Is breastfeeding like sex?


Lactivists are in a frenzy over the success of the Fed Is Best Foundation. How dare anyone suggest that breastfeeding — unlike every other aspect of reproduction — is not always perfect? How dare anyone point out that the relentless focus on exclusive breastfeeding is harming babies and harming mothers? And how dare anyone deprive lactivists of the opportunity to bash women who don’t mirror their own feeding choices back to them?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Uncomfortable, exhausted women do not owe their husbands sex and they do not owe their babies breastmilk.[/pullquote]

Breastfeeding researcher and lactation consultant Miranda Buck, PhD, writing on my Facebook page compares breastfeeding to sex:

A better analogy is sex. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that women have a right to a pain-free sex life. Nobody says to a woman that she’s just not good at sex. That she should have IVF instead. Nobody says ‘conceived is best’, to just forget about it and that sex is overrated. It is a natual and healthy normal activity that women should have the choice to do or not do. Same with breastfeeding…

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, I’m not sure what a “right” to pain free sex means. As a gynecologist, I have seen that there are a variety of conditions — from vaginismus, to uterine fibroids, to lichen sclerosis — that make penetrative sex painful and while we do all we can to alleviate the pain of penetrative sex, we aren’t always successful. Claiming that women have right to breastfeed without difficulty is analagous to claiming that women have a right to painless penetrative sex. Invoking a right does nothing to make it reality.

Second, lactivists go much further than invoking a right; they insist that there is an obligation to breastfeed — even if it is painful, exhausting, inconvenient or distasteful — since it is “so much better” than formula feeding. That’s like insisting that every woman has an obligation to have penetrative sex regardless of whether it is painful or enjoyable; that’s cruel.

Third, to the extent that a “right” exists, it is a right to obtain sexual pleasure. But heterosexual penetrative sex is not the ultimate way or the only way to enjoy sexual activity. Some women are not heterosexual. Are we supposed to believe that they are abnormal because they find pleasure having sex with women instead of men? I hope not. Then why are we supposed to disdain women who don’t want to breastfeed?

Fourth, there are a myriad of pleasurable sexual activities that don’t involve penetration. Should those activities be considered deficient compared to penetrative sex? That’s up to the sexual partners to decide, not outside observers. Similarly, infant formula is another excellent way to nourish a baby besides breastfeeding. Why should women who choose it be made to feel like that they are lesser beings, deviant or selfish?

Buck, like many lactivists, cannot resist the humble brag:

… Personally I didn’t much enjoy it, it was a practical way to feed a baby and then a toddler that was convenient for a lazy woman who couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed to feed them. It reduced my risk (which was considerable as I have both PCOS and GDM) of heart disease, hypertension, type II diabetes and will reduce my BMI for the rest of my life. I’m all for having smaller thighs. Not all women weigh up the leaking, dependency, discomfort and intimacy of lactation against the benefits and make the same choice. But they should have a right to that choice.

Analogizing to sex as Buck has suggested would give us this:

Personally I didn’t much enjoy it; it was a practical way to satisfy my husband that was convenient for a lazy woman who couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed.

Why would a woman accept those terms as the basis of a sexual relationship? And if she wouldn’t — if she dared to believe that the relationship should be conducted on terms that were enjoyable for her — would we condemn her for not fulfilling an obligation? Uncomfortable, exhausted women do not owe their husbands sex. Similarly, they do not owe their babies breastmilk.

Sure, some women find giving into their husband’s sexual demands while contemplating the ceiling to be acceptable and make that choice, but most would not boast about that. Moreover, it’s hardly something to which other women ought to aspire.

Is breastfeeding like sex? I don’t think it’s a particularly good analogy except in one way. Women have the right to control their own bodies. They have the right to decide for themselves what is pleasurable, what is tolerable, what they owe their partners. Everyone else should mind their own business.

Similarly women have the right to decide for themselves whether they will use their breasts to feed their babies. It’s up to them to decide what is pleasurable, what is tolerable and what they owe their babies. And lactivists, including lactation professionals, should mind their own business.