The Sexualisation of Breasts

Mary McFadden

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Photo captured by Todd Wade [Flickr]
Photo captured by Todd Wade [Flickr]
Both men and women develop breasts; although some may find it uncomfortable to refer to men having breasts, there are two key differences which set them apart. Women’s breasts are noticeably larger and they produce milk. That’s it. So why are they so fascinating? Why are they the epitome of sexuality in our society?

Recently a woman from Texas, Ashley Clawson, was told to leave Victoria’s Secret and head down an alley beside the store so that nobody would see her breast feed. Ms Clawson was obviously shocked, as you’d think a store that sells bras would be accommodating towards a woman wanting to use her breasts to feed her hungry child. You know, instead of dressing them up in lacy pieces of material for visual pleasure.

This hyper sexualisation of breasts has ostracised many women and caused some mothers to re-think breast feeding altogether, not just breast feeding in public. There are many instances when nursing mothers have had to leave an area because others have complained about showing her breasts in public. In a Bundestag session in Germany, a breast feeding member of a party had to leave after members of the Christian Democratic Union complained that they felt disturbed by her.

Photo captured by Hamish Darby [Flickr]
Photo captured by Hamish Darby [Flickr]
Certainly, we’ve become so used to breasts being a symbol of sexuality that a woman being able to go topless on a sunny day just as men often do is not likely to be accepted. That woman could become a target for insults, discrimination, attacks and possibly much worse.

Centuries ago, breasts were a common sight in Europe. They were the subject of many paintings by talented artists, and depicted a mother nursing her child. Images such as these get fewer and fewer the closer you get to the 21st century. Nowadays, where are you likely to see a breast? In lads’ magazines such as ‘Nuts’ or ‘Zoo’ whose sites offer ‘hot topless girls‘, in pornography, on a nudist beach or in your imagination as most women cover up their breasts when walking about. Is this really a more positive view of breasts? The fact that they are always covered creates mystery, sexuality and curiosity. It’s ironic but covering breasts up has done more to sexualise them than having everything hang low sweet chariot.

A case could be made that through the rise of bottles and formula, less women breast fed and marketing campaigns led to even more people using formula instead. This in turn resulted in fewer paintings or pictures of women breast feeding, and in comes the lads’ magazines and the page 3 girls, allowing anyone who sees them to happily forget the primary function of breasts and focus solely on the sexual one. This scenario could make any woman considering breast feeding in public nervous because their breast would be exposed, causing anyone to view it to see it in a sexual way.

Photo captured by Ben Sutherland [Flickr]
Photo captured by Ben Sutherland [Flickr]
Our culture is bombarded with images of breasts as sexual objects, so we can barely catch a glimpse of side boob without thinking it’s sexual. I remember visiting my aunts’ house when I was a young girl for an after-christening party. All of my aunts and my mom went into one of the bedrooms at one point during the party and being curious, I followed and knocked on the door continuously until they let me in. I walked about the room not spotting anything out of place until I noticed my aunt on a corner of the bed with a baby up to her chest. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I realised later on that she was breast feeding. Now as I look back I realise that my aunt had to go to her bedroom in her own home during a party celebrating the baptism of her child and breast fed him through a locked door.

The stigmatisation of breast-feeding that results from sexualisation of breasts has caused widespread discomfort for nursing mothers. In 2006, the editors of US Babytalk magazine received many complaints from readers after the cover of an issue showed a baby nursing at a bare breast. Even though the model’s nipple was not shown, readers wrote that the image was ‘gross’. This is from a magazine called ‘BABYTALK’. Seriously.

Photo captured by U.S. Army [Flickr]
Photo captured by U.S. Army [Flickr]
In a follow-up poll, one-quarter of 4,000 readers who responded thought the cover was negative. Babytalk editor Susan Kane commented, “There’s a huge puritanical streak in Americans.” In a 2004 survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association, only 43% of the 3,719 respondents believed women ought to have the right to breast-feed in public.

Indeed, another UK magazine called Mother & Baby came under fire when the deputy editor, Kathryn Blundell, told readers that she bottle fed her baby because, ‘I wanted my body back and to give my boobs at least a chance to stay on my chest rather than dangling around my stomach. They’re part of my sexuality too, not just breasts but fun bags, and when you have that attitude, seeing your teeny, tiny, innocent baby latching on where only a lover has been before feels, well, a little creepy.’ The anti-breastfeeding overtone of her words resulted in six complaints to the British Press Complaints Commission and prompted a heated debate, but Blundell also received support for her comments.

