Liberation Not to Be Found in Halloween Costumes

Oluwa Jones '15 Contributing Writer

Over the past several decades, Halloween costumes have shifted from the scary or supernatural to the funny for men and to the “sexy” for women. As noted in the hit film “Mean Girls,” Halloween is a time for women around the country to wear revealing outfits without facing scrutiny. Some feminists find the freedom accorded to women on Halloween to be liberating, while some argue that women who engage in this tradition become objects instead of people. According to professor of philosophy Ann Garry, our culture has connected sex to harm.

Women who engage in sex are damaged and no longer fully human. Men lose respect for women they come to view as sexual beings because of this double standard. According to Garry, what respect men do have towards women is not “genuine, wholehearted respect for full-fledged human beings, but half-hearted respect for lesser beings, some of whom they feel the need to glorify and purify.” Real respect for women would involve equal consideration of their wishes. This respect would not be premised on good behavior and could not be lost because one chooses to engage in sex.

If wearing a Halloween costume is sexually liberating, than why is it that women are the more likely than men to wear sexual costumes? Professor Adie Nelson argues, “Halloween costumes reinforce traditional gender roles and gender stereotypes.” Nelson asserts that women don’t choose their costumes, but instead, the capitalist market sets standards for boy and girl costumes. Nearly all Halloween costumes sold in the United States are gender-specific. As Nelson notes “pictures are put on the packages to discourage parents from buying ‘wrong’-sexed costumes.” Appropriate girl costumes are those that “emphasize the ideal image of feminine beauty…attractiveness and marriage.” Many female costumes are just male costumes with the word sexy added to the name, and then modified to be more libidinous. As Nelson notes, some costumes such as the “sexy lawyer,” “sexy cop,” or “sexy doctor,” serve to ridicule women in male-dominated fields.

Traditional views on white female sexuality and womanhood hold that women are pure, delicate and have no sexual impulses. White women have always been encouraged to hide their sexuality, while white male sexuality was seen as natural and uncontrollable. Sex-positive feminists, such as Germaine Greer, hold that sexual freedom is necessary for the destruction of power differentials in other spheres of life. Black women have had a much different experience with sexual suppression. As noted by bell hooks, black women are largely depicted as sexually depraved and immoral. This classification has “its roots in the slave system…The rape of enslaved black women by white men was justified through the insistence that black women are savage, non-human animals that cannot be raped.” This view of black women as hypersexual still shapes the social status of black women today. For a black woman to wear a sexy costume, it means she has sexual agency despite the historical context that has dehumanized and ridiculed her.

This view that women can achieve freedom through sexual acts is alienating to most women. Sexual norms, as they are currently constructed in our society, benefit the sexually permissive. As hooks notes, “to act sexually is deemed natural, normal; to not act, unnatural, abnormal.” Sexy Halloween costumes leave behind anyone who doesn’t enjoy sex, is uncomfortable with their body, or is triggered by nudity. Many would argue that the women’s movement has focused too heavily on sex, and on the simple notion that men are sexual and in order to be their equal we need to be sexual as well. Male sexuality is disgusting and inherently degrading to women, because it has been constructed in a society that hates women. Furthermore as hooks notes, this “sexuality...is no more liberating for men than it is for women.” In order to have a society in which women and men are truly free, we need to completely rethink sex.

Halloween costumes are the shallowest form of sexual liberation. To hooks, true sex liberation would have to involve the freedom for straight women to choose their mates, societal acceptance of childless non-monogamous women, acceptance of sexual identities outside of the gay/straight binary, and the removal the associations between sex and guilt, shame and dominance. According to journalist Ellen Willis, the goal of sex-positivity should not be sex for sex sake, but a promotion of sexual well-being. This would involve affirmative steps to create “social and psychological conditions that foster satisfying sexual relations.” In order to achieve this goal, society as whole has to end objectification, expose its rape culture and denounce pornography and all sexual violence. These tasks seem pretty daunting. I understand why some would rather wear a sexy costume one day a year than attempt these major overhauls.