I also understand the urgency of the issue. What if you're a nursing mom on an airplane and the kid won't stop screaming because his ears are popping? We all know that swallowing or sucking on something (or both) is the only way to alleviate this. So what's she supposed to do? Take the kid back to the stinking port-o-potty they call a bathroom? I say, hey, do what comes naturally, especially if you're sitting next to me. I won't complain. In fact, if you're sitting next to me, you can let it hang out whether you're feeding the kid or not. And if the American Gothic couple across the aisle complains to the stewardess that this amounts to indecent exposure, tell 'em to sue you. Tell 'em it'll be (to vary a phrase) like squeezing milk from a coconut.
And then there are the competing points of view and the interests to be balanced. There's the woman's point of view, the baby's, the man's, and society's. The baby's is generally poorly articulated, limited to thirsty cries and contented gurgles. (Reminds you of a man, doesn't it?) He just knows he wants it. Society's is a consequence of the conflict between the man and the woman. The woman thinks she's performing a perfectly natural, non-sexual function - so why are you staring? The man knows she's right but stares anyway. The woman thinks she ought to be allowed to breastfeed in public, but she doesn't want her husband staring at other women who do the same. The man doesn't mind seeing women breastfeed in public unless one of them happens to be his own wife. And so we have the competing demands of a natural necessity versus public propriety.
Context is everything, some people say. There's one standard of modesty for the beach, another for the cocktail party. We have trouble striking the right balance. Women think it's men's fault. They think we eroticize everything. Men are macaques, capable of getting it on in the total absence of any provocation whatsoever. Why do they have to sexualize this nurturing activity natural to every mother? Oh, it's our fault, is it? Then explain this to me: when my wife and I left the hospital with our first baby, they gave her an advice book for first time mothers. One day I walk into the bedroom and she's nursing the kid. "How's it going?" I ask. What the hell was I supposed to say? Ever try carrying on a perfectly natural conversation with a woman in the midst of this perfectly natural function? If I say "perfectly natural" often enough maybe it'll hypnotize me.
"That book they gave me said that some women experience orgasm while breastfeeding," she said. "Don't believe everything you read," I said, and got the hell out of there. Men really don't know how to respond to stuff like that. It's total woman-world. The book was, of course, written by a woman, and given to my wife by the obstetrics department of a reputable hospital. I know there's a lot of quackery out there, and that today's wisdom can become tomorrow's psychobabble. I didn't know whether this was quackery or not and did not want to know. If that's what women do, far be it from me to interfere. But a man does not like to think of the child as a competitor. Men have enough trouble giving women orgasms without contracting some of this duty out to infants. Women want us to be neither prudish nor lascivious in the presence of this "natural" moment, but they want to be able to talk about their orgasms in connection with it.
When it comes to sex, I don't trust the perfect naturalness of any of our impulses. Intercourse, pregnancy, birth, nursing - it's all connected and gets all tangled and twisted in our fallen psyches, so poorly are those impulses in abeyance to our will. We can pervert any part of it. In modern times we've attempted to redirect the sexual impulse 180 degrees away from its natural end, reproduction. But women's breasts were a powerful lure long before we perfected contraceptive techniques. When women nurse, we all know it's natural. They're only doing what every mother has ever done all over the earth. Her breasts are designed to suckle the child, but first they had to issue a summons to the man who would beget her with the child. The man got there first. Why does he go after them so ardently in his lovemaking? Why does he begin what the child must finish, mimic what the child must do for real? It's all very mysterious, almost bothersome, though I think I'm glad God designed it this way. Nursing is natural, but to get it done the woman must employ part of her private sexual equipment. Even in marriage women retain a certain shyness about unveiling themselves, knowing what it can lead to. But it's not just shyness. They don't want us to take the sight of them for granted; they choose the revealing moments with some care. They want us to desperately desire them, but they want the desire disciplined. Some of us even try to accommodate them. But they can't then claim that the modesty they employ in private can be dispensed with in public. The baby's presence doesn't do much to vitiate a man's attraction to the sight of her breast. In fact, it may aggravate it. Even in our contraceptive times, her fecundity exerts a powerful subconscious pull. I've often wondered why women have to be put together the way they are. Everything about them is designed to…oh never mind.
