Adventures in Ethics and Science

Tara notices that social networking site Facebook has decided, in the enforcement of their policy against “nudity, drug use, or other obscene content”, that pictures of breastfeeding babies are obscene. As such, the Facebook obscenity squad had been removing them — and has deleted the account of at least one mom who had posted such pictures.

Break out the Ouija board and get late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously claimed that he couldn’t define obscenity, but he knew it when he saw it. As far as the legal definition goes, “obscene” seems to be roughly equivalent to “pornographic”. And I’m pretty confident that Justice Stewart, upon seeing a picture of a breastfeeding baby, would recognize that it was not pornographic. (If you are aroused beyond “normal lust” by such pictures, that may just be you, not the pictures themselves.)

So, what’s Facebook’s problem?

Arguably, allowing users to post breastfeeding pictures wouldn’t put Facebook in any legal jeopardy (since it’s hard to make a well-grounded legal argument that breastfeeding photos per se are obscene). It kind of sounds like someone at Facebook just decided that such pictures are icky.

Judgments of ickiness are pretty subjective. If I were the Queen of Facebook and decided to purge all the icky pictures, there would be certain varieties of facial hair that would disappear from user photo albums. Except that I recognize that such a move would be silly and arbitrary, and would unfairly target an entire segment of Facebook users on the basis of my likes and dislikes.

The difference between the actual Facebook decisions on breastfeeding picture and my hypothetical jihad on soul-patch pictures is that breastfeeding moms already face considerable hostility from the public. They get chased from mall benches into bathroom stalls to feed their babies (this despite being hounded by judgmental friends and strangers should they admit to so much as supplementing an infant’s breastfeeding with formula). They get thrown off commercial flights if they don’t “cover that thing up”. They get the message loud and clear that people think a milk-filled breast with a baby attached to it is an icky thing to see.

Are the men who sport soul-patches hounded out of the public sphere until they can shave or grow a proper beard?

And, this doesn’t seem like a simple matter of aesthetics. It’s almost as if people think they have a right to a public sphere in which they can remain innocent of the details of What Babies Eat (at least, the babies who are eating low on the manufacturing chain rather than being good consumers like their formula-chugging counterparts). However, this tidying of the public sphere disproportionately impacts the folks who usually have primary responsibility for the feeding of the babies: the lactating moms.

Making social isolation a part of breastfeeding doesn’t strike me as a great way to encourage more moms to breastfeed. In my experience, it’s the social isolation more than anything else (even the sleep deprivation) that makes parenting a baby brutally hard. Given the health benefits breast milk seems to confer on the babies who drink it (which may make a difference in the health care costs society is shouldering down the road), making breastfeeding a less attractive choice is dumb.

And spreading the social isolation of breastfeeding moms to social networking sites like Facebook is even dumber, because some clever Facebook competitor is going to refuse to discriminate against users on the basis of aesthetic judgments, and will swoop in to capture the people Facebook is alienating — plus their allies. (If you know of such a Facebook competitor, let me know so I can give it the positive linkage it deserves!)

Can we remember that part of the promise of the internet was that we might create better ways of interacting with each other, rather than reproducing the dumb stuff that makes the three dimensional world so frustrating?

Edited to add: If you’re a Facebook member, there’s a petition group organized to press the issue that breastfeeding pictures aren’t obscene.

Comments

  1. #1 William Haberer
    September 20, 2007

    I believe that in the book “The Bretheren” the following story is told about Stewart:

    During World War Two Potter Stewart was in the Navy. When his ship was in Casablanca he was the watch officer and he saw the locally produced pronography so he knew the difference between nudity and the hardest of the hard core. Stewart called it his “Casablanca test”.

  2. #2 M. Gemmill
    September 20, 2007

    Here’s what the problem with Facebook is:

    http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?execbios

    All young men, of the demographic inclined to think of boobies in a sexual sense rather than in the sense of “dinner for a baby”.