Many cultures consider women who expose their nipples as immodest and contrary to social norms. In many places a woman can be socially or officially harassed for indecent exposure, public indecency or disorderly conduct. Even social networking sites such as Facebook remove images of breasts and breastfeeding because they are ‘obscene’. Although other cultures accept toplessness as the norm, notably Native Americans, the Dayek, Javanese, and the Balinese people of Indonesia before contact with the West and the introduction of Islam.

Check out the picture below. They’re just breasts. They’re so similar looking if you stare at them long enough you start to wonder what the big deal is!

Photo captured by Vita Nuda
Photo captured by Vita Nuda

Topfreedom is a cultural and political movement whose objective is to advance gender equality by recognising that women have the right to be bare chested in public the same way men can.  Women get together on August 24th each year to protest this, and people in cities all around the world participate to show solidarity.

Fetishes are created by selectively hiding and revealing, making that which is hidden enticing. Both men and women become intrigued. There are many things you can find attractive in a person, like their eyes, their neck or their muscles, but men in general seem to have life long membership to the boob appreciation club. Like it or not, breasts are a widespread fetish.

Taking nudist colonies for instance; they spend the majority of their time naked but they don’t link nudity to sex the way we as a culture do.  I think there would be a great deal of benefits for society if public toplessness for women was accepted. These include an increase in equality by not sexualising women’s bodies, an increase in positive body image because bodies would be normalised, less objectification over time and reduction in the sexualisation power of the media.

If women could choose whether or not to show their breasts in the same context men could, then perhaps over time we as a culture could become desensitised to the idea of breasts being sexual. We can’t know for sure but fair play to Topfreedom and topless women all over the world for trying to bring about some change.

 

/ 12 Articles

Mary McFadden

  • Kareem

    Do you have any evidence to back up your claim that secondary sexual characteristics are culturally created, despite their existence in every single species on the planet?

    • Thank you for your comment. There is an immense variation of cultures around the world, and certain things in societies could be seen as taboo whereas in other societies it could be perfectly fine. For instance, in some cultures it is not acceptable to reveal your hair in public, or show any part of your body except for your face and hands. It is natural to think about what is being hidden from you.
      Take Chinese foot binding, this was where feet were bound painfully tight so that growth was inhibited. Men at this time were not allowed to see what was under the bandages of bound women’s feet. Bound feet were once considered intensely erotic in Chinese culture. Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women’s bound feet. These women’s bound feet were highly sexual and this is largely due to them being covered in silk wrappings or ‘lotus shoes’.
      In Laos married women revealed whole breasts in public because the breast functioning as breastfeeding was considered to be desexed. In the Himba society of northern Namibia, the social norm is for women to be bare-breasted. In many indigenous, non-Western cultures it is acceptable for both men and women to be bare chested. The breasts are considered non-sexual but the buttocks are always covered. If it was biological, and not cultural, to be sexually attracted to breasts, then wouldn’t that apply to every heterosexual man?

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  • jojo

    Right on, thank you for posting this.

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  • Guy

    The point can be made that women are the people who have sexualized the female breast. Women are the ones that continually covering them up and telling people, male and female alike, not to look at them. Definitely don’t touch them. Yet, groping a male chest is no big deal. Stop setting double standards for yourselves. And, don’t act so offended when someone looks your way and you assume they are looking at your breasts. Most women don’t have anything to brag about.

    • Notworthasking

      That’s really rude. Also it’s not women who did that, it wasn’t any one gender you should look past you’re tiny window of time and see the bigger picture. Of course women do that now, it’s what we are taught and that’s a societal thing. People do as they are taught more often than not.

    • Bella

      i hope that in the 2 years since you posted this your views have changed. Do you not think that women have been told to cover their breasts by men? Or that over-sexualisation by men has made women uncomfortable to be bare chested in public? And no, it is not necessarily ok to grope a mans chest. It is not ok to touch anyone unless they want you to. It’s not a double standard to want to be afforded the same rights. It’s also pretty obvious when someone is staring at your chest, and if they’re not, then great!

  • The sexualisation of women’s breasts was an evolutionary trait that made it so men would procreate with women who would have proper breasts to nurse a child. Mind you this is what cavemen thought. Of course this practice is completely unnecessary today. It is just a leftover gene from are less evolved days.

    • Harpal

      But breast size has nothing to do with how much or how well you can nurse a child…

    • Bella

      There are many cultures where women are bare chested most of the time, their breast are not seen as sexual. Sexualisation is cultural, not biological.