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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Obscene? Indecent? Scandalous? Nope!

You may or may not have heard about the controversy that was recently a blip in the national news. I was shocked that such a stink was made over someone EATING in a RESTAURANT. Ok, well it wasn't food from the restaurant that was being eaten, that has to be what the stir was about, everyone knows that you don't take your sack lunch into an eatery, plop down at a table and start eating your Peanut Butter and Jelly.

As it turns out, the person that was eating had a good reason to be eating food that was from outside the restaurant, they are on a special diet of mother's milk and their mother was breastfeeding them. Ok, so we have a seven-month old child that is being breastfed in a restaurant at a table while she is being taken out to eat in a state that has legal protection for breastfeeding mothers from interference of their breastfeeding.

A female employee was asked by the manager to ask the mother to cover the head of the child or to cease nursing because someone had complained that it was indecent. The mother responded by providing the restaurant with a copy of the law that shows she has a legal right to the activity free from interference. The conflict ended with the mother leaving upset to nurse her child as her food was being served and being unable to eat the food that was supposed to be a gift from her children.

What disturbs me is that someone could think that the act of feeding a child in the fashion that the body is designed is indecent. Basically, an indecent act is one that is judged by a communal consensus of being inappropriate. However, a generic consensus doesn’t work well for something that would be a criminal matter. Specifically, their would have to be some type of gratification of some party involved or viewing the act that would have to be sought by the actor (by the way, a full tummy is not what is meant by gratification).

Basically, if you consider breastfeeding to be indecent, then you are making the claim that the breast has no other nature or purpose than a sexual one. I would contend that there is a sexual element to the breast that could be demonstrated different ways but that is unnecessary to this issue at hand. The important part of the nature of the breast to the issue at hand is that it is not solely sexual or always sexual. It should be readily evident in a prima facie, on the face, fashion that the female breast has a particular function by its design that allows a mother to provide nourishment to a young child without dependence on exterior sources.

This demonstrates at least a portion of the nature of the female human breast and it is clearly non-sexual. The reality of that part of the breast being non-sexual is what allows a mother to be able to breastfeed in a fashion that is not indecent. This brings us to questions of style; my contention is that as long as a mother is not drawing attention to herself purposefully, let her be.

Now, we are drawing up to the line that comes between indecent and obscene. Before, we talked about indecency and the fact that it would be some type of simple act or exposure for sexual gratification. As we draw up to the line that separates indecency from obscene, respect for nature of the act as it is designed. I would contend that obscenity is when we cross over to changing the nature of an act. For example, a couple that has a right to marital relations that participates in it in the fashion designed but makes sure the windows that face the neighbor house and the lights are on so that the neighbors can see, would be indecent. It is my proposal that a woman who is merely participating in the feeding of her child and is utilizing the breast is no more indecent than a woman using a bottle, she is following the function of the breast and it is commonly accepted that feeding a child is not indecent. Sex on the other hand is meant to be a private union that is specifically always not intended for public viewing.

Obscenity would be when we attempt to change the nature of the act; rape for example is violently obscene. It is violent and violates a person’s right and that would violate the nature of the sexual act as it is intended by design. Now, could breastfeeding pass from normal to obscene? Yes, if we changed the nature of the way that it worked. If the mother sexualized the breastfeeding and tried to gain pleasure from the activity then that would be obscene.


I expect my wife to not to try to draw attention to herself when she is breastfeeding our child out in public (she is also very good at it) but that I would also expect her to do the same if it was just her eating. I would also expect that my wife wouldn’t have to eat with a blanket over her head or in the restroom. As a Catholic I think it is especially important to remember, in keeping with respect of life from conception to death, the dignity of a little baby who can’t eat the Bacon Ranch Cheeseburger and can’t comprehend why they have to wait to eat. If you would like my wife who is breastfeeding our baby to go to the bathroom so that our baby can eat, then why don’t you have your wife or daughter with their low cut or midriff baring top join her with their meal? I could probably say the same thing about your son with his unkempt hair and shirt that has a phrase I don’t want my eight year old to read.

I could probably talk for hours on this subject, but that would have to be done with a few beers and a few other philosophers around for it to make any sense, this may not even make sense to someone outside of my mind because I have forgotten to present a few assumptions that I make or explain a bit of background that is common knowledge to me. If you have further questions, feel free to comment and you can also check out the first two of my wife’s three part series on breastfeeding (part one and part two) that go into some of the ins and outs of breastfeeding from someone who should know about it.

Under the Mercy,
Matthew S


Chaduke said...

I generally agree with your feelings on this. One statement that I'm wondering about is the idea that if a person considers breastfeeding indecent then they are claiming the breast has no other purpose than that of a sexual one. I think the distinction here is a matter of how and where the act is taking place. If I personally was interacting with breasts in a sexual way, I would consider it indecent if it were at a restaurant, but not so in the bedroom. I think its possible for one to view breastfeeding in a similar fashion. I'm not sure if most people are ready to see it done indescreetly, and when it does happen would probably label it obscene. I'd just have to wonder how many people out there think breastfeeding is inherently obscene on any level. Seems like a stretch but nothing surprises me much these days.

Ebeth said...

Matthew, I am a mom, who breastfed all her babies, the last one until she was 18 months old, along with carrying on my daily activities.