  3. #3 forhecancreep
    September 20, 2007

    I see this as another sign of the growing fear of biology in our culture. (Have you noticed that? I know I have). I see more and more people who shrink from any reminder of biological processes, in this case that humans produce milk for their young just like other mammals. I see a similarity with the growing number of people who can’t even look at meat with bones in it. If the person is a vegetarian, that’s one thing, but meat eaters who shy from any evidence that meat comes from dead animals and not plastic wrap seem to be on the rise. I think more parents need to take a page from the Friday Sprog science talks and explain to kids that the world is messy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  4. #4 Mark P
    September 20, 2007

    There’s something wrong with us here in the US when we think there’s something obscene with a woman breast feeding.

  5. #5 ebohlman
    September 20, 2007

    forhecancreep: Another example of “biophobia,” one that Bora has written about at great length, is the growing belief that sleep is an indulgence rather than a necessary part of being human. Similarly, quite a few “alternative medicine” practitioners assert that a healthy person’s shit literally doesn’t stink (though that may be more a commercial appeal to narcissism than anything else). There seem to be an awful lot of people with a vested interest in having everyone be scared of their own bodies. Part of the problem is the old Christian conflict between the body and the soul.

    The notion that breastfeeding is a sexual activity disproves itself by reductio ad absurdum: if breastfeeding is a sexual activity, it must be a pedophilic sexual activity, since it’s a sexual activity whose participants are an adult and a pre-pubescent child.

  6. #6 maxine
    September 20, 2007

    I get the feeling there’s something right with the world when I see a mother nursing her baby. And I am SOOO with you on the soul patch thing.

  7. #7 Kim
    September 20, 2007

    Re. the “where food comes from” issue – My siblings find it very strange that I moved from downtown Boston to rural upstate NY (No, NOT Westchester County….I live in the REAL upstate NY, where farm animals outnumber people) and get food from real animals! I mentioned during a phone conversation that the leg of lamb we had for dinner was from one of the sheep raised across the road at my brother-in-law’s farm, they wanted to know if I “knew” the sheep. “Yes”, I responded, “it was either Muffy or Puff-Puff, it is really hard to tell, as they all look like…..sheep.” After listening to the groaning noises and discussion of how heartless I was, I just gave up and hung up the phone. Duh….where do people think that the lamb chops they eat at snazzy restaurants come from? Lamb chop factories?

    Where does “breast milk” come from if not from breasts? What ever happened to learning about this stuff in school and understanding that these body parts had a real reason for being there and weren’t just devices to attract someone? Of course, I would have drawn the line at my husband posting pictures on the web of me doing this, but I’m a relatively modest old reproductive physiologist Mom.

    Kim

  8. #8 Nat
    September 20, 2007

    Hi Janet

    I was just about to join this group when I noted that the group itself has over a 1000 photos of children being breastfed.

    I would think that the continued existence of the group and the attached photos is fairly good evidence that facebook has stopped deleting images of breastfeeding.

    I therefore exercise my right not to join yet another redundant facebook group. They appear to have learned their lesson?

  9. #9 Justin Moretti
    September 20, 2007

    Facebook are idiots.

    On the other hand, I’ve got no problem with seeing women breastfeeding in public, but I get the feeling that they think I’m getting off on the sight of their bared breast. Which I’m not, but according to the radical feminists I’m just a filthy rapacious male, so by their definition that’s what I am doing.

    Kim, your quote reminds me of a doctor-dentist couple I knew who ran a hobby farm with Highland cattle. When they had to sell up, the cattle met their destiny. My brother said: “This is a nice rug. Say, what happened to all your cows that you had?”

    “You’re standing on them.” And the Mrs of the pair gleefully proceeded to point out by name and location all the bovine contributors to their patchwork rug. The look on my brother’s face was priceless. (Which was funny, because we’ve both quite happily eaten rabbits that we, personally, shot.)

  10. #10 David Dufty
    September 23, 2007

    forhecancreep,
    I agree, but you could argue that vegetarianism – at least extreme forms such as veganism, is a symptom of what you describe, in that it’s a denial of humans as part of the food chain, and placing humans in some kind of unique role as saviour/executioner of other animals.

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