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Right to Bare All?

On Walking Around Naked in New Orleans

With summer starting to make us feel like taking it all off, op-ed columnist Ms. M explores New Orleans' unique social and legal mores for heading out on the street without a stitch.


When someone in New Orleans claims you’re allowed to do something, it’s usually part wishful thinking and part drunkenness, but I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to walk around nearly naked on Mardi Gras Day simply because I heard that I could.


So on Mardi Gras morning I had some wine with my coffee, and stepped out to greet the Day with two rhinestones on my nipples and a tiny excuse for a gstring. I expected more than a little resistance from conservative revelers, perhaps with young children, and of course, law enforcement.


But to my chagrin, I never had to fight for my right. Instead, I acquiesced to pose for a hundred photos with drug-addled hipsters who needed something to Facebook home about, and held a baby as her tattooed parents basked in the irony.


City of NO
Occassional NoDef Columnist Agisen lives in New Orleans. She previously edited The New York Times' Freakonomics blog, and served as small business editor and staff writer at

Then, controversy at last! Two cops stopped me and asked me to come around the corner with them. But it was only to politely explain that they didn’t want trouble should someone try to grope me, so could I please cover up a little. A shawl over my boobs and they nodded their approval like they were sending me off to Sunday church.  


I’d been hoping for a little more than a law-enforcement safety calculation, but I ended my Mardi Gras with the self-tested conclusion that I was henceforth allowed to parade naked in New Orleans.


Not exactly.


Hasty generalizations like mine are what get people –mostly tourists -- in trouble.


New Orleans is a special city in that its concrete laws and ordinances are second to the omnipotent maxim that everything is permitted at the right place and among the right crowd. The Bible Belt has surprisingly little to do with it.


Not understanding this unwritten law is what gets some people in jail while others parade buck-naked with five different drugs surging through their systems. It’s especially hard to grasp for out-of-towners, who, like most of the rest of the country, are used to more consistent standards, like: flashing ass-crack outside Rick’s Cabaret at midnight means flashing ass-crack is always okay.


Make no mistake, people get into a mass of trouble for showing their stuff in New Orleans. Take the sad example of Brian Downing, who was charged with sexual battery and obscenity for doing what most frat boys do every weekend: taking out his nuts and tea-bagging a passed-out LSU fan.


Nobody in the Krystal Burger seemed to care, per news reports. But when he made the mistake of documenting said event on video, police couldn’t ignore it.


Still, not all public New Orleans nudity becomes a magnet for traffic at Gawker Media. The line between what cops will ignore and what’ll land your naked ass in OPP is still not clear.


The city’s municipal code, Section 54-260, says you can’t expose “the genitals, pubic hair, anus, vulva, or female breast nipples in any public place or place open to the public view with the intent of arousing sexual desire ... .”  


So when exactly does a breast or nipple become intentionally arousing?


As  I worked the door of a public event last month in pasties and panties, the veteran detective on security detail told me he still doesn’t know exactly what the law is. So he uses his own guidelines: If nobody cares, he leaves them alone. If it’s causing a ruckus, he might threaten with handcuffs. Safety hazards caused by rowdy crowds is the big concern, he explained.


So really what it shakes down to is that I can probably go ahead and flash my tits off a French Quarter balcony, but if the frat boys below get too excited or form a pack, I might get tagged with Disturbing the Peace, but not likely Indecent Exposure. And that makes sense in a city that is primarily concerned with guns on Bourbon, not boobs.


Men are held to an even more lenient standard, as a bared penis probably won’t create a surge of anything but perhaps some grinning Oz patrons. In a article covering the World Naked Bikeride (self-explanatory), one male rider relayed being stopped by a cop and asked to cover his genitalia. A tube-sock sufficed, and he was free to ride on… as long as he didn’t teabag anyone with it.  


So, if the Spirit moves you to show some or all of your skin at the next parade or your neighbor’s barbeque, my advice is go with your gut and have a concealing napkin ready just in case. As long as you’re not planning on motor-boating someone against their will, don’t worry so much about what the law allows, because around here we all know that’s just dressing.


The opinions contained in this column belong to Ms. M alone, and do not represent the views of the NOLA Defender Editorial Board.

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