How The Bra Changed Sex

The first bra was invented in 1913, and patented a year later, by Mary Phelps Jacobs, a New York socialite who purchased an evening gown that is said to not have worked well with the whalebone corsets of the time. Through the assemblage of silk handkerchiefs and ribbons, the first brassiere was born – and it changed sex and attraction in myriad ways.

Bras, of course, as they became known changed the way that women portray and display their bodies. Various bra styles have re-imagined women’s bodies at different points in history. Though early bras were not entirely supportive, the conical bras (also called “bullet bras”) of the 1950s helped women emulate the “sweater girls” of the time, such as Jane Russell. Though bras were burned and breasts were freed in the 1960s, it wasn’t long before bras were all the rage again with backless designs for 1970s halters and the “Wonderbra” that revolutionized padded bras and burgeoning cleavage in the 1990s.

The widespread use of the bra in many cultures, such as in the United States, means that women are rarely ever seen in public – at work, in school, or at grocery store – in any way that shows off their natural breast shape. The “sexual” body, then, is one that is private, free and naked whereas the public body of a woman is shaped, contoured and held together in very controlled ways, often due to underwire support.

Bras change the way that women and men “measure” or group women by breast size. Before bras were born, women may have been described as small or medium or large breasted. It was the bra that created a more uniform system of measurement that put women and their breasts into groups like 32A, 34C or 36DD. This would lead to men saying things like “Wow, I’ve never been with a woman who had natural D cups before!” And it would lead others to say “C cup? Well, you know what they say: ‘more than a mouthful is a waste.’” Developing teenaged girls had goals to shoot for – moving from an A to a B.

Bras allowed women to create different versions of themselves: flimsy bras that allow breasts to hang naturally can create a demure look whereas padded bras can increase the appearance of women’s breast size, in much the same way that blowfish make themselves bigger or cats raise their fur to look bigger when facing a threat. Women sometimes use padded bras to be bigger breasted than their frenemies or to entice a partner with alluring cleavage.

Bras also changed the way we think about preparing for sex: there are bras that women wear to work (again, to shape or control) and then there are bras that women save for special occasions, to entice or excite a lover, to transform themselves into a vixen in their own eyes (which can enhance their arousal), or to seek revenge sex on an ex by letting a favorite bra peek out from one’s shirt, reminding the person who hurt or betrayed them of nights gone by.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.