This week sees the simultaneous release of pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts, and the release of a Counterpunch article on how a feminist Assistant Professor should be allowed to breastfeed in class. I think everyone is roughly aware of how the debate is proceeding vis a vis the Duchess’s breasts – they’re a private and sensitive part of her body and should not be revealed in public. A nice debate on the Assistant Professor’s breastfeeding can be found at Crooked Timber, and in my opinion shows the lengths people will go to defend people in their in-group, and I commented there a few times to make note of the nature of the Prof’s bullying of a younger woman, and how strange it is for a self-described “militant feminist” to be using the full powers of authority against a young woman.
There’s an interesting and entertaining element to the feminist response to these two topics, though, which I would like to explore here. The palace’s (and, presumably, Kate’s) uproar over the publication of the pictures is only partly based on the fact that she didn’t give permission for a photo to be taken (this happens to royals all the time); it’s specifically about her breasts. I presume there is a feminist response to this based in women’s control of their own bodies, which would observe that breasts are sexual and private parts of the body and to publish pictures of them without permission damages a woman’s agency; but at the same time quite a few commentators on the Crooked Timber thread are arguing that breasts should not be seen as anything special and no one should distinguish between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding in public. Quite a few of the commenters there, presumably feminists, criticize the student journalist and others for suggesting that there might be anything inappropriate about whipping a breast out in a lecture, and suggest that the students who might have been discomfited need to grow up.
But here’s the thing: if Kate Middleton is made uncomfortable by the thought that her breasts can be viewed publicly by strangers, presumably it is also reasonable for her to be discomfited by the sight of a stranger’s breast in public? She might not, but given she sees her own breasts as a private and sexual area of her body she must have some generally applicable boundaries as to when and how they can be displayed, and presumably at least on a personal level these boundaries would be generalizable to the behavior of others. So how do we reconcile her (and many other women’s) feeling that their breasts are special, with a feminist position on breast-feeding that says they aren’t?
I don’t think we can. Because breasts aren’t just bottles, and everyone – male and female – has feelings about them that are not the same as feelings about bottles. This is why feminists will be outraged by the publication of pictures of Kate’s breasts in a way they would not be by pictures of her elbows. So, if you’re going to argue for the right to breast-feed in public places, I don’t think an argument on the basis that “we all need to get over how special breasts are” is going to work unless we are willing to logically extend that to “there’s nothing wrong with publishing unauthorized pictures of the breasts of public figures.” Julia Gillard, Margaret Thatcher, Kate Middleton, Paris Hilton: it’s all the same, we can publish their breasts with the same ease with which we publish their elbows and knees.
Of course, you can paper over the issue by objecting to the publication of any unauthorized photos of public figures, but that horse has bolted. The issue now is strictly over what is acceptable. Upskirts? No, those parts are sexual. Breasts? No, those parts are private. Breast-feeding by a professor in class? Yes, because there’s nothing special about breasts. Doesn’t work does it? Similarly sneering at someone for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts in a breast-feeding role in class, but lauding them for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts on a newspaper … doesn’t work. And this latter contradiction applies even if the person in question is well capable of understanding the non-sexual context of breastfeeding.
I think there are lots of other ways to justify the Professor’s decision to breastfeed in class, and lots of other arguments for public breastfeeding. But I don’t think they should be leavened with “they’re just breasts.” It’s a lactivist meme that I think contains a lack of respect for the importance of sexuality, contains an unhealthy natalist view of what women become when they are mothers (i.e. non-sexual) and reduces an important part of human culture (the aesthetics of the body) to a mere triviality.
For the record: I am entirely in favour of women being allowed to breastfeed publicly, but I also think it’s good for women to consider whether they can find alternatives, and society should (as happens in Japan) provide proper rooms for this activity, so that women can breastfeed comfortably without worrying about being in public, and those members of the public who are uncomfortable with public breastation are not required to see it. Worse still, a society where it is expected that women can, should and will breastfeed in public is going to be hell for women who feel uncomfortable so doing: they will be unable to find spaces to do so, and will be made to feel like bad mothers for not behaving in accordance with accepted fashion. So more breast-feeding rooms are always good. Incidnetally, my view used to be more militantly lactivist, but the reserved nature of life in Japan has mellowed it slightly.