Is Food More Moral Than Sex?

Published on: 13:17PM Aug 18, 2009

Actress Mae West was noted for many colorful sayings, including “too much of a good thing is wonderful.”  While that aphorism was correctly interpreted as her view of physical pleasure, one has to wonder what she would think of life in the first part of the 21st century, where today, the ubiquity of sex is taken for granted, but too much food, at least the wrong kind, is most certainly frowned on.

This notion was the subject of a hugely insightful and provocative article from earlier this year in the Hoover Institution Policy Review. Although it’s been out for six months, I’ve been holding off on commenting on it for want of figuring out just what to say….because the thesis — that the common societal views of sex and food have switched places in the past 50 years   is a profound commentary on our culture.  It’s one I’ve talked about on occasion here, and here.

The article posits that many of the trends we see in food consumption, from organic, to slow, to local, to animal- and earth-friendly, are being driven by this idea, as article author Mary Eberstadt describes it:

“As the consumption of food not only literally but also figuratively has become progressively more discriminate and thoughtful, at least in theory (if rather obviously not always in practice), the consumption of sex in various forms appears to have become the opposite for a great many people: i.e., progressively more indiscriminate and unthinking.”

Eberstadt describes the contrast where Betty, a typical housewife of the 1950s (think Marian Cunningham from Happy Days) would place a high moral value on sexual relations and be very discriminatory in her sexual tastes, but not give much thought to where dinner comes from.  Whereas her granddaughter Jennifer (think Jennifer Aniston’s character Rachel in Friends) would be indiscriminate about sex, but instead place a high moral value on her food choices. As Eberstadt says,

“In just over 50 years, in other words — not for everyone, of course, but for a great many people, and for an especially large portion of sophisticated people — the moral poles of sex and food have been reversed. Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law of some kind; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse.

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.

In the 40 years since Woodstock (which itself has been defined in this past week of anniversary commemorations as sort of a cultural touchstone), societal mores concerning sex have greatly relaxed.  It started in the 1960s, and even after the AIDS crisis of 25 years ago, people are generally much more blasé about who does what with whom in the bedroom. 

But I agree with Eberstadt that our finger-pointing and tsk-tsking has shifted from the bedroom to the kitchen and dining room.  Perhaps it’s as much a comment about the sexual revolution as it is about food politics, but clearly the lifestyle choices we make about food consumption have become more black-and-white as carnal appetites have become grayer.  Since both activities are necessary for the survival of the species, don’t expect that trend to diminish anytime soon.