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The Lactating Man



Lactation and breastfeeding are typically viewed as inherently female activities. Evolutionary biology designates females as the generators of the mammalian class’ milk supply. The assumption is that only female mammals lactate and, therefore, only female mammals nurse their own. Taking on the biological, social, and cultural aspects of male lactation, this chapter questions this gender normativity of milk. It argues that male lactation can be seen along a continuum, from the literal production of milk by a small number of mammals of the male sex, to male-identified parents and caregivers breastfeeding their children, to males’ role in shaping breastfeeding norms and practices. Male lactation thus understood blurs the distinction between male and female, between genders, between sex and gender itself, between sexual orientations, between nature and culture, as well as, perhaps, between humans and animals.
In man and some other male mammals (the mammary glands) have been known
occasionally to become so well developed as to yield a fair supply of milk.
Darwin [1871] 1874: 186
Lactation and breastfeeding are quintessentially mammalian, sex- based, heteronormative, and
gendered characteristics. In coining the term “mammal” in 1758 to characterize a group of
animals, Carl von Linné made the breast the icon of the class—in Latin mamma means
breast (Schiebinger 1993). Yet, lactation is one of the few things, along with pregnancy, that
only females, defined biologically, are supposed to do. e mere suggestion of a “lactating
man is typically met with giggles and chuckles. While in several cultures, including the
Ve d ic , G re c o - Ro m a n, a n d A ra b i c c iv i l i za t i on s , m il k it s e lf w as se e n a s a ma s c u l in e fl u i d ,
owing its perfection to the contribution of male semen (Altorki 1980; Mahias 1987; Myers
2016), the activity of breastfeeding has consistently remained feminized and subordinated.
Yet, neither breasts nor lactation are exclusively female. All mammals, but for the
stallion, male mice, anteater, and monotreme mammals such as the platypus, have teats.
Instances of male lactation, defined in zoology as the production of milk by male mammals
mammary glands, have long been reported in the scientific- medical, religious, and gender
studies literature, as well as in folklore, the popular press, fiction, and visual arts. To cite but
a few examples, in 350 BC Aristotle ([n.d] 1907: 522a) asserted, “from time to time [milk]
has been found in a male,” marveling at a buck that produced enough milk to make cheese.
A couple of millennia later, French physician and philosopher Louis de Jaucourt (1751–
1765) claimed, “breasts are the same in men and women because in both sexes they
sometimes filter real milk. Male lactation must have been such a common topic of
discourse in the eighteenth century that aer referring to a couple of examples, Jaucourt
swily concluded “[b]ut as no one doubts this truth today, it is unnecessary to dwell on it.
Were these alleged cases of male lactation pathological, random, or functional?
Scientists distinguish lactation in the presence of the physiological stimuli connected to
Mathilde Cohen*
* For helpful conversations and comments on earlier dras, I am grateful to Amy DiBona, Elizabeth Emens,
Beth Jones Connel, Yoriko Otomo, Joshua Perldeiner, and Darren Rosenblum. For excellent research assistance,
I thank the University of Connecticut law library sta.
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nursing babies from “pathological” lactation or “galactorrhea (Racey, Peaker and Racey
2009: 354). Galactorrhea occurs in males as well as female humans and animals (Rohn
1984). It has been reported due to environmental factors, the inadvertent consumption of
hormones, or illnesses causing hormone disruptions such as cancer, obesity, or starvation
(Kunz and Hosken 2009). Male primates are known to lactate in association with cancers
such as carcinoma (Ringler and Abrams 1972). In the wake of the Second World War, when
prison camp survivors were liberated and provided with adequate nutrition, cases of male
lactation were observed—the so- called “inanition- refeeding syndrome” (Greenblatt 1972:
33). Prisoners had suered liver, testicular, and pituitary atrophy due to nutritional
deficiencies. With better nourishment, their testes and pituitary gland regained their
function, producing large quantities of estrogens and androgens that triggered lactation.
Some cases of male lactation have been categorized as fortuitous, caused neither by
pathology nor by infant stimuli. An Australian surgeon (Leggett 1991: 541) described the
case of an air trac controller, Mr. R. W-B, a “robust man, married with 4 normal
children,” whose testes and blood work “revealed no abnormality. However, his breasts
were enlarged, producing “[q]uite profuse milky discharge. e amount was such that his
wife, who was pregnant, declared that he should take his place in the feeding of the baby.
Instead, Mr. R. W-B was “cure[d]” by a bilateral subcutaneous mastectomy, illustrating
the tendency to view male lactation as an anomaly to be rectified (Leggett 1991: 541).
Domesticated, healthy male goats that “behaved quiet normally in all other respects”
have also been observed to lactate spontaneously, without the stimulus of a suckling kid
(Nair, Mathai and Nunjikutty 1981: 146). In fact, a familial predisposition to male
lactation has been noted in some breeds that are known to be high- producing dairy
goats, such as the British Saanens (Wooldridge etal. 1999: 664).
Other instances of male lactation are presented as functional (need- based or role-
based), supposedly arising in the context of infant feeding and care. Some male mammals
have reportedly produced milk to feed their young in case of need—where the birth
mother died, was ill, or did not produce any or sucient milk. Since antiquity, the trope
of the lactating widower has been recurrent in European, Jewish, but also in Chinese,
folklore, reflecting deep anxieties around infant feeding at a time when the absence of a
mother or another female to nurse was akin a death sentence for a newborn, and the
apparition of a lactating father, a godsend (Lionetti 1984). In their 1896 treatise, Anomalies
and Curiosities of Medicine, American physicians George Gould and Walter Pyle chronicle
several instances of male lactation, including “a sailor who, having lost his wife, took his
son to his own breast to quiet him, and aer three or four days was able to nourish him”
(Gould and Pyle [1896] 1990: 397). ey also relay Prussian naturalist Alexander von
Humboldt’s description of a “South American peasant of thirty- two who, when his wife
fell sick immediately aer delivery, sustained the child with his own milk, which came
soon aer the application to the breast; for five months the child took no other
nourishment.” (e trope of the colonized lactating man was common in the European
literature at the time. Feminizing native men was a way of marking them as inferior and
subordinated.) An analogous motif is found in the animal literature. Up until the 1920s
an eighteenth- century story circulated, featuring an “importunate lamb” that “had lost its
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The Lactating Man
dam in early life and persistently sucked a wether which grazed in its company. e lamb
obtained its milk and was maintained by him all summer” (Fitzwilliams 1925: 104–5).
