Re: Breasts

Richard Carnes (
30 Oct 1995 15:49:47 GMT

"katherine a. dettwyler" <> writes:

: I've been interested in this discussion of breasts. The cross-species
: evidence, and the cross-cultural evidence suggest strongly that
: viewing the breasts as a sexual characteristic, and as a focus for
: sexual arousal in males is a purely cultural phenomenon, with a very
: very limited distribution. As such, it is a culture-bound syndrome.
: Since humans are the only mammalian species in which the breasts play
: *any* role in sexual behavior,

This fact has very little significance for the present question. The
human life cycle is *highly* unusual, even among the apes, our closest
relatives. Our unusual if not unique features include the following:
our sexual activity is essentially independent of an estrus cycle;
females undergo a menopause; copulation generally occurs in secluded
places; males have relatively huge penes (any man suffering from an
inferiority complex in this regard should note that the erect gorilla
penis averages 1-1/4 inches in length); parents continue to bring food
to children after weaning; most fathers are closely involved in caring
for their children; we live in breeding colonies of (generally)
monogamous pairs; and individuals living 70 years or more are not
uncommon even in hunter-gatherer societies. Accordingly it is
dangerous to extrapolate from other mammals to humans; if breasts play
a role in human sexuality, this would probably be related to our other
very unusual characteristics. In addition, many instances are known
of an organ's acquiring a new function in the course of evolutionary

Another consideration: can the size and shape of the human breast (in
typical prehistoric conditions) and its permanently visible presence
-- even if a woman has never been pregnant -- be explained by its
lactation function alone? (I don't know the answer to this.)

Further, it is undisputed, so far as I know, that visual stimuli are
by far the most important biological triggers to sexual arousal for
men; men are sexually attracted to women primarily by the distinctive
appearance of women of child-bearing age. The breasts are, along with
a widened pelvis, the most visually distinctive features of women who
have attained sexual maturity, distinguishing them from both
prepubescent girls and from men; and the appearance of the breasts
changes as women grow older and reach menopause. (In the creole
language Neo-Melanesian, the terms for "prepubescent girl",
"adolescent girl", and "aging woman" are derived respectively from the
English/Malay phrases "he no got susu belong him", "susu he stand up",
and "susu he fall down finish". "Susu" is a Malay word for milk.) If
such an obvious and distinctive bodily feature of women of
child-bearing age did *not* function as a biological stimulus to men,
whereas most of the other distinguishing features apparently do, this
would be a curious fact indeed and call for an explanation.

: and since that role is limited to only a few human cultures, the most
: parsimonious explanation is that these few cultures have developed
: breast eroticism as a purely cultural phenomenon. It is difficult to
: argue logically that behavior with such a limited distribution is
: universal to the species in some hard-wired way, but culturally
: supressed in most cultures.

The point at issue is not whether Western mammolatry (to coin a word)
and such behaviors as caressing of the breasts during lovemaking,
etc., are biologically determined ("hard-wired"); the question is
whether breasts function biologically as a sexual signal to men. Now,
it is conceivable that they have this function in some human
populations but not in others, either because of differing genotypes
or because of environmental influences on the neural "wiring"; but I
set this possibility aside for the present.

An anthropologist who has done fieldwork in traditional societies
knows much more about such societies than I; nevertheless, I don't
think that one can conclude, solely from the evidence mentioned here
by Prof. Dettwyler, that breasts have no sexual function in such
cultures, although I don't think the contrary has been proved either.
Beliefs about sexuality, and the categorization of things as "sexual"
(or erotic) and "non-sexual", are largely determined by one's culture;
they are not, indeed they could hardly be, a simple reflection of
biological reality, which influences us in subtle, non-obvious ways.
It could be argued, then, that the belief that breasts have nothing to
do with sex and are "for babies only" is learned from one's culture,
particularly since the breastfeeding function of breasts is obvious
and well-known (presumably) in such societies. If men in these
traditional societies regard with distaste or revulsion the Western
practice of kissing and caressing the breasts (which many women enjoy
and find arousing) as part of erotic play, then this would strongly
suggest that they have been taught by their cultures that breasts are
just for breastfeeding and don't play a role sexual activity. As a
parallel, consider Western attitudes toward women's faces: we regard
them as more or less beautiful or plain, but we don't ordinarily think
of the face as "erotic" in the same way we think of the breasts. Yet
it seems likely that faces do play a biological role as a sexual
stimulus. Men's faces differ in general from women's, and a face is
an indicator of one's general health and hence ability to bear
children that survive. (Legs seem to be a rather different case: the
typical Western male fixation on legs (exclusive of the buttocks)
seems to me to be a largely cultural phenomenon. Women's legs in the
natural state don't differ much from men's.) Most likely, further
research in this area is needed.

: And if you look at those cultures where breasts are viewed as sexual,
: such as the U.S., this attitude is something that is consciously
: taught and reinforced in many different ways (tv, movies, print ads,
: pornography, shyness about breastfeeding in public, etc.).

No dispute here; the dispute concerns whether or not there is also a
biological component to the focus on breasts. Nor do I wish to cast
any aspersions on Prof. Dettwyler's research on breastfeeding and
nutrition in impoverished societies, a worthy project indeed.

Richard Carnes