This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Atlanta resident Jennifer Mulford does not look like someone the Daily Mail would describe as the "woman who shocked the world," save one detail: She likes to breastfeed her boyfriend. In interviews given to tabloids like the Sun and the Mail, as well as Australian radio show Matt & Meshel, Mulford described how much she loves feeding her 36-year-old boyfriend with her breast milk—and how much he enjoys it, too.
Fetishes, for the most part, aren't all that shocking anymore; you can read about anal sex on Buzzfeed and get BDSM tips from Women's Health. But something about this fetish was too much for people to deal with. Online comments ranged from "disgusting" and "grotesque" to "this makes my skin crawl and I'm dry heaving." Mothers on Twitter and Facebook accused Mulford of sexualizing and degrading something beautiful and natural (Mulford does not have a baby; she uses hormone pills and pumps to artificially stimulate lactation). Nothing goes viral quite like outrage—the Mail article was retweeted 2,734 times.
There are numerous online communities for ABF (Adult Breastfeeding), where people can share their collective interest in a safe environment and reassure one another that they aren't alone. It's also a place to swap tips on how to induce and maintain lactation if you aren't pregnant.
This is a lengthy and complicated process that can take up to three months to produce any results. One common tip is to stimulate the breasts around four times every day for 20 minutes at at time by using a low voltage TENS machine, which is commonly used to relieve muscle pain by passing small electrical currents through the skin.
It doesn't exactly scream sexy, and neither does the heaviness and tenderness women describe once they'd succeeded in producing milk. But this isn't a particularly rare fetish. Adultbreastfeeding.org has 3,425 members and there are many more people talking about it on blogs, forums, Tumblrs, and private chat rooms.
Kate* says that her relationship with her husband has only grown stronger since they got into adult breastfeeding. "It's definitely brought us closer," she told me. "We have sex more often now, but we also feel better in the every day; more connected." Breastfeeding, she explains, leads to sex most times, but not every time. "Sometimes we just do it in front of the TV."
Now in her 50s, she remembers enjoying a sense of nurturing while feeding her children. "I cried when my eldest daughter finally weaned herself. I guess I missed it. My husband was the one who suggested we try it and we both love it. I feed him maybe four times a day."
This is a common sentiment about adult breastfeeding—people talk about the sense of closeness and intimacy that it cultivates with their partner.
Other women who breastfeed their significant others claim that sex doesn't come into it at all. On an online members-only forum, one female enthusiast says that breastfeeding her partner helps to soothe his panic attacks.
In fact, when my husband's suckling, that's when we're most equal.
"Psychologically speaking it's way above my head," she writes, "but it works, and it works on a primal level that is engrained into who we are as people. This kind of breastfeeding/suckling has absolutely nothing to do with sex at all but only the mind's place and where it needs to be or do to feel loved, safe, and to be able to grow and regroup."
For those who aren't already in long term relationships, an interest in ABF is a lot more complicated. Twenty-seven-year-old Redditor Dan feels embarrassed by his interest in breastfeeding, and still hasn't been able to try it. "I'd just have no idea how to bring it up," he said. "I'm worried they'll think I'm gross or weird. I've never had the guts to raise the subject—maybe I never will."
Dan got into it after stumbling across a video online of a woman squirting breastmilk. "I clicked on it expecting to be grossed out. But it really turned me on, I don't really know why. After that I started looking for more videos. I wish I could try it."
There are, however, options for people who want to explore the fetish but feel they can't (or don't want to) ask a regular partner. Mommy Madelaine describes herself as an "adult babysitter" who has made a full time living since 1999 by role playing fantasies that have included breastfeeding. But even with her roster of thousands of clients, she says the subject of breastfeeding rarely comes up. Adult babies, for the most part, appear uninterested in breastfeeding.
Mommy Madelaine believes this is because the practice is so taboo sexually. "Breastfeeding's an intimate bond between mother and child," she said. "Any fetish that relates to infancy or childhood (e.g. age play, diaper lovers, breastfeeding) is taboo, because folks mistakenly associate it with pedophilia."
"It's a perfect storm of a fetish because it combines two things that make us, as a society, very uncomfortable," explained sex educator and phone sex operator Tonya Jone Miller. "First, there's the idea that a man shouldn't be dependent on a woman, that he shouldn't be vulnerable and a woman shouldn't be stronger than him.
"Second, it's the idea of a woman sexualizing the thing that's thought of as the most sacred thing about her body and her femininity."
Read more: Getting Wet with Crying Fetishists
I ask Kate if breastfeeding made her feel like a stronger woman, or if it makes her husband feel weak and vulnerable. "I wouldn't say that, no. In fact, when my husband's suckling, that's when we're most equal. We can both share that feeling of nurturing."
For many adult breastfeeders, traditional narratives of age or power play doesn't enter their kink. Those that I spoke to did not mention wanting to feel like a child, or conversely, wanting to feel like a mother. The desire to revert back to childhood—common in adult babies—is also rarely mentioned on any adult breastfeeding sites.
The two fetishes may seem related, but seldom play out in tandem. What's clear is that people in adult breastfeeding relationships get something out of their kink that trumps society's judgement. "I don't think there's another way to get [what I get out of breastfeeding]," Kate told me. "It's unique."
This article originally appeared on VICE US.