February 24th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Bead Ho's, Wet T's, and the Auctioning of Attention

I don't want you to take this metaphor too literally, but I'm struck by the parallels between female exhibitionism and economics. In particular, I'm struck by the similarities between a wet t-shirt contest and an auction. From this simile, with a little thought, it also occurs to me to compare flashing for Mardi Gras beads to a specific type of auction, what's called a Dutch auction. Again, don't take this comparison too literally. I'm not saying that a wet t-shirt contestant or a "bead whore" is a prostitute, selling a service in exchange for economic exchange. But the process by which each individual contestant, and each actual girl shouting for beads, decides just how far she's willing to go in each circumstance has, it seems to me, some interesting parallels with the auction process. What's more, if I'm right about this, it poses an interesting alternative hypothesis to explain the observed "pendulum swing" between general public acceptance of bohemian behavior and strictly enforced public puritanism.

Most of the wet t-shirt contests I've seen, whether in person or on video, take place in two or more "rounds" of competition. After they all line up on stage, each girl gets a turn to go down stage center, and have water sprayed onto her shirt or poured over her, with the intent of rendering her (usually contest-issued, advertiser supported) white cotton t-shirt partially transparent, and then she gets 15 to 20 seconds or so to dance around for the judging audience. After each girl has had her initial turn, they are brought back out one at a time in the same order, for a usually shorter 10 to 15 seconds, for each girl to try to get the audience to cheer the loudest for her. Generally, the contest is declared "won" by the girl, or by the three girls if multiple prizes are offered, who got the loudest cheers from the audience. Subject to minimum coverage rules that vary from contest to contest, what each girl wears in addition to the shirt is up to her. While most contests have official rules prohibiting actual exposure of breasts or genitals, and virtually every city and state has laws against public indecency, it varies widely from venue to venue, and from contest to contest within the same venue, just how far the rules can be bent, broken, or flat-out disregarded this time.

Note that the cash prizes involved are seldom large, and some contests have no prizes at all or at most a free t-shirt for the winner. Nonetheless, that there is any recognized winner is enough to create a powerful incentive in your average woman who enters one of these contests. Unless the contestant is a ringer, like a professional stripper who thinks little or nothing of getting naked in public or an exhibitionist who's up there hoping to show as much as possible for her own thrill, your average contestant is on some level at least a little embarrassed at showing off her private parts in front of strangers. But every girl except for the winner(s) not only does so, but does so for nothing. Only the winner(s) get the consolation of knowing that they may have done so, but at least they got some kind of recognition or reward out of it. So, properly incentivized, each contestant looks around, and generally figures out pretty quickly that she's being judged on a cumulative score of three categories: who is the more attractive, who has the more crowd-pleasing personality and choreography, and who's willing to abandon the most morals in public.

That first walkthru lets each contestant quickly estimate, for each other contestant, how she thinks her looks compare to that person, and whether or not she can do a better job of wooing the audience than that person. Failing that, she makes a mental note of how likely that girl is to get progressively more naked and/or to simulate progressively nastier sexual acts and come-ons. And if she thinks that the audience will find the other girl prettier or more popular, then she has to decide: outbid her on sexual display and performance, or surrender? And by the time she has to make that decision, she has already agreed to at least show her nipples through translucent fabric; it's not like she can surrender with her modesty totally preserved. Except, of course, that remember, each contestant gets at least one opportunity, usually two or more, to raise her bid. So if, for example, some slightly too skinny brunette seems likely to outbid the blonde, big-breasted, sculpted cheerleader type in amount of skin flashed, the blonde can either console herself that nobody will remember what she did because the brunette was so much nastier, or she can let her own competitive streak drive her to go farther than she previously intended. And it is that tension, as much as the implicit tension of the burlesque itself, that holds the audience's attention and that makes the whole experience so perennially popular.

Flashing for beads is different, though, because it's an instant-judging mass event. From watching the beads thrown, and from throwing the beads myself, I observe that the people (usually guys) throwing the beads are trying to spread at least some of the beads more or less evenly. Nonetheless, the parts of the crowd that they prefer get more beads, and better beads, thrown their way. So let's assume, just to hang numbers on it as placeholders, that 75 women are watching a parade float go by, or standing in the audience in front of someone on stage throwing beads. Let's assume that 50 of them are going to catch beads, out of this batch. The women all compete against each other in an instant-runoff competition that's fundamentally similar to the wet t-shirt criteria above: the bead throwers judge the women on attractiveness, on their shtick, and on how much skin they dare to show. But because the competition lasts only seconds and everybody goes at once, nobody gets to revise their bid. So in essence, ignoring margin of error, what it means is that the 50 sexiest competitors all got more or less the same reward that the 50th-sexiest of them got. The other 49 winners were sexier than they needed to be; the remaining 25 either sized up the situation and surrendered without competing, or flashed for nothing. What's more, it's an iterative process; for example, there might be 6 to 18 floats per parade, and maybe 3 to 5 parades per day. So each woman quickly sizes up the crowd around her, or at least instant-judges her performance against whether or not it got her beads and how quickly, and the crowd rapidly converges on a consensus, an agreed-upon total combination of appearance, style, and daring that is "enough" to get beads thrown, and that quickly becomes the "price" that everybody pays for the exact same amount of attention: in essence, the same procedure as a Dutch auction.

Now, here's the thing that really struck me about this. A culture or society has a memory, a cumulative impression of just how far the last round of competitions for attention went. So going into each additional competition, all of the losers know that last time, they weren't lewd enough. This provides them a powerful incentive to race down a slope that's as metaphorically slippery as the stage itself. If that process goes on long enough, through a long enough chain of events, eventually you run out of new outrages. Sure, the competition could then be reduced to just appearance and performance, but if that's all you're going to judge on, how do you justify the nudity at all? So in this context, the once every so often whip-crack of enforcement, with little or sometimes even no warning, becomes in essence a way to reset the bidding to a lower initial bid.

Without some way to reset that initial bid, that sense of how far each person has to go to be considered competitive, you're in the same perennial dilemma as the Hollywood action movie producer. He knows that his movie probably isn't any cleverer than the other action films he's competing against, and his stars probably aren't any bigger. So all he can do is up the budget even more, to for example throw in one more exploding helicopter. Eventually, though, if they keep competing in this way, you end up with a boring movie that's nothing but 120 minutes of consecutive exploding helicopters, that costs much more money than it will ever recoup, and the whole action thriller segment of the industry collapses until it finds a way to reset the whole category. And god help the producer who makes the last, biggest, most expensive failure, the Waterworld or the Cutthroat Island or whatever. By missing that one subtle signal, by not spotting the turnaround quite in time, he ends up looking as stupid as ... well, as stupid as the semi-hypothetical college co-ed who didn't know that this time the cops were going to enforce the law as written, and therefore she ends up convicted of indecent exposure, obscene public performance, and solicitation to a lewd act, and ends up with her reputation in permanent tatters and with a permanent record as a convicted sex offender. Which makes the process of resetting the auction for attention pretty expletive-deleted unfair to her, but what's the alternative?