“I was on a tram last year, and a creepy guy noticed I was breastfeeding so got up to get a closer look”.
This might sound like a shocking incident, but it is just one of dozens reported to the Everyday Sexism Project - all by women who have been sexually harassed or abused while nursing their children.
In fact, it is appallingly widespread: a new survey by Tommee Tippee to coincide with World Breastfeeding Week has revealed that one in six women have received unwanted sexual attention while breastfeeding in public and over a quarter have been tutted at by strangers for having the temerity to feed their infants. A further 27 per cent have been told by a stranger to feed their baby elsewhere, and a tenth have been told to leave the premises or cover up.
The reports sent in by distressed women to us at the Everyday Sexism Project reveal that these experiences are as diverse as they are awful.
There's the woman who was slavered over by a man who said he “couldn’t believe his luck”. The one who faced leering and lewd hand signals while a man shouted about her “huge breasts”. The new mother breastfeeding in an airport café when a group of men gathered to stare and gesture. Another who was feeding her newborn in her own home when she heard a noise outside and went to the window to find a man looking in and masturbating.
We've heard from a woman who was assaulted by a man who grabbed her breasts in public, an experience which she described as incredibly painful as well as violating. A new mother who was breastfeeding in front of a male acquaintance when he physically pulled the breast out of her child’s mouth and began fondling her nipple. A family member later told her that “it was my own fault for getting my breast out and I should switch to bottle feeding to avoid flaunting my boobs”.
Then there's the woman who was leered at by a man who shouted over to his friend "the other one's free!". And the woman who was nursing her baby in a quiet corner of the park, when she was confronted by a man in a passing van aggressively shouting “suck on them t---!”.
Others have found themselves facing disapproval and verbal abuse, including one who was told: "f------ disgusting." One woman was criticised for being “promiscuous”, and another scolded for her “lack of modesty”. A third was asked how she dared to sit there “with your t-- hanging out.” One new mum was warned by her own mother that “I should be careful breastfeeding because ‘men might find it sexy’." Another was told by a man that: “breastfeeding my baby in public was going to get me raped.”
All this on top of the extraordinary pressures and criticisms women already face around breastfeeding. (And indeed, those women who choose not to breastfeed also describe public harassment and abuse: like the woman who wrote that a man deliberately changed seats on the train in order to sit next to her and berate her for her "bad mothering" as she bottle fed her baby.)
Many women report being asked to leave shops or other venues, or to relocate to the loos to feed – not a sanitary environment. One woman who was breastfeeding in a well-known department store was asked to move away because she was “en route to the menswear department” and therefore likely to “cause offense”.
It’s bad enough that 90 per cent of women in Britain experience sexual harassment in public during puberty and the numbers of women being catcalled rose during lockdown - but it's even more galling that it should occur at such a vulnerable moment, when many might be feeling scared, fragile, lonely, anxious and overwhelmed. Women are both bombarded with enormous pressure to breastfeed and simultaneously harassed or shamed for doing so, a sexist double bind that highlights our societal expectation for women to inhabit the dual roles of perfect mother and sex object.
Unsurprisingly, many of those who told us about their experiences of harassment and abuse while breastfeeding said they were made to feel so upset and uncomfortable that they stopped altogether. And more a third of the women in the new survey said they would often cut trips out short because they felt too self-conscious to breastfeed in public.
Worst of all, women’s stories repeatedly highlight the enormous hypocrisy of a society in which women’s breasts are considered public property when they can be sexualised for male pleasure, yet stigmatised and punished when used for their biological purpose.
One woman wrote: “I was told to stop breastfeeding in a pub where hanging from bar was a beer mug whereby you actually sucked from a nipple.” Several reported being chastised or abused for breastfeeding in public by people who were reading The Sun before it had dropped topless pictures of Page 3 girls. One woman was famously asked to cover herself up after breastfeeding in the courtyard at the V&A museum, after having spent the day viewing the many sculptures of naked women in its collection. (The director of the V&A later apologised, saying women were free to breastfeed anywhere at the museum).
It is rather hard to swallow the notion that women should be grateful to be allowed to use their own breasts to nurse their infants in peace, given how quick society is to appropriate those breasts for sexualisation and sexual harassment.
Or, as one woman succinctly put it: “After years of being told to get your t--- out, it is kind of ironic to then get verbally abused for breastfeeding in public.”