I would like us women to reclaim our breasts. As a No More Page 3 campaigner I hear a lot of arguments about breasts in reaction to the commercial use of them, and one of the most common views, used both for and against Page 3, is that breasts are ‘not sexual.’ Page 3 supporters say ‘it’s just the same as men going topless,’ and Page 3 opposers say ‘breasts are just for breastfeeding, but the media sexualises them.’
Well just a minute, let’s pretend the media doesn’t exist for a minute and look at the facts.
We women are unique in having protuberances on our chests; we are the only species to have these sticky-outy bits. Even our closest animal relatives, the female primates, have the same chests as the males, and yet they still manage to breast-feed. There is a myth that small-breasted women have less milk to feed a baby than the large-breasted, as if breasts are full of milk which gets drained away as a baby is fed. Breasts are not full of milk. Just because they are sometimes referred to as ‘jugs’ doesn’t make it so. Breasts are composed of breast tissue, and it makes no difference how much breast tissue you have, it is milk ducts and nipples which enable you to feed your baby.
Even men have been known to lactate. The crucial factor in successful breast-feeding is the production of a host of hormones including oxytocin, which stimulates milk-production. That, and a good dose of confidence and support.
So if we don’t need protruding breasts in order to breast-feed, there has to be another reason for the fact that breasts swell and enlarge (to a greater or lesser extent) at puberty. It’s like Nature has given girls a whole new body part to mark the passage from girlhood to womanhood, which boys don’t get. This is the reason that breasts are defined as ‘secondary sexual characteristics;’ because they appear at the period of sexual development, and they provide a physical signal that a girl is, biologically speaking, mature and ready to mate. That’s why breasts’ psychological significance for women is huge in terms of her sexual identity. Or in my case, not so huge.
But we still have to ask why Nature has thought to bestow this extra bit uniquely to human females. Nature never does anything without a reason. So here’s the theory:
As human babies need a far longer nurturing period than any other mammal – most baby animals get up and walk within hours of birth – primitive woman needed to stay with her baby, and required a mate who was going to stay around for the course, to protect both mother and child.
Animals always mate from the rear; the visual curve of the female buttocks is a sexual stimulant for the male, encouraging him to copulate. So breasts developed in human females to echo the curve of the buttock, but placed on the front of the body as encouragement to the human male to mate face-to-face with his partner. The resultant eye-contact during the act of love-making is what bonds a couple and makes long-term commitment far more likely. In other words, ta-da! Falling in love!
Nature has designed the curve of the breast to be sexually alluring, in the same way as the curved features of babies’ faces are designed to make us fall hopelessly in love with them. Just as Disney animation will exaggerate ‘baby’ facial features – large eyes, small nose and rounded cheeks – in animals or young females to stimulate our sympathy with those characters we are supposed to love, so pornography exaggerates the sexual characteristics of both male and female as a visual short-cut to arousal. Huge tits and massive cocks are the visual language of porn.
In the ape world when they’re confronted with female ape pin-ups, they can say ‘What’s the problem? It’s only the same as Torso of the Week,’ but in the human world we really can’t.
It’s the reason why breasts are covered up in most cultures, and even in primitive societies, exposed breasts are the exception rather than the rule (and in these cultures buttocks and even genitals are also often exposed). You could say that it is these primitive societies that are the most ‘unnatural;’ where cultural and climatic factors have led to a desensitising of the view of breasts as a sexual characteristic.
Maybe if we all walked around topless all the time, breasts would gradually become completely desexualised in our culture too over the course of millions of years. But that won’t happen purely because of climatic factors; you wouldn’t find any females in primitive societies in the Northern hemisphere going topless. In modern Western societies, the only place where dress code is relaxed is the beach, where in hot climates free nudity is becoming more widespread, although still not that much in Britain for obvious reasons.
Although Nature has given us the curve of the breast as a visual sexual stimulant, that’s primitive brain activity, and of course we are not just animals. As complex human beings, we don’t just automatically react to primitive signals, we respond according to context – the environment in which we find the breast – emotion, attachment and a host of other factors. Just as we are capable of resisting the appeal of the cute Disney character, we are able to ignore, or not even register, the primitive message of the breast. That’s because (in most cases) we use what I like to call the human bit of our brains, the part animals don’t have.
So in order to increase the chances of a sexual response, a woman may have to give Nature a helping hand by thrusting those breasts out provocatively, making sure the nipples are erect, and further reinforcing the mating signal with an inviting or sultry facial expression. The media understands this and just to make sure we get the message that breasts are purely primitive sexual-arousal tools, it uses every visual trick in the book to connect straight to a man’s primitive brain and by-pass the human bit. We have a powerful male-driven media in control which does not ‘sexualise’ breasts, but fetishizes their sexual function, and in so doing, reduces not just breasts, but women, to their purely biological role.
Our culture’s open public display of breasts as sexual entertainment in the media is unprecedented; ‘sexually free’ cultures such as the Roman Empire actually worshipped the phallus equally if not more than breasts. We also live in an image-saturated culture never before experienced by the human race, so it matters what kind of images we are putting out there.
So where does that leave us as women? What are breasts for? Well, as individuals, anything we damn well please. They’re for breast-feeding if we want. They’re for attracting a mate if we want. Or they are just part of our lovely bodies, flopping around in the sun on the beach.
But biologically, breasts are a sexual characteristic. And it seems to me that if we deny this we are sending a very confusing message to the young girls who are growing up and navigating their way through this culture. ‘Get your tits out for the lads to show that you’re sexy and hot, and not a boring old prude!’ is the message she gets every time she walks into the supermarket or the newsagent, or sees the boys from her school sniggering over Page 3. If the other message she is hearing is: ‘We should all be allowed to walk around topless, men are allowed to show their chests so it’s sexist if we can’t,’ where does that leave her?
As long as we deny the sexuality of breasts and frame the topless debate as a freedom issue – ‘Unleash your breasts from the tyranny of patriarchal repression because they’re not men’s sexual playthings, and you have to prove that you’re free and unashamed of your body!’ – young women are caught between a rock and a hard place. One of our choices as women should be to hide our breasts away, keep them private and not share them around, but this is the one choice framed as either public censorship or personal shame and repression; it is the one choice denied to us by both the fetishising of breasts and the denial of their sexuality.
Whatever choices we make as individual women, let’s at least have the debate based on an acknowledgement of the sexual role of our breasts, and not on a denial of that fact in reaction to a media which overwhelmingly represents only that aspect. Let’s reclaim our breasts for all that they are before we decide what to do with them.
Originally published in Alt Magazine