--Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette quoted in "Why Mammals are Called Mammals"[*]
Experience may tell you that producing milk and nursing youngsters is a job for the female mammal, not the male. But your experience is probably limited, and the potential of biology--and medical technology--is vast.
--Jared Diamond "Father's Milk"[*]
"For those who claim male lactation is "unnatural," I would have to ask: how natural is canned formula from Nestle' or pacifiers made from petrolium byproducts? If milk production in men were truly unnatural, it wouldn't exist.”
--Laura Shanley "Milkmen: Fathers who Breastfeed"[*]
3. Male Lactation: An Unnatural Act?
The identity politics of human breasts come to full fruition in the question of male nipples. As male children we are taught that girls have “boobs” and boys have “chests,’ but the question of male nipples cannot be evaded. For thousands of years breasts have been one of the most significant markers of one’s gender, and hence male breasts and their nipples pose an existential dilemma to those who identify as male. This has never been truer than within the present visual culture that fetishizes the (female) breast.
Take for example the reception of the 2006 Nickelodeon film Barnyard. While critics had diverse opinions on the film, nearly all their reviews shared one particular quip: the protagonist of the film, a steer, had utters. As one late reviewer ranted:
Every single review whether by a critic or just your average John Q. Moviefone seems to be possessed by the urge to point out their extensive knowledge of bovine anatomy and remind the reader that male cattle do not, in fact, have udders.While filmgoers often suspend disbelief during films, especially animated features, the audiences could not suspend “the truth” about male anatomy. And, of course, there is also the double standard. Female pigs (who have ten or more nipples) and chickens (who don’t have any mammary glands) are often represented with a pair of giant breasts in cartoons yet male reviewers say nothing—they probably are not even conscious of these transgressions. The existence of DD breasts on a chicken somehow seem quite natural, but udders on a male, no! (But if male goats can grow udders, why not steers?)[*]
Indeed, men face tremendous existential anxieties when their perceived masculinity is challenged by breast growth and breast cancer. In his dissertation on ecofeminism and sociology of the body, Richard Twine (2001) discusses the role of cosmetic surgery in marking and constructing “natural” bodies. Twine cites that the fourth most popular cosmetic surgery among men is breast reduction. Though 60% of men have a “proliferative development” of breast tissue called gynecomastia to different degrees, the assignment of a title to such a common condition marks large male breasts as a quasi-“disease” to be treated within medical discourse. Twine calls gynecomastia a
medical construction that occurs in the context of a culture that rigidly polices the demarcation between what is constructed as the male and female body… ‘gynecomastia’ is potentially disruptive of heterosexist understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality. This can be taken as an illustration of how cosmetic surgery perpetuates a culturally constructed ‘natural’ body.Further citing Morgan (1991) and Kathy Davis (1996), he considers cosmetic surgery “conformity on a deeper level,” and “not about beauty, but about identity.”
