Sexing the breast

Breasts, or boobs as I quite like to call them, are pretty sexy (to a lot of people). Let’s be frank: I identify as straight but I find them quite appealing in some contexts. I’ve been socialised that way, I suppose: everything is sold to us with cleavage shots. Breasts (or should I say, certain types of breasts) are beyond fetishised. They’re valorised. They’re the heroines of the piece in practically every ad slot. And hey, aside from media bombardment and fashion trends and ‘sex sells’, breasts are quite nice in and of themselves aren’t they? Soft globes of flesh, sensuous, evocative, erogenous. There’s no point denying it.

Breasts are also, of course, for feeding babies. Many of the objections to public breastfeeding or breastfeeding toddlers or, for some people, breastfeeding at all, spring from our cultural obsession with the sexy breast. We are bombarded daily with images of barely-clad breasts in a sexual context and so it is little wonder that for some people, revealing a breast is always something that is sexual, something that should be done in private. It’s no wonder that for some people, the thought of a woman’s nipple being suckled in public by anyone, even if that person is her baby or child, is squeamish-making.

This is a problem. It’s a problem because for breastfeeding rates to improve, public breastfeeding needs to be normalised. Breastfeeding beyond baby-hood needs to be normalised. We need to see more images of breasts performing their role as nurturing, nourishing organs to counteract the plethora of images of breasts as sexually alluring.

That’s why, when Kim Kardashian recently commented negatively on public breastfeeding, many lactivists were outraged. That’s why lactivists (me included) have been pointing out inconsistencies in Facebook’s ‘obscenity’ rules as applied to breastfeeding images and sexualised images. And that’s why a recent baby magazine editorial which called breastfeeding ‘creepy’ has outraged breastfeeding advocates.

All of these things are frustrating, and lactivists are right to take the offenders to task.

But there is a danger here. As I wrote here, I am a multidimensional woman. I am sexual as well as maternal. So is my body. I am not either/or. A breast that feeds a child can also excite a lover. It is also part of a body; part of its owner’s body; part of her sexual response system.

One of my favourite novels is Leaning Towards Infinity by Sue Woolfe. Among other things, it is a feminist examination of the bonds between mothers and daughters and of the ambivalence many mothers feel as they face tensions between their maternal selves and their academic and career aspirations and their sexual expression. Many years before I became a mother myself, I read this book and was fascinated by Woolfe’s descriptions of breastfeeding: the character Hypatia says When my baby sucks, my vagina contracts. It’s like sneaking an orgasm. I had never known, before, that breastfeeding could be arousing for some women: but it makes sense, perfect sense, when you learn that the hormone oxytocin is at work in milk ejection as well as orgasm. Just because we are performing maternity with our bodies doesn’t make them any less our bodies, doesn’t make them any less sexual. Perhaps, when we consider how sex and reproduction entwine and interact in bodily ways, it makes us more so.

My experience of breastfeeding was not like Hypatia’s. I didn’t find it remotely sexy or arousing. I imagine that if I had have, it would be hard to write about it here. People would, quite frankly, find it ‘creepy’ if I did (I may well have found it creepy myself). We are all far more comfortable with a big red line being drawn between maternity and sexuality (hello Madonna/whore complex!) and I’m afraid that many breastfeeding advocates aren’t much different.

We have to move past this. We have to, because a woman doesn’t cease to have a sexual side once she gives birth. Because women (like Kim Kardashian) who present their breasts as sexually alluring don’t deserve to be slut-shamed for playing to cultural expectations. Because some women do find breastfeeding ‘creepy’ – or difficult – and those women mustn’t be silenced. Because if lactivists wish to claim that breastfeeding is normal and natural, it’s laughable for us to also suggest, even unwittingly, that sex and the sensuality of breasts is unnatural and abnormal. Because some women struggle to breastfeed because it triggers memories of sexual abuse or assault, and when we talk about breastfeeding as if a breast is never sexualised we erase those women. Because the ways in which parenting is a sensual experience, the (non-sexual but nevertheless sensual) pleasures of skin-skin contact and intimacy with our children, shouldn’t be minimised or denied, least of all by breastfeeding advocates. And because we’re all individuals here: our relationships with our bodies, our children, our sexuality are complex and multifaceted and changeable. Feminism is about fighting against simplifying those relationships, against reducing them to stereotypes and simple binaries.

It’s also about fighting for bodily autonomy. My breasts, they are mine – not my child’s or my partner’s – they are not either/or, and what I do with them and how I feel about that is personal, individual, and completely up to me.

