The Irrational Fear Of Female Breasts

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The suggestion that breasts will corrupt our youth is little more than an old fashioned fear of female sexuality.

If there is one thing that unites the Religious Right and the Feminist Left, it’s a terror in the sexual potential of female breasts. While both groups have their own takes on this terror, and their own buzzwords to justify the censorship of breasts, it all comes down to the same thing in the end – a fear of the sexual. Two cases hitting headlines this week – both reported very differently by the liberal media that has picked up on them – are good examples of how this unholy alliance works. In both cases, the corruption of children has been thrown into the pot to muddy the waters and help cause more moral outrage.

Let’s look, first of all, at the case of Tilli Buchanan, who decided to avoid getting her clothes dirty while hanging drywall in her Salt Lake City home by taking her top off. It is perhaps unfortunate that she did this in front of her three stepchildren, two boys aged nine and thirteen, and a ten-year-old girl. Apparently, her toplessness was an awkward and embarrassing situation for the boys, as you might expect. They later communicated this to their mother, who reported it to the authorities, and Buchanan was arrested and charged with lewdness involving a child, a pretty emotionally loaded charge you might say. And not a minor one – it comes with potential jail time and ten years on the sex offenders register. Buchanan’s husband, who was equally topless, has – of course – not been charged. This week, Judge Kara Pettit refused to overturn Utah’s lewdness law, stating that “lewdness is commonly understood to include women’s breasts in American society”. There you have it, ladies – your breasts are officially lewd objects. Nudity is pornography. Bare flesh is sexual abuse.

This decision – which now opens the way for Buchanan to face full trial – flies in the face of various ‘free the nipple‘ rulings across the rest of the country, which rather suggests that ‘American society’ is less certain about this issue as Pettit might believe, but we perhaps shouldn’t expect much liberalism in Utah. And American society as a whole does seem to have a weird hang-up about bare breasts, at once desired and feared. It’s hard to imagine this happening in any European country, not even the UK where the fear of the bare breast is also on the increase, but where non-sexual nudity is still not seen as criminal.

It feels regressive and damaging to suggest that mere nudity – not sexual acts or lascivious displays, but simple, matter-of-fact nudity – should be harmful to anyone. It seems to me that the more relaxed a society is about innocuous nudity, the more civilised it is, the more women’s rights are respected and the generally repressed that society is. Buchanan’s stepkids would no doubt have recovered from the red faces caused by seeing her topless. I wonder if they’ll be more damaged by the nagging thought that they were somehow responsible for her going to prison or being branded a sex offender.

In Australia, meanwhile, the awkwardness of teenage boys when confronted with jiggling breasts has been the focus of a rather witty KFC ad. We won’t bother with a detailed plot description of the fifteen-second ad – check it out below:

It’s the sort of ’embarrassing situation’ theme that might raise a smile. But not if you are a member of Australian RadFem group Collective Shout, in which case I imagine that smiling is pretty much an alien concept. The group is most definitely not amused by the ad, and thanks to a compliant media, their complaints – as extremist and reactionary as any Utah court hearing – are getting a sympathetic hearing.

Spokeswoman Melinda Liszewski said the ad is “a regression to tired and archaic stereotypes where young women are sexually objectified for male pleasure. Ads like this reinforce the false idea that we can’t expect better from boys. It is another manifestation of the ‘boys will be boys’ trope, hampering our ability to challenge sexist ideas which contribute to harmful behaviour towards women and girls.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start at the beginning. Where is the objectification here? I watch this and see a confident young woman who deals with an embarrassing situation with good humour and a lack of shame – less objectified, more emancipated. The joke is on the family – the disapproving mother, the transfixed boy. And is a teenage boy, hormones a-blazing, really the manifestation of harmful sexist ideas, or simply a figure that we can all recognise from our own youth? Having been a teenage boy myself once, I can empaphise with the poor kid.

I suspect that groups like Collective Shout are actually less concerned with objectification than they are with wanton displays of female sexuality – I suspect that they would be no supporters of Free The Nipple, for example, though I’m happy to be proven wrong. Like their UK counterparts, and like Utah judges, they see the female body as something to fear, a sinful inflamer of male desire. In their eyes, nudity is shameful, sexuality is dangerous and everyone should cover themselves up. I can’t help thinking that they should take a leaf from the book of the liberated woman in the KFC ad and loosen up.

DAVID FLINT