Still other occurrences of male lactation are presented as role- based, with lactation
being associated with a caretaking role as a form of embodied parental care. e male
caregiver’s desire to nurse and be intimately involved—with or without a female partner—
in the nourishment and care of an infant appears to be determinant. e eighteenth-
century Scottish surgeon and scientist, John Hunter (1861: 238), tells the story of a Spanish
father who began nursing in tandem with his wife aer the birth of their twins. To soothe
one of his children, he applied “his le nipple to the infant’s mouth, who sucked and drew
milk from it in such quantity as to be nursed by it in perfect good health. He treated all his
other children, eight in number and all alive in the same way, always dividing with his wife
the business of nursing the children.” Among animals, the discovery, in the early 1990s,
that male Dayak fruit bats in Malaysia lactate, raised the prospect that it was in fact a
normal parenting behavior for the species (Francis etal. 1994). Evolutionary biologists
conjectured that male bats could be providing milk to their young due to a monogamous
mating system in which males and female co- parent, a topic to which I shall return later.
Against the backdrop of this medley of science and folklore, this chapter questions
the gender normativity of milk as a substance solely produced by females. My contribution
is twofold. First, rather than focusing exclusively on the question of the biological
production of milk by males, a rarity in the mammalian kingdom, I use the notion of
male lactation as a continuum to describe a variety of physiological and socio- cultural
phenomena, from bio- males lactating, to male- identified parents and caregivers using
human milk or suckling their children to feed them, to the role of men in supporting or
hindering breastfeeding.1 Along the spectrum, I distinguish three poles: 1) “male
lactation,which denotes a biological or physiological fact; 2) “male breastfeeding,which
describes a cluster of gendered practices of infant feeding; and 3) males’ support of, or
interference with, breastfeeding at the personal and societal level. From one perspective,
male lactation is a non- event. Why would we ever think of it in terms of social policies
given that the physiological phenomenon is so rare that it is an outlier? From another
perspective, all people regardless of gender can participate in lactation, if not literally,
then by supporting breastfeeding partners, as I argue in Part III.
Second, my analysis is trans- or cross- species. Building on evolutionary biology and
its critics, as well as on anthropology, gender and queer theory, and queer ecology, I
examine the way in which lactation and breastfeeding produce gender relations from a
multi- species perspective. What does male lactation, male breastfeeding, and males
involvement in breastfeeding practices tell us about sex and gender across the species
line? What does it tell us about who gets to parent, and how? Humans have long used
animals to tell stories and make claims about human life especially when it comes to
normalizing matters of sex, gender, and parenting. While I do not profess to speak for
other species, I resort to animal–human comparisons to illustrate how (human) sex and
gender- based assumptions surrounding lactation and breastfeeding are culturally
constructed. To be sure, there are huge gaps in the scientific knowledge needed to
satisfactorily describe and explain male lactation. e dearth of information does not
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signal the impossibility of any inquiry on the matter, however, since this preliminary
study focuses on the social meanings of lactation.
e chapter proceeds in three parts. It begins by critically examining the scientific
literature on male lactation, which usually frames the phenomenon as an evolutionary
puzzle. Part II argues that male lactation—the relatively rare biological phenomenon, as
I am defining it—should be decoupled from “male breastfeeding”—a broader, non-
biological notion. Finally, Part III turns to the ways men may both strive for and resist
participation in breastfeeding.
I. Biology: Male lactation
Why do males have nipples?
at most mammalians have breasts has long been viewed as a scientific enigma for
naturalists and, more recently, evolutionary biologists. Charles Darwin’s grandfather,
Erasmus Darwin ([1794] 1818: 400), expressed perplexity that “no use can now be
assigned” to “the breasts and teats of all male quadrupeds.” Numerous theories exist on
the origin and evolution of the mammary gland and lactation. Biological explanations
range from the idea that male breasts are relics of a previous utility, to the assertion that
some males can still lactate to feed their babies.
In 2006, molecular biologist Claudia Vorbach and her team argued that originally
nipples and lactation had little to do with feeding babies, but stemmed from the innate
immune system, that is, cells and proteins that are always present, providing a first line of
defense against common microorganisms (Vorbach etal. 2006). She proposed that the
mammary gland evolved from a protective skin gland that secreted large amounts of
antimicrobial factors to shield the evolving mammalian skin, their eggs, and/or their
newborns. On this view, lactation reflects an inflammatory response to tissue damage
and infection. It only later evolved into a feeding role. e primary evolutionary function
of milk was protective and not nutritional, explaining, perhaps, the fact that males as well
as females have mammary glands.
Medical doctor John Launer (2011: 79) proposes a dierent evolutionary scenario.
According to him, mammalian nipples and lactation evolved from sweat glands such
that “over a period of millions of years, infants who could cling to their parents and
suckle on increasingly nutritious secretions from this source must have had an adaptive
advantage. He speculates that early on,
males as well as females may have developed the same capacity for secreting nutritious
sweat, only for this to become redundant as a result of later evolutionary pressures. An
alternative and perhaps more convincing explanation is that the original adaptation
served a dual purpose of physical attachment as well as lactation, so that it was of
benefit to infants for both their parents to have this accessory on their chests.
Launer 2011: 80
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More than a century earlier, Charles Darwin ([1871] 1874: 109) had explored the
nutritional function hypothesis, speculating that in an earlier age male mammals aided
females in nursing their ospring and that later, some pattern of events (such as smaller
litters) rendered male assistance unnecessary. e disuse of the organ led to its becoming
vestigial, and this was passed on to future generations.
Why is it that once male breasts became superfluous nature did not take them away?
Evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould, critiquing this type of
functionalist, adaptive mode of inquiry, oers an account based on structural rules of
development. In his view, it was not utility but pathways of sexual dierentiation in
mammalian embryology, that account for male breasts. He argues that “[m]ale mammals
have nipples because females need them—and the embryonic pathway to their
development builds precursors in all mammalian fetuses, enlarging the breasts later in
females but leaving them small (and without evident function) in males.” (Gould 1993:
83) e development of mammary glands in utero happens independently of sex because
fetuses are sex undierentiated during the first stage of their development, starting with
the same body plan and basic parts. Male nipples are not vestigial traces of a former
function. Nipples are so fundamental to mammalian life that they pre- exist sexual
dierence. According to Gould, males have nipples simply because females do.
Can males lactate?
