Women who have tried to breastfeed a screaming infant in public as random men try to sneak a peek at their lady parts know what it feels like to want to stab someone in the eye. But they shouldn't look for sensible solutions from their sisters on Capitol Hill or the activist community, because American feminism has collapsed into total banality.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a 47-year-old Illinois Democrat and a new mom, sponsored a bill this week requiring breastfeeding areas at airports. But public spending won't cure public squeamishness about exposed breasts, the root cause of the problem. Meanwhile, the Free the Nipple movement, which for years now been trying to cure this squeamishness, spews so many juvenile and fanciful theories that it has little appeal for mature women.
The Duckworth bill, dubbed the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act, would require all airports to create lactation rooms—separate from bathrooms—that are fitted with electrical outlets, sinks, and changing counters, and furnished with comfortable chairs for mothers to breastfeed or pump.
But the main problem with the bill is that it offers relief to a small subset of new mothers who frequently travel by air, but at the price of making things more difficult for everyone else. It basically signals to breastfeeding moms that they need to protect their modesty (which is why social conservatives like Rep. Steve Knight, a California Republican, probably are co-sponsoring it), rather than telling men that they need to respect these moms' privacy and avoid subjecting them to lurid glances, which would obviate some of the need for special lactating rooms.
The Free the Nipple movement (which has already become the subject of a 90-minute, yawn-inducing documentary) tries to cure such attitudes, but in such a ham-handed and shock-jocky way that few real women outside of college campuses can relate to it, other than publicity-hungry celebrities. Thanks to the movement, 100 students—men and women—at UC San Diego took off their shirts last month to fight for the equal right of both sexes to go topless. Likewise, Scout Willis, the daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, earned her two minutes of fame some years ago when she went strolling topless in Manhattan to protest Instagram's nudity policies barring pictures of topless women. Not to be outdone, Miley Cyrus, who has never encountered a publicity stunt involving her body parts that is too over-the-top, tweeted a picture of her bare breasts with red stars on the nipples to express her solidarity.
These women should be able to milk their boobs for whatever purpose they want, free from state censorship and violence, to be sure. But does that mean that freeing the nipple is the "civil rights issue" of our time—as some feminists claim—that requires busting all social taboos against female toplessness?
For starters, it's not like this kind of thing hasn't been tried before. The "burn the bra" movement was all the rage among feminists in the 1960s. But it didn't go beyond a few symbolic bonfires because going braless is simply too physically uncomfortable for most women with modern lifestyles.
Free the Nipple activists accuse society of a double standard for allowing men to show their breasts but not women. "Why are we more offended and outraged by female nipples than male nipples?" one demands to know.
But the fact is that their movement itself is based on a double standard. Indeed, if they were interested in genuine sexual equality, they wouldn't just fight for the right to go topless, but all laws against indecent exposure. So why don't they? Maybe because they realize that allowing strange men to swing their schlongs in streets would be neither comfortable nor safe for women.
Indeed, this might surprise Jezebel feminists, but female breasts are sexual parts in a way that male breasts are not. To be sure, shirtless men also used to raise eyebrows in America once upon a time—but that had more to do with the rigid standards of sartorial decorum and less to do with the sexuality of male boobs. The male equivalent of the "free the nipple" movement would be a "liberate the balls" movement. But does anyone doubt that many Free the Nipple activists would feel "microagressed" if pictures of men sporting cocksocks—bikinis that cover their Johnson but leave their balls exposed—were to start invading their Facebook feeds? Indeed, can a movement so easily offended that it demands trigger warnings before discussions of sex in lit classes deal with open displays of male sexuality?
One of the (many) problems with the modern feminist movement is that it constantly negates its own arguments because it can't decide what serves its cause better: Victorian prudishness or Bacchanalian libertinism. But one of the stated objectives of the Free the Nipple crowd is the first: "Desexualize the nipple and free it of sexual judgment." It seems to want to return to tribal times when breasts and nipples were allegedly utility parts devoid of any sexual content.
It is far from clear if that was ever the case, but if it was, you can return to it sister, but leave me out. I am OK with bearing the burden—and enjoying the payoff—of my sexuality, as I suspect are most other women. At any rate, my guess is that baring nipples won't desexualize them and free women from "judgment." Rather, as some women inevitably defy the feminist orthodoxy and deploy their nipples to attract the despised "male gaze" (nipple makeup and jewelry is already on the market), it will re-sexualize them and foster some new form of judgment.
Be that as it may, feminists need to stop thinking in terms of women's equality and start thinking in terms of women's needs. It is weird that in order to achieve parity with some mythical norms of male sexuality, they seem so willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose their own sexuality. The nipple taboo needs to be loosened, not scrapped, especially if scrapping it would require women—not just men—to pretend like they don't have breasts. Performing a mental mastectomy shouldn't be the price that women have to pay to able to breastfeed in public.
This column originally appeared in The Week.