Oh, good, it’s nearly Halloween. Time for our annual collective conniption fit over the continuing dominance of “sexy _____” costumes donned by young women, and increasingly by young girls. It’s a time when even people who don’t identify as feminists for the other eleven months of the year can shake their heads at how skimpy Halloween costumes have become, how every costume marketed to girls and women is sexualized, often to a point beyond parody. If you made a word cloud for every month of a given year, the words “whores” and “slutty” would be much larger in October than in any other month of the year, and that is saying something.
So let me get in early this year and say that if you’re planning to lament the sexualization of Halloween costumes by calling them “slutty” or, as these two women recently put it, “whorified,” don’t. Stop it. You’re not helping.
I want to be clear: for women and girls, Halloween has become sexualized to a point that would be laughable if it weren’t so worrying (Sexy Scrabble Board? Yep, that costume exists to be bought. It’s a minidress with a Scrabble board screen-printed on it). The fact that girls and women dress up, en masse, in skimpy costumes, while boys and men rarely do the same, suggests that there is a good deal of sexism afoot in how we now do Halloween. As in many cases, when it comes to “sexy” Halloween costumes, it’s hard to tell where social pressure and marketing stop and agency and personal decision-making start; it is foolish and insulting to imagine that girls and women are easily duped into the costumes they wear, just as it is simplistic and unfair to blame a large cultural problem solely on individual girls and women. And there are some excellent, laudable efforts to push back against the sexualization of girls, and to present an alternative view of girlhood, like SPARK, which objects to the use of “girls’ and women’s bodies as a marketing tool and a ratings grabber” (get ready for the usual October onslaught of cable news segments that titillate while pretending to inform, using the question, “have Halloween costumes gone too far?” as an excuse to use their seemingly endless B-roll of scantily-clad women).
But bemoaning the fact that Halloween is an excuse for women and girls to dress up “like whores” lays bare the ugly reality about so many well-intentioned people who take up this cause.
Sometimes the arguments against “sexy” costumes are blatantly regressive and puritanical: women and girls are precious flowers who ought to be protected from the roaming eyes and hands of men and boys who just can’t stop themselves from groping and raping. But even when well-intentioned people couch their arguments about sexualization in concern for girls and women, in claims about gender equality, there are some girls and women they straight up hate: “whores,” more respectfully known as sex workers. For these people, these noble defenders of trick-or-treating girls and women, the act of “dressing up like a whore” is an act of degradation. It’s so sexist, they cry, that in our culture, our good innocent (and, it’s implied, white, and middle- or upper middle- class) young ladies feel pressured to dress up as filthy prostitutes! The hypocrisy, the shortsightedness, the ability to preach gender equality while blithely casting around gendered, marginalizing slurs, is breathtaking. Sex workers already face enough stigma, enough legal discrimination, enough sexual violence that goes uninvestigated or unprosecuted because everyone knows you can’t rape a whore. So stop it. You’re not helping.
Much has been said in the last few years about the word “slut,” about its power and the potential for its reclamation. I won’t open that can of worms here. But I will say that to lament the sexualization of young girls while using the word “slut” is to completely miss the point. We ought to be concerned about a culture that tells girls and women that being sexy is their most important task, that it will determine their value on this earth, that they should be working on sexy every hour of the day, every day of the year, even on the days when they have the chance to dress up and disguise themselves. We ought to worry about a culture in which a girl or woman’s value hinges on whether or not she is sexy enough, because to reduce a person’s value to their sexual appeal or their sexual practice is dehumanizing. And yet, that is exactly what the word “slut” does. Except instead of assigning us value for being sexy enough, it strips us of value for being “too sexy.” It’s the other shitty side of the same shitty coin. Stop it. You’re not helping.
You cannot claim to be in favour of gender equality while using words and reinforcing ideas that themselves harm women and girls. Well, you can — and sadly, you won’t be alone — but you won’t be helping. You’ll only being making things worse.