***

A number of great pieces have been written about these very issues lately. Arwyn at Raising My Boychick posted this excellent piece which, I wish to acknowledge, has informed and inspired my own post. Go read it and the comments too.

PhD in Parenting has an excellent break-down of the problems with that ‘creepy’ editorial.

Her Bad Mother wrote this great piece about the responses to Kim Kardashian’s offending tweet, and the slippery-slope to slut-shaming.

12 Comments

Filed under Breastfeeding, Lactivism and Doula-ing, Feminism, Motherhood and Parenting

12 responses to “Sexing the breast

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  2. Balanced, calm and right on the money, as ususal. Great post. I know you’re right, but my initial reaction to a sub-ed of a mother and baby magazine referring to breastfeeding as ‘creepy’ was still a slight anger. I guess because she has so much influence and because I can’t help but feel that to find a normal healthy bodily function creepy is just fucked up, you know? It’s certainly a fairly damning symptom of an overly sexualised society in my opinion.

    • Oh, I absolutely agree that it was an irresponsible article: ‘creepy’ comment aside, she evoked a number of disproven myths about breastfeeding. I can completely understand why people have reacted negatively to it.

  3. This is a great post. I’ve personally been really surprised by some of the reactions I’ve got from talking to friends about trying to induce lactation so I can breastfeed if we adopt. I know adoption is freaky and people don’t understand that it’s possible, but it’s really not that unusual (wet nurse anyone?) for a woman to breastfeed a baby born to someone else.

    I do love that you say it’s okay to find it creepy. I think there is so much involved in breastfeeding that can be intimidating and emotional for women and too often they’re told how they should be feeling about it. I think if we as a community were more embracing of what individual women actually feel breastfeeding would be easier for everyone.

  4. hbgray

    Great post!

    For me my breasts can do different things, they can nurture, they can excite, they can be a place for either my baby or my husband to rest

    My mind is the same, I can sing nursery rhymes or do business

    As you say, in the end these are all facets of me and until people accept all of those we have issues with people trying to sexualise an act that is nurturing

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  8. Anon

    I am one of those women who experiences a “mini-orgasm” with let-down. No one ever told me to expect that! It doesn’t happen every time, but it does happen often.

    After I had gotten used to this, I found a book that did recognize the phenomenon. It told me that “some women experience sexual feelings” but that with focus and concentration, I could learn to ignore those feelings.

    What I don’t understand is, why would I want to? If I have a sudden rush of passionately pleasurable as well as loving/bonding emotions, why should I try to ignore this? Sex bonds me to my husband; nursing bonds me to my baby; it isn’t that strange to get a similar feeling with both! I enjoy kissing my husband and my baby too: that doesn’t mean kissing is some kind of creepy activity. I think the word “sexual” can be misleading — I do have feelings during nursing that are like sexual feelings, but it doesn’t mean I am having a sexual experience with my baby. Just that I feel a similar way. I’d prefer it if no one ever drew such a bold line between sexual and non-sexual things, and simply understood that intense, passionate feelings can be had in all kinds of circumstances. The “birth orgasm” or “birth high” is another example.

    My husband understands perfectly, and knows to expect me to be “in the mood” right after I’ve nursed the baby down for the night! He’s lucky that I’m not one of the many women who find motherhood “unsexy,” take forever to get back in the mood after birth, or consider breasts off-limits for hubby till the baby is weaned. I feel sexier as a mother than I have in a long time.

    • Thanks for your comment anon.
      I agree, it would be nice to have more acceptance of a more fluid boundary between sexuality and other sensual/bodily experiences like birth and aspects of parenting. I really like how you’ve said: “I do have feelings during nursing that are like sexual feelings, but it doesn’t mean I am having a sexual experience with my baby.” I think that is a really important distinction to make and I suspect that it takes a fair amount of ease with one’s body and with human sexuality in general to be able to articulate that. Unfortunately that feeling of ease doesn’t seem to be the cultural norm.

    • Anon

      I think it helps that my husband was my first and only partner, and we were really good friends before that. Our relationship has always felt like a continuum, and the baby’s an extension of that too. In our culture we tend to feel sex is “dirty” or “naughty,” perhaps because we’re not truly comfortable about when we’re having it or whom we’re having it with. Instead our first experiences are often done on the sly, perhaps with someone we’re not really that close to, perhaps with a fear of getting “caught.” So shame enters in, when it shouldn’t.

      (I am not saying that we should rid ourselves of our scruples — but that we should choose to work with our scruples and only have sex that we really are comfortable with. I’m a conservative Catholic, but I sure am not suffering from scruples or guilt as the stereotype goes — because I chose not to do anything I would feel guilty about.)

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