“Sex-Positive” Halloween Costumes?

This morning on Metro Morning there was an interview about kids dressing “too sexy” for Halloween. Psychotherapist Alyson Schafer encouraged parents to ask their daughters whether they are prepared for the kind of sexual attention they might receive while dressed in a sexy costume.

Obviously an open dialogue is key to good parenting. On the other hand, when Toronto police made similar comments about girls’ clothes attracting unwanted attention from sexual predators, it prompted outrage.

These ridiculous costumes show up every year. Sexy nurses, sexy pirates, sexy flight attendants, sexy Peter Pan… It all seems so incredibly degrading. On the other hand, isn’t slut-shaming just as harmful?

Can I be sex-positive and still find this degrading?

Rabble’s Meghan Murphy wrote a scathing critique of sex-positive feminism, which makes reference to the SlutWalk phenomenon and efforts to legalize prostitution. She makes some fair points about race and privilege (how many sex workers really “choose” that career?) but I have to disagree. I strongly believe there is a difference between being “sex-positive” and being “sexism-positive.”

So what’s the difference? How do we support women and girls in the exploration and expression of their sexuality without demonizing it? How do we avoid blaming the victim when dressing provocatively is considered, even by feminists, as inviting the male gaze? How are women to be sexy without instantly victimizing themselves? (Only in private? Under a turtleneck and smart slacks?)

Unfortunately we continue to face an impossible false choice: sexuality or dignity. It’s a stifling no-win for women of all ages.

No wonder girls want to let their hair down on Halloween – it is the only night you can wear a short skirt in public, even after dark, and not be labeled a slut. At least not as often. Halloween is one of those rare opportunities to experiment with our identities, and it’s no surprise that people flirt with the boundaries of what’s acceptable. (How to handle it as a parent, I admit, is way beyond my expertise.)

There is one important point missing from all of these conversations: the acknowledgement that women’s sexuality is powerful.

That power is exactly what makes it such a contentious issue. It is a power that has been taken away, perverted, and sold back to us as slutty costumes, lollipop-sucking lolitas, wet t-shirt contests, toxic cosmetics and plastic surgery. The real thing is not a thing at all – it cannot be commodified. This makes it something difficult for women to reclaim and own, let alone express.

d'bi.young, Jamaican-Canaidan dubpoet and performer is sexy on her own terms

So I’m still confused. I support SlutWalk because it fights slut-shaming, but I think wearing a store-bought sexy outfit is degrading. Is it the idea of a pre-packaged stereotype that bothers me? Isn’t dressing like a “slut”, even in protest, just another form of ‘buying in’ to a distorted version of female sexuality?

Any thoughts or comments on this? Please post them below!



  1. Anonymous · October 29, 2011

    I was at dinner yesterday to enjoy the baseball game with some good company. I didn’t get the memo about that evening being halloween dress up night. The women who were dressed up, waitresses included, were all wearing “sexy” whatever costumes. The food was gross, the wait staff were nice. And I was totally sickened when a man dressed up as a pimp strutted in (dressed in a lime green polyster suit) with his “hoes”. Yes, they were his accessories.

  2. Gail · December 5, 2011

    Enjoyed your musings on a complex subject. I agree sexy is natural – packaged & marketed sexy is not sexy – except to people whose sensibilities and taste has been twisted to serve the marketing gods.

  3. Rachael Cina · April 1, 2012

    This post pretty much encompasses my views on the subject. I agree–it is so complicated! I’ve always been disgusted by “slutty” halloween costumes. Not because I think the women in them are sluts, but because it perpetuates an ideology that women exist for the sexual pleasure of men. On the other hand– I love looking sexy! I think there is a delicate balance between enjoying sexuality and self objectification. I love your comparison of sex-positive vs. sexism positive–I’m definitely going to use that!

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