The significance breasts play in gender and/or sexual identity is emphasized in Thomas Beatie's, the first man internationally recognized to give birth, testimony after a sexual reassignment surgery: “That day was—the most liberating day of my life. I literally felt like a weight was lifted from my chest." As a person , Beatie considered downsizing his breasts a more significant step toward achieving the body he identified with as a man than the optional removal of his uterus, which he did not believe “will make you any more of a man or any less of a woman." [*SEE ENDNOTE]
But men don’t just need to grow large breasts to feel threatened by them; merely by recognizing them as inseparable from their existential condition does masculinity come under threat. In one paper, “What Makes a Man a Man? The Lived Experience of Male Breast Cancer,” the authors explore the unique lived experience of men with breast cancer, an experience they consider “unparalleled in other disease profiles.” According to the authors,
[t]he idea of living with a feminized illness was very distressing and stigmatizing for some men. Furthermore, treatment resulted in a profound change to the concept of their embodied selves and constituted a significant change to body image and sexuality. This was reinforced in participants who experienced erectile dysfunction related to tamoxifen therapy.Though there breasts did not grow larger or become more physically visible to the public, their cancer had marked their breast and categorized them into a body mostly composed of women—breast cancer patients. Within the dominant discourses of breasts, masculinity comes under threat in it’s proximity/association to female breasts and their milk.[*]
Also see this video of man pumping his own milk
As Jared Diamond notes in his book Why is Sex Fun? (1998), our knowledge of male breasts are limited. To the surprise, and perhaps dismay, of many Americans, men can lactate. Male lactation has been recorded in species including humans, cows, goats, guinea pigs, and most notably the Dayak fruit bat. Males may have less well-developed mammary glands, but they nonetheless have them and the potential to lactate if provided with the proper stimulation or hormonal input. Diamond writes that direct injections of hormones released during pregnancy like estrogen and progesterone have catalyzed breast growth and milk in virgin and male mammals. Cancer patients, too, will begin lactating when injected with prolactin. With the proper does of chemicals humans straight from the womb can lactate (“witches milk”) as well as those in their 70s. Recovery from starvation is another exceptional state that was believed to cause thousands of men confined in Nazi and Japanese POW camps to spontaneously lactate as they struggled with bouts of hunger.
Not only can biochemical changes trigger spontaneous lactation in male mammals, so can intentional states. Diamond informs us that with this knowledge, “The remaining obstacle will then no longer be physiological but psychological: Will all you guys be able to get over your hang-up that breast-feeding is a woman’s job?” Dan Raphael was among the first to claim in a publication that lactation in males could be induced with manual stimulation of the nipples in his book The Tender Gift (1978). Unassisted child birth advocate Laura Shanley not only confirms that manual stimulation can unlock males’ latent potential to lactate, but that so too can the power of suggestion. Through rigorous meditative exercises, her husband was able to achieve lactation.
Desperation may also hold the key to unleashing male milk. In 2002, a Sri Lankan man whose wife had just perished, put his eldest daughter (18 months old) who would not drink formula to his breast and miraculously began to lactate. Stories of men going wetnurse after the loss of their wives go back centuries. A collection of them are contained within the compendium Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (1896) by George Gould and Walter Pyle. One story told by a Prusian naturalist is of a Brazilian man who served as wetnurse when the female villagers’ breasts had shriveled up, he being the only supply of milk. The same naturalist also wrote of a Burmese man who nursed his children, and naturalist David Livingstone reported on a like occurrence in the Scottish highlands. One blogger additionally cites a 55-year old man who served as a wetnurse in Baltimore and a man in Zaire who nursed his son in 2002.
Though this information may come as a perverse surprise to many, male lactation was not something entirely unknown in earlier times. In the Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin acknowledged the male mammary, writing
It is well known that in the males of all mammals, including man, rudimentary mammae exist. These in several instances have become well developed, and have yielded a copious supply of milk. Their essential identity in the two sexes is likewise shewn by their occasional sympathetic enlargement in both during an attack of the measlesLater, he speculated that both sexes once nursed their young in earlier times before the male mammary became latent. Male lactation is also suggested in the Torah:
Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? (Numbers 11:12)One may wonder, if such “anomalies and curiosities” have been known throughout the ages, if the knowledge of male lactation has been erased by late modern scientific discourse. Perhaps knowledge about the potential of males to lactate, like the female orgasm, has been suppressed my medical and political authority, a product of an epistemology of ignorance.
Further, Claudia McCreary suspects that male breastfeeding is so rare because it would already be seen as a perverse monstrosity if done in public, not to mention it would increase the size of a man’s breast and further stigmatize him. And ,of course, even ones most trusted intimate partner may not accept such a decision, and thus any male breastfeeding must stay “underground.” Transgendered people already face a tremenduous amount of violence and ridicule, even from medical authorities who are supposed to look out for their patients. Thomas Beatie describes the discrimination he faced when seeking medical care during and even after his gender reassignment surgery. Some doctors refused to use the pronoun “he,” and others even demanded he shave his facial hair and see a psychologist. Beatie’s own brother was insensitive to his loss of his embryos and fallopian tubes, telling him it “it’s a good thing that happened. Who knows what kind of monster it would have been.” Worse of all, after going public, Beatie and his family began to receive death threats.
