Too sexy for breastfeeding?

Image credit.

(Some Not Suitable For Work links included in this post).

Not long after her baby was born, Madison Young, an adult actor – also an artist, film director, gallery director, and activist – put on an art show titled Becoming MILF at Femina Potens, a gallery she owns specialising in queer, trans and non-gender-binary art. In the show she apparently questioned the way mothers are both stripped of sexuality and conversely, also made a fetish. Her exhibition included breastmilk milkshakes and a baby quilt made of burp cloths and “porn star panties”.  Yes, thought-provoking.. and impressively energetic, too. How is this new mother managing to do it all?

I’m brand new to motherhood.  My little girl is only eight weeks old right now.  I’m sure that sharing my life with my daughter will inspire, influence and affect my work in different ways as she gets older.  Right now, as the mother of a newborn, one of my greatest challenges is time.  I’ve always tried to balance more than is humanly possible in a day but now I have a tiny little being who needs and demands my attention 24/7.  I’ve had to really prioritize what areas of my life I need to be giving my energy to right now.  I’ll be working mostly local for at least Emma’s first year, and if I decide to take out of state or country gigs next year then it will be a family affair.  I take Emma along with me whenever I can, such as to university speaking engagements and to the art gallery, and Daddy watches Emma during the more adult-oriented work experiences.

The photograph above, modest as it is for a breastfeeding portrait, fired up another pornographer and sex work activist, Furry Girl, who accused Young of exploiting and sexualising her baby: “You are a revolting person. Your child will need so much therapy when she grows up and finds out how she was treated by you”. Young, in reply on Twitter, has been understandably shaken by these attacks: “The facts are not presented accurately and this whole thing just creating pain and danger to my family”.

According to Furry Girl two issues are at stake here – the first is that a baby can’t give permission to be included in her mother’s artwork, and the second is that Young may bring a certain audience with her to her feminist artwork. Could her porn audience see things that aren’t appropriate in the breastfeeding image? In short, Furry Girl believes they’ll be sexualising Young’s baby daughter and because of this Young is knowingly exploiting her child. (There’s something else at stake here, too, and Furry Girl must know it. Sex workers face a special kind of risk when it comes to anyone questioning their fitness as parents – they have a history of seeing their children removed from them by the state).

Furry Girl – who I retain a degree of fondness for on account of us both being vegetarian, and also, on account of her impressive achievements in activism – identifies as child-free, and many of her tweets on this issue read as classic, shitty child-free/anti-mother rhetoric:

Maybe I should squeeze out a kid, too. Being a mother apparently makes one more qualified than everyone else to form opinions on any subject

I pissed off the feminist mommy club. But since they don’t buy porn or do sex workers’ rights activism, it really doesn’t matter.

Boring: having all the hysterical leftist mommy bloggers bitching at me, Blah, blah blah….

I like reading conservative/Christian anti-feminist blogs sometimes. But no group is more hysterically pro-motherhood than modern feminists.

Outside of stupid feminist hippies, who sees breast feeding a baby as sexual? What kind of people want to see those photos? Not good people.

It is telling that Furry Girl doesn’t see the “feminist mommy club” as including any sex workers. Furry Girl’s reaction also says a lot about the difficulty we have in separating the sexual function of breasts from the nurturing role, something Young was attempting to explore in her art exhibition.

My exhibit Becoming MILF was a visual and performative journey through my pregnancy and into the throws of motherhood while still working in the sex industry. I wanted to express the challenges of balancing the life of the whore and the madonna at the same time. At the opening reception I sat in a corner hand whisking whipped topping for milkshakes while pumping breast milk, and then added the breast milk to the whipped topping. I was using traditional women’s work and the re-appropriating of my breasts for nourishment to create a dessert, encouraging gallery goers to address their thoughts on breastfeeding, breasts of mothers versus breasts of adult film actresses,  and the consumption of breast milk past infancy.  It spurred some fascinating conversations around nurturing versus sexualizing.

While Furry Girl’s criticisms of Young are apparently out of step with the rest of the kink community, they’re quite typical of mainstream anti-breastfeeding views. There is something peculiar about the way breastfeeding is seen as exhibitionism, when really, it is simply feeding a baby. It says something about the way we objectify women and about how women can’t just ‘be’, they’re always on display. It seems to be particularly troubling for those uncomfortable with breastfeeding to see a celebrity breastfeeding, someone for whom the private is so readily collapsed into the public. While it is true that Young is deliberately making her breastfeeding experience public, she isn’t exactly being ‘showy’ about it. Young’s porn and art audiences may overlap but this is not a sex show. If anything, the whole exhibition sounds achingly sincere.

