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Sexy breasts are for the men, lactating, stretch-marked breasts are for the women

The great breast debate, including but not limited to Page Three, breastfeeding in public, lads' mags, contains a frustrating lack of acknowledgement of female sexual agency.

A woman breastfeeding her baby during a blackout
A woman breastfeeding her baby during a blackout in the maternity unit at St Andrews Hospital, Dollis Hill, in 1970. Photograph: Getty Images

Earlier this week Philips Avent, a leading manufacturer of breast pumps, sterilisers and baby bottles, hosted a #breastdebate on twitter. You’d be forgiven if, even as an owner of breasts, you’re already feeling less than impressed. First, there’s always something suspect when a profit-making company puts on their “sympathetic” face and tries to convince consumers it’s only there to help. Second, while I do believe these issues are important, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re all now suffering from breast debate fatigue. If it’s not breastfeeding in public, it’s Page Three, if it’s not Page Three, it’s the Convoy of Cleavage. Breasts, breasts, as far as the eye can see. And the more we talk about them, the less real your own can start to feel.

To be fair to the hosts of this particular breast debate, even they admitted “seems our debate isn’t such a ‘debate’ after all”. Most contributors were hugely in favour of having the freedom to breastfeed wherever they needed to and wanted employers to be more supportive of women who continue breastfeeding after having returned to work. Woo-hoo! Of course, this is very much a self-selecting group. Usually Twitter isn’t such a welcoming place for breastfeeding mothers, there being a coterie of tweeters eager to share their horror at having spotted a nursing mother out in broad daylight.

For some, the mere sight of babe on tit is just too much:

The only site of milk (soy) I expected to see this morning was in my cereal. Breastfeeding on the train?? Not cool

So this woman was breast feeding her baby when I clocked in at work. We made eye contact. It was the most uncomfortable situation. #awkward

A woman on my Facebook posted a picture of her breast feeding her kid. I didn’t think I had boundaries but I might have just found them.

What is it with young mothers and the need to expose their stretch marked boobs when breastfeeding their 5-year-olds?

Hey lady breastfeeding in public. I know you’ve gotta feed your baby, but damn! You had to whip out your milk bags in the check out line?

These were all from one hour. I’m not sure what’s worst: the stretchmarks, the shame of meeting someone’s eye, the fact that the most offensive thing someone’s seen on Facebook is a woman feeing her baby, or perhaps just the lack of coolness that’s being imposed on a train carriage. I suppose with the last one we can at least credit the tweeter with knowing what breastfeeding’s for (the clue’s in the “feeding” bit).  Anyhow, I hope these guardians of public hygiene and moral propriety aren’t too traumatised. After all, if you can’t handle the sight of some breast, this isn’t the society for you.

It infuriates me that while, on the one hand, we are debating the rights and wrongs of sexual objectification in the form of Page Three, on the other the active choice to use one’s breasts to feed an infant is positioned as transgressive and socially embarrassing. While we may question the impact of the image in a particular context, the choice to bare one’s breasts for money is just that, a choice. Meanwhile baring one’s breasts to feed a baby or young child is portrayed as inconsiderate and even narcissistic, a “need to expose”. What a strange reading of female psychology, based, it would appear, on the relative attractiveness of one’s breasts (the less “acceptable” their appearance, the more you’re a wilful show-off, babe or no babe).

The thing that really depresses me in all this is the lack of acknowledgement of female sexual agency. Whatever one is doing with one’s breasts this seems to be the one constant. Sexy breasts are for the men, tucked away with the news and sport. Lactating, stretch-marked breasts are for the women, for feeding our young (good) and/or for making some offensive proto-feminist statement on trains or in workplaces (bad). And yet this isn’t necessarily how we experience our bodies at all. For some of us, whatever they’re being used for, whatever they look like, breasts remain sexual, even if you’re lactating, even if they’re engorged, even if you’ve just accidentally squired some foremilk into your little one’s eye. They’re breasts but they’re also tits.

Much as I’m behind it, there are times when I feel that the pro-breastfeeding in public lobby veers a little too close to saying “it’s just food”, as though the only alternative is some misguided male objectification which leads to breasts being seen in the “wrong” way. And yet to me this is just as damaging the hyper-objectification of Page Three. The more we sanitised our representation of the nursing mother, perfectly absorbed in her role as feeder, the less space we give women to engage with their own bodies and the sheer complexity of experiencing parts of it as both nurturing and, well, rude.

The more certain men reduce women to disjointed body parts – pretending to serve up sexual organs on a plate – the more we start to perceive said body parts as weapons of protest, as the Convoy of Cleavage shows (regardless of whether or not it is meant purely as satire). I worry this can create a form of alienation, and even guilt. As a feminist and an owner of breasts, I would have to say I do find breasts sexual – even, in the right contexts, my own. Particularly when you are breastfeeding, this can be quite jarring. I remember feeling terrified that if I accidentally achieved let-down during sex this would mean I was a bad mother. I also remember feeling guilty when my midwife told me that the best way to get the milk flowing when expressing was to look at a photo of your baby, whereas for me the most effective thing seemed to be thinking of rather different scenarios. I don’t know how this all works – whether I am a strange example, whether distorted cultural messages about the female body mean even I don’t see breasts in the “right” way. What I do know is that our current way of handling the “breast debate” seems to suggest women, and mothers in particular, are too busy handling male sexual responses to have any responses of their own. This isn’t fair.

The price of being able to show one’s breasts in public should not be desexualisation. There needs to be an acknowledgement that real sexuality is more complex than what is offered up to the heterosexual male gaze in the Sun, Nuts and Zoo. Page Three models aren’t just sexual agents in their own right; so too are those of us with babies at our breasts. So perhaps, to a certain extent, our presence in the middle of a crowded cafe, reddened areola on show, will continue to provoke a strange mix of responses. We can, however, move beyond either sanitised idealisation or objectifying hostility.