(Image Credit: Morguefile)
In a rather obvious effort to shore up its dwindling circulation numbers, Time has put a picture of an attractive young woman nursing a 4-year-old boy on its cover this week. The fully-dressed boy is standing on a stool with his mouth attached to the breast of his unusually attractive mother. Mom herself is staring defiantly into the camera as though to say: Bring it.
The blogosphere promptly brought it.
The first comments appearing on most threads repeated all the old La Leche League shreiks: Breastfeeding is Beautiful and Natural! Stop Sexualizing the Breast!
I have news for these commenters. Ready? Here it is: The Breast Is Sexual.
It's time for everyone to calm down and realize that the breast is as sexual as breastfeeding is natural.
Like many parts of the human body, the breast has multiple functions. Obviously, one of those functions is to feed a human infant. But in order for that infant to be conceived, the breast has another role to play. Part of that role is attracting the sexual attention of the human male.
Study after study has shown that much of heterosexual attraction is subconsciously triggered by physical traits that signal good health and fertility. In that regard, breasts are no different than symmetrical facial features, youth and flushed skin. They are a secondary sexual characteristic designed to indicate good health and sexual maturity to males.
Those who complain that society "sexualizes" the breast often point out that the breasts of other creatures aren't regarded as sexual by our society. That may be, but compared to the breasts of most mammals- and many primates- female human breasts are proportionaly much larger and placed in a far more vulnerable and visible spot. They aren't a series of small, fur-hidden nipples stashed out of harm's way on an underbelly. They're on prominent display right below the face, as though to shout:
Hey! I'm a fertile woman! I have tits! And a vagina! I can make babies! Check it out!
In that regard, breasts are as sexual as ovaries.
That Time cover is a "Hail Mary Pass." The editors chose it because it was sure to hit all of us smack in the Madonna/Whore complex. And so it has. The resulting controversy only proves that both women and men suffer equally from it.
When a woman complains about "sexualizing the breast," she is de facto admitting that she can't mentally reconcile the maternal and sexual functions of the breast. The breast must be either maternal- which to her means virtuous, nurturing and "clean"- or sexual- which must mean exploited, oppressed and "dirty." The entire complaint is based on the idea that sex and motherhood can never be equally virtuous and nurturing. A woman must choose one or the other.
Men are required to choose, too. If a man walks past a woman openly nursing on the street, he must automatically regard the exposed breast as neuter, even virginal. He is forbidden to connect the sight with the sexual pleasure other breasts have given him in the past.
This is the kind of ridiculous sexual denial that made Freud a wealthy man and generations of 19th century adults neurotic.
Am I saying that men should feel free to wolf-whistle and taunt women who breastfeed in public? No, of course not. But if a woman chooses to expose her breast and nurse in a crowded public space, she has no right to demand that all passersby think only pure, politically-correct thoughts. Unless human beings decide to give up copulation altogether, the female breast will remain the powerful sexual/maternal instrument it has evolved to be.
It's only natural.