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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Column: ‘Indecent’ exposure

Sex & Society

Yesterday, I stumbled upon a lactation room at the ARC.

My first reaction was positive — giving women a place to pump on campus means more mothers will have the option to breastfeed, even if they are working or going to classes.

My mind went to the few new mothers I’ve known, and their struggles when it came to breastfeeding in public. Now they would have a place to go free of stares, rude comments and even requests to leave certain establishments.

But should they really have to hide?

According to a recent study, 40 percent of American mothers fear the stigma of breastfeeding in public over the possible pain or dysfunction (compared to 28 percent of German moms, or just 11 percent of Turkish moms). Despite the fact that U.S. law protects a woman’s right to breastfeed her child in public, many people still view the partially-exposed breast of a nursing mother as “indecent exposure.”

In the past couple of years, many women across the country have been unfairly singled out by their choices to breastfeed in public. In September, a woman was nursing her baby at Applebee’s when the manager told her she must move to the bathroom or leave the restaurant. When she refused, he called the police. Last November, a woman nursing in a Target store was surrounded by eight employees who gave her the same ultimatum.

Earlier this month, Jessica Martin-Weber wrote a blog entry about her experience trying to breastfeed in Las Vegas (ironically, she was there to speak at “MommyCon”). The manager of the hotel’s cafe approached her and requested that she stop, as it was making other customers uncomfortable.

She couldn’t help but notice that these people were bothered by a discreetly breastfeeding mother, but not by the giant near-nude burlesque advertisement plastered at the entry of the hotel, or the topless video promotions in the elevators, or the nudie cards handed out on every street corner.

Breasts have become so sexualized in the U.S. that their primary function — to nourish babies — has been almost completely overshadowed.

I’m not saying that breasts shouldn’t be involved in sex. I love being fondled as much as the next girl, and there’s good reason: Nipple stimulation releases oxytocin, which causes pleasurable feelings and promotes bonding between mother and child (or in this case, sexual partners).

My only gripe is that American culture has become so obsessed with boobs that we’re forgetting — or would prefer to forget — why they’re there in the first place.

Though breasts are inherently connected to sex, they are not inherently sexual. It may seem this way because of the wide spread of Western influence, but in many tribal communities breasts are not viewed as sexual objects. For example, the Himba people of northern Namibia do not cover their chests because their culture does not sexualize them in the way that our culture does. However, Himba women always cover their thighs — to them, such exposure would seem as indecent as a topless woman in America.

Or take Europe, where breasts are considered sexual, but are not on par with genitalia as they are here. On most European beaches, for example, it is not uncommon to see women sunbathing topless.

Even in America, this disgust with breastfeeding is a relatively new phenomenon. In the 1970s and ’80s, Sesame Street featured segments of nursing mothers. In one episode, Buffy St. Marie guest starred and breastfed her son, explaining “I’m feeding the baby, see? He’s drinking milk from my breast.” However, these segments have switched exclusively to bottle-feeding mothers since the ’90s.

The media, then, is largely to blame. The over-sexualization of boobs (especially in advertisements) combined with the under-exposure of breastfeeding in the media has caused many mothers to believe that nursing in public is indecent and abnormal.

It’s not.

Breastfeeding is not sexual, nor is it producing waste. It is natural and healthy, and the presence of a lactation room does not mean that new mothers should be banished to it. They are a great resource for privacy, peace and quiet, but not a requirement. Women who feel comfortable nursing in public should have the right to do so without being asked to stop or hide.

If the sight makes you uncomfortable, you can leave.

Or better yet, take America one step closer to sanity and remind yourself that your aversion is not innate: It’s cultural, and completely optional.

MARISA MASSARA’s boobs can be reached at mvmassara@ucdavis.edu.


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