Food is the new sex


Every now and then a scholarly paper comes along that is truly ground breaking. The brilliance of the paper is manifest in the synthesis of trends that we have all observed but never connected to each other.

Mary Eberstadt’s piece in the current issue of policy review, Is Food the New Sex?, is such a paper. It is a brilliant exposition on seemingly unrelated phenomena; at the same time that sexual license is embraced and even glorified, eating has become encumbered with ever more rules. Or as Eberstadt explains: our society has gone from sexually puritanical and licentious about food, to sexually licentious and puritanical about food.

Mary Eberstadt believes that the two phenomena are connected. She offers the following example that will be familiar to all:

…[L]et us imagine some broad features of the world seen through two different sets of eyes: a hypothetical 30-year-old housewife from 1958 named Betty, and her hypothetical granddaughter Jennifer, of the same age, today.

Betty is the stereotypical late 1950’s housewife. She cooks from cans, jars, and even serves frozen dinners. The only fresh vegetable that she serves is baked potato. Betty also has stereotypical moral views. Sex is appropriate only within marriage, and she believes strongly in the religious and social sanctions that penalize those who digress from that value.

The contrast with her granddaughter is remarkable:

…Jennifer pays far more attention to food, and feels far more strongly in her convictions about it, than anyone she knows from Betty’s time.

… Jennifer is adamantly opposed to eating red meat or endangered fish… She also buys “organic” in the belief that it is better both for her and for the animals raised in that way, even though the products are markedly more expensive than those from the local grocery store…

Most important of all, however, is the difference in moral attitude separating Betty and Jennifer on the matter of food. Jennifer feels that there is a right and wrong about these options that transcends her exercise of choice as a consumer. She does not exactly condemn those who believe otherwise, but she doesn’t understand why they do, either. And she certainly thinks the world would be a better place if more people evaluated their food choices as she does. She even proselytizes on occasion when she can.

Jennifer’s view of sex is also radically different from that of her grandmother:

Jennifer, unlike Betty, thinks that falling in love creates its own demands and generally trumps other considerations — unless perhaps children are involved (and sometimes, on a case-by-case basis, then too). A consistent thinker in this respect, she also accepts the consequences of her libertarian convictions about sex. She is … agnostic on the question of whether any particular parental arrangements seem best for children…

Most important, once again, is the difference in moral attitude between the two women on this subject of sex. Betty feels that there is a right and wrong about sexual choices that transcends any individual act, and Jennifer — exceptions noted — does not…

Simply put, Betty feels that there “rules” that should apply to sex, and people should be forced to conform to those rules, for their own good and for the good of society. Jennifer thinks that sex is a matter of personal preferences.

Betty thinks that the choice of what to eat is nothing more than personal preference. Jennifer is sure that there are “rules” that apply to eating, and that people should be forced to conform to those rules, for their own good and for the good of society.

What has happened?

Who can doubt that the two trends are related? Unable or unwilling (or both) to impose rules on sex at a time when it is easier to pursue it than ever before, yet equally unwilling to dispense altogether with a universal moral code that he would have bind society against the problems created by exactly that pursuit, modern man (and woman) has apparently performed his own act of transubstantiation. He has taken longstanding morality about sex, and substituted it onto food. The all-you-can-eat buffet is now stigmatized; the sexual smorgasbord is not.

Are human beings wedded to the notion that at least some appetites must be restricted? Have we transferred our “rules” and moral opprobrium about sex to “rules” and moral opprobrium about food?

It certainly seems that way. The same society that tolerates and even praises sexual licentiousness, despite strong evidence that it leads to serious health problems, is busily legislating against trans fats in restaurants, despite limited evidence that it will have any effect at all. The same people who howl “judgmentalism” at anyone who dares suggest that casual sexual encounters have dangerous consequences are enthusiastically insisting that their judgments about food should be forced on society as a whole.

Is the sad truth that we have made no progress at all? In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusions that we have simply substituted opprobrium for one appetite with another appetite, replacing “rules” and views about sex with “rules” and views about food.