tirsdag, juni 23, 2009

On public breastfeeding

Courtesy of Agagooga.

Some people think that women should be allowed to breastfeed in public and some even call public breastfeeding a "civil right". They call themselves 'lactivists' and while the silly name is a good tip-off, but it is still profitable to examine their claims.

They put down opposition to public breastfeeding to a view of the breast only as a sexual object, or one of bodily shame.

Yet, it is doubtful if these same activists would support people peeing in public. Assuming you are directing your flow into a proper receptacle and are thus not soiling public or private property, there really isn't any reason to oppose public urination - unless you view the genitals as being exclusively sexual (I am alright with pissoirs since they cover the genitals). Or is there? If people who really need to go can hold their pee and find a bathroom, is it unreasonable for mothers who want to breastfeed to find a similarly private location (indeed, one can breastfeed in any empty room, but it takes plumbing to make a Little Boys or Little Girls Room)?

A similar argument can be made for digging noses in public. In fact, here the issue of sexualisation is moot (talk of the nose having more fun than the finger when you dig it notwithstanding). Simply, where bodily fluids are involved, it is best to keep everything private.

Indeed, if you say that breasts are not sexual, you return to a problem I mentioned before: if breasts are not sexual, then there is no problem with pictures of topless women (any more than there are problems with pictures of topless men), or touching a breast (any more than there are problems with touching a man's chest). After all, there is nothing wrong with touching someone's hand or tapping someone's shoulder. If you are normal, this is not a problem (actually, if you are normal, you acknowledge that women's breasts are not like men's chests, but never mind).

However, the contradictions in lactivism become apparent here. Lactivists want to say that breastfeeding is alright and non-sexual. Yet, if this is so, why are they treated differently from men's chests? Although they are committed to public breastfeeding, lactivists still want to say that a woman's body is sacred and should not be violated. So the only way out is to declare the whole body sacrosanct, at which point we know we have hit upon an argumentum ad absurdum - since only the battiest lactivists would say that one's hands and shoulders should be sacred as well.

One of the only ways to rescue lactivism is if you create several categories: Can see, can expose, can touch (hands, shoulders); Can't see, can't expost, can't touch (genitals) and Can't see, can expose, can't touch (torso). If these categories sound tortured it's because they are gotten by working backwards from a conclusion: women can do anything they want, but if men act upon these implications they are evil.

Another way to rescue lactivism is to claim that breasts are sexual *except* when they are being used to breastfeed. This is a little peculiar, since a gun, for example, does not cease to become a martial symbol when used in hunting, parades or mounted above the fireplace. Perhaps this claim is inspired by the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, but goes one up on it, for unlike the Body and Blood of Christ, Breasts can endlessly move between the Sexual and Non-Sexual states.

In fact, if you support public breastfeeding, I don't think there's very far to go to support public nudity (or at least public toplessness by women), unless you impute quasi-mystical significance to the act of breastfeeding your child (which probably explains why we have the Gabriel Break-Away Feeding Pad (a feeding harness - I saw one which actually replicates breasts and looks like a bra, but can't find where it is online right now).

But then, even if I impute quasi-mystical significance to the act of sex, it doesn't mean that I should be allowed to have sex in public (assume for the sake of argument that I am impoverished and cannot afford a hotel room, or that since Hotel 81 has been forbidden from offering hourly rates, I have nowhere to go). Ditto for any religious significance I might attach to an act of, say, public defecation (even if I clean up after myself).

An alternative argument could be made about breastfeeding being temporary, whereas public nudity is an extended performantive act, but it seems weak to me and in any case sounds like it is making excuses for breastfeeding (like how those sanitary pads which don't rustle are supposed to make menstruation even more shameful than it is), so the activists are not going to use that line of argument.

Perhaps the best solution is something I saw one mother doing - covering your breastfeeding baby under a shawl or something similar.

Naturally, after I posted a short thought on Twitter (unfortunately, micro-blogging lacks context) I got engaged by some lactivists.

Besides repeated ad hominem insults ("Grow up and get a clue!"; "Growup & educate urself"; "you're DENSE and creepy"; "I don't know what strange planet you came from, but go back there."; "idiot")*, their objections were that:

* - Significantly, the only civil Lactivist was a guy. Make of that what you will.

1) Breastfeeding is okay because it benefits other people
2) Breastfeeding is just feeding a baby. Other people can eat in public, so why can't babies?
3) "it's only a recent anthropologic phenom for women to be ashamed of exposing breasts in public - not a problem for men - why differ?"
4) Babies are not meant to feed from bottles. Breasts are for feeding babies.
5) Grow up.
6) Hands have a sexual function also but we don't wear gloves to sign our name in public.

My responses were that:

1) If benefiting someone else makes an act okay, what if I bed someone really well? Even if you exclude sexual acts, it wouldn't be very nice for me to dress my friend's festering boil in public.

2) Babies can be fed from bottles. If I chose to eat from a trough in public (au porc), people would be disgusted, but if I did it in private it would be alright.

3) Actually in almost all non-tribal societies,the female breast is covered in polite company. This is not a recent phenomenon at all. The only exception I can think of: [Pre-Meiji] Japan (but even then it was the peasants who did this).

4) People are not meant to wear clothes or take antibiotics either.

If you take the naturalistic argument, human breasts are far larger than needed for milk production. They have an evolved sexual function.

5) *Silent amusement*

6) Do you support public nudity? (the response to this was a dodge and a change of subject)

At this point, I sensed close to zero marginal utility, so I decided to stop.

Well, actually a "RadicaLactivist" then came and engaged me, but I will reproduce only a short part of that exchange here:

"women CAN and should be able to go topless if they choose. Men do. And there is NO reason for a man to bare his breasts IN PUBLIC.

One should never touch/photograph another person without permission. One's dress or activities are irrelevant to basic Human Rights"

I guess the word "Radical" tells you all you need to know and explains the sexism and the disconnect from reality (she claimed those who photograph other people without permission are creeps with cameras)

Later she backpedalled somewhat and claimed she was neutral and going topless was a personal choice but, well.

Suffice it to say that, as usual, when you see the word "Radical" it's a sign to run far, far away; I'll never understand why some groups adopt 'radical' as a badge of pride. I've not encountered a case where it doesn't cover nuttiness.

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