In recent weeks, media coverage shed light on a “new” booming market, based on the extraction of female resources: the selling of human breast milk.
Also referred to as “white plasma” and “liquid gold” — along the same semantic lines as other extractive resources such as “black gold” (oil) and “blue gold” (water) — female breast milk has become a commodity, right up there with womb rental, egg selling, prostitution and other ways we’ve commodified the female body.
Truth be told, the sharing and selling of female breast milk has been going on for centuries.
Wet-nursing, for instance, was common in Greco-Roman societies (wealthy families would employ many wet-nurses, in case one fell ill, in order to maintain consistent milk supplies for infants), and even though some women “freely chose” wet-nursing as a legitimate job (some also happened to previously be serving the family and then got pregnant, at which point their job description changed), many slaves were used for these purposes as well. Doctors, at the time, lent credence to the idea that the quality of breast milk could be affected by a wet nurse’s sexual activity, so these women were prohibited from engaging in sexual intercourse. Whether being a wet nurse was a choice or not, the historian Sandra Joshel points out the financial necessity of such work for both “free” and slave women, as well as the importance of the female body in the socioeconomic context:
Lacking the money, skills, and connections to enter other trades, the poor woman simply used or rather permitted someone else to use her body, the Roman hierarchies of gender and class sanctioning such use.
Wet-nursing was also a common practice in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries, where “cross-racial” nursing — African-American women breast feeding white and upper-class children — was particularly common in the South, utilizing slaves and poor mothers.
With the increasing popularity of websites that provide breast milk, what started out as platforms for women to share (sometimes out of altruism) and sell breast milk to other mothers who have trouble providing a sufficient quantity for their child has now become another potential income source for women in need.
But these women are just selling their extra milk, right? There are two ideas that need to be stressed with this statement. First of all, as with surrogacy — which encompasses numerous health risks for women including fertility loss, reproductive cancers and ovarian cysts — women are undergoing bodily surveillance in order to be able to continually reassure the buyer (independent or commercial).
As Glosswitch points out, this isn’t just about that producing excess breast milk, this is also about buyers having a say in terms of what you do with your body:
Meanwhile the person who’s paying you may take an interest in exactly what you’re doing even when you’re not expressing. What are you drinking? What are you eating? Are you on any medication? (…) the contents of your body are no longer your own.
The surveillance historically imposed on wet-nurses (sexual surveillance, regimen, prohibitions against spoiling her milk) continues to be used on mothers selling their breast milk in 2015.
Another problem is that, although the products sold by companies commercializing breast milk are intended to help premature infants, they are profit driven and, therefore, their missions differ from traditional non-profit milk banks (some companies literally provide guidelines on how to increase milk supply). The Human Milk Banking Association of North America suggests that:
Introducing the profit motive could put the infant of the lactating mother at risk if she feels pressure to provide a certain volume of milk to a bank or a recipient rather than feeding her own infant. A medical institution, which is given incentives to provide a specific volume of milk, may pressure mothers of patients to become donors regardless of their own infants’ needs.
Although plausible, this statement strikes me because it seems as though women will constantly be in this weird sex/income-fueled paradox — if they sell their milk, women risk neglecting the needs of their child (and body) in order to sell more milk so they can provide, financially, for their child. Andrea Dworkin summarizes this idea in Right Wing Women:
The state has constructed the social, economic, and political situation in which the sale of some sexual or reproductive capacity is necessary to the survival of women; and yet the selling is seen to be an act of individual will.
This sounds the alarm on the choice rhetoric in vogue nowadays, doesn’t it?
Women (and women of colour, in particular) are put in this situation because they are systemically and socioeconomically disadvantaged, especially under austerity politics. It is part of the vicious cycle of female extraction under capitalism and it promotes the idea that the female body is a commodity.
Considering history and context, it’s depressingly unsurprising that what is a natural bodily function among pregnant women has been commercialized and fetishized by men. It turns out that “lactophilia” (getting off by watching women lactate and/or drinking their milk) is a thing. In addition to the existence of fetish forums that share pictures and videos of women lactating and sex acts involving breast milk, some mothers on milk sharing/selling platforms who state they are willing to sell milk to men feel the need to specify that they will not however, engage in “adult wet-nursing,” sell images of them pumping milk, or provide these men with videos of them lactating.
If this needs to be specified, it implies the demand is there; and when there is demand plus disproportionate access to financial security as a class, it also means that said class will often not have much choice but to offer what more privileged members of society want (not need) — even if that means supplying men with fantasies and objectification.
Historical contexts may change slightly, but wet-nursing, the sale of breast milk, surrogacy, and prostitution all rely on two things: financial necessity and female bodies. These practices stem from the same logic of appropriation of female resources and labour, or as Dworkin described it, the exploitation of women under farming (reproduction) and brothel (sex) models.
If we truly want to end female exploitation, we should question how our resources are being used, who uses them and how is it symptomatic of capitalism, patriarchy and the rise of reproductive technologies.
Alexandra Pelletier is completing her MSc in Communication and politics, studying media discourse around Bill C-36. She lives in Québec.