Is Food The New Sex? Or, Of Whoppers And Whoppee
A new essay in the Policy Review examines a thoroughly modern twist on the age-old (and well-documented) relationship between sex and food. Specifically, the author argues that as Western social norms about sex have expanded to include previously taboo thoughts and acts, our relationship with food has become fraught with an ever-increasing list of culinary sins. Ones we don’t admit to in public, would never dream of indulging in front of our peers and whose very temptations leave us riddled with guilt.
In short, our morals, ethics and ideals are now firmly connected to our diets, rather than sex lives.
The crux of Mary Eberstadt’s argument is that we’re living in a very unusual time in history:
Up until just about now, for example, the prime brakes on sex outside of marriage have been several: fear of pregnancy, fear of social stigma and punishment, and fear of disease. The Pill and its cousins have substantially undermined the first two strictures, at least in theory, while modern medicine has largely erased the third. Even hiv/aids, only a decade ago a stunning exception to the brand new rule that one could apparently have any kind of sex at all without serious consequence, is now regarded as a “manageable” disease in the affluent West, even as it continues to kill millions of less fortunate patients elsewhere.
As for food, here too one technological revolution after another explains the extraordinary change in its availability: pesticides, mechanized farming, economical transportation, genetic manipulation of food stocks, and other advances. As a result, almost everyone in the Western world is now able to buy sustenance of all kinds, for very little money, and in quantities unimaginable until the lifetimes of the people reading this.
One result of this change in food fortune, of course, is the unprecedented “disease of civilization” known as obesity, with its corollary ills. Nevertheless, the commonplace fact of obesity in today’s West itself testifies to the point that access to food has expanded exponentially for just about everyone. So does the statistical fact that obesity is most prevalent in the lowest social classes and least exhibited in the highest.
She goes on to emphasize the waning Christian influence over sexual mores and the idea of “gluttony” (when’s the last time you heard that word used in a truly religious setting as a means of casting judgment?). Interestingly, where religion has left off, personal morals and preferences have taken over as a way of keeping these impulses in check:
In the case of food, for example, these would include factors like personal vanity, say, or health concerns, or preoccupation with the morality of what is consumed (about which more below). Similarly, to acknowledge that sex is more accessible than ever before is not to say that it is always and everywhere available. Many people who do not think they will go to hell for premarital sex or adultery, for example, find brakes on their desires for other reasons: fear of disease, fear of hurting children or other loved ones, fear of disrupting one’s career, fear of financial setbacks in the form of divorce and child support, and so on.
It is true that women of my grandmothers’ generation cared very much whom their neighbors were sleeping with, and believed the sexual choices of their peers to be a defining sign of morality, yet gave little thought beyond personal preference to what they were feeding their family.
Fifty years and a wealth of nutritional science later, the reverse is true for women of my generation – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that I know people who pay more attention to what they eat than who they f**k.
Up until this point, I’m tracking with Eberstadt. But her next section actually argues a similarity between “junk food” and “junk sex.” She takes what is a surprisingly moralistic view of sex between non-married folks:
This brings us to another similarity between junk sex and junk food: People are furtive about both, and many feel guilty about their pursuit and indulgence of each. And those who consume large amounts of both are also typically self-deceptive, too: i.e., they underestimate just how much they do it and deny its ill effects on the rest of their lives. In sum, to compare junk food to junk sex is to realize that they have become virtually interchangeable vices — even if many people who do not put “sex” in the category of vice will readily do so with food.
She goes on to note:
After all, several decades of empirical research — which also did not exist before — have demonstrated that the sexual revolution, too, has had consequences, and that many of them have redounded to the detriment of a sexually liberationist ethic.
As if this weren’t enough, she goes on to list the benefits of celibacy/monogamy among men and children … But not women. Interestingly, all of her examples up until this point involved women, so I’m a bit at a loss as to why she leaves the gentler gender out of her moral clause. Additionally, there is very little – if any – ink spilled over the benefits of the sexual revolution (which, let’s face it, would never have happened without the women’s movement).
While we all know that there is such a thing as “too much,” and I would certainly have agreed with an essay emphasizing as much, I was frankly surprised to see this sort of editorializing.
Sex and food are forever linked – sensualists can (and, given the opportunity, will) wax poetic on the many similarities. I’m not surprised that people who, if born a generation ago, may have judged their neighbors for their wanton pursuits are now judging their friends for their culinary choices.
But it’s disingenuous to make an argument about the disadvantages of looser sexual morals are so severe when you neglect to discuss how single women (and men) benefit. After all, Americans are marrying at increasingly older ages. That means there are more singles out there who have no marriage, spouse or children to be concerned about hurting. Besides, I have to wonder about the logistics of two newlywed 35 year old virgins who are trying to figure out what works. Outside of years of trial and error, how are they supposed to know what feels good?
Furthermore, I’m disappointed that the author pretends this is a purely moral discussion. After all, the wealth of nutritional research and education that has come to light over the past few decades has had an incredibly large influence on how we perceive food.
Overall, I felt that the subject of the article held a lot of promise, but the editorializing in the last third ruined it for me. Which is sad.