Elizabeth, a 31-year-old law student in Portland, recently lost so much weight that she went from a C cup to an A cup. She’s mostly pleased about the weight loss, saying that being thin has given her “confidence and pleasure in [her] body that [she’s] never had.” But it’s created a new area of insecurity, too: her breasts. “I loathe my body in a whole new way, by not feeling sexy enough,” she explains. “That, plus the fact that my breasts have lost some of their perk as I’ve aged, has meant that I only really feel sexy when I have some sort of push-up bra or other lingerie on while having sex.”
She clarifies that her partner in no way fuels her insecurity about her breasts; he’s kind, supportive and “makes [her] feel beautiful.” She says coming of age in the heroin chic heyday of the late 1990s and early aughts, only to have the Kardashians usher in a competing beauty paradigm, has done a number on her body image. “[My boyfriend] will try to convince me that he loves my body and dissuade me from feeling like I ‘need’ to wear a bra,” she continues, “but he’s generally been cowed into accepting that it’s not something that will be changed by his behavior.”
When it’s discussed in the media, the phenomenon of leaving a bra on during sex is usually portrayed as prudish and unrealistic: We’re told we see it so often in films and TV shows because of nudity restrictions, not because this is how real, liberated people actually have sex (see, for example, this Reductress article, “Hot! This Woman Kept Her Bra on During Sex to Make It Seem Like a Movie”). To the extent that bra sex occurs in real life, these articles say, it must be because pop culture conned women into thinking it was how other women had sex. “Despite what you’ve watched on telly,” Rebecca Reid writes for Metro, “keeping your bra on during sex is not the ‘normal’ way to do things.”
But bra sex does occur IRL, and not because women are mindlessly mirroring what they see on their screens. For instance, Emily, a 28-year-old artist in London, wears a bra during sex for practical reasons: She’s a size 38GG, and without some form of support, sex is uncomfortable. “I’m not hiding them because I have any issue with their appearance,” she explains. “It’s purely the physics for me.”
Meanwhile, for numerous other women like Elizabeth, the issue is body insecurity. Kayla, a 35-year-old fundraiser in Portland, says that while she hardly ever used to leave a bra on during sex before she gave birth to her baby, since then it’s become the norm, and this is “mostly due to being self-conscious.” “My body is noticeably different,” she tells me. “I have a softer stomach and my boobs are either engorged or deflated, depending on the day. I’m extremely aware of my breasts during sex now, and the fear of a milk spray occurring in that scenario makes me uncomfortable.”
For Sarah, a 38-year-old who says she’s been almost “pathological” in her insistence that her bra stays on during sex, her insecurity centers on her nipples. “I have inverted nipples, one more so than the other, and I told myself at a very early age that wasn’t okay,” she explains. “The original issue stemmed from overhearing two boys at age 16 talk about seeing a girl with inverted nipples and how ‘weird’ that was. I still wish I was ‘typical.’”
Sue, a trans woman in her late 20s in Ohio, adds that leaving a bra on during sex is “super common” among trans women who are insecure about their bust size or who feel more dysphoric without the femme signifier of a bra. “Basically, the less clothes I’m wearing, the more susceptible I am to dysphoria,” she says. “I feel like so much of my femininity is defined by material signifiers, and keeping a bra on can help maintain that definition.”
So is bra sex… bad?
Clearly it’s regrettable that some women feel so insecure about their breasts that they don’t want to reveal them even to intimate partners, and it’s dispiriting that there are so many ways for breasts to be “wrong”: They can be too big or too small, have inverted nipples or large areola, sag or be full of milk. And while Sue, Sarah, Kayla and Elizabeth all report having kind partners who love their bodies just as they are, these insecurities don’t develop out of thin air — negative messages about “imperfect” breasts permeate our media and social environments.
Aren’t we in the midst of a body-positive revolution, though? Shouldn’t these women ignore impossible beauty standards and embrace their bodies exactly as they are, or at least allow their adoring partners to do so? “Sometimes it does feel like I’m bringing my neuroses and body issues into an experience that, at its best, is a liberation from those things,” Elizabeth concedes.
But while unshakeable self-love is certainly a worthy goal, in the meantime, regular, self-loathing women still want to fuck — and leaving their bras on allows them to do so with minimal self-consciousness. “At least for the time being,” Elizabeth concludes, “it’s the only way for me to feel confident enough to enjoy sex.”