I don’t know what Young’s fans see when they see her breastfeeding photograph and read her description of her exhibition, but I can tell you what I see. I see vulnerability in that photograph, not a ‘Marilyn Monroe sex goddess’ vulnerability but the vulnerability of mother-shock, raw and fragile and calling upon all your reserves. I see pride, too, in her decision to pose breastfeeding. Pride in mastering a new skill and pride in her first baby. And I can’t help but relate to the excitement and creativity she is experiencing in exploring her new identity as a mother – after all, I started a blog as an outlet for all my thoughts. It breaks my heart to think how exposed Young, still such a new mother, must now be feeling about all this.

There is something else worth considering about Furry Girl’s criticisms of Young, and that is the way in which she can’t distinguish between mothers and mothering. Yes, Young’s daughter can’t give permission for being included in her mother’s artwork, neither can mine give permission for my writing. But who owns Young’s experience of motherhood? Who own’s mine? Where do Young’s and my experiences of early motherhood and our desire to explore these all-consuming aspects of our lives end, and our children’s ownership of them begin? Can Young, who describes her devotion to her baby daughter so lovingly, not be trusted to know? Does being sexual as women (or even sexually objectified unintentionally) spill dangerously over into our responsibilities as mothers? Does it prevent us from good mothering? Because incidentally, I also attract readers at blue milk from time to time looking for something apart from feminist discussion, who are instead seeking ‘sexy breastfeeding’ stories and images. (And what a crushing bore they must find it all, once there).

There are boundaries, of course, but they need not impose the complete separation of mother from self.

(Cross-posted at blue milk).

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, parenting

Tags: , , ,

20 replies

  1. Such a wonderful post, bluemilk! I have a few thoughts, but formulating them into coherence is a bit difficult at the mo, so consider this a placeholder til I have some time to think about it all. I think there’s something bothering me about how the ‘sexual’ is getting collapsed into sexual objectification in Furry Girl’s account. But yes; I’ll be back!

  2. Furry Girl’s reaction also says a lot about the difficulty we have in separating the sexual function of breasts from the nurturing role, something Young was attempting to explore in her art exhibition.

    Yes! For all her radicalism, FG’s fallen into this age-old and very mainstream trap.
    Her criticisms are confused and self-contradictory as well. You quote her as saying this

    In short, Furry Girl believes they’ll be sexualising Young’s baby daughter and because of this Young is knowingly exploiting her child.

    But then she writes

    Outside of stupid feminist hippies, who sees breast feeding a baby as sexual?

    These statements appear to cancel each other out.
    I support, unequivocally and passionately, the right not to have children, but some of the hostility shown by the “childfree community” makes me see them as people to avoid, sometimes. As with HAVING children (quiverfull, etc) once it becomes a crusade, start backing towards the door.

  3. Sorry, I did something stupid with the blockquotes there. I’m an old feminist hippy 😉
    [fixed ~tt]

  4. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being passionate about being child free. More power to those who have the strength and belief in themselves to know that they are/will be happy with that decision. I have no quarrel with that.
    What shits me mightily is the people who, because they choose to be childfree, act as though anyone who has made the choice and been able to have children has done something wrong, something terrible, to everyone who doesn’t have children.
    Yes I have children, and yes I have lots of opinions. I don’t think they are necessarily better than anyone else’s and I had lots of opinions before I had children. Having children has made me re-think many of those opinions, but not moreso than becoming a feminist.
    I’m really not sure how followers of an adult actress will see something sexual in a baby breastfeeding. It is a very beautiful and discreet photo. It beautifully illustrates the difference between breasts as sexual and breasts as baby feeding devices.

  5. Furry Girl’s reaction also says a lot about the difficulty we have in separating the sexual function of breasts from the nurturing role, something Young was attempting to explore in her art exhibition.
    Not just that, but Young is also a sex worker, and Furry Girl’s response also evokes the idea of “once a sex worker, always and everything about sex.”

