Sex Ed Begins at Home: Halloween Edition

It’s Halloween, which means that the past 11 and ¾ months have been spent squashing my children’s dreams about their costumes. Nothing violent, nothing gory, nothing sexy, nothing racist, nothing that promotes warmongering or imperialism, nothing homemade unless you do it yourself and it must be done at least three days prior to avoid a meltdown at 6 pm on October 31, nothing expensive, nothing made by children in a factory in Bangladesh, nothing flammable, no latex masks (allergies), and, this year, no clowns, as per school rules.

My children are relatively kind, culturally-aware kids, so this isn’t too hard, though the fact that we have a family friend who is a children’s clothing designer (and her kids have super rad costumes) makes my refusal to help sting a little, so I try to make it up in other fun ways that don’t involve me ever going on Pinterest, which is far worse for my self-esteem than Cosmo or Women’s Health. My daughter was considering dressing up as a geisha but worried it might be racist. (If you don’t go in yellowface, you’re probably fine.) before she settled on Flo, the fictional spokesperson of Progressive insurance.  That took us to the local costume store, where we began the search for a costume not made by slave labor.

It was fruitless, of course (and though Flo’s costume is relatively simple, it would have required me to buy a button maker), so we turned to alternate choices. My daughter made a list—Greek goddess, rag doll—before we strolled the aisle to help us stay focused. Even so, we soon found ourselves confronted by the sexualized costumes for little girls.

Two years ago, we’d struggled to find a Dorothy costume that was appropriate, so this wasn’t a new issue, and my daughter was quick to comment. And, to be clear, her comments weren’t about the girls but about the costume makers, who “don’t seem to realize that it’s COLD on Halloween,” in my daughter’s words, and also “they need to remember that girls want to play in these clothes after Halloween, and that doesn’t look like you can do a cartwheel in it without everyone seeing your undies.” She walked down the aisle, comparing the “boy” and “girl” versions of each outfit, noting the boy versions were “like pajamas” so you could stay warm and the girl versions were miniskirts and corset-style tops. (This is why last year’s Robin Hood costume was the boy version.) Walking through the section of the store for grown-ups was even worse. “Sexy police officer, sexy inmate, sexy nun, sexy nurse, sexy vampire, sexy cowgirl,” she ticked off as we wended our way through the store. “Dominatrix.”

Errrk. That was the sound of every head in the store swiveling to see what little angel voice noted the dominatrix costume. This wasn’t a sex store, after all, but a costume and party supply shop. Here was the costume:


HOT S.W.A.T., available at a costume shop near you

So, it’s not a dominatrix but a “Sexy S.W.A.T” officer, a woman. (Of course. The men’s S.W.A.T. costume involved a riot shield, not fishnet stockings.) But that was hardly the point. The question was why a 9-year-old knew and was using this word at all, much less so nonchalantly. The startled looks told me that there was something wrong with that kind of knowledge and confidence.

But, actually, what’s wrong is sexy Dorothy, sexy Robin Hood, sexy Little Bo Peep, sexy Little Red Riding Hood, sexy Pikachu, sexy vampiress, sexy pumpkin, sexy clown. It’s doctor costumes for boys and nurse costumes for girls. It’s Johnny Reb costumes and blackface. It’s a S.W.A.T. officer who could easily be confused for a dominatrix.

What’s right is that the day before, my daughter had read a political cartoon that included a Bettie Page reference. She handed it to me right when I walked in the door from work, asking me to explain it to her. Why was this woman dressed like that? And why was she holding a paddle and saying she was going to spank that man?


Bettie Page, Pin Up Queen and occasional BDSM model

This is how it’s supposed to be. A kid sees something they don’t understand about sex. They ask their parents. They ask because they trust us to answer them accurately and honestly. If your kids aren’t asking you about sex, there is already a problem, because kids have questions. Answer quickly, honestly, and accurately so that they know they can always ask you. You’re a better source of information than their friends or the internet. If you’re not, you need to be.  And you need to trust your child—that if they’re asking you the question, they can handle the answer.

So I explained the comic:

Is pain ever a little bit fun?

Like when you snap Dad with a towel in the kitchen?

Or when he pinches me on the behind.

Yeah, that would be mean if you told him not to do it, but since you said it was okay, it’s okay. Because you know he loves you and he’s being loving, even if pinching is mean in other cases.

Exactly. There are some people who think spanking feels good, and they include it as part of sex.

But only with permission?

Yep. And sometimes women dress up in these costumes—see the fishnet stockings and the paddle?—as part of that. They’re called “dominatrixes,” and Bettie Page was probably the most famous one. She had hair like this, with these bangs, and she was a model for a lot of calendars, wearing costumes like this one.

So the joke is funny because this CEO says he’s willing to be punished for being greedy, but he doesn’t think that getting spanked by a woman in a sexy outfit is really punishment after all?

You got it, kiddo.

That was it. No need to talk about BDSM, dungeons, Catherine Robbe Grillet, snuff films, or the horrible writing of 50 Shades of Grey.  Safer than a Google search, less damaging than a dodge or a lie. But, most of all, it told her that it’s always okay to ask me questions about sex, that I’ll always answer her in ways that are appropriate and accurate. It confirms her trust in me—and it makes me feel more assured that she’s keep coming back with her questions.


The comic panel that started the conversation: July 28, 2008’s Opus. A CEO enters our hero’s bedroom from his anxiety closet, confessing that capitalism can be saved if greedy fatcats like himself are properly punished. In the final panel, his “punisher” arrives to discipline him. 

We settled a Greek goddess costume. It was labeled “Venus,” the Roman goddess of love, but my daughter modified it to be Hera, the Greek goddess of women.

  • Hera.jpg
Hera, wife of Zeus, whose symbols are the cow, the lion, the peacock, and the pomegranate

This girl is doing alright.


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