Although the scientific community as well as the general public assumes that male
lactation, like male pregnancy, is a biological impossibility, it is merely a biological
improbability. Mammalian males do not have ovaries and uteruses, but they have
mammary glands. Many, including humans, primates, and canines, have nipples and
ducts leading to the surface of the nipples—the physiological equipment required for
lactation (Marieskind 1973: 124). Until recently, it could have been objected that male
lactation was a “man- made” phenomenon, only documented in humans and domesticated
mammals. Yet, as noted in the introduction, in 1994 a group of biology researchers
described for the first time lactation in a wild male mammal, the Dayak fruit bats of
Malaysia (Francis etal. 1994: 691). A few years later, research wildlife biologist Frank
Bonaccorso (1998) reported that another type of fruit bat, the masked flying fox of Papua
New Guinea, presented instances of male lactation. Male lactation, therefore, could be
naturally occurring phenomenon even in animals that have not been manipulated by
Several of the male Dayak fruit bats examined had functional mammary glands from
which small quantities of milk could be expressed. Microscopic analysis revealed
similarities to female bat breast tissue. It is still unclear whether male fruit bats’ lactation
represents an evolutionary adaptation to increase the survival of pups, the symptom of
some underlying health problem, or an abnormal event stimulated by the consumption
of phytoestrogen- rich plants or pesticides. Yet, in both the Dayak and the flying fox
species, the male bats were found perfectly normal in every other way, leaving open the
possibility that they provide milk to their young. e team of researchers that investigated
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the Dayak fruit bat noted that the “nipples of the males were smaller and less cornified
than those of the females, suggesting little, if any suckling” (Francis etal. 1994: 691). But
years later one of the team members, omas Kunz, hypothesized that “because males
express less milk than females—5 μl versus 350 μl expressed from females—it is possible
that some suckling occurs, but not enough to cause enlargement and cornification of the
nipples.(Kunz and Hosken 2009: 83) In sum, while the adaptive function of their
lactation remains uncertain, male bats appear able to produce milk in the absence of
Even in females, becoming pregnant is not necessary to acquire the hormones that
trigger lactation. ese hormones, in particular prolactin, considered nature’s
galactagogue,” that is, a substance triggering or promoting milk production, can spike as
the result of nipple stimulation, various pathologies, or the administration of drugs. In
females, it is the hormonal change brought about by pregnancy, rather than the carrying of
a developing fetus and the birth that stimulate glandular growth and milk letdown (Creel
etal. 1991). Manual or mechanical nipple stimulation as well as baby- wearing and suckling
are alternative ways to release lactation hormones. ese behaviors can be supplemented
or replaced by the administration of hormones sparking milk production (Gabay 2002).
Induced lactation is nowadays routine in a variety of situations, from parents needing to
initiate lactation aer the birth of a premature baby, to foster, adoptive, and intended
parents in the context of surrogacy, to lesbian or gender non- conforming couples in which
the non- gestational parent wants to breastfeed, a practice known as “co- nursing” (Zizzo
2009; Wahlert and Fiester 2013), to friends and relatives, most oen maternal grandmothers
who (re-)lactate so as to breastfeed an infant in need, to people seeking to lactate for other
reasons, such as to rid their body of toxins, to lose weight, or for sexual pleasure (Giles
2003: 97). Some individuals eventually produce enough milk to fully nurse a baby, while
others make small quantities, requiring supplementation with formula or donor human
milk. Lactation can also be induced in animals. Due to its potential economic benefit,
there is a large agricultural literature on the “optimal(human) methods to induce lactation
in cows (Magliaro etal. 2004). But other animals can trigger lactation to nurse non- filial
youngsters. Induced lactation has been observed in captive dolphins whereby orphaned
dolphin calves suckle females with whom they are housed, leading them to establish a full
milk supply (Ridgway and Reddy 1995: 610). Wild nulliparous marsupials occasionally
foster other females’ babies, nursing them fully (Daly 1979: 327).
Can the standard protocol used to induce female lactation (stimulation alone and/or
in conjunction with pharmacologic intervention) be duplicated in male mammals? In a
2000 study, a team of UC Davis researchers reported successfully inducing lactation in 4
out of 13 male goats—33 percent—using a combination of hormonal treatment and
mammary massage (Cammuso 2000). Similar to male bats that produce less milk than
females, male goats produced considerably less than their female counterparts. Induced
female goats secreted from 20 μl to 530 ml of milk per day while induced bucks’ volumes
ranged from 25 μl to 1.5 ml per day (Cammuso 2000: 6). However, what is remarkable is
that in species in which male and female milk’s compositions have been compared, no
significant dierence between the two has been detected. A 1981 study showed that
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when human males secrete milk, it is of comparable quality as “colostrum and milk of
normal lactating women(Kulski 1981: 581). e composition of male bats milk has not
been analysed, leaving unknown whether or not it is similar to female milk. But at least
some male animals’ milk is of equivalent compositional quality as females’. In the early
2010s, two separate teams of European researchers (Pilo etal. 2011; Gamboa etal. 2013)
examined bucks’ milk, comparing it to does’ milk. e analysis revealed “no major
dierences” between the two, except for pH level and temperature (Gamboa etal. 2013:
99–100). Major constituents such as fat, protein, and lactose were the same, suggesting
that when males’ mammary glands secrete fluid, it is rightly called milk.
Could human males lactate as the result of an induction regimen? According to
feminist breastfeeding scholar Fiona Giles (2005: 308), “[m]en can choose to lactate too,
if they’re prepared to put in the required amount of nipple stimulation.ough the
blogosphere is rich with accounts of (typically failed) induced lactation in bio- males,
there is no scientific literature substantiating its (un-)feasibility. Does this lacuna indicate
that lactating bio- males are an aberration? I see this gap as a reflection of the traditional
gender roles which so permeate research agendas’ fundamental analytic categories that
male lactation is considered unworthy of serious scientific inquiry, even if only to be
refuted. To be sure, male lactation remains an oddity. e next section conjectures
explanations for this outlier status.
If males can lactate, why don’t they?
If lactation lies within the physiological potential of males, why don’t they lactate more
commonly? Classic evolutionary theory predicts that parents should invest in their
young in ways that increase their own lifetime reproductive success. Based on this
premise, the absence of male lactation in mammals is explained by fitness maximization.
Males’ evolutionary interests are supposedly best served by fertilizing as many females as
possible and maximizing the number of their own surviving ospring. Accordingly, they
would not gain any advantage by sticking around to help raise one or two of them. Male
lactation, on this account, goes against the presumed fact that male mammals have no
involvement with their ospring post insemination, or when they do, provide considerably
less parental care than females.
Evolutionary biologists attribute low male parental investment to a lack of certainty
over paternity given that the degree of male care oen correlates positively with the
degree of paternity assurance (Trivers 1972). e mammalian mode of reproduction
threatens paternity confidence due to its internal fertilization followed by a long gestation
period. Providing costly care for ospring a male did not sire would be selected against,
as males would incur costs for no benefits, losing out on other mating opportunities
(Kunz and Hosken 2009: 80). e researchers who observed lactation in Dayak male fruit
bats argued “functional male lactation would be most likely to evolve in monogamous
species, in which males share in the care of the young and have high certainty of paternity”
(Francis etal. 1994: 692). Yet, why don’t all monogamous male parents lactate? Standard
evolutionary theory explains the absence of male lactation in the rare cases where males
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of a species are involved in parental care through male–male competition or territory
control to maximize biological fitness (Kunz and Hosken 2009: 82). Male contributions
in these species include behaviors such as gathering food for the female, chasing o
potential competitors, defending the territory, and looking out for predators from other
species. By contrast, evolutionary orthodoxy maintains that females lactate because of
their reproductive features. ey sire a limited number of ospring that require a
protracted and intensive period of parental care. ey are unable to desert them because
their fitness maximization calls for a high investment in caring for them (Trivers 1972).
is brief review of the evolutionary literature on male lactation indicates that a
binary sexual division of labor is seen as key to the evolution of lactation into a female
task. However, other theories circulate as well. For example, biologist Charlotta Kvarnemo
(2006: 144) argues for the reverse causality: “high paternity is not a prerequisite for male
care to evolve but rather an outcome of may be because females are more
attracted to caring males, or because male care leads to increased survival of the ospring
(Seger and Trivers 1986). In other words, increased male parental investment could lead
to more mating opportunities for males and/or to more numerous biological ospring.
