“Why are men so interested in women’s breasts?

They don’t really have anything to do with sex.”  Thus Mikel Schwartzkopf asked me and my best friend, Alan Rein, one day in the fall of 1956, our senior year at Tamalpais High in Mill Valley. Alan and I were both in love with her, but she was getting over a previous crush of her own and refused to choose between us. Unrequited love is SO painful when one is sixteen.

He and I scratched our heads, discussed the issue, and realized we did not have a clue. Not long after, as we were returning from a field trip, Alan said, “Come on” to me and had the school-bus driver let us off at Third and Market in San Francisco. He led me around the corner from where I would begin working for Scientific American Books a dozen years later and introduced me to the Mechanics Library, which had been founded by gold miners about a hundred years earlier.

He and I spent the afternoon combing through the card catalog, the reference books, the shelves, but could find nothing at all. The human female breasts did not seem to be anybody’s current research interest. Finally we walked down to Seventh and Mission, and took the Greyhound home to Marin County.

The next morning, Mr. John George, the Dean of Boys, called us into his office and said, “You two are about the brightest guys in this school. Why did you pull a stunt like that?” So we explained Mikel’s question and that we had gone to the library to do research on it. I’m sure that was an answer he could not have foreseen. He glared at us for about a minute, then said, “Get out of here.” Being a white, middle-class geek was definitely a privileged position in the 1950s.

Mikel’s question sat in the list of unanswered puzzles somewhere in my brain for many years. I don’t remember just when it was that I stumbled upon the fact that began to unravel the puzzle, the fact that the permanent human female breast is not a biological necessity, is in fact an anomaly. In every other primate species, the females develop breasts while nursing, then become flatchested again afterward. So here an anthropological concept applies: a human trait that is not dictated by biology has been created or shaped by cultural forces. In other words, the permanent female breast is the result of learned behavior and serves a social purpose. What could that be?

Puzzling over that, I was finally jolted by what by hindsight should have been obvious: when a human male observes a human female from a distance, the first fact he can observe about her is whether she has developed breasts. If she has, then she is old enough to have sexual intercourse. The permanent breast is a signal, a communication of information essential for human survival. Evolutionary pressure created it.

Until about 15,000 years ago, the only unit of human society was the hunting and gathering band, an extended family of roughly two or three dozen people. That social structure and the individuals in it had been evolving for at least 200, perhaps even 800, millennia, and we have not had time to change much in only the last 15. We are all saddled with bodies that evolved to survive in very different conditions. (I think our minds, however, have a very different story.)

A basic hypothesis of sociobiology is that traits which increased a band’s chances of survival would have had a reproductive advantage and therefore would have gradually become more prevalent. One can guess at what some of those traits may have been, partly by considering the probable makeup of such a band. First, of about 30 people, half would be male, half female. Further, roughly half would have been adults, the rest children; so a band would have had about 7 or 8 women of childbearing age. If we assume that the average life expectancy was about 35 years, that the infant mortality rate was about 80 percent, as it was until the 1930s, and that women were less likely to become pregnant while nursing an infant  (whether because of biological factors or because of group rules), then a ballpark estimate is that each woman would have had about ten children, of whom two survived to adulthood. That is, the reproduction rate hovered at the edge of being able to maintain the size of the group. Given what the effects of accidents or communicable diseases might have been, human survival was anything but guaranteed, and any factor that decreased the chances of survival must have been strongly selected against.

So, the breast. If a male had intercourse with an immature female, often enough she would have been harmed, thus reducing her chances for survival and childbearing. Such behavior could have wiped out a band within a few generations that lacked enough generation. Hence being able to gauge a woman’s physical maturity became crucial. The permanent breast developed as a signal in order to make that gauging possible. In other words, the human male co-evolved to perceive the permanent female breast as a signal of female availability and to be sexually aroused by it. Further, the larger the breast, the more mature the female was. Conversely, the male would not have been aroused by a flatchested, immature female. This linkage was, I suggest, patterned into our DNA for several hundred millennia. I can further suggest that pedophiles have lost an essential element of out survival software, just as sociopaths have.

I suspect that any feminists reading this line of thought may be now be horrified at what the condition of women in such a band might have been. But I think women were probably more valued, cherished, and honored in such bands than women have been ever since agriculture was invented. Survival depended entirely on the women, not on the men. It’s logical that any man who purposely harmed a woman would have been killed or at least banished. Rape, the obvious concern, would have been a capital offense and therefore very rare. The cartoon image of a fur-clad male bashing a woman on the head and dragging her off is as ludicrous as thinking that the Flintstones had a pet dinosaur.

