Stories of O

At this Sydney Writers’ Festival Fiona Giles chats with Susan Johnson and Nikki Gemmell about female sexuality through the human life cycle. Giles explains what it means to ‘queer breastfeeding’ and how a Shakespearean protagonist might have the potential to destroy cancer cells.

By Tim Groenendyk

Fiona Giles

"I was thinking of bringing the idea of breastfeeding to the art of love - learning from the past and from other cultures about how to be with our children and our babies in particular through this period of our lives."

Fiona Giles’ interest in breastfeeding research is two pronged – to extending human sexuality to motherhood, and advocating the notion of human milk as medicinal - she believes both ideas are mutually beneficial to each other.

So it’s not surprising that her session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival with Johnson and Gemmell, whose respective novels One Hundred Lovers and With My Body, explores female sexuality.

“Their books both look at how women cope with that shift in the relationship to their own sexuality at the point of becoming mothers and beginning to become middle aged and ageing.”

Giles enjoys that these novels dispel the notion that “when women have children they don’t suddenly become asexual beings,” and encourage us to “see motherhood, maternity and breastfeeding as part of a continuity of female sexuality.”

Narrow definitions of adult sexuality, she explained, inhibit us from thinking critically and incorporating maternity into sexuality.

“Also bringing the idea of nurturing and parenting into the sexual repertoire,” said Giles, “not keeping them separate all the time - that you’re only parents, and then you’re only lovers, that you can’t be a little bit of both in different ways with both your children and your partner.”

Giles most recent research paper ‘Reinstating Pleasure in Reality: Promoting Breastfeeding Through Ars Erotica’ explores the art of love historically and cross culturally.

“I use the term Ars Erotica in the traditional sense, like the Kama Sutra – a book about how best to perform the art of love.

“But,” Giles continued, noting that both mother and child enjoy breastfeeding, “I was thinking of bringing the idea of breastfeeding to the art of love - learning from the past and from other cultures about how to be with our children and our babies in particular through this period of our lives.”

A tool she uses to untangle this tricky subject is the notion of ‘queering’ breastfeeding, which means, Giles explained, to “read maternity against the grain.”

To queer something, she explained, means “looking at a subject outside the box that it often has become confined to and the orthodoxies around the definitions of the subject.”

“So, I thought well how about we read maternity against the grain? Which is not something that people generally do because it’s a very sacrosanct area, something we have to tread carefully around and it’s a bit of a sacred cow.”

The practice of queering something entails “taking apart the components that we think of being as naturally and inevitably always linked and de-link them,” said Giles.

“So, what if you were to separate breastfeeding from lactation?”

She studied different purposes for lactation that didn’t involve breastfeeding: for health reasons, surrogacy, erotically and even as art performance.

“We can learn from our bodies’ capacity to lactate, and learn to become better breastfeeders too.

“So those sorts of ideas allow us to be a little bit more open-minded in our approach to subjects that can become very orthodox and closed down.”

Scientific studies have also shown that there’s a lot to gain by taking a more open-minded approach to the subject of human milk.

“There have been clinical trials that showed the topical application of Human Alpha lactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumours (HAMLET) can be used to cure cancer in the body.

“HAMLET, in two studies that I’m familiar with, has reached bladder cancer and brain stem glioma - otherwise inoperable cancers.”

However, even though human milk protein has been shown to cause apoptosis (natural cell death) in in 40 different types of cancer cells in test tubes, demand for research and development on human milk hasn’t taken off.

“One aspect is the commercial lack of potential, because if it’s something that bodies do anyway commodification is limited. At best you might be able to pay women to provide milk to milk banks but there’d be a lot of controversy around the politics of that, a bit like paying people for blood transfusion.

“But the other aspect of it, is what I call the ‘yuck’ factor.

“Even scientists think that it’s yucky because it’s a human bodily fluid.

“They’re squeamish about researching it, which is quite remarkable.”