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Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008

Slutty Pirates, Ponies and Princesses Unite!

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In late October a few years ago I was teaching an undergraduate seminar on gender and sexuality. One of my female students stormed into class clutching a copy of the student newspaper, in which there was an article written by two male students that basically mocked women for dressing as sluts on Halloween.

"Gone are the days when girls would dress as ghosts, ponies and princesses," they wrote. "In college, you have to be a slutty ghost, slutty pony or a slutty princess. You can also pick from slutty devil, slutty angel, slutty cop, slutty nurse, slutty cat, slutty dog, slutty teacher"- costumes that are currently being advertised in the pages of this very paper, probably in close proximity to my column. The women in my class were angry, not at the implication that all women break out the skankwear on Halloween, but that there was something wrong with that.

As Lindsay Lohan's character said in Mean Girls, "Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut, and no other girls can say anything about it." (Yes, observant readers, this is the second Lindsay reference in the past three weeks. I have no excuse.) Female sexuality is usually stringently policed, especially in high school and college and especially by other women. The virgin/whore dichotomy is alive and well. Women are expected to walk a very fine line between appearing sexually attractive and available and appearing too much so. The "slut" label is still used by our society to keep women's sexuality in check-any woman who looks like she enjoys sex or is in control of her sexuality can be slapped with this label.

But on Halloween, all bets are off. Women have the social license to be as overtly sexual as they want. Many women also choose costumes that convey sexual power; this is the season when every closet dominatrix comes out of the woodwork in her best leather, latex and vinyl.

Of course, you could argue that these slutty costumes are based on mainstream faux-porno images and are therefore not really liberating. You could say that women are dressing up as some kind of stereotypical male fantasy rather than their own. In my view, to say that would be to deny the fact that some women are dressing up as much or more for themselves than for any man. Halloween is a celebration of the taboo, the naughty and the forbidden.

Halloween gives permission to men to play with gender, too. This is the season when men are allowed to explore their feminine side without repercussion. The same way that women are kept in line with the word "slut," men's sexuality and gender expression is controlled through the use of the word "fag." Any man who doesn't conform to a very narrow masculine social role risks being called a "fag" and having his sexuality called into question. But on Halloween, men can dress in drag or in the most homoerotic of costumes without fear. Men can have fun piling on the makeup and the glitter and being outrageous. While men have more freedom than women in our society to be sexual, they are usually confined to a tiny, heterosexual, hyper-masculine box. Halloween allows us all to step outside our boxes.

Everyone: Grab your fishnets and heels and grind some gender-role stereotypes into oblivion. Sluts and fags, fly your freak flags proudly. When I pass you on the street, I'll smile, especially since I will be wearing a costume that cleverly combines a sparkly pink dildo harness and a tiara.

Do you feel liberated by Halloween, or do you feel pressured to be more sexual than you'd like?

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, a sex toy store in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood. She has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com .Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

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