Richard Carnes (
22 Oct 1995 17:38:11 GMT

You may have seen a recent "Dear Abby" column (it appeared on Monday,
10/16/95 in my hometown newspaper) in which Abby claimed that there is
nothing inherently erotic about the female breast -- that our
culture's taboo against exposing the breasts is the sole cause of
their being considered erotic. The headline writer identified this as
a "feminist argument". To support her views Abby quotes a USC
anthropologist, who I hope is not as silly as she seems.

I will attempt to avoid copyright transgression by presenting the gist
of the column below, interspersed with a few direct quotes. I then
offer my own comments. (I have also posted this article to
sci.anthropology and

The discussion apparently began with a letter from "J.G. in
Philadelphia", who said that "our constant attempts to cover" the
breasts makes them seem inherently erotic. A psychotherapist then
wrote Abby to say that the human female's breasts have the function of
duping "the poor hormone-driven, visually addicted human male into
unconsciously believing the female is always ready for sex," thus
persuading him to hang around to care for the female and their
long-dependent children.

Abby replied that she spoke with Prof. Soo-Young Chin of the
Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California,
who, "after her laughter subsided", quickly agreed with "J.G. of
Philadelphia". The anthropologist said that we should look at the
keeps-the-man-around hypothesis cross-culturally; she said, as quoted
by Abby, that "There are cultures in which the female breast is bared
at all times. It is considered that part of the reproductive system
intended for babies and children -- not grown men."

Abby added that "Throughout the animal kingdom, the purpose of breasts
is to nourish the young; they are not a part of the sexual arousal
system. Male animals do not fondle the breasts of female animals as
part of the mating process." She concluded that "Western culture's
insistence on keeping the breasts hidden is what makes them erotic --
that which is restricted immediately becomes more appealing."

My comments:

1. From Biology 101: contrary to Abby's assumption, there is
absolutely no biological reason to presume that human sexuality is
similar in all respects to that of most other animals. We know, for
example, that, contrary to the norm among mammals (not to mention
birds, insects and other classes of animals), human sexuality is not
periodic: human females do not go into heat, nor is there a mating
season. The presumed fact that the mammary glands "are not part of
the sexual arousal system" in other mammalian species thus does not
tell us anything about human sexuality, and we need not accept Abby's
apparent belief that the mating behavior of cats and dogs presents the
picture of "true" human sexuality unencumbered by patriarchal cultural

2. What feminine characteristics or features are primarily
responsible for arousing men sexually? The characteristic body shape
of females who have attained sexual maturity has been ruled out as a
sexual stimulus, since the breasts form one of the most obvious
features of that shape, and we have been informed that men are
attracted by breasts for cultural reasons alone. (In fact I think it
is pretty well established that men cross-culturally are attracted by
a 7/10 waist-hip ratio.) Perhaps, then, men are primarily attracted
by pheromones, or women's voices, or their minty-fresh breath? But
these would not explain why most men are aroused by sexy pictures of
women. Hold on, I think I've got it: it is the fact that women ration
and restrict their sexual favors, since "that which is restricted
immediately becomes more appealing." It follows that if women were to
freely grant sex to all interested men, men would soon lose all
interest in sex, and the human race would quickly die out. Maybe the
right-wing sexual moralists have a point!

3. Returning to reality, it is undeniable that there is a cultural
component in men's attitudes toward the female breast; the fact that
it is kept concealed, as well as teasingly displayed, not to mention
fetishized, in everyday life undoubtedly contributes to its allure.
But it does not logically follow that there is no biological component
to men's interest in breasts; the persistence and strength of this
interest would suggest otherwise to common sense. Indeed, it is an
interesting question as to what is the explanation of the taboo in
different cultures (not just modern Western culture) against exposing
the breasts, if they are not "inherently erotic".

4. Is there any evidence that there are cultures in which men are
simply indifferent to female breasts? I'm not sure how this
hypothesis could be tested, at any rate. (Suggestion: show men of a
particular culture drawings of women, some with normal female breasts,
others with man-like chests, and ask them to rate their sexual

5. If the discussion concerned the feelings women experience during
pregnancy, childbirth, or lactation, would Abby consult a male
scientist for his opinion, without asking a woman specialist? But in
a discussion about men's feelings about and responses to women, Abby
asks a woman for her views, but evidently does not ask a man, who
could reply from his immediate, direct experience. I draw no moral
here; I am just pointing out a curious observation.