Breastfeeding, facesitting & patriarchal control

Recently, Lou Burns was instructed to cover up while breastfeeding her baby in the Claridges restaurant in London. Soon after, Nigel Farage suggested that women should “do it in a corner”, stating, “It isn’t too difficult to breastfeed a baby in a way that is not openly ostentatious.” It almost sounds like Farage has some experience in this area. Maybe he should write a new book, ‘How to be a mother – the British way’. You never know, it could be a bestseller.

But I doubt it. Thankfully, women are not going to be ‘put in the corner’ by a white, privately-educated, former-banker cis-male who has about as much identification with women (or indeed any other underprivileged group) as a teaspoon. In response to the incident, a group of forty mums organised a ‘nurse in’ protest outside Claridges. One protestor, Clare Mariscal, carried a banner saying: “That’s what breasts are for, stupid.” As she pointed out, “No-one has any problem with breasts when they’re displayed in a dress. Boobs are everywhere – people only object when they are used for their normal and natural purpose.”

The responses of Claridges and Farage are symbols of how patriarchal considerations of ‘appropriateness’ are used to control women’s freedom of action.

Why should you be offended or embarrassed by breastfeeding in public? Ironically, covering up with a napkin almost draws more attention to the fact that you are breastfeeding. It seems to me that the only answer is that breasts are portrayed in our culture almost exclusively as objects of sexual desire for the gaze of men. This is a blatant manifestation of patriarchy: female sexuality is deemed appropriate and acceptable only when viewed through a patriarchal lens – when within male control. Breasts are deemed ‘appropriate’ when women are being perceived as sex objects, but ‘inappropriate’ when women are acting as subjects – whether through breastfeeding, or expressing their own sexuality.

In other words, female sexuality is deemed ‘inappropriate’ whenever it smacks of female autonomy. Through an amendment to the 2003 Communications Act, the UK government recently banned a list of sexual acts in porn. It is interesting that this list of “content that is not acceptable” banned female ejaculation alongside strangulation and aggressive whipping. It is both baffling and enraging that female sexuality is demonised in this way.

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I personally feel that porn is symptomatic of our dysfunctional and voyeuristic attitude to sex – in an ideal society, there would not be a need for it. But if it is going to be circulated, it should be fully representative of the sexual experiences of both women and men.

The legislation also banned facesitting in porn, to the outrage of many. Itziar Bilbao Urrutia, a dominatrix who produces porn with a feminist theme, asks: “I mean, why ban facesitting? … [because] its power is symbolic: woman on top, unattainable.”

Women’s sexuality has become a battleground.

Women’s freedom of action is constantly checked by considerations of patriarchal appropriateness; they must cover up when breastfeeding in public, and they must not ejaculate in pornography. In Chimamanda Adichi’s powerful words: “We say to girls ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.’… We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” It seems we are also saying to women, “You can express your sexuality, but not too much. You can breastfeed in public, so long as you cover up. You can enjoy sex in porn, but not so much that you ejaculate.”

These incidents also demonstrate how our definition of what is ‘appropriate’ for women is filtered through other structural inequalities of class, race and heteronormativity. The idea that breasts are for lads’ mags, not five-star restaurants, relates not only to the division of men and women, but to the division of class. Pippa Middleton recently criticized Kim Kardashian for exposing her “booty” in the media, conveniently ignoring the fact that her fame was significantly furthered by the nation’s objectification of her own, ‘classy’, white-lace-and-silk-covered derrière.

Regarding  the structural inequality of race, famous women of colour are more prone to being regarded as ‘inappropriate’ in their expression of their sexuality. Beyoncé has attracted significantly more criticism for embracing her sexuality than Miley Cyrus, when both claim to be feminists. As Lauren Rankin argues: “When white women get to decide who is ‘feminist enough’, particularly around women of color, they are perpetuating racism. They are policing the boundaries of who is acceptable and who isn’t. This is nothing more than a tool of racist patriarchy wrapped in feminist rhetoric.” 

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The structural oppression of heteronormativity also informs what we consider to be ‘inappropriate’; it creates a hierarchy in which heterosexual acts are privileged and elevated, while non-heterosexual acts are stigmatized and labelled ‘inappropriate’.

The fact that ‘appropriateness’ is filtered through these privileged assumptions shows that the struggle against the patriarchy has to be an intersectional movement – in other words, it has to address other related forms of oppression, such as class, race and heteronormativity.

The porn legislation effectively demonises the sexual activity of those without privilege – whether male, heterosexual or ‘vanilla’ privilege. Charlotte Rose says that it “certainly makes me wonder if this is all about white knight syndrome: blokes who don’t understand anything other than straight, lights out missionary position sex, believing they’re somehow doing the rest of us a favour by banning whatever grosses them out”.

We should stop this obsession with ‘appropriateness’ and focus on the bigger picture. All the time we spend bickering about whether Beyoncé is really a ‘better’ feminist than Emma Watson or Taylor Swift, or whether Pippa Middleton is a more respectable sex symbol than Kim Kardashian, we are getting more bogged down in patriarchal prejudices born of structural inequalities. Instead of applying the criteria of ‘appropriateness’ for admission into the field of ‘serious feminism’, we should be thinking about what an anti-patriarchal society would really look like. Such a society would surely be founded upon the principles of equality, freedom, and solidarity with those without ‘privilege’, rather than the demonization of these groups.

The fact that women are prevented from breastfeeding in public and ejaculating in pornography shows how the battle against the patriarchy is not over. The struggle against oppression calls for an intersectional movement against systems that elevate the privileged and label others as ‘deviant’ or ‘inappropriate’. If that movement is ‘inappropriate’ or ‘inconvenient’ for the privileged, then so much the better.