  6. Helen, I’m with you about the childfree community online. I’m childfree (and plan on remaining so) but I’m moderate about it: my choice, made by me, made for my reasons. I don’t want to make decisions for anyone else, I don’t advocate the lifestyle, and I don’t see that whether or not anyone else has children is any of my business.
    At least some of the rather rabid nature of certain activists supporting the childfree lifestyle tends to come (I suspect) from the fact that so many of them are based in the USA – and US activism, shaped as it is by US culture, tends toward a starkly polarized “with us or against us” binary a lot of the time. In so doing it does tend to ignore a lot of the finer gradations which make up different people’s life experiences, and instead tends to be very “all or nothing” about a lot of things which aren’t helped by this.
    Such as the rather tricky five-way intersection between “motherhood”, “sexuality”, “body as sexual object”, “breast-feeding as feeding”, and “sexuality as career path”, which is where Ms Young is standing at the moment. The “concern” voiced by FurryGirl about the possible treatment of her child as a fetish, rather than the child as a child, strikes me as somewhat disingenuous – would there be the same concern were the child being fed from a bottle? The picture above, to me, is a good image of one of the key factors of motherhood which helps maintain my decision not to choose it as one of my own options: the conflicting time demands on a mother with a new baby – particularly a mother who has chosen to breast-feed. Baby needs to be fed, no matter how much of the first act you’re missing (indeed, seeing the image devoid of context, I’d be inclined to give it a title along the lines of “Missing the First Act”).

  7. My heart aches for what Madison Young is going through. Reading her tweets, you can see she is quite upset about it all. I’d tweet her my support, but I don’t want to exacerbate her feelings of vulnerability. I’ll send her my good thoughts and energies from afar instead.
    I find her ideas for her exhibition compelling. It might even be something that I myself may need to explore one day in my own art. I am constantly inspired by the many aspects of womanhood. I think the most terrible thing is the world’s attempts to compartmentalise women, when we are all these things, complex and adaptable.
    I’m also thrown by an avowed feminist using the word “hysterical” without irony. And “bitching”. I hope to be a feminist mother one day. You bet your arse I’ll continue my great appreciation of sex-positive non-exploitative porn.

  8. For what it’s worth, Furry Girl is not a feminist – see My other thoughts on this are in comments at bluemilk’s.

  9. Oh, you’re right, Tamara. That had slipped my mind. I have the worst memory on the planet sometimes. 😦

  10. Being a mother apparently makes one more qualified than everyone else to form opinions on any subject

    Since when has feminism stopped recognising that people’s lived experience of a thing really does make them experts on the experience of that thing? Yes, motherhood does in fact make someone more qualified than everyone else to talk about motherhood, just like being a woman makes you an more qualified than any given dude on the issue of womanhood.
    I’m child free too, but I found Furry Girls comments hurtful. Not as a mother, but as a woman. Too much misogyny for me. “Hysterical”, “bitchy”, as NapalmNancy pointed out, but also the “blah, blah, blah”, the “stupid feminist hippies”. Ick.

  11. Well, she can call me a feminist hippy all she likes – it’d only be true! LOL! I wear my love beads and jasmine with pride!
    I can understand not seeing the subject the way we do, I just don’t understand the misogynist vitriol. It’s quite unneccessary.

  12. Man, I totally goosed that word. Unnecessary! E double E double S double I double TTT! /Charlotte’s web.

  13. Bluemilk, I read this yesterday and I really wanted to thank you – it’s a beautifully written post and it gets at a lot of things that have bothered me about the perceptions and assumptions around motherhood/female sexuality etc.

  14. I’d like to know a couple of things – I went and looked at Furry Girl’s post on why she objected to the photo and she seemed to be saying ‘Young has created an entire existence about sex; Young put the photos on a site for masturbation’ etc.
    For one thing, the photo, I had thought was up at Femina Potens, not at MadisonBound? If I’m wrong about that then I’m open to hearing that. But Femina Potens does not appear to be a site for ‘masturbating’ by any stretch of the imagination. It appears to me to be an art site, a site for artists and viewers of art, and a safe and empowering space for women/GLBTI artists to show/view artworks that examine questions of gender/sexuality etc? Nothing ‘porny’ in that mission statement, and no masturbation fodder that I could find when I went looking for it.
    So if it’s an art space, then is it a/ because Madison Young is also an adult performer and it’s what SunlessNick called out of saying that because young *is* an adult performer that everything she does, and everywhere she does, it is about sex, and about providing masturbation fodder? Isn’t that kind of an odd line for a pro-sex-worker-sex-worker to draw?
    Does it also have something to do with the LGBTI-ness of the art space? That queer activism/art involving inviting LGBTI exploration of sex and bodies and gender through art automatically makes the art about ‘sex’? Again, isn’t that kind of an odd line for Furry Girl?
    So yeah I wholly fail to comprehend her assertion that the photos are in a space where people go to masturbate.
    Am I being dense? *Are* the photos on a site designed for masturbation? Or is that what FG is saying about Femina Potens?
    I also don’t see that photo as sexualised at all – I see the vulnerability that BlueMilk is talking about – there’s something in that overly made up look (not a look I’ve seen in the videos in which Young *is* performing sexually) that doesn’t say ‘sex’ to me so much as draw a consideration of the multiple expectations on women/mothers/young mothers. There’s something bewildered about her expression and nothing at all to my mind ‘come hither’-y.
    Unless I’ve missed a rather large step (a possibility I’ll grant you as I wasn’t familiar with either Young or Furry Girl previously) I just can’t see how you get from one (an art exhibition around motherhood/breastfeeding) to the other (this is presented as wank-material/is risking being seen as that because it’s a space *for* wanking).