If that is the case it is unclear why males have not invested more in lactation. An
alternative explanation for the rarity of male lactation is gender- based rather than sex-
based. Could it be because people are socialized to view lactation as an exclusively female
enterprise that it is one? Women’s health expert Helen Marieskind (1973: 124) wrote
nearly half a century ago that lactation “is very much dependent on the cultural values of
the society: i.e., in societies which place great importance on breast feeding, lactation is
readily found amongst all age groups and parital states of women . . . in these same
societies lactation in men is more likely to occur.” She based the assertion on a handful
of medical authorities, calling for a more thorough investigation as to whether there is in
fact support for such a cross- cultural claim.
If gender is a socio- cultural construct, as some have argued, the gender coding of
lactation and breastfeeding can shi. e paucity of scientific investigation of male
lactation is arguably a symptom of the gendering of lactation. e scientific and medical
establishments have refrained from probing a phenomenon—male lactation—which
strains the bounds of credulity precisely because it contravenes our sex, gender, and
parenting assumptions. Yet, as I argue in Part II, even if lactation is not part of males’
“normal” capabilities, or if bio- males produce such small amounts of milk that they
cannot satisfy their children’s nutritional needs, there are other ways in which bio- males
and male- identified persons can engage in breastfeeding.
II. Gender: Male Breastfeeding
Somewhat similar to the decoupling of sex and gender, I propose to dissociate lactation
from breastfeeding. Sex typically means the biological, genetic, chromosomal, or
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physiological characteristics associated with males and females, while gender designates
the social identities aliated with bodies perceived as sexed in a particular way.
Analogously, lactation refers to the biological and physiological ability to produce milk,
while breastfeeding refers to the social practice of feeding children human milk or to
latching them to the nipple while supplying them with milk. e term “breastfeeding”
itself is controversial. Infant feeding advocate Alice Farrow (2015: 26) points out that
“[h]eteronormative and cisnormative assumptions are predominant in the language
(including images) in mainstream breastfeeding literature and the language used by
providers, most obviously, the systematic use of the female gendered pronoun when
referring to nursing parents as well as the term “breastfeeding.ough all humans have
breast tissue, the word “breast” is typically associated with women. Accordingly, some
trans men and gender non- conforming parents prefer to use the expression chestfeeding”
(Wolfe-Roubatis 2015: 36). As a concession to dominant linguistic practice, this chapter
uses the expression “breastfeeding,but with the caveat that it should be understood
interchangeably with “chestfeeding.
“Male breastfeeding,I suggest, designates a cluster of practices, which sometimes
intersect. Its three defining elements are as follows: 1) male- identified parents or
caregivers; 2) using human milk to feed their children; and/or 3) latching their children
onto their nipples/breasts/chest while providing some nutrition—be it formula or
human milk. is conception overlaps with, but is much narrower than Fiona Giles’
(2004: 301–2) notion of “queer breastfeeding,” which includes adults breastfeeding one
another, long- term breastfeeding of children, cross- nursing (one woman occasionally
breastfeeding another womans child), wet nursing, cooking with breast milk for adult
consumption, cross- species nursing, induced lactation, lactation porn, and lactation art.
What makes breastfeeding “male” is the self- identified maleness of the breastfeeder.2
What makes it “breastfeeding” is one or two of the following reference points: a substance
(human milk) and/or a location in the body (nipples/chest/breasts). Male breastfeeding
undoes the presumption that parenting is binary, with men as fathers and women as
mothers. In that sense, the expression “male breastfeeding” should not be read as
reinforcing gender distinctions and dualistic systems of categorization. My goal is rather
to expand the gender coding of breastfeeding by including in the practice people whose
bodies, gender expression, or social role are dierent to those traditionally associated
with “nursing mothers,” or who many not identify with any gender.
As opposed to lactation, breastfeeding is neither defined by milk production on the
breastfeeder side nor by milk intake on the infant side. e distinction between “male
lactation” (bio- males producing milk) and “male breastfeeding” (male- identified parents
using human milk or latching their children to feed them) is fluid, rather than all- or-
nothing, allowing for overlap. is is not to say that I wish to collapse the divide between
the biological and the social. But the phenomena of male lactation and breastfeeding
show that, as in many other contexts, the relationship between biological and cultural
processes is complex. Biology can be constructed in the sense that a phenomenon
associated with biology (such as lactation) may be in reality a feature of social situations.
e more bio- male and male- identified parents are interested in breastfeeding, the more
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common the physiological fact of male lactation may become. Reciprocally, as I argue
below, the social situation of male breastfeeding may be just as fraught with obstacles as
the biological fact of male lactation.
In male breastfeeding, parents use donor human milk to bottle- feed and/or they
suckle their children and/or provide them with their own breast/chest milk if they have
been able to initiate lactation. Does merely using one’s nipples to soothe an infant without
delivering any nourishment count as breastfeeding? Anthropologist Barry Hewlett
conducted ethnographic fieldwork in a hunter- gathering society of the Congo Basin, the
Aka, where he observed men putting infants to their nipples to pacify them, reporting:
Aka infants have been observed attempting to nurse with their fathers, and fathers
have been observed oering their nipple to fussy infants. We asked mothers about
fathers trying to nurse and they said fathers may put the infant to their breast to
try and soothe a fussy infant but they added that fathers are more likely to sing or
dance with the infant or give her water before oering his breast.
Hewlett and Winn 2014: 204
I would be reticent to call this practice “breastfeeding,” at least not a paradigmatic case of
breastfeeding, given that no feeding is involved. Of course, breastfeeding is more than
just nutrition. Whether or not milk is produced and ingested, breastfeeders and their
babies experience touching and skin- to-skin contact creating an enriched sensory
environment including eye contact, lulling, soothing, and cuddling. Non- nutritive
suckling is widespread among mammals, oen serving a social or emotional function—
infants oen suckle when distressed or alarmed. It also provides immunological
benefits, as exposure to diverse strains of bacteria via skin- to-skin contact may
optimize an infant’s immune system (Martin and Sela 2013). But even non- nutritive
suckling is connected to nutrition, as it is important for stimulating milk production
(Cameron 1998: 525). In sum, though breastfeeding need not satisfy all of an
infant’s nutritional needs, central cases of breastfeeding should encompass an element
of feeding.
