Why Using Sexuality To Raise Breast Cancer Awareness Rubs Me The Wrong Way

October 1, 2018  |  

LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 23: Serena Williams attends The Imagine Ball Honoring Serena Williams Benefitting Imagine LA Presented By John Terzian & Val Vogt on September 23, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Imagine LA)

This weekend, I scrolled past Serena Williams’ Instagram page and discovered her new campaign about breast cancer awareness.

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This Breast Cancer Awareness Month I’ve recorded a version of The Divinyls global hit “I Touch Myself” to remind women to self-check regularly. _ Yes, this put me out of my comfort zone, but I wanted to do it because it’s an issue that affects all women of all colors, all around the world. Early detection is key – it saves so many lives. I just hope this helps to remind women of that. _ The music video is part of the I Touch Myself Project which was created in honor of celebrated diva, Chrissy Amphlett, who passed away from breast cancer, and who gave us her hit song to remind women to put their health first. The project is proudly supported by @BerleiAus for Breast Cancer Network Australia. _ Visit the link in my bio to find out more. #ITouchMyselfProject #BerleiAus #BCNA #DoItForYourself

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I watched with my fiancé trying to determine whether or not it was her voice featured in the ad and what the overall message was about. I got it at the end. They were advocating for self-checks—touching, feeling your breasts to discover any potential lumps or growth.

But I took issue with the lyrics of the song they had Serena sing for the commercial.

I love myself, I want you to love me

When I feel down, I want you above me

I search myself, I want you to find me

I forget myself, I want you to remind me

I don’t want anybody else

When I think about you, I touch myself

Ooh, I don’t want anybody else

Oh no, oh no, oh no

You’re the one who makes me come runnin’

You’re the sun who makes me shine

When you’re around, I’m always laughin’

I want to make you mine

I close my eyes and see you before me

Think I would die if you were to ignore me

A fool could see just how much I adore you

I’d get down on my knees, I’d do anything for you

I don’t want anybody else

When I think about you, I touch myself

Ooh, I don’t want anybody else 

Oh no, oh no, oh no

In defense of this campaign, Chrissy Amphilett, a member of the group Divinyls sang this song and later died from breast cancer in 2013, so I see where the connection may have come from. 

Still, this is not a song about loving yourself enough to search your body for harmful growths. It sounds like a song about masturbation and begging someone to love you. And the combination of these words with Serena holding her breasts proved to be problematic for me.

As the daughter of a two-time breast cancer survivor, I was in support of many of the marketing campaigns used to raise awareness about breast cancer and self-checks. But it wasn’t until I read this piece from Jezebel, that I realized that there is an issue with so many of them. They prioritize breasts, protecting them, saving them, sexualizing them, over the health and life of the actual woman—the life that was in jeopardy.

We’ve all seen merchandise and campaigns that feature slogans like “Save the Ta-Tas” or “Save The Boobies” or “Save the Hooters.”

These slogans don’t say “Save a life” “Save a woman.” Why? Because that’s not sexy and salacious enough. And by in large, the group that view breasts solely as sexual objects are men. These slogans work to get men to care about breast cancer awareness. They promote protecting the breasts at all costs when cancer has the ability to kill a whole person. And when you think about it, the trivialization of something so serious, turning it into a matter of sexuality versus life and death, is not right.

When my mom asked my sister and I if we’d seen the Serena commercial this morning, I told her I had and also told her that I thought the campaign was using sex to talk about a serious issue. And my mother, the two-time breast cancer survivor told me to lighten up.

I was about to respond to her—when I chilled and did what I normally do when my parents are tripping, I talked to my sister, knowing she would understand where I was coming from.

I argued my case to her, obviously preaching to the choir.

“This type of language is the reason why so many women refuse to get mastectomies trying to save their breasts instead of their lives…point is these advertisers have to be more creative. Sex can’t be the only tool in y’all arsenal.”

Then my sister said something I’d never considered, “They don’t do this for men.”