  15. I love that this photo can be read so many different ways, and I love blue milk’s interpretation. My first thought when I saw it was that she is saying something about the expected public/private divide, and about how it feels to be caught in between. To me it looks a little like she’s taken time out from a big event to breastfeed, and she is worried someone will maybe have a go at her, or suddenly expect something from her (like it’s her turn to give a speech at her big event).
    She looks a little startled, exhausted, proud, loving, harried, calm, glamorous, defiant – so many things at once – and for me the piece is saying something about how it feels to be juggling all of these roles and hats that society thinks should be so separate, motherhood and work and sex and glamour, and about how it feels when they all come together and you realise that you are this whole entire person and that all these things are parts of you, not separate parts, but all parts joined into a whole. This is very difficult to express!
    I wonder how Furry Girl and any other critics respond to Lucy Lawless’ breastfeeding photo? Is it different because she’s not a sex worker? Because her legs are posed primly? Less makeup? Some other reason?

  16. Mmm, thanks for thoughts, everyone; they’ve helped me work out what I was thinking. Which is basically: I find it really troubling when someone’s sexuality is reduced to *what others make of it*. As in, I *do* want to allow that picture to be sexy, even sexual, but as a depiction of the fact that, as Lauredhel says, she’s many things all at once, and those parts are consistently expected to not coexist. You can be pure sex worker, or pure mother, or pure artist, or pure glamourous woman, but you cannot be all these things at once. In this sense, for me, she’s playing that line, reclaiming her sexuality as something complicated by motherhood and sex work etc, but it’s hardly an image that screams ‘I am exactly what a pr0n-seeking person would want of me.’
    The reason I was troubled about that, I think, is that while I get the ‘breasts are for nurturing, they’re not sexual’ line, especially in terms of resisting the bullshit about public breastfeeding, I get a bit edgy about reducing women’s sexuality to how it’s perceived, and suggesting that women who are mothers aren’t sexual on their own terms (as Arwyn suggested over at bluemilk). Or that the way to resist the sexualisation of this image is to claim it’s not sexual. Or something. I guess it’s the exhibitionism thing that bluemilk was talking about. #needmycoffee!

  17. Yes – I’d like to be clear that I’m not saying the photo is *not* sexy – it’s just there’s something weird at play here in the outrage over that photo as ‘sexualised’ in some problematic, or at least ‘NO CHILDREN ALLOWED because it’s *dirty*’ way. Like all sexuality is ‘furtive’, or something?
    So I’m bothered by the photo being presented as problematically ‘sexualised’ when in fact I don’t think that’s necessarily the ‘point’ of the photo, but rather the photo is rather a complex and beautiful piece of art with an interesting and important social commentary.

    • What I find most odd is the idea that the body being sexualised is that of the baby rather than that of the mother. In what other images of bare-breasted women having their breasts touched by another person is it ever considered that the person doing the touching is the one who is being sexualised?
      This is what makes FG’s critique fundamentally incoherent for me.

  18. Yo, Furry Girl! Camille Paglia called. She wants her tired, boring-arse old shtick back.

  19. In what other images of bare-breasted women having their breasts touched by another person is it ever considered that the person doing the touching is the one who is being sexualised?
    I wonder if it might be an active/passive thing. Digressing into comics for a moment, one of the frequent markers expressed for finding art to be sexualised rather than sexy is a sense of passivity in the pictured character – back over here, most images involving breast-touching are constructed with the idea of the one doing the touching as the active party – but a baby is harder to picture as the active one. So once the idea of sex is imposed on the image, the baby is seen as the one sexualised. Maybe.
    But to me, there might be sex/sexiness in the image, but it doesn’t come across as what it’s about – certainly I find it hard to picture it as uppermost in Young’s thoughts from the expression she’s making – more like remaining awake for the next hour (something any new parent can empathise with). It’s more like, to me, an image of how becoming a parent has to be mixed in with the existing demands on a person’s life – and how the parent, especially a mother, is supposed to make it look effortless.

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