I'm thinking of starting a victim's movement for American males. It's the fashionable thing to do, and we really are victims of an eroticized culture in the creation of which women have cooperated mightily. Most victims' groups seem to embrace their victimhood eagerly, and I think we men will be up to the task. The disorder will even have a name: mammaropathic hyper-affective syndrome. And - let's get this straight - it is not a defect of the will, but a disease. Just as alcoholics used to be called drunks but are now chemically-dependent, so too will we be pronounced helpless in the grip of our disorder. It's in the genes. There's nothing to be done about it except to enter a 12-step program. With luck, each step will require ten years to master, so that no man will be alive to finish and can die happy. Each initiate will be required to mount to the dais and confess: "My name is so-and-so and I'm a mammaroholic." There will be treatment, but there is no cure. Once a breast fiend, always a breast fiend. I'm not sure what the treatment will involve, but the object would be to eradicate a man's fascination for these objects. Perhaps forced viewing of thousands of pictures of naked breasts. But I don't think pictures will work. (I've tried it.) No, ladies, to thoroughly desensitize us what will be required is an endless parade of real live bare-breasted women. I'm willing to be the first guinea pig. Any volunteers?
Some people think the savages have gotten it right, the Amazonian Indians and African tribespeople, among whom the women sit around nursing in public and no one even notices. Okay, fine. Problem is, I don't want to live in those places. It's common wisdom that we could learn something from them. They treat all this so "naturally" we hear. But I'm always skeptical of the common wisdom. Maybe they could learn something from us, like the concept of wearing a bra to fight the sag factor. Our own bra-burners of the sixties are probably experiencing some regrets about now. I'm trying to picture an America in which women breastfeeding in public is as common a sight as the exposed belly buttons of teenage girls at the local mall. No, I think I prefer the erotic tension, the messiness of it all, to a benumbed indifference. The day the sight of a woman's naked breast doesn't raise my eyebrow, among other things, is the day you can put me in the ground. And if you're that nursing mom sitting next to me on the plane, trapped by circumstances, go ahead and do your thing. Like I said, I won't complain. And don't you complain either if I take a sneak peek.
Umm, I've got to sign off now. My wife just walked in...
I cannot believe how insightful and funny you are. If your wife is not ecstatic at being married to you: she should be.
Posted by sara email at September 20, 2003 10:05 PM
I thought this article was awesome! I am a nursing mother who very carefully chooses the places where I nurse out of respect for other people's level of comfort (save the airplane scenario, where it seems that the discomfort of catching a glimpse of my breast is preferred to the discomfort of sharing endless hours with a screaming baby!) I think that we nursing moms need to be a little less self-involved and a little more cognisant of the fact that we DO live in a western society where cultural norms dictate that the breast IS sexual...whether or not it is attached to an infant!
Posted by email at October 6, 2003 06:51 PM
Thank you, ma'am, for your kind remarks - and your insight.
Posted by William Luse email at October 7, 2003 01:27 AM
Hey, cool thoughts. Personally, I'm still waiting for those who insist breasts are not sexual to explain how human breasts evolved. Other mammals nurse just fine without the breasts that we humans have evolved. Mammary glands don't require the built up fatty breasts. I think women don't like being sex objects because they see that as being only a sex object.
Anyway, it was an interesting read. :)
Posted by Ellen email at December 6, 2003 08:16 PM
Well, thank you, and I'm not the one to explain how they evolved. I'm just glad they did.
Posted by William Luse email at December 6, 2003 10:00 PM
This breast feeding should not be aloud in public, Have respect for other people, If a woman has to feed her baby in pubic then damit put the milk in a bottle and feed the baby that way
Posted by Stuart email at March 10, 2004 11:50 PM