In what follows I outline three examples of male breastfeeding illustrating the diversity
of practices encompassed by the notion. ey involve people of dierent genders, sexual
orientation, time, and place.
Male breastfeeding designates a range of situations that dier vastly, but are united by the
male identification of the parent- caregiver and the form of nourishment of a child.
Gay fathers who breastfeed In a fascinating, multi- authored article titled e
Pregnant Man,” law professor Darren Rosenblum (2010) tells the story of having his
daughter, Melina, with his husband, Howard, through a gestational surrogate, Beth Jones,
who is also one of the article’s contributors. During her pregnancy, Beth decided that
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aer her delivery, she would pump her milk, knowing from her previous pregnancies
that it would facilitate her postpartum recovery. Upon learning about the possibility of
human milk donation, she oered Darren and Howard to breastfeed Melina at birth and
to donate her milk aer that (Rosenblum etal. 2010: 258). Immediately aer giving birth,
Beth began pumping so that Darren and Howard could feed Melina themselves, using a
bottle. ey had happily accepted her milk donation oer, renting a breast pump,
purchasing pumping supplies and accessories, and setting up a UPS shipping account.
Beth sent her frozen milk on dry ice from Oklahoma to New York, where Darren and
Howard would thaw it and feed it to Melina. Darren recounts that “thanks to Beths
generosity (and UPS’s reliability), Melina had three months’ worth of breast milk”
(Rosenblum etal. 2010: 276).
is story raises the question of who breastfed Melina. Darren writes, “we ‘kind of ’
breast fed Melina because we gave her breast milk but did not have the intensely corporeal
proximity to Melina through breast- feeding” (Rosenblum etal. 2010: 276). Darren and
Howard did not suckle her despite her attempts: “even if Melina did not—she frequently
tried to feed o our hairy chests. If Darren and Howard breastfed, does it mean that any
male- identified parent who feeds an infant expressed human milk in a bottle is
“breastfeeding”? e socio- cultural notion of breastfeeding is flexible so I would not rule
out any proposal without contextual background. However, what distinguishes Darren
and Howard’s story from other familiar tales of male participation in human milk infant
feeding is that theirs was a sustained endeavor in the absence of a parent producing milk
or breastfeeding. Unlike male- identified people partnered with a lactating person, who
may limit their involvement to the act of bottle- feeding, taking no or little part in the
storing and handling of the milk, Darren and Howard fully engaged with the corporeality
of human milk—unpacking it, thawing it, preparing and cleaning the bottles. is was
not an occasional undertaking as they fed Melina nearly exclusively on human milk for
as long as their supply lasted.
I agree with Darren that he and Howard “kind of breastfed Melina.At the same time,
Beth “kind of” breastfed Melina too, even though she had zero “corporeal proximity” to
Melina, to continue Darren’s choice of words. During her couple of months of maternity
leave, Beth was engaged in another form of work—the time- and labor- intensive job of
making milk—even though she was not paid for the milk she produced. is embodied
work presumably entailed managing her clothing to facilitate pumping and handling
leakage, continuing with prenatal regimens such as taking vitamins, avoiding restricted
beverages, drugs, or smoke, as well as eating and drinking more because lactation
requires extra energy and hydration. Besides, producing milk in the absence of a suckling
baby imposes its own set of tasks: pumping takes a lot time and in addition to setting up,
dismantling, and cleaning up the pump several times per day, it requires storing the milk
in collection bottles or disposable bags which are weighed and dated, frozen, before
being packed in Styrofoam coolers to be shipped on dry ice. It is clear from the article
that Beth enjoyed her surrogacy and lactation work and was able to perform it under the
best possible material and emotional conditions. She makes a point of countering the
common critique of surrogacy as exploitation by presenting her experience as “mutual
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exploitation, whereby “any construed exploitation done ‘against’ me was equally
matched” (Rosenblum etal. 256–7).
Trans fathers who breastfeed Female- to-male Canadian trans father Trevor
McDonald (2016), who became pregnant and was able to produce small amounts of
milk, breastfed his baby, documenting the experience on his blog,, as
well as in a book. McDonald identifies as a man and a father, but his sex assigned at birth
was female. He transitioned by taking hormones and having chest surgery, removing
most of his breast tissue. He retained his female reproductive organs, hence his capacity
to carry a gestational pregnancy. As two medical doctors explain (Obedin-Maliver and
Makadon 2016: 6) “[s]ome transgender men defer chest reconstruction (also known
as ‘top’) surgery in light of a planned desire to chest feed. ose who have had
‘top surgery’ may still be able to lactate or can engage in chest feeding with assistance
of a support device.Breastfeeding trans men may “experience dysphoria as they take
on (and challenge) this traditionally feminine role” (Obedin-Maliver and Makadon
2016: 6). More generally, all male- identified breastfeeders may feel discomfort
because breastfeeding and the bodily changes it may occasion do not match their gender
ough McDonalds son Jacob was able to latch at birth, he was not gaining sucient
weight aer a few days, calling for supplemental feeding. Using donated human milk
from friends, and friends of friends, McDonald continued to breastfeed Jacob with the
help of a supplemental nursing system (SNS). e SNS includes a tube taped to the
breast next to the nipple which is connected to a bottle containing formula or human
milk. e infant sucks on the nipple while the tube passes milk into its mouth. e device
avoids “nipple confusion3 and provides sucking stimulation to boost milk production.
McDonald’s widely publicized use of the SNS contributed to its dissemination in popular
culture as the contraption that allows parents regardless of sex or gender to partake in
the breastfeeding experience. It has since been emulated, with the invention of new
humorous breastfeeding gadgets. “Mr. Milker” vests are now available for sale on Amazon
for men experiencing, according to the product description, “breastfeeding envy.
Publicized as “the original male breastfeeding device,the vest hides baby bottles behind
easy to clean, BPA, and lead free” artificial nipples, allowing children to latch and ingest
milk simultaneously.
McDonald was instrumental in exposing socio- cultural presumptions about the
gender of breastfeeding. e dominant breastfeeding subculture alternatively supports
and undermines the ungendering work accomplished by male breastfeeding. While he
was breastfeeding, McDonald (2013) joined a local La Leche League (LLLC) support
group, which he described on his blog as “an incredible support system that I credit with
helping me to nurse my baby for his first year of life. Yet, his application to become a La
Leche League leader was later denied. In its rejection letter, the organization wrote, “[s]
ince an LLLC leader is a mother who breastfed a baby, a man cannot become an LLLC
leader, adding that “the roles of mothers and fathers are not interchangeable” (Tapper
2012). e organization was not prepared to ungender breastfeeding by endorsing a
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male breastfeeder as a role model. Since then, the organization revised its policy noting,
“[a]s the cultural understanding of gender has expanded, it is now recognised that some
men are able to breastfeed. In the spirit of nondiscrimination and with this awareness, La
Leche League International has refined the eligibility qualifications for its volunteer
breastfeeding counsellors to include men who otherwise meet the prerequisites for
becoming a volunteer applicant” (West 2014).
