Is Food the New Sex?
By Mary Eberstadt
A curious reversal in moralizing
Of all the truly seismic shifts transforming daily life today – deeper than our financial fissures, wider even than our most obvious political and cultural divides – one of the most important is also among the least remarked. That is the chasm in attitude that separates almost all of us living in the West today from almost all of our ancestors, over two things without which human beings cannot exist: food and sex.
The question before us today is not whether the two appetites are closely connected. About that much, philosophers and other commentators have been agreed for a very long time. As far back as Aristotle, observers have made the same point reiterated in 1749 in Henry Fielding’s famous scene in Tom Jones: The desires for sex and for food are joined at the root. The fact that Fielding’s scene would go on to inspire an equally iconic movie segment over 200 years later, in the Tom Jones film from 1963, just clinches the point.
What happens when, for the first time in history, adult human beings are free to have all the sex and food they want?
Philosophers and artists aside, ordinary language itself verifies how similarly the two appetites are experienced, with many of the same words crossing over to describe what is desirable and undesirable in each case. In fact, we sometimes have trouble even talking about food without metaphorically invoking sex, and vice versa. In a hundred entangled ways, judging by either language or literature, the human mind juggles sex and food almost interchangeably at times. And why not? Both desires can make people do things they otherwise would not; and both are experienced at different times by most men and women as the most powerful of all human drives.
One more critical link between the appetites for sex and food is this: Both, if pursued without regard to consequence, can prove ruinous
not only to oneself, but also to other people, and even to society itself. No doubt for that reason, both appetites have historically been subject in all civilizations to rules both formal and informal. Thus the potentially destructive forces of sex – disease, disorder, sexual aggression, sexual jealousy, and what used to be called “home-wrecking” – have been ameliorated in every recorded society by legal, social, and religious conventions, primarily stigma and punishment. Similarly, all societies have developed rules and rituals governing food in part to avoid the destructiveness of free-for-alls over scarce necessities. And while food rules may not always have been as stringent as sex rules, they have nevertheless been stringent as needed. Such is the meaning, for example, of being hanged for stealing a loaf of bread in the marketplace, or keel-hauled for plundering rations on a ship.
These disciplines imposed historically on access to food and sex now raise a question that has not come up before, probably because it was not even possible to imagine it until the lifetimes of the people reading this: What happens when, for the first time in history – at least in theory, and at least in the advanced nations – adult human beings are more or less free to have all the sex and food they want?
This question opens the door to a real paradox.