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Talks on breasts, AI and more highlight Pittsburgh Humanities Festival

Sarah Thornton.
Aya Brackett
Sarah Thornton, author of the forthcoming book "T--- Up: What Sex Workers, Milk Bankers, Plastic Surgeons, Bra Designers, and Witches Tell Us About Breasts," speaks at the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival.

It was only after her double mastectomy that Sarah Thornton really got interested in breasts.

And not just her own, which the author and sociologist had removed in 2018, after years of biopsies, as a way to avoid breast cancer.

“I didn’t know what I’d lost,” said Thornton, now 59. “I’d lived with these things for 40 years and not really given them much thought.”

The research that followed begat “T--- Up: What Sex Workers, Milk Bankers, Plastic Surgeons, Bra Designers, and Witches Tell Us About Breasts,” out May 7 on W.W. Norton.

Thornton is among the experts speaking at this year’s revamped Pittsburgh Humanities Festival, running Wed., April 3, to Sat., April 6, at the Greer Cabaret Theater.

The festival, organized by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Carnegie Mellon University’s Humanities Center, also features presentations on “moral AI,” by CMU researcher Vincent Conitzer; soul food, by food historian Adrian Miller; and the web-enabled phenomenon known as ASMR, by performer Chia Kwa.

The four events comprise a scaled-down version of the festival, which had previously featured a dozen or more talks over the course of a weekend.

Thornton, based in California, made her name writing about the business of art, both for The Economist magazine and in her best-selling 2008 book “Seven Days in the Art World.”

For “T--- Up,” she took a similarly ethnographic approach, immersing herself in the five subcultures named in the book’s subtitle. (The sex workers employed in a strip club; the self-identified witches are participants in a pagan retreat in a redwood forest.)

While Western civilization’s fixation on breasts as sex objects began centuries ago, Thornton said, it’s only become more thoroughgoing. Thornton learned that she’d unwittingly absorbed these attitudes, to the detriment of breasts as food sources and emblems of mammalian evolution.

“I was shocked at how little I know about breasts, and I was shocked at how regularly they were dismissed as dumb boobs,” she said.

The book seeks to reclaim those other functions.

“The main argument of the book is that not even feminists are not really aware of how patriarchy has invaded our perspective on our breasts,” she said.

Her April 7 presentation here will last an hour with time for questions and answers. She added, “I hope the book will allow people to feel a little more pride in their chests.”

More information on the Humanities Festival is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: