Breasts. We notice them. We admire, we imagine, we long. Sometimes women reveal very little, and we muse on what we can’t see. But sometimes women invite us in, and we can’t believe how lucky we are. Breasts are an elemental force to men, the strength of which women may recognize but not fully understand.

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Observe: At Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, researchers found that 47 percent of men, upon meeting a woman, glance at her breasts first — and they also look at breasts longer than any other body part, “Breasts have an incredible power over men, and women know it,” says sexologist Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., the author of Third Base Ain’t What It Used to Be. “But ultimately, men and women come at breasts from very different perspectives.”

And therein lies the problem: Amid obsessing over what we’re dying to see and touch, we know very little about breasts as women themselves perceive them. So to find the truth, we consulted female sex experts and surveyed more than 700 women. Everything you need to know is here, and it’s stamped official because it comes from breast owners. Heed this knowledge, and you will earn, in a very respectful and honest way, what every man craves: more access to breasts.

Truth #1
Women don’t think we’re total pigs about this

Jerry Seinfeld said it best many years ago: “Looking at cleavage is like looking at the sun. You don’t stare at it. It’s too risky!” Common sense, right? And common courtesy. In fact, 42 percent of the women we surveyed said that once they realize a man is staring at their breasts, they call him on it with eye contact. But another 34 percent said, “Let him look.” The fact is, three-quarters of the women we asked think men’s fascination with breasts is harmless. Seventy percent assume most guys are boob men. It’s almost as if they’ve come to expect our behavior. A few even appreciate it. “I love it when men look at my breasts,” says Rachel, 23. “It makes me feel powerful, and there’s something carnal about it.”

Of course, this is neither a ticket to leer nor an invitation to make crass comments, even in jest. “Women take comments very seriously, even if they laugh,” says Sara Churchill, founder of hiddenfeet.com, an online support group for women with large breasts. Indeed, what the women in our survey seemed to take the most exception to wasn’t so much the looking as the vulgarity sometimes associated with it. “I do feel it objectifies women,” says Carolin, 23. “I’ve heard too many ‘Dude, check out that rack’ lines to feel that breasts do not impede a woman’s ability to convey what she wants to convey about herself. She is, at least at first, reduced to a ‘nice rack.’ ”

How to deal “Pure behavioral management,” says Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., a sexual-health researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and the Men’s Health Sex Professor. “There’s really no excuse for not being courteous or maintaining eye contact with women.” Many women in our survey echoed this sentiment. “Despite their prominence, breasts are an extremely personal part of who I am,” Carolin says. “That’s why women don’t like gawking. It feels like a violation of privacy.”

This is perhaps the root of the tension. When we asked in a separate survey of 1,750 men what it was about women’s breasts that they found so arousing, the majority said it was primarily their intimate nature. Then came shape, movement, and — at a distant fourth — size. (A few other stats from our survey might reassure women that men aren’t thoroughly one-dimensional about women’s multidimensional assets: Fifty-nine percent of men are more aroused by the tease than the reveal, and 58 percent consider their first kiss a more formative experience than their first exposure to breasts.)

Truth #2
Many women love their breasts more than you do

The women we surveyed were, by and large, enthusiastic about their girls. Most consider them to be key parts of their sexual identity, as opposed to fashion accessories or mere body parts. Sixty-two percent think it’s more exciting to pull off their tops than their bottoms, and 78 percent prefer the woman-on-top position because it shows off their breasts better during sex. And while it’s true that a number of women pursue breast augmentation, 69 percent in our survey would never consider it. “A woman should be proud of her breasts,” says Vicky, 23. “They’re miracles of evolution, as versatile as a Swiss Army knife: baby feeder, pleasure enhancer, compliment grabber. The list goes on and on.”

Of course, women also love their breasts because they’re, well, effective. It begins in the bedroom: “When you’re spooning and his hand slides up over your breasts and you just hear him go ‘Mmmm,’ it’s oddly powerful,” writes Tina, 22. But that power goes beyond the boudoir. “Women know that wearing clothing that shapes their breasts in certain ways affects men significantly,” Herbenick says. In fact, 87 percent of women we surveyed think women who make an effort to show off their breasts receive preferential treatment. “I have a red tank top my husband finds very attractive,” says Kimberly, age 37. “Our running joke is that as long as I’m wearing this top, I can get away with anything.”

Women fessed up to using this strategy to score free drinks, get out of traffic tickets, and, in one case that proves how vulnerable the male computer geek can be, land a free hard drive. But all this said, fully 71 percent of women said they’ve never consciously used their breasts to get anything at all.

How to deal Realize you’re in the middle of a psychological power struggle, says Elisabeth Squires, the author of Boobs: A Guide to Your Girls. On one hand, she’s playing you for a fool by flashing cleavage. On the other hand, what’s the harm? “Each man has to decide what’s at stake and if it’s right or wrong to play her game,” Squires says. Letting her go ahead of you at the bar doesn’t hurt anyone. Letting her slide on a project at work, however, is something else entirely.

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