Eggs, milk and sex: What else must women sell?

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.

A human milk bank in Peru. PHOTO/ERNESTO BENAVIDES
A human milk bank in Peru. PHOTO/ERNESTO BENAVIDES

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.

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  • RadForward

    I’m glad another Radical Feminist knows its capitalism that is repressive of women at its extremes. It’s what I’ve been thinking for a long time. (Maybe I need to read some Dworkin, my diet so far has been blogs and social media) IMHO, in its distilled form amounts to libertarianism, a form of male-generated-market totalitarianism.

    Do we see men’s body’s being sold the same way? Largely, no. Because men have built this system that allows for the co-modification of others to suit their own needs.

    • Tim

      Apologies if you already know about it, but there is an extensive Andrea Dworkin Archive where you can read a great deal of her work for free. The whole texts of her books are not there, but there are complete chapters of several.

      Dworkin was truly great, and she is one of the most smeared and misrepresented and just plain lied-about intellectuals that I can think of. I first heard of her when I was in my mid-20s, when she and Catharine McKinnon were working on their antiporn ordinance in Minneapolis. Most of the commentary was extremely hostile and I thought she sounds just awful.

      Then I did a radical thing. I actually read some of her work. I stumbled onto a fairly short piece somewhere, in some alt weekly tabloid I think and thought, “whoa, this is really interesting and she is some writer.” I proceeded to go through every bit of her books and other writing I could lay my hands on.

      Pornography was a real stunner. Like a lot of young men, I had been a regular “consumer” of porn and pretty much accepted all the “free speech” arguments without thinking much about it. Being gay, I really wanted mainly to look at M2M porn, but watched a lot of straight porn too, as in the time and place I was living, gay porn was not that available and there were risks in being seen as someone watching it (and by no means do I want to suggest that there aren’t serious problems with gay porn, too, although there are differences). After reading, Pornography, I was instantly creeped out by what I had been enabling.

      The stuff put out now is so much more extreme than what I used to watch (not making an excuse for having watched it, just saying). Also what is described in the Hot Girls Wanted film. It’s striking and very depressing to realize how much Andrea Dworkin would have recognized it, writing 40 years. ago.

  • This is messed up. It is yet another way of compelling women to get pregnant and thereby compelling them to have sex. I thought liberals were all about encouraging women to have sex for pleasure, they used to criticise conservatives for trying to make sex into a pragmatic thing. Now they are encouraging exactly that in the name of “sexual liberation”. It’s absurd.

    Furthermore a woman’s breast milk is designed (by biology of course, not through any conscious planning) for her specific child. It’s not a good idea to give it just anyone. Buy your artifical baby milk, if you are an economically well-off parent. It’s not ideal, but it is not like it will kill your spoilt kid.

    As for those sex-crazed jerks who want to buy breast milk just to get off, they need to learn that sexual pleasure is not a human right and that women are humans, not collections of things you can masturbate too.

  • esme

    This is very timely for me. I am getting ready to donate some of my breast milk to a milk bank. I told a friend about it and she commented that the milk was worth a lot of money. However, selling it didn’t seem right to me. I had read about women who were selling milk adding things to increase the volume such as cow milk etc so there indead must be pressure to produce more than women can spare at least sometimes. I don’t want to be part of a market that hurts women and babies.

    As for donating, your doctor and your baby’s doctor have to certify that neither of you has a health reason not to donate before you do. You do have to be careful what you put in your body, but the rules aren’t much different from the ones I needed to keep while nursing my baby so I don’t find it burdensome to keep them up for a short time now my baby is finished nursing. And there is no pressure financial or otherwise. It is just a chance to help some babies who weren’t as lucky mine and came way too early.

    I also read about women who sell their doing exactly so they had the means to stay home and care for their babies.

    This quote from Dworkin is so spot on.

    “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.”

  • lizor

    ” 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.”

    Apparently men will fetishize ANYTHING as it pertains to the Other (us women) and jack off to it. Further, they feel entitled to do so, with full access to whatever it is they have reduced to a tool for their orgasm. It’s sickening.

    • Rachel

      Your last paragraph is so true. It’s so weird and disgusting. I can’t even comprehend how they can view women in such a way. I mean, I can and I do understand it to an extent. It’s just the human in me is just thinking …how can they not see how gross they are being and how badly they see and treat women?! We are human! Is that so hard for them to comprehend?! Apparently so. And their fetishising of everything is just excused with the same old boring crap ‘it’s just what men do’.

  • In a post feminist world a woman would feed her own if she wished to, not be compelled to feed others. Her body belongs to her self. It’s not fair that a woman should have to give so much.