15 APRIL 2000, Page 12


SiOn Simon on the odd squeamishness

that afflicts the male sex when contemplating a vital function

Miss Twye was soaping her breasts in the bath When she heard behind her a meaning laugh And to her amazement she discovered A wicked man in the bathroom cupboard

AR! The joys of the breast. The sweet tribu- lations of those two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies. The innocent pleasures to be had among the foothills of a lady's bosom. Breasts. Dontcha love 'em.

Well, yes and no. Men are fascinated and delighted by female breasts when they are strapped up and hidden away, but appalled when they heave into view in any context which is not sexual. That is the subtext to last week's House of Commons mini-drama in which Labour MP Julia Drown sought permission from the Speaker to breastfeed her baby in the Chamber, but was turned down because neither eating nor drinking are permitted in that place.

It's not the political issue that one first assumes. In fact, men divide more along age and class lines. Working-class old Labourites share with Tory toffs a distaste for public breastfeeding. Young, middle- class Tories, on the other hand, bear a greater resemblance to their more tolerant New Labour peers. But this is only on the surface. For while male politicians vary in their pronouncements, they are united by a common male bond of squeamishness. Yet I couldn't find any to put on record the truth which they privately admitted. Even New Portal° — that most tactile, solicitous, cud- dly beast — promised to ring me back with a quote but, strangely, never did. In truth, breastfeeding is like the slaughter of young lambs: a practice which all sensible people support, the benefits of which we prize for ourselves and our children, but which most people — including all men — do not want to watch. There is a metropolitan fiction that it is not the case, but all men, not just old-fashioned ones, are intensely embar- rassed by women's reproductive and associ- ated functions.

'Something for the weekend sir?' I began to understand this when the Dope Don, Keith Hellawell, 'came out' as squeamish on last Friday's Any Questions. Questioned about Ms Drown's feeding- philia, he simply said that, speaking for him- self, he felt embarrassed in the company of nursing mothers. He lauded the suckling of children as an excellent pursuit, but admit- ted that he had felt so 'uncomfortable' when even his own daughters were breastfeeding that 'I would exclude myself'. As I recall, he believed that all imaginable succour should be given to Ms Drown in the matter of nurs- mg her child. He reserved his right, though, to take himself somewhere else while she was doing it. And it's not just public breastfeeding, of course. Men are even less enamoured of menstruation; though, as with flagrant suck- lmg, they are nowadays obliged to pretend that this is not the case. There is nothing a woman likes more than to apprehend a man in an unguarded moment of disgust at her feminine functions.

Just to make sure that things are clear, by the way, there is a certain kind of man — probably quite young and vaguely left-wing —who claims to be transported into rap- tures by the sight of a nursing mother or the thought of some honest menstruation. He is lying. He has adopted enthusiasm as a mask for his embarrassment because he has not mastered the more subtle art of neutrality.

The question of precisely which women should be allowed to suckle children of which ages for what lengths of time, in what places and in what circumstances, is very important, but not particularly interesting. More diverting is the matter of why men are so ashamed of their embarrassment and ter- rified that it will be discovered. This is cen- tral to what is now known as gender politics, but which James Thurber more accurately called 'The war between men and women'.

The most interesting question is what species of madness it is that fills the male sex with distaste for these natural functions which are essential to its very survival. After all, it has not always been thus. For cen- turies, the nursing mother has been an icon- ic image. One could hardly move during the Renaissance for infant Christs clamped on to apple-shaped, virginal breasts (to be hon- est, often they weren't actually suckling, though plenty were). As the evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller, explained to me, 'During two million years of evolution, any man who didn't like breastfeeding would never have had a kid because all adult women would have been breastfeeding — on demand, fairly constantly, until each child was two or three — almost all the time.' The modem distaste is a function of a super-developed society in which men are no longer accustomed to see women doing such things. This is the same culture which likes the animal flesh it burns and eats to be presented in anonymous, antiseptic, plastic- wrapped cubes. Dr Miller, whose book about evolutionary selection, The Mating Mind, is out next month, is prepared to put part of the blame on the Victorians. He points out that 'the upper-class use of nannies and wet nurses led the middle classes to think of breastfeed- ing as rather infra-dig'. In the main, though, Miller says the Victorians were a lot more relaxed and open-minded about these things than we are. He dates the change in men's attitudes to the invention by Nestle of dried infant formula at the turn of the 20th centu- ry, in order to shift an enormous surplus of milk. A virulent marketing campaign yielded phenomenal success, and bottle-feeding became the thing to do for the next 70 years. Until it became the evil preserve of the daughters of the capitalist Antichrist. For my taste, though, these theories weren't quite primal enough.

Victorian snobbery and 'capitalism-gone- mad' might explain how men lost their day- to-day familiarity with breastfeeding, but not where they acquired their sense of disgust. Couldn't Dr Miller oblige me with some- thing a little more, well, primal? A moment's pause and, fortunately, he could: lactational amenorrhoea. In other words, 'hunter-gatherer women on subsistence diets would usually stop ovulating while breastfeeding. So breastfeeding comes to be associated with lack of fertility, and there- fore becomes offensive to the male bent on reproduction. Breastfeeding shows that the woman is a good mate: healthy, capable of having children and of feeding them. But that she is no good for reproduction now.'

I can't say that Dr Miller sounded very convinced, but I was delighted. Very inge- nious, I thought. Very anthropological. Of course, it still didn't explain why men are so desperate to keep their feelings secret. But I suspect the roots of that are somewhat shal- lower. It boils down to the question: why are men so frightened of women, and women so contemptuous of men. As such, it is one I am not brave enough to answer.

Sion Simon writes a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph 'No, you fool!! said, "Take us to your L-E-A-D-E-R!" '