Breastfeeding Medicine

Physicians blogging about breastfeeding

Is it really about sexualizing breasts? Or is it about rape culture?

with 8 comments

A guy friend once informed me that breastfeeding breasts aren’t sexy. Sure, there might be the odd dreamboat (thank you, Brad Pitt) who will publicly announce his preference for the breeding female form, but my friend explains: “Breastfeeding breasts aren’t sexy. No one thinks they are sexy! They are generally overfirm, or oblong, with a giant nipple and a BABY attached to the end!” (He also has lots of very warm and supportive opinions of breastfeeding women) Let’s repeat that: “A baby is attached to it;” and that baby probably just pooped itself.

This struck me as essentially true, so it got me thinking: what’s the deal with the worry that this cultural myth of “breasts are for sex, not feeding” undermines women’s ability to feel comfortable with breastfeeding in public? What’s up with the leagues of women telling us they feel over-sexualized while breastfeeding? Or, at least, the leagues of lactation consultants and breastfeeding advocates worrying about it? In fact, it seems important to point out that breastfeeding women aren’t walking around complaining that they feel too sexy. In fact, one of the main reasons teen moms will give for not breastfeeding is that it isn’t sexy. Not to mention the common misconception that breastfeeding causes one’s breasts to become prematurely saggy. Saggy…real sexy. So, if we, as breastfeeding advocates, are not getting this directly from moms, where does it come from?

I would propose that what we are actually talking about is NOT that breasts are over-sexualized, but rather that women are worried about something else. Women seem to be worried about their uncovered breasts being interpreted as sexual, or even, quite possibly, inviting. Why? Is this shame left over from a pre-industrial society? Maybe…but then women would also feel ashamed in many of our current skirts, bikinis and frankly, even tops (have you seen our college students this year?)!

Rather, I wonder if the concern for a sexualized representation of the breastfeeding breast comes from a more vulnerable place. One in which sexuality is not about consensual sex, and certainly not about love-making. Instead, might it come from a place in which women are worried about exposure and vulnerability? A place that might reflect psychologic scars of a past history of abuse, or a fear of sexual violence or even of rape, in a culture which women are searingly exposed from childhood to graphic images of their exploitation? Perhaps particularly so for women of color, who face the added stressors of structural racism, socioeconomic and education inequalities and decreased access to healthcare. Not to mention the memory of black women’s historical exploitation as wet-nurses for white families and the cultural genocide inflicted by centuries of slavery. Add to this the negative reactions that women get for breastfeeding in public, which range from being asked to cover up or use a bathroom, to being threatened with police calls and even facing arrest.

In a recent pilot study of an inner-city population in Rochester, I asked some questions about safety. Though still in preliminary data analysis, it has been striking to find that over 40% of the interviewed population would feel vulnerable, or unsafe, while breastfeeding in public, while fewer than 30% of women knew of a safe place to breastfeed or pump while at work. We’re talking feeling safe, here, not supported. Also, if a mom came into the hospital with the decision already made to formula feed, she was much more likely to answer that she would feel vulnerable or unsafe while breastfeeding. It is well known that women with a past history of abuse have lower rates of breastfeeding. Moms in our group who were white and suburban generally felt safer, but not as much as one would imagine.

So, we’ve all caught up with the fact that if a woman is wearing revealing clothing, she is not “asking” to be raped, though this myth continues to circulate in many places. If a woman is breastfeeding in public, are we worried that she will be interpreted similarly? There seems to be something in our culture that continues to prevent women from feeling safe while exposed in this way. Instead of being about sexuality, could we really be worrying about safety? Public health campaigns have often focused on how to make people more comfortable with images of breastfeeding moms, through poster campaigns, commercials, etc – as if the real issue is under-exposure to images of nutritive, maternal breasts. Instead, perhaps we need to be looking at deeper issues of how women’s bodies can be (or feel) protected. Considering it in this light, maybe “latch-ins” get closer to the ethos of “taking back the night” marches than they do to normalization or desexualization.

After all, even men put on underwear before they grab the baseball bat under the bed in order to investigate a sound in the night, a strategy of little worth considering the possible demon downstairs. Maybe we are barking up the wrong tree.

Casey Rosen-Carole, MD, MPH is an Academic General Pediatrics Fellow and Breastfeeding Medicine Fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center

Posts on this blog reflect the opinions of individual ABM members, not the organization as a whole.

Written by caseyrosencarole

September 10, 2015 at 7:49 am

Posted in Feminism, policy

8 Responses

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  1. This is a really great perspective! I do think that when we are hassled for breastfeeding in public, it is objectifying. I’m just trying to feed my baby, and by interfering with that, you’re asserting a claim on my body and where/how I can use it. That definitely feels unsafe, all the more because it’s tangled up with something so innocent and loving.


