Let’s be honest: Sex-outfits are not 'women’s lingerie'

Valentine’s day is coming up and you know what that means… going out and buying “lingerie” to surprise your man! But this isn’t normal “lingerie” (which is, for the record, defined as “women’s underwear and nightclothes.”)… You can’t wear it under your clothes and it clearly isn’t made for sleeping in. In fact, it can’t really even be called lingerie, because it fulfills zero functions of a woman’s undergarment. This “sexy” jumble of frill, lace, and oh-so-many straps only serves one purpose: sex. V-day, the special day for hetero-sex, sends the message that women are to buy one of these “sex-outfits” and pretend it’s our lingerie.

Comfy and cozy.
Comfy and cozy.

But why all the pretense? No, that “maid apron babydoll teddy” is not for giving special support under certain dresses, and that panty with a giant ruffle on the back would just make it look like you have a big, lumpy butt if you ever tried to wear it under your clothes. “Intimates” stores like Victoria’s Secret, La Senza, and Frederick’s of Hollywood all sell these strange sexed-up versions of underclothes that you could never actually use as an “undergarment.” This pseudo-lingerie is not made for women’s lives, but the fantasy of women’s lives. “Sleepwear” being the most egregious example.

Now generally, women like to be comfortable when they’re trying to sleep. They want to wear something soft and relaxing, not a sequined push-up bra with random wisps of sheer fabric trailing from the bottom. That’s not what women sleep in, but is, rather, a male fantasy of what men think women sleep in.

Back in the old days, women would remove their undergarments to engage in sex. Today, if you’re just plain naked for sex-times, you’re not even trying. You’ve got to have a sex-outfit for Valentine’s Day and maybe (if you’re a really dutiful partner) you’ll get some Santa Claus-themed thing for Christmas time… because Santa is sexy?

Katie Price celebrates the birth of Jesus.


But the really weird thing about this phenomenon is that these sex-outfits are based on actual historical examples of what women’s lingerie used to look like — before elastics technology women’s undergarments utilized many hooks and ties to stay attached. Today, that clothing technology is obsolete, so we (thankfully) don’t need to deal with it (we just “choose” to).


But sex-outfit logic takes the concept of an antiquated corset, girdle, or cami-knicker and turns the sexy dial up 10 notches by making the whole thing sheer, adding a couple bondage-y straps around the boobs, and cutting out a heart-shaped window for your butt cleavage.

These outfits feel like a costume — an interpretation of what was once authentic women’s clothing. Stores like Victoria’s Secret take this male fantasy that comes from patriarchal history and sell it back to women at a premium. Every season they churn out these strappy messes designed for the male gaze and then have the nerve to imply we’re supposed to sleep in them. Please, Vicky, don’t patronize us.

It’s just another way in which women’s lived experience is made less real than the sexy fantasy of what women’s lives are supposed to look like. What it means to be a woman has been reduced to the image of a woman — the exaggerated and sexualized costume of femininity.

The line has become blurred between “novelty lingerie” and actual women’s clothing. I mean, if you’re going to sell me a pile of black straps and call it an undergarment, you might as well attach some pieces of candy to those strings and give me full-blown edible undies. Both items are equally useful to my life outside of being a sex object.

We can chalk all of this up to the pornification of everything and how the porn store is increasingly creeping into the women’s lingerie store. Recently, I went into La Senza and saw an entire wall dedicated to whips, riding crops, handcuffs, and blindfolds. I thought those things were reserved for the sex-toy shop. But nope! Now they’re just natural accessories to women’s underthings. The next time you’re in line to check out, it won’t just be perfumes you can buy, but little bottles of Victoria’s Secret vaginal lubricant and some ropes as well. So that’s her secret!

But if the sex-outfit is not lingerie, then what is it? If it’s totally divorced from the realities of women’s lives and is purely a sexual performance for men, what does this performance signify? Let’s take a look at the sex-outfit’s signifiers and see where they came from.

The corset: This is a historical tool of oppression, which deformed women’s organs and prevented them from breathing. Ever wonder why it’s considered feminine to faint? Well, women were fainting a lot during the Victorian era, because their bodies were literally deprived of oxygen.

Fishnet stockings: While the origin of fishnets is debated, the myth is that it began with prostitutes who were too poor to buy actual stockings. So they appropriated fishing nets to use as stockings from their numerous sailor clienteles. A horrifying and depressing mythos which we continue to glorify to this day, by wearing fishnets and trying to capture a little bit of that “bad girl” aura.

Garter belts and thigh highs: The ubiquitous fetish for this antiquated method of holding up stockings comes from the era of the pin-up, which was the beginning of the modern porn industry. This momentous event is lovingly immortalized in the collective cultural boner for the iconic pin-up style.

So what are we doing in performing the sex-outfit ritual? We are actually reenacting the history of our enslavement to men with these symbolic items of clothing. It’s misogyny’s greatest hits and now it’s what we wear when we’re “making love.”

It’s times like this when I question how men and women can seriously attempt a loving and egalitarian relationship with one another. It’s like if a white man was in a relationship with a black man, and the white man said: “Hey honey, how about for V-day, you bust out the chains, slave outfit, and novelty cotton-picking plant for a bit of sexy fun?”

The cultural objects we use to reproduce our social reality aren’t just imbued with certain meanings by coincidence — It is the result of real historical practices. There is meaning in what we do, even in our “fantasies.” And there’s a reason why they gained the status of “fantasy” in the first place.

Susan Cox An American expatriate who fled to the wonderland of Canada, Susan Cox spends most of her time writing, reading, and cooking. Follow her @BLASFEMMEY.

Got a great article you think should be included in What’s Current? Send it to Susan Cox: cox[dot]j[dot]susan[at]gmail[dot]com

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.