It's not often that you can accuse the Sun of sensitivity. But it did display unexpected tact the day the front page was devoted to Kylie Minogue's breast cancer: it dropped the Page Three pin-up. Presumably they didn't want to offend readers with any reminder that those pert, cheeky playthings can also harbour sinister hidden routes of dangerously connective hormones.

In fact, the Sun doesn't savour any association with breasts other than titillation. A couple of months ago it ran a campaign to get Britney Spears to wear a bra because now that she's pregnant hers are beginning to sag. And that's disgusting.

The extent of this division between the breast's erotic and nurturing functions seems an acute barometer of a culture's well-being. In America, the spiritual home of the breast fetish, the separation has reached massive proportions. Women are so castigated for breastfeeding that determined mothers have resorted to forming associations like the Militant Breastfeeding Cult and Inciteful Mamas.

In the UK, where breastfeeding rates are far lower than in any other European country, our squeamishness is epitomised by the 'bitty' sketches in Little Britain, where Geraldine James breastfeeds a fully grown David Walliams.

Yet at the same time toplessness seems to be proliferating at epidemic rates, to the horror of first wave feminists like Rosie Boycott, who expressed her shock recently in the Daily Mail at the sheer number of bare breasts in the young men's weeklies like Zoo and Nuts.

Meanwhile, Natasha Walter in the Guardian welcomed the decision by Tesco to relegate men's lifestyle publications to high shelves in order to obscure those screaming cover lines: Naked photoshoots! Big Brother's hottest babes! Girls next door flash their assets! Steaming Essex girls! The supermarket's view, now supported by a growing number of news vendors, is that since these magazines have become virtually indistinguishable from soft porn, then at least they should be removed from the mainstream.

Twenty years ago, a similar concern prompted the MP Clare Short to mount her campaign against Page Three topless models. She argued that they were an affront to women because their appearance in daily newspapers had forced pornography down from the top shelf and on to the breakfast table. She was widely derided for her stance, and has ever since been the tabloid's favourite target of scorn.

So perhaps to avoid falling into the same trap, Natasha Walter originally offered a different strategy. Rather than campaign for censorship, she used to recommend a kind of weary tolerance, with the hope that with increased advances in women's equality, the appetite for such images would gradually disappear.

Now, though, she's changed her mind, despairing at the aggressive presentation of the models, 'always stripping them down to push-up bras and thongs'always posing them with their bottoms in the air or their hands clasped over their nipples.'

And yet young women themselves don't seem all that bothered. The images that my generation found so degrading are just not an issue for most of them, and certainly not for the thousands who clamour to appear in the lads' magazines by sending in pictures of themselves in the nude. What we saw as objectifying, they see as a bit of fun.

It's an attitude epitomised by nipple-flaunters Rebecca Loos and Abi Titmuss ' most recently caught exposing themselves on that ultimate booby: Celebrity Love Island. Both make a huge amount of money, especially Titmuss, who turns out to have a very well developed flair for finance, coming up with canny tricks like paying for her own photoshoots so that she can retain copyright. High profile actresses are playing a similar game. 'Everyone has a price,' Desperate Housewives star Teri Hatcher announced recently. 'And mine's $10m. The cleavage you can get for free.'

Far from being exploited, these women see themselves as doing the exploiting. If men are daft enough to pay good money to look at breasts, then what's wrong with milking them? It sounds simple enough. Except, of course, that women's relationships with their breasts are far from simple. To many of us, breasts are intrinsic to our sense of ourselves ' a gauge to our emotional and physical health. They get sore before a period, tingle when we fancy someone, throb at sexual arousal, enlarge and transform during pregnancy. Some women are so attached to them that they won't have a mammogram, preferring a cancer to go undetected rather than having to risk losing a breast.

Breast consciousness begins very early. Generations of women shudder to remember the torture of all those anguished comparisons in the school changing rooms, with some sporting melon-sized globes while others crossed embarrassed arms over their sprouting fried eggs.

