The Short, Sexist History of the Wet T-Shirt Contest, a Symbol of Spring Break Debauchery
Ah, springtime. A time when flowers start to bloom, when temperatures rise and when tens of thousands of young people head down south for the week-long bacchanal known as spraaaaang breaaaaaak.
Traditionally, among the privileged teens and college-age students of this great nation, spring break is an opportunity to get hammered, sunburned and near-naked at all times; a time to descend upon places like Florida or Cancún to make questionable decisions. From mud wrestling to pole dancing competitions, sexploitative party activities have become a hallmark of Spring Break culture.
Perhaps none is better-known, though, than the wet T-shirt contest.
The premise of the contest is simple: Women — typically hot, inebriated women — don thin white T-shirts with nothing underneath and get doused with water. As a crowd watches and cheers them on, they shimmy and strip until the judges give the winner a small prize — perhaps free drinks or a dry, less sheer T-shirt.
A relatively new tradition: Historically speaking, the idea of young college students traveling down south for spring break is relatively new. It first came to prominence in the early 1960s, thanks in part to the 1960 release of the seminal spring break film Where the Boys Are. But the wet T-shirt contest seems to have first shown up in the United States a few years later, in the 1970s.
It's not entirely clear how the contest made its way to Floridian Spring Break parties. Some have speculated that the tradition was inspired by La Tomatina, a Spanish festival where people throw tomatoes at each other (thereby rendering many female participants' clothing damp and transparent). In his autobiography Breaking Even, filmmaker Dick Barrymore claimed to have hosted the first wet T-shirt contest as part of a 1971 promotional event for K2 skis, though the contest's first mention in the press wasn't until four years later.
That gem of journalism appeared in the Palm Beach Post in 1975, under the headline "Wet T-Shirt Contests Pack Pubs," and detailed how several "discotheques" in New Orleans had started putting on "a contest gimmick that would drive feminists prematurely gray."
A complicated, anti-feminist history: While it might seem ironic that the wet T-shirt contest arose during the second-wave feminist era, the tradition actually arose during a fairly politically conservative period. Having "given up on changing the world," as one college student explained to Newsweek the following year, the college students of the 1970s were apparently more inclined than their forebears to get drunk and flash their boobs, without giving much thought to the political implications. But that was arguably because they no longer felt they had to.
It's not exactly a coincidence that wet T-shirt contests caught on at a point when feminism had "penetrated every layer of society, matured beyond ideology to a new status of general – and sometimes unconscious — acceptance," according to Time, which named "American Women" its Person of the Year for 1975. Precisely because of the gains of the women's liberation movement, young women, in particular, had come to expect an increased level of social and sexual freedom.
So, it was time to party.
Getting wet and wild: By this point, wet T-shirt contests had indisputably become a part of Fort Lauderdale spring break tradition, in addition to such charming practices as banana-eating contests rewarding women who could "consume a banana in the sexiest possible fashion." By 1977, thanks in large part to actress Jacqueline Bisset's sopping appearance in The Deep, wet T-shirt contests caught on for real — and bar owners started facing public indecency charges for hosting them.
And yet, despite lawsuits and government regulators' efforts to end the "lewd" activity, the contest kept on keepin' on. In 1985, one year before MTV premiered its infamous Spring Break coverage from Daytona Beach, Florida, Paul Lorenzo, a Fort Lauderdale club proprietor, went so far as to describe the contest as "an all-American event." This, of course, was shortly after state regulators fined another local bar, the Button, for hosting sexualized contests. Lorenzo and other local bar owners pushed hard to convince the public wet T-shirt contests were "wholesome" events.
"They do take their tops off occasionally," Lorenzo told the Sun Sentinel of contest participants. "They are on stage with an emcee, completely out of reach of the audience. You can't compare the Button [contests] with a wet T-shirt contest."
The death of a "wholesome" spring break tradition: When, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach residents began to push the throngs of lascivious spring breakers out of the area, the wet T-shirt contest had already become embedded in typical Spring Break erotic pageantry. It became ubiquitous to the point of becoming mundane.
That's why, perhaps, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the moment we arguably reached peak wet T-shirt contest, in 1997, coincided with the creation of a franchise that would eventually render the tradition irrelevant — Girls Gone Wild.
The same year the franchise released its first video, a group of teenagers from Portland, Oregon decided to start their Spring Break a little early with an in-flight wet T-shirt contest, while they were still en route to Mexico on a Boeing 727. Reportedly egged on by one of the flight attendants and the pilots, the incident resulted in an FAA investigation, which uncovered video footage of contestants leaving the cockpit with their clinging T-shirts soaked.
A relic of a pre-internet era: Nearly two decades later, what was once an embodiment of Spring Break debauchery almost seems quaint in a post-Kim Kardashian sex tape era of social media exhibitionism. The wet t-shirt contest has so long been a thing in American culture, it's almost like a relic from another, more cheerfully politically incorrect era. As a result, the wet T-shirt contest is becoming increasingly unpopular: In 2009, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida bar was forced to cancel its annual Spring Break wet T-shirt contest because nobody signed up for it.
That's not because America's youth have suddenly come to view the contests as inherently objectifying, or because objectification no longer exists. On the contrary, things like Girls Gone Wild and online porn have upped the ante on daring public sexual behavior, much of which is not only objectifying but also likely to result in participants being slut-shamed.
In the age of the internet and social media, the wet T-shirt contest has been replaced by myriad other "contests" that are arguably even more degrading. Wet T-shirt contest offshoots like the "mamading" trend, in which women are encouraged to give as many blowjobs as possible, also treat sexuality as "a game, one in which men are competitors and women are prizes," as Tracy Clark-Flory put it for Salon:
Young women ... are often looking for excuses to be sexual — sometimes it's drinking too much, sometimes it's a silly contest. Anything for plausible slut-deniability. Of course, sometimes women eschew that — and they are punished even more fiercely.
Ours is a culture that doesn't take well to women's public performances of their sexuality. There's no better evidence than the ways we respond to women who participate in wet T-shirt contests and related "games": Take, for example, the 18-year-old girl who reportedly gave two dozen blow jobs at a club on the Spanish island of Magaluf to win a cheap bottle of sparkling wine in 2014, and who was roundly shamed when video of the incident circulated online. Sure, people called the contest exploitative, but they also called the young woman at the center of it a whore.
The wet T-shirt contest is no longer our culture's primary example of sexual objectification; thanks to the digital age, we now have dozens of other options. There are more ways than ever to objectify women — and unfortunately, we'll probably see plenty more examples before Spring Break is over.