In her Wall Street Journal article “Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?” Jennifer Moses argued that the reason we mothers let our daughters “dress like prostitutes” is largely due to our own sexual regrets. She goes on to speculate that mothers who came of age in what she considers a postfeminist society were perhaps too free with their sexual experimenting.
As a part of the solution to this problem she subtly advocates abstinence until marriage.
While it seems Moses’ heart was in the right place—wanting to be protective of our daughters– I respectfully disagree with her thinking. In fact, I think the real problem is that dressing provocatively is one of the only outlets we allow our daughters to express their sexuality. If, instead, we supported them in gradually assimilating an understanding of their natural sexuality as they grow, they wouldn’t need to identify with it primarily through superficial packaging, like the mini dresses and perilously high heels Moses refers to.
What I believe would help, because hundreds of women in my study and 25 years of clinical practice have taught me so, is affording our daughters and ourselves much more of a right to our own authentic sexuality. Not the cartoonish MTV kind, but the kind where we respect ourselves enough to listen to what our own bodies and hearts feel is right for us.
In my book on how a daughter’s sexual sense of herself is shaped by her mother’s, in quote after quote, women reveal how their mothers unintentionally let them down by leaving them in the dark to learn about sexuality all on their own. They talk about the shame and guilt this created in them and the many ways this inhibited their development of self worth, not only with regard to their sexuality, but in all areas of their lives.
We aren’t living in a postfeminist society – we still live in a world in which female sexuality as women and girls truly experience it is denied, while ridiculously inauthentic and pornographic images of sexuality are constantly splashed in our faces.
Regret over being sexual isn’t the issue. The cultural shame and guilt projected onto us for being sexual under any circumstances is what needs to be addressed.
Forcing a moral divide in the way we sexually categorize girls and women as good or bad harms us all. Whether we’re abstinent or sexually engaged, none of us should be limited to derogatory pigeonholing like that.
Moses unfortunately reinforces that divide. The language she chooses to put in her article is not generous to sexually active girls or women as she pits them against the virtues of virginity or marital sex. Those who test the limits of society’s tolerance are called out as “skanky,” “prostitutes,” “good-time girls,” and the “campus mattress.” And she closes with this sentence: “We wouldn’t dream of dropping our daughters off at college and saying: ‘Study hard and floss every night, honey—and for heaven’s sake, get laid!’”
There’s so much more to our sexual identities than getting laid or refraining from having sex.
When the time comes to drop my daughter off at college, I’ll want her to stretch her mind in her classes, build new friendships, and further her understanding of herself. Her sexuality included.
Originally published in 2010