some men seem to think highly of them
peering and staring
what they don't know is
the breast stares straight back
interested as a reporter
some love them
and invest them with glamour
but like life they are not glamourous
Kate Llewllyn, 'Breasts'
Headlines when it comes to sexual assault are often terrible. This one though, Breast Accused Gives Up...what does that even mean? First of all grammatically it is completely misleading. It sounds like the Breast is the Accused. (My Breasts are often rampantly criminal, operating entirely with a will of their own.) Or that the Breast is Accusing someone called Gives Up. It also implies that any sexual assault that took place was against the breast itself and not a woman. It uses language appallingly, to dismember and disfigure, an assault in itself.
The (real) story, about a man who approached a woman breastfeeding in a private cubicle in a shopping centre, asked sensitive questions and then touched her exposed breast, is a particularly sensitive one. It taps into all sorts of moral panic and preconceived notions about breasts, breastfeeding, sexuality, exposure, voyeurism (though this was NOT a case of voyeurism, as touching was involved) and private and public spaces. I must admit that once I learned to feed without cushions, props and having to wave my nipples around like I was conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, I always preferred doing it completely in public, outside if possible. I always found those feeding rooms in shopping centres kind of creepy. Initially Martin was quite uneasy (far more so than me) about my boobs, which had always been a part of our private domain, being, well, out there, in Public World. Personally my worries were more about how my relationship with my breasts would change in Private World, which as it turns out were fairly legitimate worries as it has changed a lot, though of course not all for the bad - I'm far more impressed by them now than I used to be.
I think my main problem with the language of this headline is that both breastfeeding and sexual imagery can encourage, accidently or deliberately, this sense of separation, this sense that breasts belongs more to something else, or someone else, than they do to you. Navigating the truly bizarre divide between sexual identity and maternal identity is never more potent than when you are contemplating your own breasts. Even when you're not having to worry about 'sexual' predators. I use quote marks because you have to wonder how truly sexual an act like this is. It doesn't seem to stem from desire, but from somewhere else, from a deeply twisted confusion about what sexuality - and perhaps maternity - really is.
The thing that makes me sad about this story is that it will probably turn people off breastfeeding in public (and frankly if you can't breastfeed in public then your chances of breastfeeding successfully must be reduced - and besides one of the biggest benefits of breastfeeding is that wherever you are you have an immediate, free, safe, sanitary, and basically unlimited supply of perfect food for your baby, that needs no preparation). The woman who was attacked was feeding her one week old son. Her breastfeeding experience will always be tainted, perhaps even spoiled, by this encounter. For me breastfeeding was one of the most intimate and immediate connections I experienced with Frederique and Una. Even though they no longer produce milk, both girls still have a close and special relationship with my breasts. They seek them out, as pillows or for comfort, plunging a hand absent-mindedly down my top. Although my breasts might have lost some of their sexual mystique (for me at least), the new power and status they have is more than compensation for this loss.