These days, though, if you haven't got them you can always buy some. Silicon implants, once the private luxury of the very rich or the very desperate, are now commonplace and no longer hidden. Last year in the UK alone 3,700 women underwent breast enlargement operations. They are the new nose job ' the coming out present for precocious teenagers, so popular that they were even giving them away as prizes recently on Juice FM in Liverpool. Women who have been miserable all their lives with breasts that make them feel inferior suddenly bounce into confidence and happiness when they invest in a new pair.

'I've gone from 30B to 30G and feel I can finally move on with my life,' Kelly Bell told Closer magazine. Recovering from years of anorexia and bulimia, she spent '19,000 on four rounds of plastic surgery on her breasts. 'I desperately wanted my body to reflect the woman I now felt I was.'

She was obviously seeking to liberate her inner Jordan ' the pop personality who had three separate silicone implants to take her to a size FF chest. Though that's fairly modest compared with the glandular excesses of the late Lolo Ferrari. She underwent 18 operations to create the astonishing 72 inch bust that propelled her into a career in porn films and cult status on the Channel 4 programme Eurotrash.

Currently, more money is being spent on breast implants and Viagra than on Alzheimer's research. So in the very near future there should be a large, elderly population with impressive breasts and magnificent erections, but no recollection of what to do with them.

The craze for big breasts is baffling really, considering how inconvenient they can be. Even plastic ones, if they're really huge, require hydraulic engineering to keep them up. If you don't get the angle right you could put your back out. And they're hardly compatible with any kind of active life, since it's almost impossible to stride, let alone run without a certain amount of wobble. You don't see many well-endowed women on the trampoline at the gym. Most can't even manage a modest jumping jack.

It must be that women who long for bigger breasts tend to assume that men will love them more if they go up a cup size or two. In fact, though, the male fixation, far from being a symptom of adoration, is one of scorn. Breasts, the most visible manifestation of gender difference, must be constantly viewed, prodded, commodified, teased and ogled in order to emphasise women's inferiority.

It wasn't always like that. Primitive sculptures show women with ripe, fecund, pendulous breasts. The Minoans, who depicted their women with full, bare breasts, were goddess-worshippers who connected the round, voluptuous figures of women with wealth and life-giving. Isis, the Egyptian goddess, is frequently portrayed with milk flowing from her breast, while the Greek goddess Artemis is most commonly depicted with not two but multiple breasts to signify her prodigious power.

While earlier religions revered the breast, Christianity shuddered away from it. The evangelical drive to divide the body and the spirit succeeded in asserting the phallic dominance that has prevailed ever since. As Europe began to emerge from its dark ages, breasts were gradually squashed upwards into cleavages by primitive versions of the corset. And as rich women began to farm out their babies to wet nurses, the breast began to lose its primary association with feeding and life-giving, assuming a new significance as a focus of erotic desire. By the dawning of the Renaissance, decolletage was the norm and western civilisation's infatuation with breasts graduated to full-blown obsession, manifested by their massive preponderance in paintings and sculptures.

It was the French Revolution that set breasts free again. Breastfeeding became a hallmark of liberation, a return to the natural championed by Rousseau, who passionately advocated its virtues. At the same time, women cast off their whalebone stays and bodices, allowing their breasts to breathe under soft, nearly transparent diaphanous gowns. A few even went the whole hog and paraded through the streets of Paris naked to the waist. The iconography of the Revolution was the topless woman, sometimes portrayed as a warrior, sometimes as a goddess, glorified as a muse in Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People.

Breasts were a symbol of freedom, much as they were again during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Bra-burning was always a myth, but there was certainly a move away from the constrictions of armour-plated underwear. Real feminists went natural. And while we bravely battled with unseemly bulges and bouncing, we were also battling with the bodily ideal of the time ' boyish, hipless and flat-chested. Periods of advances for women have traditionally been marked, paradoxically, not just by the freeing of breasts, but also by the favoured version of the female body becoming less feminine, as if we have to ape masculinity in order to achieve liberation.

