded into cities such as New York and earned a ton of media attention from pun-happy newspaper editors who just couldn’t help themselves. Even though it was a fairly new concept, women were lining up to objectify men with their closest girlfriends. "Every nightclub guy strives to get women into his club," says Kevin Denberg, the current managing partner of Chippendales. "The original founder’s vision was to create a female entertainment offering. And obviously, Chippendales is a natural home for bachelorette parties."
Scholarly types who studied this male strip-show craze suggest that women were heading to Chippendales or similar acts before weddings, but they weren’t really calling their revelries "bachelorette parties." That is, until New York Governor Hugh Carey decided to get remarried in 1981 and The New York Times referred to the bride’s gathering at the swanky 21 Club with "the Carey girls” as a “bachelorette party." It might seem outrageously mundane, but this was a huge deal. "The naming is really important," says Beth Montemurro, a sociology professor at Penn State Abington and the author of Something Old, Something Bold: Bridal Showers and Bachelorette Parties. "Until you put a name on it, it doesn’t really become institutionalized or part of the wedding routine. It becomes something that people can talk about and it’s not like, 'Oh, are you going out with your friends?' but, 'Are you having a bachelorette party?'"
With all the pieces finally in place, bachelorette parties were set to take off. As people started adopting and experimenting with this nouveau tradition, it seeped more into popular culture, too, whether in the form of the defining trend piece "Hey - bachelorettes can be sleazy, too" by Richard Roeper (yes, that Richard Roeper) or through oblique references in Tom Hanks movies. (Remember, the girls in Bachelor Party are also out celebrating a "bridal shower" at a Chippendales clone.)
But a few key things helped bachelorette parties emerge and then explode in the 1980s and 1990s. The first was the increasing age of first-time brides and grooms. Census data shows that this statistic has been dramatically climbing since 1980, and it means that increasingly, couples have been out earning money for longer before they get hitched. This makes them less dependent on their parents to foot the entire bill, and more inclined to splurge on frivolous activities their parents play no part in -- like a raunchy night out with college friends. "Brides and grooms are paying for more of the wedding themselves," Jellison says. "Maybe parents are still kicking in some money, but brides and grooms have already been out in the workforce and have their own salaries. You don’t have to go ask mom and dad, 'Please pay for this thing I wanna do.'"
"Penis straws and penis tiaras are fun, but not all brides necessarily want to be walking around with a penis on their head."
Even more importantly, wedding-industry vets started realizing they could make money off bachelorette parties, so an actual market opened up that simply didn’t exist before. Nightclubs offered party packages, car services advertised to groups of girls, and wedding-planning guides started laying out blueprints for an ideal bachelorette bash. Montemurro, who first started tracking bridal showers and bachelorette parties in the 1990s, watched firsthand as the savvier pros stepped up to cash in on the trend. "When I first started doing the research, I could find a bachelorette out at a club because she was wearing a veil, but it was unusual to find clubs that had party packages or that really catered to them," she says. "And it just became much easier for women, when they were talking about planning, to know what to do because there were places to go and there was information. Suddenly, there’s an actual industry that caters to it. So it’s just more part of the wedding routine."
First-time married couples have continued to grow older and the wedding industry has continued to suck up more money, so bachelorette parties are in a pretty great place today. Although acts like Chippendales have lost some relevance since the '90s, Denberg says it’s still normal to see 10 bachelorette parties on any given weekend night at one of their shows. Lavish weekend getaways in Vegas or Belize (Belize!) are also becoming more routine and in the age of social media, the urge to perform for your Snapchat followers is driving women to act even more daring.
"I think one of the biggest shifts we’ve seen in bachelorette parties within the last five or so years is the documentation of them," says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and social commentator. "We’re now seeing what’s going on behind closed doors and and we want to document all these outlandish moments.” Swann points to reality shows in particular for setting a salacious standard for bachelorette party Instagrams. "When you’re watching a reality show where a guy jumps out of a cake and pleasures himself, now people in real life are either trying to replicate those things or outdo them."
It’s unclear where bachelorette parties go from here. Both Swann and Denberg are anticipating a backlash of sorts, where women start turning away from the unadulterated cheese and excess and cake-masturbators in favor of slightly more restrained celebrations. Swann says she’s getting more questions from women about how to tactfully decline bachelorette parties that are out of their comfort zone, while Denberg reveals Chippendales is retooling their products to reach a different sort of bride-to-be. “Penis straws and penis tiaras are fun, but not all brides necessarily want to be walking around with a penis on their head," says Denberg. "So we’re trying to curate a more... let’s call it 'modern' product line. I just think there’s an opportunity to maybe stray outside the traditional pink and penis."
But of course, this is just speculation. After a long-fought battle for the right to bear penis straws, women aren’t likely to abandon bachelorette parties that easily. (Even the relatively tame party I attended in Jersey City had a penis cake.) And all dick jokes aside, there’s a lot to be said for gender equality and women’s sexual expression in these admittedly absurd wedding rituals.
"Sometimes I get flack about the research that I’ve done because some people look at it as trivial stuff," Montemurro says. "But I think that the bachelorette party is really this great window to looking at social change and looking at gender roles and seeing that women were standing up for doing something that they wanted to do, and actually calling attention to the fact that they had sexual desires. Even if it’s play, in the form of the bachelorette party, it’s still this public recognition of women’s sexuality in a way that there wasn’t before."
Susan B. Anthony would be proud.
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Kristin Hunt is a freelance writer for Thrillist. The only other bachelorette party she’s attended ended with two girls asleep on the front lawn and one lost at a bus stop. Follow her to single-lady shenanigans at @kristin_hunt.