Roman nurse- fathers who breastfed e Latin word nutritor has long been
understood as a synonymous of paedagogus, that is, the tutor who took over the education
of privileged Roman children once they were weaned. Referring to funerary inscriptions
dedicated by couples presenting themselves as nutritores lactanei (literally, milk nurses),
classicist Marine Bretin-Chabrol (2012) argues that there may have been male nurses
actively participating in infant care and feeding in Ancient Rome. In imperial Latin, two
masculine nouns existed in the same family as nutrix (female nurse), nutricius and
nutritor, which can be translated as male nurse or foster (nourishing) father raising a
child not his own. Who were the men calling themselves nurses or nourishing fathers
and did they participate in breastfeeding?
Bretin-Chabrol questions the dissymmetry between the roles supposedly assumed
between female and male nurses. Calling a nutrixlactaneuswas a way to signal that she
was a wet nurse rather than a dry nurse (dry nurses cared for their nurslings without
breastfeeding them). Analogously, by calling oneself a nutritorlactaneus,” could a man
have indicated his involvement in breastfeeding? Ceramics specialists and archeologists
have established that breast pumps and baby feeding bottles were used in certain
situations in the Greco-Roman world and even before (Obladen 2012). e Romans
produced pumps allowing women to suck through a tube, creating a suction eect which
resulted in expressing milk (Rouquet 2003). ey likely mastered the manual expression
technique as well, which allows milk extraction by simply using self- massage and
stroking. Male nutritores lactanei could have therefore fed their nurslings human milk
produced by their wives or by other female nurses in addition to fulfilling other forms of
nursing and caring, such as swaddling, cuddling, story- telling, singing, suckling, and
other traditional tasks bestowed to wet nurses.
Breastfeeding men would not have been incongruous in the context of Roman family
structures and child- rearing practices, as the Roman father assumed, symbolically but
also oen practically, the nourishing function (Dupont 2002). As evidenced by Aristotle
and Hippocrates’ biological theories, milk itself was conceptualized as masculine, a
semen- infused concoction composed of female blood heated and perfected by the
addition of male seed (Myers 2016: 85–6). In upper- class circles, children were rarely
breastfed by their mothers, who resorted to wet nurses that were either slaves or servants
recruited on a contractual basis (Bradley 1985). ere were therefore two couples in the
Roman family: the procreating couple composed of the father and mother, and the
nourishing- educating couple composed of the wet nurse and the father (oen called
pater- nutrix) (Dupont 2002: 132–3). Romans did not require biological reproduction to
establish filiation (omas 1986). e link between father and children was established
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through nourishment—legitimate children were those the father decided to nourish at
their birth.
Male breastfeeding in Rome may have been a function of slave owning in a society
characterized by extremes of wealth, power, and status. e inscriptional evidence
suggests that even if some male nurses were free, a steep social hierarchy oen s
eparated the infant’s parents from the nutritor (Bretin-Chabrol 2012: 191–204). In sum,
if male breastfeeding was ever commonly practiced in Western society, it developed
in the context of a deeply unequal polity based on the slavery system, where gender,
class, and racial oppression intersected. In antiquity, the position of men in the gender
order created a scale not just of maleness but also of humanness (Myers 2016: 82–3).
Being masculine was being fully human, enjoying full personhood, orderliness, and
perfection, while being feminine was aligned with subordinate and less than human
status. As a feminine, hence devalued activity, breastfeeding may have been
acceptable for men to engage in only if they were considered as social inferiors. Similarly,
dominant heteronormative norms in contemporary society may explain why today
male breastfeeding is primarily claimed by sexual minorities such as gay or trans men,
rather than embraced by straight and cis masculinities. Is male breastfeeding more
common in the animal realm where gender repression and identity roles may be less
rigidly enforced?
ough there are no reported cases of “male breastfeeding” among animals in the sense
outlined in this Part, I would not be surprised if such findings emerged as researchers
become interested in the question. Ethology suggests that lactation is a social behavior
among animals just as among humans, including an important cultural” component in
the sense of learning behaviors from others (Plotkin 2002). Much like humans, animals
apparently learn to breastfeed. “[S]ome chimpanzees when delivered in captivity have . . .
not known what to do with their newborn babies,” while others successfully breastfed
aer being “taught” by their keepers (Gunther 1955: 575). In a number of species, this
learning process occurs through allomothering, that is, infant care performed by a group
member other than the gestational mother.Allonursing is an expression used by
zoologists to refer to females nursing ospring that are not their own. e practice exists
in the majority of human cultures (Hewlett and Winn 2014) as well as in dozens of
species of cooperative breeder animals such as monkeys, wolves, dogs, and whales
(Packer, Lewis, and Pusey 1992). A few studies have shown that one of the functions of
allonursing is for inexperienced females to improve their maternal skills, in particular
breastfeeding (Maestripieri 1994; Roulin 2002: 205).
Animals’ parenting practices as well as genders and sexual orientations are by some
accounts just as diverse as humans, if not more (Roughgarden 2004; Hird 2006). As
LGBTIQ life gains greater visibility in mainstream human culture, we see its powerful
impact on scientific studies of animals’ sexuality and mating systems. As environmental
sociologist Myra Hird (2008: 227) has argued, “animals have for some time been
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overburdened with the task of making sense of human social relations. In most
cultures, and for most people, nonhuman animals are symbolic. It matters less how
nonhuman animals behave, and more how we think they behave.” She points out, in
particular, that “trans” is not a distinctly human enterprise, as virtually all plants
and many animal species are intersex, switch sex, have same- sex relationships, and
engage in transvestism (Hird 2006). e diversity of sex, sexual, and parenting
behavior amongst species is much greater than human cultural notions typically allow.
Amongst most living organisms, day care, fostering, and adoption are common, as are
infanticide and incest. Female single parenting is the norm among animals, monogamy
the anomaly.
Nonhuman mammals may lack the technology humans possess to engage in male
breastfeeding (breast pumps, feeding bottles, artificial nipples, supplemental nursing
systems, refrigeration, freezing/thawing techniques, shipping), but they are known to
employ reproductive and nursing strategies which are surprisingly similar to humans’.
