Reflecting on October’s being breast cancer awareness month, I recalled Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s thoughtful Ethika Politika essay on the Christian tendency to valorize Christian sexual teaching by etherealizing the female form.
Stoker Bruenig astutely diagnoses this tendency:
It’s an unsettling experience to enter into a space or conversation expecting to learn or discuss and instead find the topic of your most personal anatomy and experience up for consideration.
This points us to the chief issue: Essays like these, authored by men, are still principally about women, but only as objects of assessment. Similar pieces by women—say, an article by a Christian woman detailing the loveliness of her husband’s masculine sexual prowess and virility—would probably not get such a warm reception, and, indeed, such pieces are comparatively rare, and” don’t get much of a hearing in traditional spaces. This suggests that there is perhaps something questionable at work in the structure of these pieces: are we really arguing that Christian sexual ethics are superior on the merits, or are we arguing that one can maintain the tendency to sexually objectify women while still following the rules, so to speak? The line blurs.
When engaging with a secular culture that’s hostile to Christian sexual ethics, it’s tempting to adopt the language of the opposition to win on its own turf. But in this case doing so seems to push Christian women out of the conversation precisely because the language of secular sexual pop culture typically has misogynistic themes built in.
I’m tempted to say something similar about the way that some breast cancer awareness and fundraising campaigns operate, given how intentionally and ubiquitously some such campaigns draw dubious attention to the female anatomy.
I’ve seen huge banners strewn across college campuses that advertise the “Bowling for Boobs” fundraiser. “Bra pong” (“it catches the eye of students walking by,” one organizer explains) is a burgeoning form of fundraising. “I love boobies!” bracelets are common, as are T-shirts that self-consciously indulge the “appeal” of the anatomical beneficiaries of breast cancer research. Racy ads and public service announcements cash in (literally) on simple male lust: the logic of such advertisements seems to be, “Men, if you enjoy staring at women, support breast cancer research so that you can continue to do so”; the innuendo is unmistakable, and intentional.
As Stoker Bruenig notes, of course, such logic would vanish were activists to attempt to apply it to cancer that affects any part of the male body; it’s impossible to imagine alliterative slogans that play upon slang terms for the male body proliferating as breast cancer catchphrases have. This shouldn’t surprise. Ours is a culture that feasts its gaze ravenously upon the female form, and specifically upon the female chest, such that appropriating society’s (men’s) common lust for preservation of the same seems organic and perhaps unobjectionable. Everyone can agree, after all, that funding research of and medical treatment for breast cancer is a good end.
On the other hand, the same tendency to objectify women’s bodies begets a flimsy, or at least inconsistent, commitment to women’s health on the whole. One doesn’t notice men clamoring for more sustained investigation into the increasingly demonstrably harmful medical effects of various forms of birth control, for example, precisely because male lust and commitment to women’s health would clash, rather than conspire, in such a project.
Health is more holistic than the proper functioning of our material parts, though that proper functioning is essential to good health. A reductive view of women’s health (which in this instance also happens to be objectivizing) by either men or women is disingenuous to the gravity of the issue at hand. Such objectifying attitudes are themselves unhealthy for both their owners and their targets, and they contravene any positive material or practical advances made otherwise in the name of (women’s) health.
The end doesn’t justify the means, and as a culture we should be honest about our motivations for producing and consuming advertisements and slogans that may simply amount to an occasion to think about, talk about, and even ogle a part of women that, it happens, stands in need of medical as well as “aesthetic” attention, and which we are quite happy to see so centralized in public forums of thought and action.
I don’t doubt that many who sport tasteless apparel that advertises for breast cancer awareness legitimately wish to advance that cause. But amid cultural concern for how commonly women are mistreated and objectified by men, we should think twice about making a patron of the same lechery that we rightfully denounce in other, less cheerful contexts.