(Note: I originally wrote this for a parenting forum, but I’m still seeing/hearing the same BS arguments, so I hoped you might give it a tumblr signal boost!)
These are all the arguments I’ve heard against NIP (nursing in public) and the reasons that all of them are completely meritless. Let me know if I missed any and I’ll add them.
Breasts shouldn’t be shown in public because they are sexual organs, just like penises.
In fact, they are not. Penises are genitals (a.k.a. sexual organs)—that is, they are part of the reproductive system. Breasts are not genitals, because they are not part of the reproductive system. Scientifically speaking, breasts are erogenous zones—that is, an area of heightened sensitivity that can be stimulated to achieve sexual arousal. Genitals, since their primary functions are sexual, are legally considered obscene and cannot be shown in public. Erogenous zones are not primarily sexual and thus are not obscene.
Furthermore, if you really believed that breasts and penises should be treated alike, you would have to treat fake breasts designed to fill the role served by real breasts (which is all that pacifiers and bottles are) the same way you treat fake penises designed to fill the role served by real penises (in other words, dildos, butt plugs, and vibrators). If you don’t consider bottles sex toys, you don’t really consider breasts to be obscene.
But you admit breasts can be used for sexual arousal! Doesn’t that make them inappropriate to display in public?
Mouths, necks, and fingertips, are also erogenous zones frequently used for sexual arousal; however, like breasts, their primary biological functions are not sexual. They become sexual or non-sexual in the context of how they are used. Using your mouth for oral sex or to give a hickey is sexual. Using your mouth to eat or breathe with is not. Likewise, stimulating your nipples or using your breasts for “mammary intercourse” is sexual. Feeding a child is not.
Unless you want to argue that mouths shouldn’t be shown in public, either, this isn’t a valid reason to declare breasts too sexual for public view.
Incidentally, men’s nipples are not only erogenous zones but structurally no different than women’s nipples. They are likewise attached to breast tissue, which is why men can get breast cancer. In fact, there have been documented instances of men who have managed to breastfeed, yet men are allowed to show their nipples without any outcry.
There is no logical reason why men’s bare breasts and women’s bare breasts should be held to different standards of public decency because biologically, they are the same. If anything, men’s breasts are more sexual, because their nipples don’t generally serve the non-sexual purpose women’s breasts do (namely, breastfeeding).
But breasts are “secondary sex characteristics,” doesn’t that make them sexual?
A secondary sex characteristic is simply any non-reproductive-system feature that distinguishes males from females within a species. In humans, that includes beards, Adam’s apples, and even height differences between men and women, none of which anyone would call sexual. Thus, simply being a secondary sex characteristic isn’t enough to make breasts sexual, either.
But our society views breasts as sexual. If the majority feels that way, doesn’t that make them sexual?
The fatal flaw in this argument is twofold. First, simply because a belief is held by a large group of people doesn’t make it correct. For instance, Hinduism and Christianity are mutually exclusive, contradictory belief systems that can’t both be true, yet each is believed by very large numbers of people.
Second, societal views are not static and can change very quickly. Women wearing pants was considered risque by the majority in the U.S. until the 1970s. Less than twenty years later, when I was a child, the overwhelming majority of women wore pants, and almost no one saw anything offensive about it. What changed those attitudes? Women wearing pants.
In fact, the notion that breastfeeding is sexual is itself a newcomer to American society. In 1938, the government (via the Works Progress Administration) ran pro-breastfeeding poster ads that portrayed a woman breastfeeding, with no resulting outcry. (To put this in context, the Motion Picture Production Code that banned all perceived immorality or risque content from Hollywood productions was in full effect by 1934.) The idea of breastfeeding being sexual or abnormal didn’t become the norm until formula did, which wasn’t until somewhere between 1940-1950. As with the normalization of women’s pants, the transition from “breastfeeding is normal” to “breastfeeding is obscene” in the public consciousness took less than a generation, and occurred because people stopped seeing breastfeeding women.
Since societal norms are so changeable and are rarely based in any kind of science or absolute fact, they make a very shaky foundation for an argument. This is especially true because, as illustrated in the case of women wearing pants, what changes society’s views is simply seeing something more (or less). If women simply wear pants, or breastfeed in public, it soon becomes accepted and normal. In fact, breastfeeding in public is already highly accepted as normal—45 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws stating that a woman has the right to breastfeed anywhere she and her infant are otherwise allowed to be, two other states have passed laws stating that public breastfeeding is not indecent exposure, and the federal government has passed a law stating that women have the right to breastfeed anywhere on federal property they and their infants are legally allowed to be. Now that’s a majority opinion.
But teenage boys or pervy men could see you and get aroused, doesn’t that make it sexual?
No. Legally, conduct is only lewd if the person acting actually intends to shock or arouse onlookers, not just whether the person who sees it is aroused anyway. This is also common sense, as almost anything can be a turn-on for someone passing by. Foot fetishists consider women in sandals provocative. Orthodox Jews consider a woman’s arm above the elbow provocative. Pubescent teenagers consider just about anything that moves provocative. However, a woman wearing short sleeves and sandals walking past a group of teenage boys isn’t inherently sexual nor inappropriate for public view.