Men who are interested in transgressing gender roles in one of the most intimate and cosmological senses—by becoming wet nurses—would be faced with threats beyond social stigmitation. Since maternal breastfeeding is considered natural and sacred, the American public accepts breastfeeding so long as mothers don’t report any pleasure other than maternal feelings. Take Karen Carter, a 28 year old single mother, who in 1991 called into her local crisis center asking, "Is it normal to feel aroused during nursing?” It took Carter two-years to regain full custody of her children after she was charged with “sexual abuse in the first degree”.
Not surprising then, the idea of a man breastfeeding becomes a transgressive/monstrous act, demonic rather than divine. This sentiment is expressed by Jessica at the blog Imperfect Parent, upon learning of male lactation:
I can’t help but feel that a man breastfeeding is pedophilic… [and] need[s] to talk to a psychiatrist... An emotionally retarded father’s desires should not supersede what is morally right for the child… [male nursing is] unacceptable in a civilized society.Here, male breastfeeding breaks “civil” order and moral law; a man must be psychologically ill or “retarded” to feed a child. Jessica cannot but suspect that a man do anything to nurture a child, he must have ulterior motives. Similarly, Joseph Nicolosi of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality states that the stigmitization against men breastfeeding children is right because “a gay man imitating a woman by nursing a baby is an affront to human dignity. We were not created to masquerade as the opposite sex--and no man can truly 'mother' a baby." Shanley explains that she knows of gay men who breastfeed their adopted children but who are unable to speak about their experiences because they are afraid of losing them because of these attitudes.
Jessica and Nicolosi’s positions belies the naturalness of “Nature.” She associates civil law and natural law as one and the same and a reason against the “unnatural” act of male breastfeeding. But as Shanley writes
For those who claim male lactation is "unnatural," I would have to ask: how natural is canned formula from Nestle' or pacifiers made from petrolium byproducts? If milk production in men were truly unnatural, it wouldn't exist.Male nursing only seems “unnatural” because we never see of hear about it, not because it actually doesn’t exist. So what of the nature of Nature? Greta Gaard describes this gaping contradiction within the dominant discourses surrounding queer identities and sexualities in her essay “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism:”
On the one hand… the dominant culture charges queers with transgressing the natural order, which in turn implies that nature is valued and must be obeyed. On the other hand… Western culture has constructed nature as a force that must be dominated if culture is to prevail… [thus] the ‘nature’ queers are urged to comply with is none other than the dominant paradigm of heterosexuality—an identity and practice that is itself a cultural construction.The crux of the mystique behind male breastfeeding is a metaphysical discontinuity between masculinity and femininity. Ultimately, as Nicolosi mentions, the lactating male breast, one that challenges the idea of bifurcated sex, threatens the “dignity” of such a distinction between man and woman.
4. Queering Milk Economies: Breast for Ourselves
I have argued herein that fe/male breasts are not in the slightest “natural” objects. Human breasts are among the most culturally constructed objects, and not jus tin the sense of surgical augmentation. Human breasts are highly significant markers of our identities as male and female, and disrupting those identities through alternative breast practices shakes the cosmological core of human identity in modern Western societies, manifesting existential anxieties over one’s own identity (as in the case of breast cancer) and gender identities in general (as in the reaction to male breastfeeding). Male lactation can thus serve as a practice that undermines “naturalistic” attitudes about the female body, motherhood, and compulsory heterosexuality.
