When Men Breastfeed, What Does It Say About Gender Roles?

BlogHer Original Post

"If women were meant to work outside the home, men would be able to breastfeed." This is more or less one of reasons that many uber-conservatives give for why women should be at home with the kids while men support their families. (Usually there is also something about God made it that way.) Except that men can lactate, and sometimes breastfeed.

Think about the biology behind humans. Until the Y chromosome asserts itself around the 9th week of development, all fetuses are genitally female. Human genitals are essentially variants of each other: a penis is an elongated clitoris. And, of course, men have nipples. Years ago in a science class, we discussed why men might have nipples if they couldn't breast feed, and my teacher explained that it was because we all begin as female. Yes, after the Y chromosome kicks in male and female bodies diverge. Both men and women have "male" and "female" hormones, albeit with different proportions and impacts. Understanding how much more alike men and women really are than different, when I found out that men really can breastfeed, it made perfect sense. I just wondered why I never heard about it before.

According to Wikipedia, there are several causes of male lactation. Sadly, one reason is the use of prescription drugs that contain hormones. Men who are given hormones to treat prostate cancer will often lactate, and some anti-psychotic medications also produce milk as a side effect. Worse, men under extreme duress may begin lactating. This was observed in people who have survived the Holocaust and POW camps. In more positive situations, it is a culturally induced ability. When gender roles are interchangeable, men tend to lactate naturally in order to care for babies.

At Double Visioned, Hiram writres:

I was reminded of the myth of how Zeus gave birth to Dionysus, after the original mother Semele died. Zeus carried Dionysus inside his own thigh. The myth does not mention breastfeeding, but based on what I now know the myth was probably incomplete.

Hiram also links to many other sources of information on male breastfeeding, including Milk Men, a short film about men who lactate. Director Peter Templeman asks "...what impact would [male laction] have on a father's relationship with his child, with his friends, and with the child's mother?" I find this fascinating because we always hear about the important role breastfeeding plays in bonding a mother with her baby, and society spends enormous amount of energy valuing mother-child bonds, but not father-child bonds, at young ages. How would our world look if both parents breastfed? I think it is an incredibly exciting possibility.

One clue to this question is found within the Aka pygmy society, a community of approximately 20,000 people who live in Central Africa. Not only do Aka fathers suckle their babies, but in 2005, The Guardian reported that:

Aka fathers are within reach of their infants 47% of the time - that's apparently more than fathers in any other cultural group on the planet...

What's fascinating about the Aka is that male and female roles are virtually interchangeable. While the women hunt, the men mind the children; while the men cook, the women decide where to set up the next camp. And vice versa: and it's in this vice versa, says Hewlett, that the really important message lies. "There is a sexual division of labour in the Aka community - women, for example, are the primary caregivers," he says. "But, and this is crucial, there's a level of flexibility that's virtually unknown in our society. Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by mothers without a second thought and without, more importantly, any loss of status - there's no stigma involved in the different jobs."

Not that life is perfect in the Aka culture. The article goes on to note that leadership roles are all male. However, the lack of stigma and flexibility found within the culture is a salient and critical aspect that is missing from most other cultures. That type of arrangement allows children and both parents to benefit from physical closeness.

Again, I asked myself why on earth I never heard of male breastfeed for the Aka people until now. Then I remember it is because I live in a world where "gender differences" and exaggerated and emphasized above all else. Mir recently noted a recent study and New York Times column about on BlogHer about this very topic.

Rock Star Maternity is also pondering the idea of male breastfeeding. I find it interesting that the first comment left on her post (which also links to many sources of information on male lactation and breastfeeding, including a widower who breastfeed his baby after his wife died in childbirth) opposes the phenomena, saying that men should be men. But that's the point - men are men, and men can lactate. We only socially condition ourselves to believe this is wrong.

The idea of male lactation also makes me wonder about restrictions on breastfeeding in public. Since we do not tend to sexualize male breasts, if more men breastfed, would people object so strenuously if men whipped open their shirts to feed a hungry baby in front of other people? Would it change how we look at female breasts in general?

The whole idea that men could breastfeed is so mind-blowing to me in what it says about gender roles. There are so many implications. I'm certain that we won't be seeing an influx in male breastfeeding any time soon (if ever), but I love that it shows how responsive the human body is to cultural suggestions and also how the body can produce the things that the human race needs to survive. It's really a testament to the genius of biology.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants and is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track: New York City's Best Unusual Attractions.

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