My intent when breastfeeding is to feed my child, not to make some stranger horny. If someone walking by finds my breastfeeding arousing, that’s no more my problem than a teenage boy’s being aroused by a pretty girl walking past is that girl’s problem.
So, you’d be fine with women walking around topless?
Personally, yeah. As I noted above, there’s no real difference in basic makeup between men’s breasts and women’s.
But this is beside the point. As I stated above, conduct is only lewd if the intent is to shock or arouse. One could potentially argue that a woman who walks around topless in an area where it is illegal intends to shock people, but a breastfeeding woman’s intent is very clearly to feed her child. Likewise, if I take out a gun in a crowded marketplace and fire, my intent is questionable, but if I take out a gun at a gun range and fire at a target, my intent is clear and legally legitimate. It’s all about context.
Urinating/defecating is natural, too, but you can’t do that in public.
Urination and defecation in public are banned for two reasons: because feces and urine are unsanitary and because the act of urination or defecation require the genital area to be exposed. Breastmilk is not unsanitary, nor does breastfeeding expose any genitals. Thus, the reasons for banning public urination/defecation don’t apply to breastfeeding.
If breastfeeding is such an “intimate” thing, like I hear a lot, why do you want to do it in public in the first place?
Hugging and kissing are also intimate, but no one considers it inappropriate to hug or kiss one’s child in public. Intimate acts are just acts that foster emotional closeness between people. Emotional closeness can happen anywhere.
Also, this particular intimate act provides free, convenient infant food. If my child is hungry while we’re out in public, I think wanting to feed him then and there is a perfectly logical reaction.
There’s no need to breastfeed in public to feed a baby. You can just pump/give a bottle.
There’s also no need for you to buy coffee at Starbucks, because you could always make some at home and take it with you. We all do things in public that we don’t “need” to do, but as long as those things are appropriate for the public sphere, whether we “need” to do them or not doesn’t matter.
Additionally, breastmilk from the source is free, convenient, and doesn’t require lugging extra equipment or taking extra time to extract the milk and feed the baby separately. Formula and pumped milk don’t have all those advantages. There’s no reason for me to inconvenience myself in order to avoid doing something appropriate in public.
Once babies are eating solids, they don’t need to be breastfed in public. They don’t need the milk for nutrition.
Children don’t need to eat meat for nutrition, either, but they’re still allowed to eat it in public. See the previous answer regarding “needs.”
Breastfeeding where children can see is inappropriate. They shouldn’t be exposed to that.
It’s impossible to breastfeed where no children can see, since breastfeeding requires the participation of a child. If it were inappropriate for children to see breasts, then no one could ever breastfeed, publicly or privately, because the child being fed would see them in either event. Thus, unless you believe that all breastfeeding is inappropriate, you have already admitted that children seeing breasts isn’t a problem.
But how can I explain that to my children when they ask what you’re doing?
Tell them I’m feeding my baby. If they ask further, tell them that human mommies can make milk for their babies just like cows and other mammals do. It’s a simple but complete answer.
Why can’t you be considerate and use a cover/go somewhere private?
Because there’s no reason to. As already proven above, there’s nothing inappropriate about breastfeeding in public. Would you ask someone eating a burger in the food court or someone talking on a cell phone in the parking lot to either cover up or go somewhere else? Of course not, because they’re doing nothing that’s inappropriate or infringes on anyone else. Would they be rude or inconsiderate to refuse such a request? Again, of course not—if anything, the person asking would be rude and inconsiderate for harassing them for no reason in the first place. Since breastfeeding in public is likewise neither inappropriate nor intrusive, the same logic applies.
A woman can choose to cover herself or go somewhere private if she is more comfortable that way, but she is not obligated to. (And an argument could be made that using a nursing cover is less modest, as it draws more attention to the fact that the mother is breastfeeding.)
Breastfeeding in public is exhibitionist and immodest.
Tell that to the Puritans, who despite their exacting standards of modesty saw nothing unusual or sinful about women breastfeeding outside the home. Or to the Christians of the Middle Ages, who required women to cover far more than our society but commonly hung icons of Mary breastfeeding Jesus with her entire breast exposed in their churches. Or even to observant Muslims in the present day—many women who fully cover their bodies, hair, and faces to comply with Islamic modesty rules still breastfeed in public. The idea of breastfeeding being immodest is less than a century old—it didn’t become commonplace in the Western world until formula became the norm, never became commonplace outside the Western world, and is no longer commonplace in most of the Western world today.
In any case, this is irrelevant. Women are allowed to walk around in skimpy bikinis in public. There is no law against immodesty as long as it isn’t obscene—and as there are no genitals involved, breastfeeding isn’t.
But I don’t want to see that! It makes me uncomfortable.
You have the right to feel uncomfortable. Likewise, I have the right to feel uncomfortable when I hear people preaching on street corners or see men wearing socks with sandals. But unless you want to also ban everything else from the public sphere that could possibly make anyone uncomfortable, this argument carries no weight.
I think that’s everything. Hopefully, this will streamline any future NIP debates.
just wanted to say i love this blog!
i’m still breastfeeding my 15 month old. fuck yeah breastfeeding!
*Fuck yeah indeed! And go you!*