While men and woman sharing the responsibility of nursing their children may sound like a novel, postmodern idea, such practices already exist in other cultures. The Aka Pygmy have been sharing child care for at least a century. Barry Hewlett believe that the Aka have one of the most impressive gender egalitarian records when it comes to parenting. Male and female roles are “virtually interchangeable” as men and women alternate between hunting/gathering and childrearing/domestic chores—each spending approximately half their time within reach of the children. Hewlett notes that there is no loss of status from nursing as there is no privilege assigned to other tasks that would make raising children less valuable.
Perhaps not only the ethics of double standard of toal motherhood should be called into question by the practice of male lactation, but so should also the exclusive motherhood Blum critiques. A more community nursing approach, one that relies on cooperation and not monetary capital to purchase the labor of wetnurses or “steal” from human and bovine chattle, provides a better model for egalitarianism than one based on family ties alone. One such practice, cross-nursing--the nursing of your friends and relatives children while they are away at work or elsewhere--is a growing phenomenon. According to a Babytalk survey, 40% of people thought it was a good idea, but 45% thought it was “disgusting” and/or “weird.”
Though, cross-nursing is a way to share intimacy without the exclusivity, it is exactly that unexclusive intimacy that repulses people. Those who were not taken with the idea emphasized that “nursing isn't just about nutrition,” implying that the only positive value that could come out of cross-nursing is biochemical, nothing social. According to one mother who cross-feeds, opponents “assume that anything that is to do with breasts has to be sexual… [it’s] bad enough if you're doing it with your own child. But then, you add another child to the mix and they're really concerned about it.”
Returning to Blum’s arguments, much of this exclusive commitment to one’s own biological child is based on a patriarchal lineage and class-based institution. There is thus a sense that a mother is being promiscuous if she cares so intimately for those other than her own. Because cross-feeding doesn’t fit within modern, heterosexual, middle-class “good motherhood,” there must be ulterior motives, a perversion. According to Balsama et al. (1992) erotic feeling during breastfeeding transgress the “only erotic feeling allowed to the mother in a patriarchal society, that connected with the adult male” [cited in 45]. Any breast practice that does not conform to the pro-creative, exclusive, total motherhood, is thus cast into sexual suspicion.
Male lactation may challenge total motherhood and cross-feeding may challenge exclusive motherhood, but to liberate the breasts from patriarchal discourse women must also escape from chaste motherhood by accepting the sexuality of breastfeeding. Hence why Blum emphasizes the importance of actual skin-to-skin contact between mother and child and not the yuppified breast-pump-milk-in-the-bottle “breastfeeding” of exclusive working mothers:
the mother in her body, her pleasure and needs, satisfactions and pains, have been largely erased… the career-breastfeeding Supermom seems to transcend” these needs and desires.[20f, g]Similarly, lactivist Ted Greiner has begun promoted “breastfeeding as an experience,” not merely a substance after learning that transgenic mice were being bred to produce nutrients in human milk for baby formula. Substances, afterall, are substitutable and instrumentally valuable, experiences are unique and valuable in and of themselves.
Part of reclaiming female breasts from male hegemony may be acknowledging the centers of pleasure breasts may be, not for men, but for the women to whom they are a part of. Though there is much nutritional, anthropological, and feminist scholarship on breastfeeding, few books have really explored it’s quirky, fun, humorous, and sexy sides. Fiona Gile’s book Fresh Milk (2003) is among the few that do. Gile describes lactating women’s breastplay during sex, from their partners almost giving them an orgasm from suckling to women ejaculating milk as they come during intercourse. Gile’s laments that
it is only in pornography, and some rare examples of religious art, that alternative images of lactation are currently available…images that celebrate and extend a real and complex aspect of female bodily expression.Breasts, she believes, out to be parts of ourselves we can take pleasure in, laugh at, and play with.