I thought of sexualizing cancer that predominately affects men and came up with a slogan of my own. “Put it in your butt for prostate cancer.”

My sister got a kick out of that. But also it goes to show the disconnect between sexuality and cancer. For women, who are too often regarded solely as sex objects in society, it’s okay. But for men, the idea is absurd.

I thought I was done talking to my parents about it but the conversation wasn’t over. My dad mentioned changing the lyrics to the song to say something like, “When I think of life, I touch myself.” My mom thought that changing the lyrics might have been illegal. But since they obtained the license to the song, they could alter it in that way; and to me, that would have been more appropriate.

But my mom’s response to that was, “Okay lighten up!”

I couldn’t take it anymore. “Mom that’s hurting my feelings you saying that to me.”

My Mom: Why? I am just saying it is not affecting me like that. And I’m the one that went through it.”

I was in the midst of sending another text, when my mom called me.

“Hello.”

I already knew I was going to cry during this conversation, so I took a deep breath.

“Hey, Mommy.”

“So, why are you upset.”

And I explained to her what I’d said above and reiterated what I said to my sister. I thought they were trivializing something too serious, sexualizing it with lyrics about masturbation and wanting a man. My mom responded with words the ultimately released the tears.

“But I’m telling you—and you wouldn’t understand this— that sometimes you need something light because fighting the disease is so heavy.”

*Through tears* “Mom, please don’t say I don’t understand. Obviously, I have no idea what you experienced but we watched you fight for your life twice, not your breasts.”

That’s when she understood where I was coming from. The first time my mom was diagnosed with cancer, in 2009, she had a lumpectomy and that was it. She felt she could get rid of the disease, keep her breasts and move on with her life. But the second time, in 2016, she immediately knew she was going to have her breasts removed. It was no question. The disease was going to keep coming back—and even if it weren’t she didn’t want to be haunted with the prospect that it might. Take the breasts. 

But I know that isn’t the case for so many women. I’ve personally known women who turned down chemotherapy because they wanted to keep their hair. There were women who said their femininity and essence as a woman would be diminished if they had a mastectomy. I heard from women whose husbands cared more about what his wife’s breasts would look like after reconstruction than they did about the general healing process.

Thankfully, my mom didn’t go through any of this. One because she and my dad’s priorities were aligned. We have to save her life. Period.

I happen to know that my mom loved her breasts. I remember her remarking about how pretty they were after her first breast cancer surgery, likely more out of surprise than vanity. But she loved her life more. And as she reminded me today, her goal now is to be here for her grandchildren, not have pretty breasts…in a casket.

My mom’s goals were so detached from the appearance of her breasts that when she had the reconstructive surgery, she opted out of having nipples drawn on her new implants. Her doctor, the plastic surgeon asked her at least 5 times if she wanted nipples. And she told him no every time. She didn’t care. It’s not about aesthetics for her.

But I told her today, mom a lot of women don’t think like you. That’s likely why the doctor kept pushing the conversation about nipples. Because most women are deeply concerned about looking a certain way after surgery. Their breasts are important to them, maybe too important. And this is why commercials like this one concern me.

It’s also the same reason why my mom looked at the commercial and saw something totally different than I did. She saw a cute little song about self-checks because she never associated breast health and battling breast cancer with selling sex or sexuality. And I, with the voices of other women in my head, saw, once again, the conflation of sex/sex appeal/sexuality with a matter of life and death.

To be clear this is not a critique of Serena. I know she didn’t come up with this concept and I’m sure her mind and heart were pure in her decision to take on this project. If I had any significant influence, I might have done the same thing a few years ago, before I knew better. But now that I do, I can’t pretend like these messages sexualizing breasts or prioritizing them over a woman’s life don’t have an effect on the real women who are faced with realities of cancer growing inside of their bodies.

Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days” and the creator of the website NoSugarNoCreamMag. You can follow her on Facebook and on Instagram and Twitter @VDubShrug.

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