The title of this post is a response to James Braly’s statement, “Most women think their breasts are theirs,” blogging in a recent column in the New York Times Style section. His argument is that “Extended breastfeeding, the current scientific thinking goes, offers significant health benefits for the child, and probably for the mother.” But, since it often means that poor dad is left sexually in the cold, it may not be good for the whole family.
Amanda Marcotte responded at Slate. After adding to an apparently large chorus of voices skewering Braly around the net, she goes on to say:
It’s a shame, because the whole thing reinforces a prevalent sex-negative narrative in our culture that holds that anyone who is unceremoniously cut off from sex in their relationship, yet still expected to be monogamous, is a shallow monster if they take issue with it. Braly [describes] horniness as “biology for most men,” imagining that the only thing women could want as much is to breast-feed.
Jill at Feministe has another take:
Breasts are yours — they’re also for your own sexual pleasure, among many other purposes. And they can be for feeding your baby. But breasts-as-sexual doesn’t have to be a male-centered, male-serving thing. Unfortunately in these discussions, breasts are inevitably framed as “for” someone else — “for” a baby if you’re breastfeeding, “for” a man if they’re involved in your sex life (heteronormative phrasing intentional there — no one seems to ever suggest that a lesbian woman’s breasts are “for” her partner). And just, no. A lot of women like sex too. And if your marriage is sexless and one partner is unhappy about that, then something has to give.
If you want criticisms of Braly, you’ll get plenty of them from both Amanda and Jill–and even more if you Google. He has to have been looking for this kind of response to write things like:
Lest you think sex is a private matter, I would argue that the decline of a couple’s sex life can have significant social consequences. A man’s loss of appetite for his companion can undermine his partnership, his family and ultimately the society of families. Even the environment takes a hit: suddenly, the divorcing couple needs a second house, an extra car, another set of Ziploc lunch bags off-gassing plastic fumes into the ozone, and on and on.
While I appreciate both Amanda’s and Jill’s thoughtful responses, and I recommend reading them, I want to talk about the sentence I used for a title. I do, in fact, think my breasts are mine. I also think my vulva, vagina, armpits, toes, and earlobes are mine. I think Braly’s penis is his, too. I’m willing to go to the wall to defend both his and my rights to our own body parts. The difference is that, historically, in the western culture we live in, men’s penises have always been their own, at least theoretically and legally. So have their testicles, armpits, toes, and earlobes. I’m
Women’s breasts, and the rest of our bodies, on the other hand, are still not ours in many parts of the world. Marital rape is legal in many countries and overlooked in many more. In the United States, the last state to remove the “spousal exemption” for rape law did so in 1993, less than 20 years ago. I was already in my 40s. In the context of rape culture, women’s bodies are very frequently still not our own in the U.S. And, as Laurie and I blogged about recently, we don’t even have a protected legal right to talk about them in our preferred language.
I think Braly is wrong–dangerously wrong–in a deeper way than either Amanda or Jill identifies. I think the quoted assumption that most women think our breasts are ours is questionable at best. I’m afraid that many (if not most) women know damn well that our breasts–and our bodies–are not ours if some man wants to claim them, unless we are willing, able, and prepared to fight for them. And those fights are not trivial.
One “chilling effect” of positions like Braly’s is that they shift attention away from the real dangers to women’s autonomy and safety, to the “manpain” of a husband whose wife breastfeeds for five years. By constructing his entire thesis as if his wife had no sexual needs or preferences, Braly reinforces the underlying belief that women have no option but to be there for the convenience of men–and that plays out in hundreds of thousands of scenarios much uglier than the one he claims to be talking about.