Exploring the “body fluids” debate about breastfeeding in public

As a culture we give so much lip service to breastfeeding being “best,” “natural,” etcetera but the reality is that is still not the cultural norm.  Sure, women are judged for not breastfeeding all the time but our culture isn’t actually supporting breastfeeding beyond using it as fodder for flaming mommy wars.  This reality is never more tangible than when a breastfeeding mother gets asked to move, leave, or otherwise change how she’s breastfeeding her child in a public setting.  When the media takes up the story before you know it further proof that understanding and support of breastfeeding is lacking culturally exhibits itself boldly with comparisons of bodily functions or sex acts done in public to breastfeeding in public.  Their point being that breastfeeding in public is just as unacceptable in our culture (according to that individual anyway) as any of those other acts.

Right, because feeding your baby and pooping/peeing or any sex act are so alike.

While it may seem obvious to most that there isn’t really any social, cultural, or medical similarities between breastfeeding and defecating in public, urinating in public, masturbation or oral sex in public, or even sex in public, some individuals insist on drawing the comparison.  A lot, actually.  Why?  I’m not sure but my best guess is shock value, as though they can prove their argument against breastfeeding in public merely by shocking people into silence.

I conducted a highly unscientific poll as to what people actually thought was more disgusting and shared the results here.  It’s very biased, seeing as the participants polled were all from either The Leaky Boob Facebook page, Jessica The Leaky Boob Facebook page, or my own personal Facebook page.  Still, the results are demonstrated in 2 fun little graphs.

But my site is called “The Leaky Boob,” I’m not exactly the type to be shocked or silenced.  Just ask Facebook.  Recently media attention on a variety of breastfeeding related stories (Target nurse-in, Kasey Kahne, etc.) seemed to have brought a rise of individuals that actually believe this is a valid argument.   I decided I needed to see if they had a point.

I talked with a pediatrician friend of mine and learned that the only special handling instructions they were given about breastmilk when she was doing rotations in the NICU was to ensure the milk was not contaminated before it was fed to the fragile neonates in their care.  It was considered a food and was treated as such, not as waste nor a biohazard.  An RN friend echoed these same experiences.  Hmmmmm, doesn’t sound like they thought of breastmilk as potentially dangerous body fluid or waste that needed to be carefully disposed of for health safety reasons.  Pretty major distinction there.

To help anyone still confused, anyone who may be thinking breastfeeding in public is like defecating in public, urinating in public, masturbation/oral sex in public, or sex in public, I’ve put together a couple of tables to break it down.

Breastfeeding:
Breastfeeding in public is legal and protected in the majority of the world.  In the states there are laws in 45 states that expressly allow women breastfeeding in public or private areas.  Twenty-eight states have specific clauses that exempt breastfeeding mothers from public indecency exposure laws.

Breastfeeding in public does not pose a public health threat.  While breastmilk can carry HIV and hepatitis if the mother is infected, breastfeeding in public does not carry an increased risk of spread of the disease and the CDC even cites that a bottle of infected milk given on accident to the wrong baby is unlikely to lead to transmission of the disease in a healthy infant.

Breastfeeding a human infant is encouraged by recognized health organizations globally.

Breastfeeding in public is based on a mother responding to the need of her child for nourishment or comfort.  A small infant or child’s hunger can not be postponed.

Breastfeeding is not a sex act, it is an act of nourishment and comfort for a child.  A small portion of women may experience some level of sexual arousal by breastfeeding but that is secondary to the primary purpose of meeting her child’s nutritional and comfort needs and women are able to distinguish the difference.

Breastfeeding has been essential to the survival of the species for centuries and today is still the biologically normal way to feed a human infant.  Further, public breastfeeding provides a model for future mother/baby dyads to be familiar with normal means of infant feeding, we learn by seeing.

 

Defecating in public:

In all 1st world countries public defecation is illegal.

Human feces is recognized as a very serious health hazard that can contaminate water and food sources.

With the exception of those with special needs, public elimination of feces is considered deviant.

*Yes- if the individual is unable to control their bowels due to physical or mental disabilities.

*No- if it is from a fully functioning healthy adult.  The need can be postponed until a suitable toilet receptacle can be located.

Public defecation is a public health hazard and threatens the entire species including the young.

 

Urinating in public:

In all 1st world countries public urination without an acceptable receptacle is illegal.

Though sterile and not toxic in a healthy person, urine is known to carry pathogens and possible disease and can contaminate water and food sources as it is a human waste product.

In some cultures it is considered acceptable to urinate in public, while others have find it socially unacceptable.  However, all public health organizations warn of the dangers related to urinating in public.

*Yes- if the individual is unable to control their bladder due to physical or mental disabilities.

* No- if it is from a fully functioning healthy adult.  The need can be postponed until a suitable toilet receptacle can be located.

Public urination without proper sewage disposal is a potential public health hazard and as it is a human waste product threatens the entire species including the young.

 

Public masturbation/oral sex:

In all 1st world countries public masturbation and oral sex is illegal.

Semen and vaginal fluid can carry known pathogens though the spread would likely be contained, casual and unprotected sex is recognized in furthering the spread of disease.

Masturbation and oral sex are not acceptable public acts in most cultures and public display of them is consider sexual deviancy and is punishable by law.

*If it is from a fully functioning healthy adult, the need for sexual gratification can be postponed until a suitably private area is located.

Public masturbation and oral sex do not protect or care for the young of the species.

 

Public sex:

In all 1st world countries public sex is illegal.

Semen and vaginal fluid can carry known pathogens though the spread would likely be contained, casual and unprotected sex is recognized in furthering the spread of disease.

Sex is not considered an acceptable public act in most cultures and public display of sex is consider sexual deviancy and is punishable by law.

The need for sexual gratification can be postponed until a suitably private area is located.

While sex is necessary for the procreation of the species, public sex acts are not essential for caring or protecting the young of the species.

 

Our cultural preferences are often born out of deeply held beliefs whether they be religious, anecdotal, circumstantial, a belief about health and bodies, scientific, and more.  A few examples come to mind: the belief that the world was flat, the story of the woman that cut the ends off the roast simply because her mother always did so it would fit in her pan, and the practice of blood letting to name a few.  As our understanding grows we change our practices.  There was a time when washing hands wasn’t standard practice in health care and today we know that basic hand washing reduces illness and the spread of disease.  Culturally we accept hand washing because science has shown that the practice can save lives.  I can’t help but hope that some day the science behind breastfeeding will open our culture to accepting, even welcoming it in public.  Since there are these comparisons made I decided to look at breastmilk, human urine, human feces, vaginal fluid, and semen from more of a health perspective.  I did as much research as I could before my pregnant pukey self had to stop reading simply to spare my stomach any more churning.  As much as possible I included links where I found information.  I wanted to look at a historical and anthropological perspective as well but you know, I had to draw the line somewhere and get to the other things I have to do.

 

 My conclusion is that these comparisons are little more than culturally accepted beliefs rooted in gross misunderstandings of biology and ignorance of normal, healthy human infant feeding.  That and a desire to control women by telling them what they can and can not do with their bodies and shaming them into believing there is something inappropriate with using their body to feed their child.  These issues have nothing to do with whether or not a woman is covered to breastfeed, a personal choice nobody has the right to insist for another person.  It’s time we as a culture trust women with their bodies and their children and leave our ignorant prejudices out of it.

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