Paleologists have long ago proposed that there could have been only three specialized occupations in such a band, those of the chief, the “shaman,” and the toolmaker, with the latter two just as likely to have been held by women as by men. They could be at least partially supported. All the others, including children by about age four, needed to collect food, the men by hunting, the women by gathering plant food and catching “slow game” (women, unlike men, some suppose, had the patience to sit motionless long enough for the stupid rabbit to stick its head out of its burrow).

The chief would have been the “alpha male,” the strongest, fastest, and smartest of the men, but not a cruel dictator; cruelty would have decreased chances for survival. He led the hunt and had the social skills needed to maintain adequate group harmony. He probably also fathered more children than any other man in the band. Why? Because the mature women would simply have offered themselves to him whenever he wanted to have sex, because his children were the ones most likely to survive. (No point to arguing about whether this was “conscious” or “instinct”; it just had survival power.)  He probably did not think he “owned” them, but they were all under his protection, and it was he who would punish any man who harmed or attempted to rape a woman.

Women’s reactions to alpha males can be observed even now, although alphaness is a trait not of the man, but of the way women perceive him. Consider the lives of celebrities. Not all but many women perceive actors, rock stars, athletes, the rich, famous, and powerful, as alpha males, and react to them very differently than they do to beta males. Women in Neil Diamond’s audiences flashed their breasts at him, and women wear plunging necklines at prestigious events. My wife, who worked in Hollywood for a decade, tells me tales of respectable middle-class women who did not hesitate to go to bed with a celebrity—then wonder in bewilderment afterward about what had come over them. That what, I suspect, was an atavistic instinct that once helped guarantee our survival. As dumpy old Henry Kissinger once said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” I just read a wonderful blog on FB about the emotional dilemma many women have of wanting to both display their breasts and yet not have them looked at. I think perhaps women may unconsciously want to attract the attention of alpha males, of whom there are not enough around.

No beliefs about sexual morality that evolved after the invention of agriculture are relevant for understanding those bands of twenty and more millennia ago.  Given the existence of dominant and recessive genes, no human could guess how viable the progeny of any one person might be. Hence for a man to impregnate as many different females as possible, and for women to be impregnated by as many different men as possible, would have increased the chances for having viable children. It is thus far more likely that all the physically mature adults functioned as a group marriage, and that all the children were a collective responsibility, than that there was exclusive pair-bonding in such a band.

What about the problem of inbreeding (not as big as many think) or incest taboos (if they had any)? Our closest genetic relatives, the bonobos, share an otherwise exclusively human trait: the females have a menstrual cycle, not an estral one, and are thus able to have sex all time. If two bonobo troops meet at the border between their territories, they party. Similarly, if two human bands met at the edges of their traditional turfs, they would have partied also. The women would especially have wanted to have sex with the other band’s chief. Also, if younger women liked the looks of the men in the other band, they were probably free to join it—although there would probably have been social pressure to have an even exchange. This increase in the diversity of the band’s gene pool also had survival value.

I apologize to the authors of Sex at Dawn (which I haven’t gotten hold of yet) if I have reinvented their argument. My real point in all this is that, even if my speculations are not totally accurate (and I don’t suppose they are), the instincts, genetic software, and other possibly inherited traits forged during those ten or hundreds of millennia are still within us. We have not evolved further, and they conflict with many of the ethical and moral rules humans have tried to devise, especially during the last three millennia. I propose we need to look more consciously at our sociobiological nature. Then maybe a more rational game plan could be devised to improve the quality of life for more of the human race.

Yeah, I like to think big. I’ll be going over some of this in the last session of my ethics course tonight, using the chapter on sexuality, about the only one I agree with, in the humanist text I’m saddled with, which chapter the honchos at HQ were too chicken to include in the syllabus. Would have let out much of the fun—as well as the most difficult ethical questions that most people have to deal with in real life.

In the Name of the Goddess, I Say to You . . .
A Choice for the Erinyes of Victimhood
Prologue to a Story of Jesus and Mary
Trekking Toward Nineveh, Mile One
  • KateGladstone

    Hmmm … Re: “alpha males, of whom there are not enough around” — what happens in a society, at any cultural or technological level, when (for one reason or another) there are no longer ANY alpha males? (How this could happen: several possibilities. Perhaps some change in gene-frequencies prevents alpha males from being born. Perhaps the society has — without its own awareness — taken some sick turn, such that ALL potentially alpha males end up either never reaching adulthood, or reaching adulthood in a state which prevents them from being alphas … I will leave it to Aidan to speculate on how something like this could, conceivably, happen — presumably, could even happen with nobody really PLANNING that outcome — in various societies … and what would happen, psychologically, to women [and to men] if such a situation happened & could not be made to un-happen: no alpha makes ANYWHERE … )

    • aidanakelly

      No, as I said, males in themselves are not alpha; it is the women who perceive them as alpha, whatever their attractive aspects might or might not be.