So, I am an avid breastfeeding person as well....there is no other "best" way to feed babies. However, there is a place and a time for this to be done discreetly.

There is a mother in our parish who refuses to use a blanket at public functions. During Mass, she whips out a breast for all to see and proceeds to nurse with no discretion at all. I find this to be pigish, tacky, and inconsiderate to others around her.

Breastfeeding is a natural thing, there is nothing sexual about it, unless you are exposing the event in front of those who do not understand it. Unfortunately, we live in a society that breeds violence, immoral sexuality, disrespect for humanlife, and the list goes on. Breastfeeding is a personal preference as well as a necessity, but there is another thing to consider. If a mother is performing this act in public, she should be both respectful to her neighbors and to her own body and cover up her "private parts." Even though this is not a sexual issue, it is a personal issue. We teach our children to go get dressed in their rooms, we teach our children to close the door when they go to the bathroom. Why? because these are private acts, normal acts and healthy acts, but still private. Breastfeeding is also in this category and should be due to the nature of the private parts involved. There is nothing wrong with breatfeeding as I keep saying, but there is a way and a place for it. It is not during Mass, or during special ceremonies, and situations like this.

Newborns need to feed very frequently, I know this, mine needed to nurse every hour on the hour for at least the first 2 or 3 months. So, I nursed them before attending a public function, especially Mass and then nursed them when I got home. It can be done.

Bottomline, Breastfeeding is the absolutely only and best way to feed a baby, but it should be done discreetly with a blanket over the baby and mother's breast during the process, in respect for others as well as the mother's own private body.

And on a final note, being a rebel about this issue on some mother's part, only gives the breastfeeding a bad name. The mother in your story should have just covered up and been discreet...she didn't have to make a stink about it, by pulling out some paper stating her rights. If we go around telling everyone we have a right to do this and to do that without regards to other and the possible infringing of other's rights, we have no love for others, just selfish love. Not Godly....Not Christian, and certainly not Catholic. IHO

Domini Sumus said...

I breastfed my son in all sorts of places. Even once while sitting on a bench in the mall during the pre-Christmas shopping season.

There is a way to do it and a way not to do it. I wore clothing specially tailored for breastfeeding. (Check out

Not once did I "whip it out". There was no skin showing except occasionally when my son was coming off and was faster than I. Even then it was nothing more than 1/2 an inch of skin.

I even had people come over and talk with me and they had no clue that I was nursing. No, I am not just saying that.

Dawnie said...


I do not think that breastfeeding belongs in the same category as going to the bathroom and getting dressed.

While I do think it is prudent for American women to nurse discreetly, given that in our culture the breast has been sexualized, I do not think that mothers who nurse indiscreetly should be asked to cover up or leave. There may well be a good reason they are not covering up that has nothing to do with "being a rebel." When I worked as a La Leche League leader, I counseled a woman who was struggling with sore nipples and low milk supply because she was not latching her baby on properly. And why wasn't she latching her baby on properly? Because she was always nursing under a blanket in an attempt to be "modest." She couldn't see what she was doing well enough to do it right and it ended up costing her a breastfeeding relationship with her baby. Why not just assume that the mother in your parish has a good intent and that she really needs to visualize her breast in order to get a good latch and avoid sore nipples (which can be excruciating) and low milk supply?

I also think that when others are "offended" by the sight of a nursing mother, the proper thing to do is exercise a little charity (by assuming good intent on the mother's part) and just look the other way. I see no problem with nursing discreetly during Mass or other public functions and I've done it lots of times. I think that nursing a baby discreetly is much more preferable than subjecting the entire congregation to my infant's cries. Due to the form of baby care I have chosen (ecological breastfeeding), none of my babies have been on a schedule, so it hasn't been possible to just nurse them before and after events like Mass. They aren't always hungry before Mass! It would be nice if others could be as respectful of the choices I have made for my family as I try to be of theirs. I don't go and tell other mothers, "You know, I noticed you stuck a pacifier in your baby's mouth instead of nursing him. Don't you know that can cause nipple confusion and an early return of fertility?" How other mothers care for and feed their babeis is none of my business. If other moms want to use schedules and pacifiers, and it works for them, great! I have chosen something else and I (and other mothers like me, I think) would appreciate the same respect.

I do not think a blanket is neccessary for discreet nursing. In the picture Matthew put in this post, I am the woman on the right and I am nursing our daughter (our 4th baby). This is how I typically nurse, just with the baby in a sling. You can't see any skin in the picture and neither could anyone else at the party we were at unless they were rude enough to invade my personal space and stick their head over my shoulder.

I am wondering how a woman who is simply nursing her baby could possibly infringe on another person's rights? Even if she is doing it indiscreetly? There are lots of things other people do that make me uncomfortable (like not wearing deoderant) being uncomfortable doesn't trump their right to share the same space with me, though.

I think that segregating breastfeeding mothers (by sending them somewhere else to nurse)is what gives breastfeeding a bad name. When breastfeeding in public is more socially acceptable in America, I think that breastfeeding rates (which are pretty low right now) will go up. It's no wonder so many women aren't nursing their babies by 6months if they have to leave the room or wrestle with a blanket every 2 hours when they're out in public.

A really good article on this can be found by Christopher West here.

barbara jean said...
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