The breast, sexism, power and all that

7th April 2000

Here’s a story. A woman is at work dealing with a client. She is wearing a low cut dress and the client is standing over her desk while she works. Looking up she catches him staring at her cleavage and asks him something in the order of “have you seen enough?” The man, a middle aged chap, is mortified.

This column isn’t long enough to deal with the issues raised by this episode. It goes to the heart of the evolving relationships between men and women at work, relationships which, in the past, have been marked by sexism and the abuse of power by men.

Firstly to the case in question. My sympathy lies with the man. He was simply responding to sexual stimuli.

Sexual attraction has enormous currency in our society. The media is full of it: in soap operas, in lad mags, in Cosmo, in the sale of everything from toothpaste to cars. Sometimes it’s subtle – sometimes it’s explicit. Mostly it’s everywhere.

You couldn’t argue that you missed it. Youth culture, it seems, has almost no other way to express itself. The Top Thirty Charts Show and 2TV is a procession of youngsters gyrating semi-naked in the most provocative way they can get away with on prime time TV. And they seem to be able to get away with a lot.

They do it because sexual stimuli is one of the most powerful forces in human nature. More powerful, obviously, than anything intellectual. And when it comes to the specifics of sexual attraction the female breast is right up there, so to speak.

Desmond Morris, the popular anthropologist, covers the subject in detail in his book ‘Manwatching’. Why, he asks, is the human female breast proportionately much larger than any of our fellow primates? The size is not necessary in order to feed offspring. The answer is in the breasts’ role in sexual attraction.

What marks us out physically from our cousins, the apes, is that we stand up constantly. When humans changed from lolloping around on all fours to becoming bi-pedal, the dynamics of sexual attraction changed dramatically.

As the editor of this paper is somewhat of a prude, I’m not allowed to go into the sexual specifics of this transition. Suffice to say that female breast occupies a primary role in attraction between men and women, hence the enhanced size.

And you don’t need to be a professor of anthropology to see that modern man is as equally interested in the female breast.


So if women, by way of modern fashion trends choose to partially display their boobs, they can’t legitimately expect men not to look at them.

Furthermore, when women choose to dress like this they must know that it will have an effect. But what effect?

Are women using this form of dress as a power ruse? As the poor man in the story found out, it may be part of nature but it is not socially acceptable to respond to such stimuli.

Are the women who dress like this muddying the waters between being a colleague and a sexual animal?

I happened upon the code of practice for sexual harassment where the display of ‘suggestive’ pictures and calenders are forbidden in order to create a neutral working environment.

So I ask: – is the combination of the low top and the underwired bra not an example of the mis-use of sexual power in the workplace? Remember, I’m only asking.