05 July 2008

Is breastfeeding sexy?

Breastfeeding, for all intents and purposes, is a public issue. In the UK recently, women's groups have been lobbying to have laws changed that allow mothers to breastfeed in any public place regardless of how old the baby is. The prohibition on breastfeeding, it seems, has come from the long-standing view in the West that breasts are solely objects for sex and not for babies (or at least in public).

Perhaps it's no surprise that a man has written in to the Times revealing his fascination with breastfeeding. He says that when he sees his wife feeding his son he has fantasies about being breastfed himself. I don't think this is necessarily uncommon; revealing a desire for your partner's lactating breasts, however, is clearly still taboo.

I started to wonder how it is that breasts somehow became culturally divorced from sexuality particularly in the context of breastfeeding. The funny thing about this taboo about breastfeeding being sexy or sexual is that as much as we would like to deny it, breasts aren't just arbitrary objects stuck on our bodies. From an evolutionary perspective, breasts perform an important function. As soon as we could walk upright, breasts became a primary symbol for sexual attraction.

Suggesting that breastfeeding isn't sexy or that it's gross, for example, that a man is turned on by lactation is actual quite ironic considering maternity is completely sexualised in pop culture. As pregnant celebrities have come to epitomise the meaning of 'yummy mummy' and in light of the naked pregnant portrait, it only follows that breastfeeding should be viewed as 'sexy' too. But for the most part, it is not.

Isn't it bizarre then, that we keep suggesting that breastfeeding isn't sexy, that a mother's breasts are 'tools' serving only a functional purpose, and yet quite often the bans on public breastfeeding are premised on the fact that it is a sensual activity! The interesting thing is that even though Sheila Kitzinger wrote back in the 1970s that women should feel free to experience orgasms from breastfeeding, the idea that women can derive pleasure from lactation is also majorly taboo. The only 'appropriate' context in which women should derive pleasure in lactation is when there is a man involved. Breastfeeding is supposed to be 'maternal' behaviour, not 'sexual' behaviour. Women who breastfeed for children until they are 5 are positioned as freaks and child abusers, yet a woman who allows her husband to breastfeed as part of a sexual fantasy, is only fulfilling his desire. There is, after all, such a thing as 'lactation porn'. I'll let you work that one out for yourself. As Alison Bartlett, an Australian feminist scholar has written in her extensive work on the meaning of breastfeeding:
"If lactating breasts were considered sexy, maybe the value of mothers would increase in our cultural economy."

As she says, I think it's worth considering. What do you think?

Alison Bartlet, 'Maternal sexuality and breastfeeding', Sex Education, vol. 5, no.1, 2005, 67-77.
Fiona Giles, Fresh milk: the secret life of breasts, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2003


Anonymous said...

as a breastfeeding mum of a 2.5 and 1 year old i'd love breastfeeding to be considered sexy because it's much nicer to be the object of lust than repulsion. or maybe it is precisely the sexiness of my breasts that creates the revulsion too many people feel about full term nursing?

Cherryskin said...

This is a fascinating topic.
Fact is, breastfeeding is closely linked to sex -- the same hormones are responsible for orgasms and the "let-down" reflex which gets milk flowing when the baby starts sucking. (So when a lactating woman has an orgasm, it can cause the let-down of milk!)
Maybe society should get a little more comfortable with real sex (not this women-exploiting airbrushed crap) and natural functions such as childbirth and breastfeeding could follow suit? Yeah, and in the words of Homer Simpson, "Ooh, look at me Marge, I'm making people happy! I'm the magical man, from Happy Land, who lives in a gumdrop house on Lolly Pop Lane..."

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