On Breast Ironing, Date Rape, and other Global Phenomena

I recently read an article about breast ironing, a practice that is increasingly common in Cameroon.  Mothers there, concerned about the early sexual maturity of their daughters, use hot stones to compress the developing breast tissue of their daughters, hoping to curb breast growth and, thereby, the attractiveness of their young girls to men who might impregnate them.  Video accompanying the article featured a girl crying and running away from her mother, who had ironed her breasts before.   At best, the practice physically violates.  At worst, it results in serious mental and physical damage, ranging from permanent physical deformities and burns to negative body image and unhealthy attitudes about sex and sexuality.   Breast ironing, and other practices like it, doesn’t teach girls agency, failing as it does to acknowledge that girls should be taught to make their own decisions about their bodies and exercise choice over whether to engage in sexual activity.  Moreover, breast ironing shames and blames girls for their sexuality, even as it fails to hold men and boys responsible for their role in premature sex and teenage pregnancy.

It’s easy to dismiss the practice as the product of a culturally backward society; not the type of thing that would be done in a “civilized” Western society.  And yet, the themes that underlie the practice in Cameroon are alive and well in American culture.  What else but a refusal to recognize female agency in sexual encounters informs the myopic “no sex before marriage” ethos in the United States, which, when applied under a double-standard—as is often the case, to the disadvantage of young girls—is not only ineffective (thank you, Bristol Palin) but also fails to teach girls how to either make well-informed decisions about their bodies or regulate the physical interactions that can lead to sex?

What else but a cultural exemption for men from sexual responsibility could be informing the lectures given to female college freshmen about how to prevent sexual assault: (1) never leave your drink unattended; (2) do not drink excessively in the company of men; (3) always go out in groups with other females, etc.  Where, in all of this, is the list for young college men?: (1) do not put something in somebody else’s drink, ever; (2) do not mix sexual encounters with alcohol; (3) if there is any confusion at all as to consent, cease all sexual activity immediately.  Lest we be fooled into thinking that men already know this, the evening news regularly reminds us that even grown-ass American males do not understand that coercive circumstances should never serve as the backdrop for sexual engagement (thank you, Ben Roethlisberger).

In the end, it is women and girls who are left suffering the consequences of cultural norms that frame sex as not only strictly for male pleasure, but also exclusively initiated at the behest of men, while placing responsibility for the sometimes negative consequences of sex strictly with females.  Unfortunately, the effects of these norms go beyond mere unplanned pregnancy, extending into abused and shattered female minds and bodies, at home and all around the world.

6 thoughts on “On Breast Ironing, Date Rape, and other Global Phenomena

  1. This is an important and timely truth. I’ve been trying to express this idea since I was a teenager. Most people are so slow to make clear and unrelenting rquirements of boys, but I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of teaching my children to live honorably; the specific arena on my mind has been that I want my son to make decisions about his sexual life instead of simply going after and accepting every single opportunity. I don’t want him to sex up girls who like him more than he likes them, just because he can. I think, too, that this applies to the way we teach our children to conduct themselves in general, a la the bullying stories that abound. Thanks for the good word.

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  2. Excellent analysis of this issue, Orj. This is certainly a shameful part of the Cameroon society which women’s rights advocates are working hard to eradicate. We’ve seen some inroads, but in a society where the rule of law and basic respect for human dignity are elusive, such practices will not be completely eradicated.

    I understand the comparison you’re making with Westerns society and the views that inform gender practices. At least in this society, victims can fall back on legal protections. There’s no such option in Cameroon. Fortunately, the fight for democracy, freedom and the rule of law is intensifying in Cameroon and there will come a day when all such archaic practices will only be written in the history books. I’m hopeful.

    Thanks again for bringing this thorny problem to the forefront!

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  3. it’s a fine line to draw between trying to protect your child and wanting them to be free and unencumbered by social realities. i imagine that mother is trying to protect her child, knowing that that female body will not be honored for the precious it is. knowing that she alone will bear the burden of the consequences of the brutality of rape, despite her lack of moral culpability. the boys are likewise not being taught that their bodies are precious as well, not just instruments of power, but full of love and grace. and they are taught a dangerous lesson about responsibility too, that they lack it. what a dangerous thing to believe you are without will. i can’t imagine that’s good for the soul.

    i think some are getting the message. in criminal law class the other day, there was a guy who just could not wrap his head around earlier legal concepts of the woman having to resist as an element of the crime of rape. he kept saying, “well, she didn’t consent. what more is there to it?” and all this talk of circumstances and whatnot – to him, it was just, if she didn’t say “yes” then assume she said “no.” and i was heartened by that. that recognition of others right to the sanctity of their body. by a man. the assumption of responsibility for conduct. by a man.

    i hope to raise both of my children, boy and girl, to understand just that – every person’s right to the sanctity of their own body. and that they are always responsible for their conduct, each and every thing they do.

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  4. I won’t go all melodramatic and fail to admit that, at least in regards to this issue, I prefer life as a female in the US to life as a female in Cameroon. That being said, what good is the “rule of law” if it’s not applied in ways that protect women in the ways that it should? I am heartened by Toya’s anecdote, if only because it balances out the reality that at my place of work (a law school), in response to alarming statistics about the rate of sexual assault of women in the US, law students (men AND women) have been known to respond with “those women must not understand what rape really is.” If you concluded that a couple of minutes of lecture by the law professor gets these students straightened out, you’d be wrong. These are students being trained to employ the “rule of law.” *sigh*

    I appreciate your comments, Toya, about the difficult position these women are in. Of course you want to empower your girls, but you also want to be realistic about what they’ll face out there in the world. It was not my intention to place blame on these women, although as in the U.S., they can sometimes be complicit in perpetuation of a worldview that legitimates violation of their daughters.

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    1. What do they mean “the women must not understand what rape is”? As a law student, that’s perplexing to me. Funny, my law professor made it very clear on day one on the section on rape that there was no such crime as “date rape” even though many think there is. Rape is rape is rape.

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      1. As in, “the reason those numbers are so high is because these women are over-reporting. They’re not really being raped.” As in “a little forceful coercion with your sexual encounter does not mean its a rape.” As in “women can’t decide for themselves whether they’ve been forced into sex against their own will.” Do you see now why I’m not so optimistic about the rule of law? I think these student comments reflect larger cultural understandings about what is and isn’t consent, which undermines proper applications of “the rule of law.”

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