Should men lactate? Discuss.

For the last couple of years, I’ve set Marge Piercy’s feminist SF novel, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), to my Honours Science Fiction class. The novel’s protagonist, Connie Ramos, has been telepathically projected, so she believes, into a future US, one radically reshaped by a feminist and socialist revolution. One of the liveliest seminar discussions was prompted by this passage, where Connie witnesses some distinctive childcare practices:

“He sat down with the baby on a soft padded bench by the windows and unbuttoned his shirt. Then she felt sick.

He had breasts. Not large ones. Small breasts, like a flat-chested woman temporarily swollen with milk. Then with his red beard, his face of a sunburnt forty-five-year-old man, stern-visaged, long-nosed, thin-lipped, he began to nurse. The baby stopped wailing and began to suck greedily. An expression of serene enjoyment spread over Barbarossa’s intellectual schoolmaster’s face.”

Connie is disturbed what she feels to be a male intrusion into a female realm. But to my students’ credit, they were mostly enthusiastic about the prospect of male lactation. Silly taboos against public breastfeeding would disappear the minute men got in on the act, they pointed out. The male students, moreover, were sold on the idea, and had no anxieties about a future time when they might be men who breastfed.

(There’s also a recurring general interest in the topic, evidenced by this article from Scientific American.)

Piercy’s novel can be read as a literary challenge to the dominant trends in the technoscientific imaginary that shapes our vision of the future. Male lactation isn’t cool: it’s not life extension, or infra-red vision, or cyborg prosthetics. It lacks the cold gleam of metal surfaces mixed in with flesh, or the nerd-excitement of enhanced intelligence.

Yet think of the benefits that would accrue globally if this basic task of childcare could be shared out so conveniently and evenly between the sexes. Where’s the biotech project to enable a safe, cheap intervention that could make male lactation an everyday reality, and revolutionize childcare? Why aren’t men lactating already?

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