Good Food and Junk Sex

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Monday, March 23, 2009

Good Food and Junk Sex

March 23, 2009

Food in America is abundant, cheap, and diverse. Supermarkets, convenience stores, and eateries are on every corner, many open 24 hours “for your convenience.”

Sex in America is also abundant, cheap (requiring little to no commitment), and diverse. Sex is also ubiquitous. Internet pornography, “adult” entertainment, and the hook-up culture are signs that old taboos have vanished.

We at a time when for the first time in history live, “adult human beings are more or less free to have all the sex and food they want” as Mary Eberstadt writes in “Is Food the Next Sex?” in the February/March issue of Policy Review.

One would expect, she reasons, that since both food and sex are plentiful and since the appetites for food and for sex appear to be linked, “people would do the same kinds of things with both appetites — that they would pursue both with equal ardor when finally allowed to do so, for example, or with equal abandon for consequence; or conversely, with similar degrees of discipline in the consumption of each.”

But rather than approaching food and sex reasonably and in a similar way, we have opted for what she calls “mindful eating and mindless sex.”

To illustrate, Eberstadt introduces “a hypothetical 30-year old housewife from 1958 named Betty, and her hypothetical granddaughter Jennifer, of the same age, today.”

When Betty cooks dinner it is typically meat (much of it red), vegetables from a can or jar, potatoes (the only fresh food on the plate), bread with margarine, and a sweet dessert. She cooks what she likes to cook and what she and her family like to eat. Betty feels, say Eberstadt, “that opinions about food are simply de gustibus, a matter of taste—and only that.”

Her granddaughter could not disagree more:

Wavering in and out of vegetarianism, Jennifer is adamantly opposed to eating red meat or endangered fish. She is also opposed to industrialized breeding, genetically enhanced fruits and vegetables, and to pesticides and other artificial agents. …Her diet is heavy in all the ways that Betty’s was light: with fresh vegetables and fruits in particular.

And the difference goes beyond personal choices. “Jennifer,” writes Eberstadt, “feels that there is a right and wrong about these opinions that transcends her exercise of choice as a consumer.” The world would be a better place, thinks Jennifer, if everyone behaved as she does.

With regard to sex, Betty and Jennifer swap roles. 

Betty sees clear lines between right and wrong and is willing to make moral judgments. Jennifer disapproves of cheating, but would never make moral judgments about the behavior of others. As Eberstadt comments, “Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse.”

The benefits of eating right are as well known as the dangers of junk food. Poor diet has a physical impact resulting in obesity and other ailments such as heart disease, digestive problems, and cancer. There are also psychological impacts including self-esteem, moods, and eating disorders. 

At the same time, data showing the benefits of traditional sexual ethics and the dangers of “junk sex” are systematically ignored.  Studies indicate that married, monogamous people are happier and live longer.  Junk sex leads to physical problems such as sexually transmitted diseases, psychological problems including depression and attachment disorders, and social problems particularly for children from broken homes. Such children, as Eberstadt notes, “are at risk for all kinds of behavioral, psychological, educational, and other problems that children from intact homes are not.” And yet, says Eberstadt, “The all-you-can-eat buffet is now stigmatized; the sexual smorgasbord is not.” 

“In the end,” she writes:

…it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the rules being drawn around food receive some force from the fact that people are uncomfortable with how far the sexual revolution has gone — and not knowing what to do about it, they turn for increasing consolation to mining morality out of what they eat.

For all our relativistic talk about “live and let live,” “it’s okay just as long as no one is hurt,” and “each of us should make his or her own moral choices,” we cannot get away from an inner sense of right and wrong and the desire to codify right and wrong. There is, as St. Paul wrote, the law written on our hearts, the deep conscience that, as creatures made in the image of God, we are born with and from which we cannot fully break free.

J. Budziszewski points out in his book What We Can’t Not Know,

…[D]eep conscience cannot be erased, cannot be mistaken, and is the same for every human being. The only way to tamper with it is self-deception—telling myself that I don’t know what I really do.

And in a culture reaping the whirlwind of unrestricted junk sex, fixating on food is as good a way as any to live in denial of all the things about sex that “we can’t not know.”