No, an ad agency did not invent the world’s first CPR manikin with breasts.
Despite a number of misleading headlines earlier this month, the new WoManikin tool by ad agency JOAN is not the first CPR manikin with breasts. Even a cursory search of medical technology company’s inventories turns up a handful of increasingly terrifying examples. Because existing models with breasts are often as expensive as they are unbearably uncanny to look at, the WoManikin attachment for CPR training models helps people learn to perform first aid on people with breasts without requiring organizations to purchase new, often increasingly tech-heavy, training models.
The agency based the product on a 2018 study in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, which showed that women who go into cardiac arrest are less likely than men to get prompt CPR from bystanders, which results in lower survival rates. Part of the reason for this may be that people are not exposed to models with breasts when they get CPR training and are unsure how to do compressions on a chest with breasts. But of course, social taboos about touching or exposing women’s breasts also play a part in the hesitation of bystanders and are connected to the sexualization of women’s bodies baked into professional medicine.
As medical historian Monica Green argues in Making Women’s Medicine Masculine, sexual shame has been an important, complicating factor in men’s medical practice since the beginnings of professionalized medicine in the late medieval period. Curiously, in the Middle Ages there were no taboos against male medical practitioners seeing or touching the breasts of women patients. Surgeons, at least, had long considered women’s breasts part of their purview, but the treatment of genital diseases was stymied by sexual shame until about the 14th century, when male practitioners actively began to claim authority in women’s medicine. In fact, the issue was so significant that many of the records historians have of women medical practitioners in this period are those of midwives and others whom male physicians commissioned to deal with delicate, gynecological matters. Looking at or touching women’s “secret places” was beyond the pale for male medical practitioners until they began to incorporate women’s medicine into the formal professionalization of the field in the late middle ages.
Professional medical practitioners today could never have such externalized compunction about women’s bodies because it would signal an inappropriate sexualization of their patients. But in assuming absolute authority over women’s medicine, the male medical establishment has enshrined assumptions about what women’s bodies are for in medical practice, and ideas about women as merely sexual objects or reproductive vessels still bubble to the surface in egregious cases of malpractice and neglect. Outside of professional medicine, in the realm of bystander CPR, there aren’t even the nominal ethics of care that apply to licensed providers to protect women from the male gaze. Taking a CPR class, even using a manikin with breasts, is not enough to retrain men to see women as people.
As a result, the WoManikin is good viral marketing for JOAN, but not much more. The firm’s video promo for the device says, “Seriously, that’s it,” in response to the implied question of how to solve the problem of bystander hesitation. Slapping some plushy breasts on existing flat-chested CPR manikins will, apparently, eliminate men’s deep-seated fear of women’s bodies and enable them to perform CPR with confidence. The whole thing is cleverly done. The announcement, the link to the study in Circulation, the predictable outcry on Twitter, all play to a pattern we’ve become accustomed to in learning some new horrible fact about the ways that women are harmed by the patriarchy and by the male medical establishment. The WoManikin proposes a simple, open-source solution to a problem that is much, much larger than JOAN’s marketing materials seem to want to admit.
These attachable breasts are representative of only a very small proportion of breasts overall. If the issue with bystander hesitation is physiological unfamiliarity, the WoManikin only provides exposure to one size and shape of breast. If the issue is that men seem generally to live in fear of the bodies of living human women, training with this model does nothing to counteract the shame such bystanders would feel trying to save a woman’s life. Perhaps the issue is that men are afraid they will be accused of sexual assault by the women whose lives they do manage to save, but it should go without saying that if you can’t perform CPR on a woman without appearing to assault her you’re unlikely to do much to save her life anyway.
What underpins these issues—as we all have undoubtedly become impossibly tired of saying— is that men view women’s bodies as sexual objects first and only grudgingly as fragile meat machines sometimes in need of bystander intervention second. The sexualization of breasts is, like many ideas men have, often dangerous as well as irritating for women. It limits the places and times in which women can feed their children without interference. It trivializes their encounters with cancer, making them a punchline and a marketing strategy. And in the case of bystander CPR withheld by fearful men, it can cost women their lives. Medical care is being denied to women by male practitioners, whether they be the medieval doctors of Monica Green’s account or the terrified bystanders watching a woman die of cardiac arrest and thinking only about how it would look if they moved to help. And, as always, clever marketing and new technology is not the solution.