In any case, the boyishness and bouncing breasts didn't last very long, giving way to the age of the Wonderbra just as the French Revolution was followed by the Victorian era of constricting corsets and bustles. As soon as the World War Two was over and women were back in the home again, the New Look arrived, heralding a buxom hourglass figure, full skirts and, guess what? Big luscious boobs.

These were the hallmark of the film icons of the era: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren. While flat-chested screen idols like Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davies had conveyed intelligence and sophistication, the new sex bombs were all passion and steamy sexuality. Big breasts meant libido ' and stupidity.

This was the decade that saw the birth of Playboy magazine and its myriad imitators ' all intent on reducing women to sex toys, though none did it with quite such insouciance as Hugh Heffner. He built a whole empire on the simple ruse of presenting women as fluffy, sexy bunnies, in sharp contrast to the most celebrated image of American womanhood in the 1940s: Rosie the Riveter.

There had been plenty of pin-up magazines before, specialising in glamour pictures of scantily dressed girls or semi-nude starlets. But these new, breast-obsessed glossies marked a shift from desire to contempt. Playboy, Hustler and Penthouse, just like today's laddish incarnations, are all a desperate manifestation not of reverence of breasts, but awe of them and the female power they represent. So when Nuts offers 100 real pairs of nipples for its readers to rate, Loaded promises pictures of the 100 naughtiest girls in the world, FHM tantalises with 250 sex scenes, and Front features the battle of the boobs, all they're doing is reinforcing the neurotic need to trivialise in order to minimise.

The snag is that it's not working. In spite of all that effort to make sure that women are kept in our place, we just keep on striding towards equality. Which may be why today's young women appear so indifferent towards these negative portrayals of them. If anything, they think it's the men who are sad for being such suckers.

Despite the 'wham it to her' aggression of the magazines, the internet sites, the lapdancing clubs, the sexy chat lines, adult movies and adult TV channels, the whole edifice of exploitation is being subtly undermined by the many ways in which women are taking on and shaping their own bodies ' sometimes in response to the male gaze, but also in spite of it.

What is so striking about the current ideal figure is the strange combination of unfeasibly thin athletic bodies with muscular biceps and round, large breasts. It's Twiggy meets Kelly Holmes meets Marilyn Monroe, a kind of joyful postmodern bricollage of feminine ideals: boyish but womanly, strong but soft, kittenish but matronly, sexy but also free. The cocktail of shapes and meanings has been exaggerated to the point of satire by larger-than-life personalities like Dolly Parton with her take on busty dumb blondeness; Madonna in her many guises, and Vivienne Westwood's extreme reshapings of bondage fashions to make them womanly.

Similarly, women artists have been reclaiming their bodies and subverting the tired, slavering portrayals of the big boys. Raphael's beatific nudes, Manet's virginal bathers, Rubens' voluptuous matrons, Gaugin's exotics and Matisse's recliner ' all carry a strong tincture of sexual suggestiveness that is completely eschewed by the suffused pain of Frida Khalo's tortured nude self portraits; Cindy Sherman and her fabricated lactating jugs; Helen Chadwick's complex reproduction of a classic breastfeeding virgin; Tracey Emin's yearning erotic versions of herself in her latest show, 'When I think About Sex'.

Feminists of my generation may deplore the ludicrous ubiquity of nipples in our sensation-starved media, and despair at young women's eagerness to subscribe to it by contorting themselves into ever more extreme versions of breasts on sticks. But maybe, just maybe, there could be a more redeeming and hopeful significance to this phenomenon. We don't need to look like guys these days to prove ourselves. The route to equality is not to ape men but to get them to accept us: to suck our milk, rejoice in our immortality, worship us and adore our breasts for what they really are.

We don't want your power. We just want ours back again.