    September 11, 2015 at 8:21 pm

    • This issue springs up over and over in our shopping malls in Puerto Rico. Last week we even witnessed a news item featuring an unpleasant incident with a security guard in a luxury mall (Mall Of San Juan) calling a grandfather to ask him to please advise his daughter to use the lactation rooms rather than continue to breastfeed in a public lounge area. As a consequence a latch-in was scheduled last Sat Jan. 5 with considerable support. Mall officers offered a compensation to the mother who has filed a suit, Mal officials refused to show her the video since the allegation is that it was the grandfather who called the security guard.

      Yvette Piovanetti MD

      September 12, 2015 at 3:15 pm

  2. Definitely I would like to see this area studied further as it might be a very important part of the decision making process about breastfeeding for women & families. Very interesting lightbulb moment reading this article. Thank you.


    September 12, 2015 at 1:22 pm

  3. “as if the real issue is under-exposure to images of nutritive, maternal breasts.”

    I think this is a very big part of the issue!

    The fact that you started this article with a discussion of how a man views breasts shows that we are still emphasising the wrong side, in my opinion. No, I don’t feel sexy when breast feeding. It has nothing to do with sex, why would I? I am using my breasts for what they are made for. The only reason this might make someone feel unsafe is because of the culture that women are for sex, period. People do not want to see breasts unless they are sexualised. They don’t know how to react to breasts as non-sexual things. This is where the feed ins and normalisation comes in. We are overwhelmed as a culture with breasts as sexual tools – from hamburgers to cars to underwear. And yet images of breastfeeding mothers are minimal. Why then is it surprising that a woman breastfeeding at the beach would feel more uncomfortable than if she was in a bikini? In a bikini she is doing what society expects. The more we can circulate images of breastfeeding and the more women are confident enough to feed in public, the less shocking it will become.

    I think that trying to separate the feelings of safety from the feelings of sexualisation is not helpful, as the objectification is what makes you feel unsafe in the first place.


    September 13, 2015 at 3:20 am

  4. Interesting additional perspective. Women do feel vulnerable to accusations of exhibitionism when breastfeeding – and as we know, critical people sometimes talk about women ‘being exposed’ or ‘flopping a breast out’ or ‘making a show of themselves’ or even ‘forcing other people to see their breasts’. This at least shares some of the same cultural space as criticisms of women who wear revealing clothing. The fear of being ‘on show’, of being a woman who draws attention to herself, is definitely tied up with the cultural expectation that a woman should be hidden if not actually invisible in the public space…and there is a strand of fear that to not do so is to be uppity or strident, and we know what those terrible women need/deserve, don’t we? So yes, there is a link with rape and sexual assault here, I agree.


    September 15, 2015 at 4:43 am

  5. What a complicated topic. Fashion, spearheaded by Rihanna and Miley Cyrus, makes use of the breast as a fashion accessory. Breasts are used to advertise beer and toothpaste and a host of other products. Could it be that breastfeeding conflicts with a cultural view of breasts as display objects by reminding everyone that they have another function? As one who breastfed my baby during a parade, and on-stage at a dance performance for the Lieutenant-Governor of New York State in 1977, could the vulnerability women feel about breastfeeding in public have something to do with society’s rejection of the unfettered woman, the strong woman who lives wholeheartedly?

    Nikki Lee

    September 17, 2015 at 12:38 pm

  6. Those are right views you expressed that women insecurity of uncovered breasts and how they are treated when they are bikinis or other costumes.Infact you just described about women’s breast also the another angel as how they are treated in by men when expose even a little part of their body.People does have a strange look at women which makes them worried giving an impression of lust and disrespect towards that women.This has to be changed and the thought should come from their heart as they do have own sisters or mothers.

    Derys diary

    March 10, 2016 at 4:44 am

  7. I agree – there’s a link to rape culture. The only time I’ve felt uncomfortable breastfeeding in public was when a guy who wasn’t eating (in a restaurant) sat down nearby and looked like he was trying to be casual. When we finished and I went to get something and left my baby with a family member, he apparently looked disappointed, hung around for a few minutes, and then left.

    Not sure what the attraction was exactly but regardless that’s not cool. That’s not a sexual moment and yes, I get to declare that unilaterally. When I’m feeding my baby I am uninterested in sex, sexual advances, etc, etc. I doubt this guy was just so glad to see a breastfeeding dyad that he walked into a restaurant to hang out in support. The man brought an unwanted sexual dimension into the situation.

    Treasures Super Baby Snuggle Time

    March 11, 2016 at 11:42 am

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