Myra Hird (2006: 40) reports, “many animals practise forms of birth control through
vaginal plugs, defecation, abortion through the ingestion of certain plants, ejection of
sperm and, in the case of chimpanzees, nipple stimulation.” Mammals oen engage in
highly cooperative communal infant care. For example, in some species of social canids,
only a couple of females in the pack give birth in a particular year, and the entire pack
helps care for the litter (Riedman 1982: 416). While the current scientific evidence
suggests that allonursing is limited to females, another form of food sharing involves
males as well as females: premastication (also known as “kiss feeding”). Adults returning
from a hunt regurgitate food for the pups as well as for their caretakers (Pelto, Zhang, and
Habicht 2010).
If kiss feeding, allonursing, and the female use of nipple stimulation as a contraceptive
are common among certain mammals, it would not be such a stretch to imagine
that males too could stimulate their nipples to induce lactation or obtain milk from
females to feed it to their young. In the 1970s, an adult male macaque in captivity was
observed “to express a milk- like secretion from the le nipple aer self manipulation
and sucking of the nipples. 5 days later the secretion was expressed from both nipples.
Since then the animal has been observed to express the secretion on 36 occasions”
(Trollope and Orgill 1976: 375). ough this macaque was lactating rather than
breastfeeding, his example suggests that lactation self- inducement in male animals is
within the realm of possibility, opening up the potential for animal male breastfeeding.
Technology itself is not uniquely human. Animals incorporate external structural
materials into their bodies (such as the above- quoted vaginal plugs used as contraceptives)
and move around and store food. Perhaps some mammals have found ways to store,
transport, and transmit expressed milk to infants, allowing male caregivers to partake in
breastfeeding. Although more research is needed on mating behaviors and the physiology
of lactation, the existing evidence does not preclude the prospects of animal male
Aer having reviewed some of the dierent ways in which males can be said to
breastfeed, Part III turns to an even broader understanding of male lactation.
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III. Society: Males and breastfeeding
As noted earlier, male lactation can be seen as a continuum, from the physiological
production of milk by bio- males’ mammary glands, to male- identified people
breastfeeding, to males’ contributions to or impairment of breastfeeding at the personal
and the societal level. At the further end of the spectrum, in the human realm, male
involvement in breastfeeding can manifest itself in contrasting ways, from hostility
toward the idea of male breastfeeding, to supporting breastfeeders regardless of their
gender, to controlling other people’s breastfeeding.
If men can breastfeed, why don’t they?
Major socio- cultural barriers stand in the way of male breastfeeding and male support
of breastfeeders, including, most evidently, gender constructions of the body and the
emotion of disgust surrounding female bodily fluids. A significant impediment to male
breastfeeding is the lived experience of the gendered body, through which masculinities
and femininities are constructed and enacted. Transgressions of gender- based bodily
norms such as male breasts and male lactation are read in scornful and moralized ways.
Man- breasts are typically experienced as shameful in our culture. Robin Longhurst
(2005: 155) has written about the experience of “breasted men living in the contemporary
West,” who try to hide their breasts, avoiding activities and spaces that require exposing
their upper bodies. Her analysis shows that they find themselves quite literally out of
place in societies that value muscular male torsos and represent man- breasts as grotesque
and/or funny” and where finding a suitable bra can be an ordeal (Longhurst 2005: 163).
Despite its commonness,gynecomastia,” the growth of male breast tissue or mammary
gland hypertrophy, is considered a pathology. According to a medical article, gynecomastia
“is common in normal individuals, particularly in the newborn period, at puberty, and
in the elderly. Around 60 percent of all boys develop transient pubertal breast enlargement,
and 30–70 percent of adult men have palpable breast tissue, with the higher prevalence
being seen in older men and those with concurrent medical illnesses” (Carlson 2011: 16).
e aversion for so- called “man boobs” manifests itself most dramatically in the recourse
to surgery to remove “excessive” breast tissue on men. As mentioned in the introduction,
some doctors recommend mastectomies to “curemale gynecomastia and galactorrhea—
while breast cancer experts use “words like ‘disfigurement,‘mutilation, and ‘lop- sided’ to
describe the [female] post- mastectomy patient” (Wilkinson and Kitzinger 1993: 230).
Luce Irigaray (1985: 106–18) has shown that in Western ontology firmness and
solidity are coded as masculine while soness and fluidity are associated with femininity.
e female body is depicted as unrestrained and flowing, lacking self- control: women
menstruate, secrete vaginal discharges, lactate, experience postpartum incontinence, and
cry. In the early modern period, power was inscribed on lower- class and female bodies
through shame about these liquid bodily functions (Paster 1993: 1–22). Breasted and
lactating men disrupt understandings of sexual specificity and social hierarchy because
they exhibit a feminine- fluid physique, becoming “abject bodies subject to loathing and
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derision” (Longhurst 2005: 153). Historian Lisa Wynne Smith (2010) analysed medical
discourse surrounding alleged cases of male menstruation in eighteenth- century
England and France, manifesting that leaky males bodies are profoundly undesirable.
Uncontrolled flow goes against the ideal of the self- contained man. Willpower was and
still is “central to claims of political virtue and hierarchy”—men unable to control
themselves are seen unfit to govern others (Smith 2010: 28). Male breastfeeding, therefore,
goes against centuries of medical and moral theory that le us with an ideal of masculinity
defined by containment and self- discipline.
Another hurdle to overcome for male- identified people to breastfeed or to support
others who do so, is the negative cultural construction of female bodily fluids (Bramwell
2001). ough human milk benefits from a public health discourse in favor of
breastfeeding, it is still an object of disgust (Cox etal. 2007). Many of those who find a
glass of cow’s milk appetizing are repulsed by the idea of tasting, or even touching,
human milk (Cohen 2017b). e oensive nature of human milk surfaces in everyday
life with objects such as breast pads that “protect” against the embarrassment of leaking
milk and baby bottle labels to avoid cross- feeding in the context of day care. Familiar
stories of caregivers’ lack of zeal (or outward refusal) to manipulating human milk and
feeding it to children also reflect its ambivalent status. It is the gold standard of infant
nutrition, yet at the same time treated as a vile bodily waste product on par with
menstrual blood, urine, saliva, mucus, or sweat. As psychologists Paul Rozin and April
Fallon (1987: 28) argue, the human category of disgust is deeply connected to animals
given that all animals or animal products are potentially disgusting to humans. Bodily
fluids, particularly female- coded fluids, may be perceived as disgusting because they
remind us of our animalness, threatening our self- perception as distinct from and
superior to other animals. In sum, breastfeeding, especially gender diverse breastfeeding,
is subversive, disrupting not only dominant norms of gender, but perhaps also of species
identity and hierarchy.
What could men do instead?