Young also wishes to reclaim women’s breasted experience from the hegemony of patriarchy. She notes that while men generally privilege the sight of breasts (as they tend to be more visual oriented), women tend to value touch and the sensuality of their own bodies.[21d] Instead of conceiving breastfeeding as work, Young proposes framing it as a reciprocal and sexual give and take. Young expresses that she does not want to overeroticize or romanticize motherhood; she merely would like women to be less ashamed, fearful, and private about the bodily pleasure they can derive from it.[21e]
Sex educator Allison Bartlett praises Young and Giles for their subversive discourse on breasts. She cites Master’s 1966 sexology study in which women reported they became sexually aroused during nursing and some even reaching orgasm. After all, in many ways, the sensitive tip of an erect nipple pushing into an open warm and moist mouth that rhythmically sucks on it while lubricating the nipple with oral juices resembles vaginal intercourse. By discussing the sexual experience of breastfeeding, women can shift the discourse away from benefits, rights, and nature, to one of women’s agency and pleasure. This discourse
is consistent with understanding breastfeeding as an embodied experience which involves intense physical exchanges… as well as an emotional relation of intimacy, care and often passionate engagement.This, these feminists believe, is a much more empowering discourse on breasts whereby the breasts are for ourselves, not for others. Through appreciating the sensual, if not sexual, experience of nursing, mothers’ breasts can be valued in and of themselves. This has consequences not only for human sexuality, but also for our relations to the animals whom we breed and use for milk.
LAST UPDATED: November 21, 2009 Added endnote on trans/cis-sex
* The inclusion of Beatie in this discourse, may complicate things more than clarify them. To compare the experiences of a transexual man to those of cissexual men is equivocation: cis-men are privileged as a group while transmen are violently discriminated against. A cis-man may be mocked or feel effeminate because of large breasts, but a trans-man will be anything from harassed to killed for attempting to "pass" as a man in addition to feeling out-of-alignment with his experiences--hence, the liberating, "weight" lifted off Beatie (i.e. oppression and identity-body discordance). On the other hand, to exclude Beatie's discourse from this piece because of his medical history, may likewise be transphobic since it would de-legitimize his identity as a man, to mark him as an "abnormal" man. Yet, the inclusion of Beatie between a paragraph on cosmetic surgery and anxiety over breast cancer in regards to cis-men, may trivialize the life-threatening nature of cissexualism. Cissexism, however, cannot be given justice in this series as a tangential topic, being worthy itself of an entire post, if not an entire blog. My treatment of "man" and "woman" here is admittedly limitied. For this reason, I direct anyone looking for a fuller account of transphobia (rather than gender dualism) to Questioning Transphobia's "Trans 101" section or Julia Serano's (2007) Whipping Girl.
It should also be noted that unless otherwise stated, any explanation over the anxiety of male breasts given within this series is limited to, although not essentially exclusive to, cissexuals (for the reasons given above). Further, due to this post's nature as a draft, it switches back and forth from discussing male and female breasts; discussion of "women" here is inclusive of cis and trans-women. As such, this series also wishes to empower trans-women who desire to breastfeed. Breasts "for ourselves" applies equally to transexuals whose bodies are unjustly marked, defined, and determined by cissexuals. Cis-, trans-, and gender queer people ought to have the autonomy to self-determination, -definition, corporeal pleasure, free from hetero-(cis)sexism and gender dualism.
HEALTH is opposed to all oppression, including hetero-(cis)sexism. If you take criticism with the treatment of any group discussed here within HEALTH, you are encouraged to contact me to correct any treatment that conflicts with HEALTH's mission statement.
To be continued
In the following section, I will explore how interspecies suckling and breastfeeding in general challenge a person’s “human” identity, and how privileging so-called “human being” over other animal beings provides the architecture for domination and exploitation of any and all female bodies based on a “natural” order. Here we shall see in a glance, the conceptual and historical intersections and development between the instrumentalization of farmed animal bodies (especially the dairy cow) and peasant and slave women under capitalist patriarchy. I’ll conclude by advocating the necessity of perceiving female’s breasts (regardless of species) as for themselves, not for men, for babies, for masters, or for money.
Continue to Part 3 (Interspecies Suckling and Farmed Animals & Femininity)