This is another in what I hope to be a month long series of aphoristic (ἀφορισμός) essays, meant to provoke thought rather than explain it. The hope is that, built up on each other, the series will provide a matrix of thoughts that together might lead the reader in new directions. Though each can be read independently of the others, they are intended to be read together and against each other.
The event is simple enough to describe--like the outer skin of an onion.
If anyone on the planet could convince men that breast-feeding moms can have a sex life, it would be Salma Hayek. The beautifully busty actress, on a trip to Sierra Leone to support a tetanus-vaccination project, nursed a starving baby she encountered while being filmed by ABC News. She did this, she told the camera crew, in part out of compassion for a suffering child, but also to help lift the stigma against breast-feeding in Africa, where men often think women can't have sex if they're still nursing. "So the husbands, of course, of these women are really encouraging them to stop [breast-feeding]," Hayek said.Ada Calhoun, Selma Hayek, Breast Feeding, supra. All of the ingredients are here for a luscious meal--beauty, woman, child, media, sex, breast, medicine, food, fame, and men.
The story, of course, is somewhat off the mark in describing the taboo--not that women can't breast feed, but that breast feeding women cannot be sexually active. There is no stigma against breast feeding per se. There is a stigma about women fulfilling their (culturally understood) sexual obligations to men while fulfilling their nutritive obligations via breast feeding. And that, of course, produces the usual response, from men, the search for a way around the stigma. So, it appears that the culture of randy men in Africa has produced a cultural victory of sorts--the production of a stigma to breast feeding, so that women can get one with the very serious business of servicing their men. In the gender hierarchy of culture in which these women live, it appears that men (or better put the sexual needs of men) trump the needs of their offspring and their mothers. Though actually that is not it either. It appears that men have been able, like crafty lawyers in the West, to find a technical way around a cultural barrier--not that women can't breast feed either their own or anther's baby, but that women who are breast feeding are unavailable for sexual activity (with men). The solution, from the male perspective, is simple--stop breast feeding. The means to that end is also simple--counter the stigma of sex while breast feeding--with another: the stigma of breast feeding. And the counter thrust, as conceived by Hayek is also simple--either attack one cultural norm (that breast feeding mothers are unavailable for sex) or the other (that breast feeding is bad).
Ahh, but the fact that this one women campaign originates on the body of a Western woman complicates things--for Western communities with a number of hidden and not so hidden agendas of their own (and with little except incidental interest in the Africans about whom this story ought really to revolve). And there is nothing like the arrogance of the most progressive among us to finely tune the results of Ms. Hayek's efforts at home. Tsk tsk tsk the guardians of a certain sort of popular culture and cultural expectations are heard to say. And they deploy the verities of science, hygiene and good (cultural) manners; but all from a nice safe Western perspective to punish that vixen Hayek for bad breast behavior.
First there is the matter of good manners. The problem it seems is that for every baby there is a unique breast to which it must be fitted--not as a biological imperative, but a social, cultural, gender and political one:
cross-nursing — in which one woman suckles another's baby — is taboo in the U.S. While crunchy sites like Mothering.com have exploded with hundreds of giddy posts praising Hayek for promoting the cause of breast-feeding, plenty of online reactions were more squeamish. EW.com gave the YouTube clip its "biggest eyebrow raiser" of the day award. (See the top 10 pregnant performers.)Ada Calhoun, Selma Hayek, Breast Feeding, supra. But this is culture talking. In the West, culture becomes more plausibly coercive when teamed up with social science. "Although donating breast milk is becoming more mainstream — Nadya Suleman's octuplets have been consuming donated milk — cross-nursing still conjures up the specter of wet-nursing, with all its class issues and antiquated notions about women's bodies yoked in service to others." Id. Thus, it appears, that the mouths of African infants now may serve as another battleground in the class and gender wars of the West.
But the greatest weapon is still science. See Larry Catá Backer, Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia, Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2005. And the best science produces culturally induced negative reactions. In effect, in this case, what Selma Hayek was doing was "icky." And science explains why this must be so:
The official word on cross-nursing is still nix. It seems that no institution, even those that support milk-sharing, is willing to endorse women who offer their milk without a breast pump serving as an intermediary. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which screens and distributes donated milk to hospitals across the U.S. and Canada, insists that banked milk be pasteurized before being distributed.Ada Calhoun, Selma Hayek, Breast Feeding, supra. And of course, there is the child to think of. Children, it seems, form psychological attachments to breasts that require sensitivity to avoid confusion. Thus, from La Leche League: "La Leche's concerns include the possibility of transmitting infections, a decrease in supply for the donor's own baby, psychological confusion on the part of the infant and the fact that the composition of breast milk changes as children get older." Id.
This leads inevitably to the heart of the matter--may Hayek's conduct be excused on the basis of Western scientistic cultural norms? The answer seems to be a qualified yes.
But assuming that Hayek wasn't at risk of contracting anything from the baby — who Hayek reported was healthy but whose mother simply had no milk — none of these caveats seem relevant. Hayek's emergency nursing more closely resembles Chinese policewoman Jiang Xiaojuan's heroic breast-feeding of several babies orphaned by the May earthquake, and few would argue she was anything but a lifesaver.Id. But it is the nature of the qualifications that ought to be disturbing. Even, it seems, Jiang Xiaojuan's actions might be suspect, and Hayek needs a lawyer's toolbox to build a case for exemption from socio-cultural opprobrium. And for whose benefit? The randy (or impatient) men, the starving children, the overworked breast, or the socio-political agendas of another place.
And thus a moral--Selma Hayek's breast maps the geography of an approach to the internationalization of law and legal norms. If one wants to understand everything from global minorities policies to the internationalization of criminal law, one need study the story of Ms. Hayek's breast.