In the past I have have observed that one of the best ways to make sense of American attitudes toward sexuality and the body is to think of Americans as adolescent puritans. In saying this I don’t intend to insult either adolescents or puritans, it’s just a good short hand for a peculiar mix of attitudes, the rebelliousness of adolescence, and the prudishness of puritans (actually, the Puritans were far less prudish than contemporary Americans in many ways). For example, I’ve yet to find anyone who would argue the fact that our media is awash with sexual imagery, that innuendo and and scant dress are the currency of advertising–anyone who watches the Super Bowl can attest to it. Yet at the same time, Americans can be extremely prudish about natural bodily functions. The language used in popular culture about sexuality and the body–being naughty, bad etc…–indicates that we see sexuality as a guilty pleasure. But while we desire the equivalent of sexual candy, we reject a healthy appreciation of the body as too risque for everyday life. We want to have our candy as candy rather than face the truth that we need to grow up and recognize why we were created as sexual beings, and what it means that sex, reproduction and child-rearing are of a piece–a tapestry of life if you will–and that compartmentalizing them leads to tremendous dysfunction.
Some of this dysfunction gets written into our laws, such as a law here in Tennessee that makes it a statutory offense for mothers to breast-feed children over 12 months of age. I should be clear about the lack of clarity in the statute, in this case the TN statute concerning public indecency. § 39-13-511 of the Tennessee Code, concerning Public indecency says the following in ¶ 2, section A, defining nudity:
“Nudity” or “state of nudity” means the showing of the bare human male or female genitals or pubic area with less than a fully opaque covering, the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of the areola, or the showing of the covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state. “Nudity” or “state of nudity” does not include a mother in the act of nursing the mother’s baby[…]
This seems pretty clear and straightforward, however, there is this additional comment about breastfeeding:
(c) The provisions of this section do not apply to a mother who is breastfeeding her child who is twelve (12) months of age or younger in any location, public or private.
So the question becomes: why the specificity? Was this added to the code in order to restrict the age that a woman could breastfeed without fear of harrasment, or was it actually a forward-looking liberalization when it was passed in 2006? Either way, the age seems immaterial. If someone doesn’t like the age at which a mother is breasfeeding her child, they need to–excuse the phrase–suck it up, and move on. Different strokes for different folks as my dad says. The act of breastfeeding a child is not indecent, whether the sensibility is shared or not. Most women have a sense of propriety and don’t desire to draw attention to themselves or their children in such circumstances.
In this case, the problem is in the eye of the beholder. As I once told a friend who complained about the way some people were dressing, at a certain point, you have to take responsibility for your own thoughts and your own sins. You can’t blame others for the way they dress or comport themselves–you have to deal with it yourself. I feel the same way about people who would have an issue with breastfeeding–if you have a problem with it, well then, you probably do have a problem and should deal with it.
In the immediate future, there is a possibility that this restriction could be removed. Senator Faulk (Republican from Kingsport) has introduced a bill that would remove this age limitation. The bill reads:
Children – As introduced, deletes the age limitation in statute permitting mothers to publicly breastfeed only their children who are age 12 months or younger. – Amends TCA Section 39-13-511 and Title 68, Chapter 58.
The only problem is that the bill lacks a sponsor in the House of Representatives, without which, it will die for another year. Consider writing your representatives to see if they will take this on. From my perspective the fact that government would presume to insert itself in such a sensitive area goes beyond the bounds of the public good and after all, Jesus was breastfed–and probably past a year old.
Don’t believe me–take a look :-):