Men do not need to literally lactate or to breastfeed in the ways described in the case
studies to participate in breastfeeding. ere is now a substantial literature showing that
mens beliefs about lactation, breastfeeding, and gender roles color their interactions
with the key people in their lives as well as with friends, colleagues, and strangers, thereby
influencing infant feeding decisions around them (Bar-Yam and Darby 1997). Men (just
like everyone else regardless of sex and gender) can support breastfeeders through a
variety of behaviors, including oering encouragement and advice; participating in
setting up, cleaning and storing breast pumps, pump accessories, expressed milk; bottle-
feeding babies with human milk; attending breastfeeding classes; supporting the resort
to lactation consultants; doing more childcare and housework to compensate for the
time breastfeeders spend nursing, including grocery shopping, cooking nutritious meals,
and making sure breastfeeders are kept hydrated and comfortable during feeds; and
moving to a more public arena, championing financial compensation for breastfeeders to
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make up for lost earnings; supporting breastfeeding and pumping in all spaces—whether
coded as private, public, or work spaces; advocating for legal and social reform aiming at
securing material and economic support for breastfeeders, including paid leaves, work
place support, high quality, subsidized childcare, aordable and competent lactation
consultants, and the wide availability of gender- neutral lactation rooms. If more
widespread, these behaviors would contribute to making breastfeeding an activity that
can be shared across sexes and genders and possibly beyond the family unit.
In practice, however, communal and gender diverse breastfeeding is impeded, as I
argue below, not only by social norms casting breastfeeding as a subordinated female
task, but also by certain constructions of equal parenting.
The dark side of male lactation
ere is a dark side to malesinvolvement in lactation. Male- dominated institutions
and interest groups have had a long- standing role in prescribing breastfeeding
norms and practices in a way that typically benefits their interests, reinforcing gender
dualisms and hierarchies. In what follows I discuss two examples drawn from male–
female interactions, in which men hinder breastfeeding by treating female breasts as
their own and by endorsing a view of co- parenting that presents bottle- feeding as the
great equalizer.
1. Breasts are for men As Iris Marion Young (2005: 80) has emphasized, “male-
dominated society tends not to think of a woman’s breast as hers. Woman is a natural
territory; her breasts belong to others—her husband, her lover, her baby. Female breasts
are depicted as sexual objects for the pleasure of men rather than multidimensional body
parts including nutritive, soothing, and sexual functions. According to anthropologist
Kathy Dettwyler (1995), the limited view of the breast as a sexual appendage is so
pervasive it has inhibited women’s ability to successfully breastfeed. Women and their
partners worry, for example, that breastfeeding will make their breast ugly (Arora etal.
2000) or interfere with sex (Freed, Fraley, and Schanler 1992).
At other times and places, men’s view of breasts as sources of nutrition for infants cut
the other way. In eighteenth- century Europe and North America, the anti wet- nursing
movement was tied to male moralists and physicians’ take- over of traditional female
domains such as obstetrics and infant care, which resulted in the medicalization of
women’s reproductive health, including lactation. A new medical and moral literature
encouraged fathers to supervise closely infant feeding on the premise that le to their
own devices, incompetent or vain women would endanger the welfare of their ospring
(Schiebinger 1993: 407). Mothers were accused of sending out their children to be nursed
by “mercenaries” so as to preserve their figure or not miss out on worldly pleasures. Wet
nurses, typically recruited in the lowest rungs of the social and racial hierarchy—
peasants, immigrants, and slaves—were vilified as indecent and dangerous creatures.
Human milk came to be seen as the only “natural and most proper food for infants,
every child needing to be “suckled by its own mother” (Lindemann 1981: 381). is male
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control and the discourse that justified it constructed breastfeeding as a quintessentially
womanly duty through which women could be policed and subordinated. is gendered
and naturalist view remains alive today. e predominant assumption is that only
“mothersbreastfeed, that is only bio- mothers who use their own milk to nurse their
children, leaving out from breastfeeding advocacy and legal initiatives not only male,
transgender, and non- binary breastfeeders, but also cross- nursers or those using donor
human milk.
2. Equal parenting In contemporary times, men’s interest in egalitarian parenting can
translate as less breastfeeding, rather than more. is is the case because formula is
commended as allowing fathers to participate in infant feeding on an equal footing.
Many a woman reports choosing formula from the beginning, or deciding to switch to
formula “as an eort to share the labor of infant feeding(Boswell-Penc and Boyer 2007:
561). Anthropologist Penny Van Esterik (1994) points out that the breast or bottle debate
reveals contradictions inherent in feminist theory. From a feminist perspective,
breastfeeding can be seen both as a form of empowerment and oppression for women—
as asserting the value of womens productive and reproductive work or as reinforcing the
biological determinism feminism has sought to eschew. Reflecting this ambivalence,
feminist research and advocacy has exhibited an oscillation between two poles.
On the one hand, a maternalist orientation, sometimes using the language of dierence
feminism, identifies pregnancy and childcare as central themes of political fight for
women. Liberation consists for women in empowering themselves as mothers with
specific needs and interests, including breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is women’s particular
embodied caregiving, which should be protected and promoted by requiring
accommodations in the work place and in the family. Bottle- feeding, in that view, is a
chimera of gender equality, as it ignores women and children’s interests while furthering
those of the market economy (Cohen 2017a; 2017b). Bottle- feeding provides wealth and
power to the men who control the dairy and baby food industries, perpetuating the
traditional division of labor between men as producers and providers and women as
reproducers economically and socially dependent on men. On the other hand, some
strands of equality feminism focus on women’s self- realization both within and outside
the family, free of repronormativity, gender dierences, and ideals of motherhood. A top
priority on the equality feminist agenda in the family context is undierentiated
parenting. In as much as breastfeeding is seen as an aspect of maternal experience that is
not shareable with men, it is repudiated as an ideological practice that maintains women’s
subordination (Blum 1995).
Both these discourses, however, contribute to maintaining the female gendering of
breastfeeding in a way that excludes gender diverse parents and caregivers. If, as this
chapter argues, breastfeeding can be ungendered, neither female breastfeeding nor
bottle- feeding should be seen as panaceas for women’s equality and empowerment. e
road to equality lies in opening up breastfeeding (here understood as a social practice
much broader than the biological fact of lactation) to all people regardless of sex or
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Mapping out dierent ways of thinking about lactation in a typology moving from the
biological to the cultural, I have outlined some of the ways in which lactation and
breastfeeding challenge sex, gender, sexual orientation, and species oppositions. To
subvert the powerful female coding of lactation, a substantial part of the chapter focused
on identifying “male” forms of lactation and breastfeeding—keeping in mind that actual
cases of physiological male lactation are extremely rare so far as we know. We certainly
need many more studies to better understand lactation and breastfeeding in fields such
as biology, medicine, zoology, anthropology, ethology, sociology, critical animal studies,
gender studies, and other associated disciplines. e objective here was not to reinforce
oppressive dualisms such as male/female, culture/nature, human/nonhuman, or hetero/
homosexual. Quite the reverse, my purpose is to suggest that lactation in animals,
including humans, manifests itself as phenomenon with a high degree of flexibility and
variability and can be decoupled from breastfeeding, which encompasses a broader set
of social practices of infant feeding.
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