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Why Sex-ify Something Offensive, Sexy Ebola?

Every year in October, feminist blogs and social media light up with outrage over the supposed scourge of “sexy” Halloween costumes. People share photos of the worst offenders, usually costumes that sex-ify something usually not seen as sexy, such as “sexy ebola” or “sexy Big Bird“. (Which was actually no sexier than a standard flapper dress.) The argument against these costumes is that they are sexually objectifying and degrading in their assumption that sexiness should be part of Halloween anyway.

Well, there’s a bit of information in Claire Suddath’s piece in Bloomberg Business on Halloween costumes that should give people pause before they express outrage at yet another round of goofy/sexy costumes on sale this year: The people who make them are making big money off your outrage. The annual outrage-fest drives visitors to the sites of places like Yandy, and even though you are supposedly visiting it to be outraged, a lot of you end up buying costumes from them anyway. This is such a profitable marketing strategy that Yandy, the biggest costume maker, actually designs outrageous “sexy” costumes that they know no one will actually wear. It doesn’t matter, as long as people are sharing links to express outrage and driving visitors to the site, visitors who will buy another costume.

So yeah, they designed that “sexy pizza rat” costume specifically so you would share it in Facebook, lamenting about how the world is going to hell, and your friends would all buy costumes off the link. Very few women will likely dress as sexy pizza rat, but the free advertising they got off the costume did the trick.

It is true that I don’t think “they just want attention, so don’t give it to them” is a crappy argument. Sometimes giving racist, sexist trolls attention is just the price you have to pay in order to highlight very real problems with racism and sexism in our society. But that’s only when the source of outrage is legitimate.

The problem with all the hand-wringing over sexy Halloween costumes is that it doesn’t really make sense. So what if some women want to flash a little T&A on Halloween? Who, exactly, are they hurting with this behavior? These costumes are clearly meant to be worn to parties, not the office. You know, social occasions where the point is to have fun, flirt and maybe get laid. Maybe you already have a partner you want to tease a little with the sexy costume. Maybe you have a guy whose attention you’re trying to get. Maybe you just like attention. Not one of those desires is wrong. If being sexy Cookie Monster makes you laugh, more power to you. The world is a dark place a lot of the time, and people deserve to shake it up and have fun.

I used to go along with the outrage-fest over sexy pizza rats and children’s characters. But I read Dan Savage point out what should have been obvious, which that the whole point of Halloween is for people to let their freak flag fly a little. He calls it the straight version of Gay Pride festivals. I’d add that it’s reminiscent of Mardi Gras.

His argument shamed me. I am not averse, personally, to dressing sexy when the occasion calls for it. I live in New York, where no one even looks at you twice if you’re wearing knee-high boots with miniskirts and I take full advantage of that. I marched in Slut Walk. I think Amber Rose kicks ass. There’s nothing inherently wrong with dressing sexy, and sneering at women who want to use Halloween to express that side of themselves is, well, slut-shaming.

Sure, there’s a lot of problems you could point out. I’m often told the problem is that “sexy” costumes are the only ones for sale for women. But that’s not really a fair argument. Yandy-type costumes are explicitly marketed to people who don’t really care about costuming as an art, but just want to wear something cheap and sexy to go to a party. People who are interested in something other than that already don’t buy costumes from Yandy. People who want a costume that says something more than “this is a cheap thing I grabbed off the rack to wear to a last-minute party” make their own (as I’m doing with my Batgirl costume this year) or they go to a site like Etsyor Chasing Fireflies instead.

Then there’s the fact that costumes marketed to straight men tend to be more goofy than sexy. But you know, that’s kind of their loss, too. A lot of men would probably, if left to their own devices, like to flaunt it for the ladies, but our culture tends to code that behavior as weird and to shame it. And no doubt some women feel a lot of pressure to look “sexy” all the time, even when it’s really a bad idea. Anyone who has lived near a college campus in the winter and seen young women chattering their teeth because they went outside with bare legs and no coat over their minidresses can attest to that.

But these problems stem from much deeper issues, namely a deep power imbalance between men and women, particularly young men and women. As Rebecca Traister writes in her new piece in New York Magazine about this power imbalance:

Students I spoke to talked about “male sexual entitlement,” the expectation that male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them. They spoke of how men set the terms, host the parties, provide the alcohol, exert the influence. Male attention and approval remain the validating metric of female worth, and women are still (perhaps increasingly) expected to look and fuck like porn stars — plucked, smooth, their pleasure performed persuasively. Meanwhile, male climax remains the accepted finish of hetero encounters; a woman’s orgasm is still the elusive, optional bonus round.

Traister’s column focuses on hook-up culture, but the larger, more bitter truth is this power dynamic is  found everywhere. More than a few women in monogamous relationships have found themselves wondering why they do so much work to make sex sexy for male partners who often can’t even be bothered to ask what they want. The issue isn’t even really about sex at all, but about power.

Which is why I can’t really be too annoyed with feminists who outrage at sexy Halloween costumes, even if I disagree with them. Railing against sexy Halloween costumes is a way to rail against these larger dynamics, a way to express discontent over the fact that women are expected to satisfy but not expect satisfaction themselves.

But getting rid of the costumes won’t do anything to change that. Women aren’t going to get men to treat us like equals by covering our bodies. (See here and hereand here for evidence of that.) If anything, the only way to get it into men’s heads that they need to treat women with respect is to make it clear that respecting a woman and wanting to have sex with her are not mutually exclusive desires. (For all you know, the woman you’re judging for her sexy banana costume might have a loving partner who shares the housework with her but just has a fruit fetish that she’s trying to indulge.) Getting men to change their minds is a lot more work than shaming women for wearing sexy Bert and Ernie costumes. But it’s the only real solution to the problem that troubles us.

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