The Myth of the Campus Mattress

Posted on March 23, 2011 by


Wall Street Journal editors must have made a New Year’s resolution to corner the 2011 market on controversial Mother-knows-best Life & Culture columns. First the editors gave us the Tiger Mother, who told us why Americans were ruining their children; then there was Kay Hymowitz, who told us why men in their twenties are still acting like children.

This past weekend, the Journal brought us Jennifer Moses, who thinks mothers should stop letting their daughters “dress like tramps.”

In her March 19 column, “Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?,” Moses says that women of her generation are having trouble controlling their daughters because they’re conflicted about their own “good-time girl” pasts. They were the first generation to take advantage of the birth control pill, reproductive rights, and the free-love benefits of the sexual revolution. Now—according to Moses—they are “filled with regret,” but feel they have no right to forbid their daughters from doing what they themselves have done.

She writes:

In recent years, of course, promiscuity has hit new heights (it always does!), with “sexting” among preteens, “hooking up” among teens and college students, and a constant stream of semi-pornography from just about every media outlet. Varied sexual experiences—the more the better—are the current social norm.

I wouldn’t want us to return to the age of the corset or even of the double standard, because a double standard that lets the promiscuous male off the hook while condemning his female counterpart is both stupid and destructive. If you’re the campus mattress, chances are that you need therapy more than you need condemnation.

But it’s easy for parents to slip into denial. 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!” But that’s essentially what we’re saying by allowing them to dress the way they do while they’re still living under our own roofs.

Moses is wrong about the “rise” of promiscuity, which she (strangely) presents as obvious fact when it’s anything but. But first—Moses’ real misstep in this passage is calling a promiscuous female student a “campus mattress.” That phrase belongs to an antiquated lexicon—a lexicon that casts men as the active players in the sexual field and women as goals, a lexicon in which men “score” and women are “easy.” It’s a lexicon that has no place in current sociological discourse, and, frankly, Moses dates herself (and her advice) by employing it.

And it’s not just semantics. Moses says she doesn’t want to return to the age of the double standard; but she also clearly presumes that a promiscuous woman is only a semi-willing participant in her own sex life—a “mattress” who “needs therapy” more than “condemnation.”

This isn’t slut-shaming (which Moses quite rightly dismisses as destructive). This is something almost worse.

This is a tired iteration of the woman-as-victim narrative that has been worn thin by both moral authoritarians and progressive feminists.  It’s the same narrative employed by supporters of over-protective sexual harassment laws; and it’s the same narrative now being employed by advocates of waiting periods for abortions. Moses is perpetuating a dangerous undervaluation of female responsibility, and she’s hindering the campaign for gender equality by doing so.  Women will never be considered men’s equals as long as we continue to speak about women as if they’re not masters of their own instincts, desires, and physical selves.

But if Jennifer Moses is philosophically wrong about female sexual responsibility, she’s also factually wrong about female promiscuity. Promiscuity has not “hit new heights.” In fact, according to most data, it’s been on the decline since the mid-1990s. According to this CDC chart, the percentage of high-schoolers who say they’ve had sexual intercourse decreased from 54.1% in 1991 to 46% in 2009; and the percentage who say they’ve had sex with four or more persons decreased from 18.7% to 13.8%.

So why does Moses take it for granted that promiscuity is on the rise?

In a 2009 New York Times article on “The Myth of Rampant Teenage Promiscuity,” sociology professor Kathleen A. Bogle is quoted, complaining:

“I give presentations nationwide where I’m showing people that the virginity rate in college is higher than you think and the number of partners is lower than you think and hooking up more often than not does not mean intercourse. But so many people think we’re morally in trouble, in a downward spiral and teens are out of control. It’s very difficult to convince people otherwise.”

The Wall Street Journal’s new love affair with controversial trend pieces certainly isn’t helping to convince people otherwise. In fact, columns like Moses’ seem intended precisely to feed people’s paranoias about the “downward spiral” of our society. This stuff is amusing mind-candy for suburbanite Weekend Journal readers, and it’s great fodder for the blogosphere—but in the long run, it’s only serving to make life more difficult for people like Kathleen Bogle, who are actually interested in the truth about social trends.

And as far as Jennifer Moses’ argument is concerned, the real truth might be this: Though sexual freedom may have increased in recent years and young women may be dressing more provacatively than they use to, promiscuous sexual behavior is actually on the decline—all of which suggests that giving girls more freedom doesn’t lead to girls going wild; it actually just allows young women to have more control over their own sexual identities.

Posted in: Sexual Ethics