The Ethics Of… Staring at a Women’s Breasts

Originally written for and published by the St James Ethics Centre, Feb 2012. This netted me some serious criticism for the last paragraph in particular. You can find the ensuing debate here.


As with many great ethical issues of our time, the question of whether it is acceptable to stare at a woman’s breasts is very simple, according to most people. Unfortunately whether that is a simple ‘yes’ or a simple ‘no’ depends entirely on who you are talking to.

Having risen out of the neolithic 1950s, women’s rights are now the mainstream and it is well established in Australian society that staring at a woman’s chest is rude, immature and grounds for a a well-deserved verbal thrashing. Modern women should dress how they wish and be free from harassment.

Recipients of these thrashings on the other hand, have been known to mutter that if women don’t want their breasts stared at, then why are they putting them on display? And it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that they aren’t, with plunging necklines, push-up bras and even breast enlargement surgery becoming fairly normal in modern fashion. And it doesn’t help that the most common answer you get when asking women why they dress like they do, if it’s not to attract sexual attention, is “It makes me feel good about myself”, a line which could be used to justify just about anything.

These mutters have been increasing in volume following the global Slut Walk phenomenon in 2011 and the emergence of critical, sexually-conservative feminists such as Professor Gail Dines, author of PornLand: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. More recently, two excellent articles in The Age sympathised with and criticised breast-staring, and the husband of the Finnish President was caught staring at a Danish princess’ cleavage.

So the question has to be asked: what exactly is wrong with staring at a woman’s chest?

The basic argument put forward is that staring at their bodies makes women feel uncomfortable. Naturally, this is something one should avoid doing if at all reasonable. And as numerous feminist commentators have noted, women tend to attract unwanted sexual attention regardless of what they’re wearing, with a high-neckline and functional pants as likely to attract wolf-whistles as a cocktail dress.

Furthermore, even if a woman is wearing said cocktail dress, what right does that give men to stare at her unless she wants them to? What does it matter if she is trying to attract sexual attention? That is no justification for men to stare at her across the room, knowing that it might make her feel uncomfortable.

But while these arguments reasonably assert a woman’s right to dress how she wants without being made to feel uncomfortable, they fail to address a very important question which has long frustrated many men; why is it that women have a right to dress as they want, but men aren’t allowed to look where they want? Since when did someone decree that there are things 50% of the community can and cannot look at? How does that contribute to gender equality exactly?

And from a feminist perspective, doesn’t the idea that men should not stare at a woman’s breasts rely on exactly the same puritanical ideas about sex that used to demand women be covered up for the sake of ‘decency’? To suggest that there are parts of a woman that cannot be looked at by men implies that these bits are special in some way; sacred if you will. And how much of a step in logic is it from men respecting these ‘special’ bits, to women being required to cover themselves thoroughly so as not to tempt men and bring lustful attention upon themselves? Burquas, anyone? Or Collingwood football players perhaps?

Superficially, this argument is quite strong. Two very fundamental rights are in conflict; how can one demand one be respected at the expense of another?

But as the more astute of you are now screaming at the screen, the issue is a bit more complicated than that.

Why do men want to look at women’s cleavage? For the most part the answer is pretty straight forward – we find them sexually appealing. Colossal media empires are built on this simple fact.

But why do women object to having their breasts stared at? Phaedra Starling summarised the situation extremely concisely at the Shapely Prose blog, with a post entitled ‘Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced‘;

“Consider: if every rapist commits an average of ten rapes (a horrifying number, isn’t it?) then the concentration of rapists in the population is still a little over one in sixty. … How do I know that you, the nice guy who wants nothing more than companionship and True Love, are not this rapist?I don’t.”

And here we have the problem. While men who stare at women’s breasts may be very clear on their motivations, women cannot know them. And given the unbelievably high number of reported sexual assaults, it is very reasonable for a woman to be worried unrequited attention to her sexual parts.

And just like that, the entire argument becomes very simple. What is more important; a man’s irritation at being told not to stare, or a woman’s fear that she may be sexually assaulted or raped? Because that’s likely to be consequence of staring at a strange woman’s breasts and it is an entirely reasonable one given the stats.

So what can we take from this?

Men, you do have the right to look where you want. But given that looking at some parts of a woman’s body are likely to cause her such serious and reasonable fear, just don’t do it. It’s not like there’s a shortage of breasts you openly invited to look at after all, so be considerate. And as Ms Starling so eloquently puts it, being considerate actually makes you more attractive.

Women, you absolutely have the right to dress as you want and should be free to do so. But be aware that often, men simply so not understand why staring at what you’re displaying makes you feel so uncomfortable. So while flaunting your body is completely acceptable, be aware that it will create a lot of resentment from men who feel repressed for doing something you seem to be inviting. And for the love of goodness, do not try to manipulate men with your sexuality. Sex may well be power, but only when men play by your rules. Sometimes they decide not to.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Staring at a Women’s Breasts

  1. Good day, Gordon.
    I have recently found your blog thanks to the post of a friend of mine on Facebook. I enjoyed the centered perspective in this article. I admit that I was somewhat saddened that the lady who responded in the forum you posted missed the point on a few items, and was not able to see that you and she agreed on every matter but semantics. I hope that she was not just spoiling for a fight, but she missed that by “manipulation” you specifically meant “the INTENTIONAL use of sexual attraction to achieve a result”. Had she recognized this, she likely would have agreed (albeit not quite wholeheartedly) with your well-written treatise.
    Thanks for providing food for thought. I look forward to more!

    • I think you may have hit the problem right on the head there Richard. I have to say I was rather taken aback by her criticism given the centered perspective you mentioned, but it all seems to be based on that last paragraph not being quite clear enough.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for the feedback, its always great to know people enjoy my angle on things. There’s no shortage of topics on the blog now and I’m always keen for suggestions!

      Merry Christmas!

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Priorities (Farewell, for now) | The Ethics Of

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