A few times I’ve heard people connect breastfeeding and sex, using the “inappropriateness” of the connection as a reason to stop or not to start breastfeeding their babies.
“Breasts are for men to play with. No way! Too weird!”
“I tried, it but it just didn’t feel right, too sexual.”
“I heard of this woman who had an orgasm just from breastfeeding. Eurgh! No way!”
and so on.
Breastfeeding advocates are often quick to try and dispell this “myth” that breastfeeding is somehow sexual. Feeding babies is what breasts are for, they (we) say, and anyone who thinks that it’s got anything to do with sex is just mistaken / bigoted / ignorant / repressed…
But I think there is something slightly wrong about this response.
For one thing, there is a connection between breastfeeding and sexuality.
There is a physiological connection, in that when a baby nurses, it stimulates the production of the hormone oxytocin* and this hormone affects a woman’s whole reproductive system – the breasts, the womb, the clitoris. The same hormone is also involved in both childbirth and orgasm.
[*I’m sure someone will correct me if I have the technical details wrong!]
And apart from that it is, if you’ll pardon my bluntness, bleedin’ obvious that the physical acts of a sexual partner stroking a breast, sucking or licking a nipple are similar to the physical acts of a nursing partner suckling on the breast and patting or massaging it in order to stimulate let-down.
It would be very surprising indeed if there were no woman in the world who found that nursing could on occasion be sexually stimulating because of this similarity. It would also be very surprising indeed if there were no woman in the world who found that the sensual caresses of a sexual partner stimulated a let-down of milk. The two things are inextricably linked, no matter how much we would like to be able to say – in order to encourage the dubious, and reassure the nervous, who fear that there is something “pervy” about breastfeeding – that there is nothing sexual about it.
Indeed, in her book “Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts”, Fiona Giles confirms that many people, women and men, have sexual fantasies relating to breastfeeding. I can understand this totally because, even apart from the physical intimacy involved in breastfeeding, it is a highly symbolic act. It would be surprising if some women did not fantasise about breastfeeding their partners; and surprising if some people did not fantasise about being breastfed.
From my own experience, I know that nursing is a sensual act. Not always – often I get pulled about and treated with the utmost disrespect! But sometimes. When we are snuggled up cosily in bed, and Ariel is comfort-nursing, and gently stroking or patting me, it is the most wonderful thing in the world. And, yes, there is something – not “sexual”, but shall we say “sensual”? – about it. I can feel the tug of the oxytocin. I like it.
Breastfeeding is, of course, meant to be enjoyable. Insofar as we can talk about nature’s design, breastfeeding is designed to be pleasurable to ensure that we continue to do it. That is why oxytocin does what it does, has the effects that it has. For the same reason, sex is designed to be enjoyable, and it turns out that the mechanism is similar. Clever little oxytocin.
So where does that leave us?
Breastfeeding is connected to (good) sex. The two are both sensual, both designed to be enjoyable, both result in the release of a happy hormone that stimulates all our reproductive organs with a nice little tingle. Or, more than a tingle.
We are sometimes quick to deny the link, or to play it down, because there is a perception that if breastfeeding is like sex then it must be wrong. It is obviously wrong to have sex with children, and we feel that doing anything with children that is even like sex must therefore also be, at the very least, suspect. So if breastfeeding is like sex, then – eurgh! We are all so wound up about paedophiles that we think there is something pervy about any connection between sexuality and children.
The mistake here does not lie with the claim that breastfeeding is like sex. For all the reasons mentioned above, there is a strong connection between breastfeeding and sexuality. The mistake is a wider one, in the idea that a connection between breastfeeding and sexuality means that breastfeeding your baby is like having sex with your children.
The reality is that breastfeeding is normal, natural and healthy, and that breastfeeding is connected with sexuality. That’s OK. This connection is itself normal, natural and healthy. It is not an equation of breastfeeding with sex. It is not about getting turned on by our babies. It is about a sensuality that is related to, but very clearly distinct from, the sex we have with our partners.
It is nice. It is entirely harmless and indeed its purpose is to do good, to encourage continued breastfeeding. Sadly, in our mixed-up world, it seems now to have the opposite effect. It feels nice, but in a sexual way, therefore it must be bad and so I will stop.
I can’t help feeling that this misperception, this discomfort with the sensual side of breastfeeding, is a sad by-product of the patriarchy, a symptom of a culture in which we have lost the ability to be sensible about sex and sexuality.
Our culture insists on clearly defining what sex is. It is something that happens between a man and a woman (or, grudgingly, as things slowly change, at least between consenting adults) in a romantic relationship. And it is something special, magical, unique, essential, vital, irreplaceable, crucial, needful. There is nothing like it, nothing that can come near it. It is the Ultimate.
[My reasoning re patriarchy: The patriarchy wants us all, women and men but especially women, to see sex this way because this is the belief and attitude that best serves patriarchy. It is what makes us focus all our energies on the romantic relationship to the disadvantage of other relationships. This is one way in which it undermines the power of motherhood, by promoting the lie that the romantic relationship is more important than the relationship between a mother and her child. A big part of that promotion effort is to make sex, the difference between the romantic relationship and any other, into something we must think of as uniquely satisfying and as indispensible.]
If we think of sex in this way, we elevate and isolate sexual feeling to a point where the possibility of anything which is like sex but which is not sex becomes impermissible, an aberration, wrong. Something which is similar to or approaching sexuality, but which not actually sex starts to look almost like blasphemy. Or heresy.
Well, here’s my heresy: Breastfeeding, at its best, is sensual and it can connect intimately with our sexuality. And that’s OK. It’s meant to be that way.