      • KateGladstone

        Re-phrase my question, then: what if something happens that prevents _all_ women from perceiving _any_ male as alpha? This could be some environmental factor (such as a cultural change).

  • Xiaorong

    I love (by which I mean, I really do not love) armchair evolutionary psychology speculation bolstered by current Western norms of beauty and gender stereotypes and fantasies of caveman days conspicuously lacking any peer-reviewed evidence. I mean, first of all, are we forgetting other cultures and historical eras when breasts were not considered attractive and flat-chested women were highly desirable? (e.g. 1920s fashion)? I especially love the discussion of female psychology as slaves to the almighty reproductive instinct, driven entirely by the presence of alpha males and the need to make babies. Because women don’t have brains, the capacity to make choices about their sexuality, nothing like that … Seriously, it is ridiculous that you have such a public platform to represent Paganism while harboring such contempt for women as actual, living people (which I’m sure you’ll say is really empowering for us ladies!).

    • aidanakelly

      I’m sorry you read it this way. I don’t believe any of my wives or the other women I have loved think I hold women in contempt. I did not say that women were slaves or that they have no brains. I did say they were just as likely as men to have been the shamans and toolmakers of their bands. I think women would had control of those bands and of their lives, not the men. I do like to speculate about questions no one seems to be asking.

  • gem39

    I think this was an interesting read but not really based on much except opinion. There is in the social psychology and sociology literature information about breasts and societal responses to them.
    I was looking at the women ice skaters at Sochi the other day. Mostly flat chested or virtually flat chested. Then I decided to look at women in restaurants, malls, etc. Many are very flat chested. As a participant in on-line dating sites and having discussion with men about my double mastectomy with failed implants due to immune destruction and removal thereafter of my pectoral muscles, I understand many adult men like to suckle. That was surprising to me as I, an adult female, have no similar urge. Why do men? When I had breasts, the nipples were painfully aware of aggressive manipulation. I actively discouraged “suckling”.
    Then I had other questions.

    I wonder why there is a current urge to remove body hair of women so that women look prepubescent? Somebody told me it was to keep odor at bay. Really? I have done thousands of women health exams and odor was rarely a problem Maybe it is related to pedophilia. The question must be asked then, how do men regard genital, axillary and hairless-leg women? Again I have no need to have my lovers denuded of hair. I like to run my fingers through chest hair…it is most pleasant. Genital hair is very nice, too.

    I think the author of this article does not do women any favors. Certainly no favors for those who have lost breasts…and, my god, what is going to happen when those aging women’s breast implants start to sag? It boggles my mind! Perhaps that is there are Hollywood stars getting their implants removed early.

    • aidanakelly

      I think it’s pretty obvious that antihirsutism is related to pedophilia–another symptom of Western socviety’s collective mental ill health.

  • Sunweaver

    ::puts on biologist hat::
    One of the biggest problems I have with this sort of armchair sociobiology is that we have very little evidence to support this kind of thing. Sure, we can observe other primates, but that can only take us so far. For example, I can’t really attribute difficulties in potty training to the poo-flinging behaviors of other primates. Most of the time, these kinds of connections are purely speculation. Many evolutionary biologists have some very good evidence-based ideas about sexual selection. Good ol’ Charles Darwin wrote extensively on the subject. But it’s also good to understand where the science ends and the story that seems legit begins. Additionally, attributing modern sensibilities to prehistoric societies
    is the fast track to not being accurate about anthropology. I’m not seeing a lot of evidence here, just a lot of storytelling and speculation.

    Neither storytelling nor speculation are inherently bad and we can learn much by exploring ideas in this way, but I wouldn’t try to pass off these flights of fancy as things that are True unless I had some hard evidence to back up those claims.

    Also, many women get pregnant while breastfeeding. It’s not uncommon for a couple to be surprised with baby #2 while baby #1 is still dependent on mama noms. In short, some fact-checking would do this article a world of good.

    Another thing that might be useful is to recognize perspectives outside that of the hetero male. All men are not interested in breasts. Some women are. Some persons who do not fit the male/female gender binary have a variety of attitudes about breasts. Trans individuals have variously removed or grown breasts. Prehistoric societies had a wide variety of attitudes about breasts. Perhaps the evolution of breasts has nothing to do with male preference (all things are possible!).

    Here’s a website called “WTF, Evolution?” because the world is a very strange place and most of the time, we really don’t know why the course of evolution resulted in a tiny little marsupial that mates itself to death. It just did.