The Erotic Politics of Food

By Zach Berger

Graphic by Sonia Shah

Graphic by Sonia Shah

When you ask someone out on a date, it’s usually just another occasion for eating. But it can also be an occasion for sex. Whether or not the date goes well, food can act as a vehicle for sexuality despite the rather banal function it plays in everyday life. Food is necessary for survival, but it also nourishes the soul. Variety makes it better. It plays to purely carnal desires and provides instant pleasure and satisfaction. Sex is not all that different. Eating and sex are both ritualistic activities and can be carried out either alone or with many people. Both are necessary for the perpetuation of our species. Food and sex ostensibly serve similar functions. But the relationship between the pleasures of eating and the pleasures of sex manifest in quite unusual ways, sometimes in assigning sexuality to foods as either proxies for desire or micro-representations of sexism and homophobia.  

The act of putting food in one’s mouth, I’m sure, gives psychoanalysts a field day for studying the similar effects of eating and sex-having. Consider the process of eating. The eater looks down at their food, sizing it up, smelling it, engaging in the foreplay to consumption. They twiddle their fork around the plate until they’ve discovered just the right morsel to taste first. Zealously, they stab the chunk, the floret — the noodle? the slice? — and bring it up to their mouths, chewing slowly, letting each taste bud relish in the zesty orchestra of flavor. Their eyes roll into the back of their head, culminating in the ultimate pinnacle of pleasure: a full stomach and a satisfied palate, punctuated by Mmmm… and That’s sooo good… Eating is erotic. But so are foods themselves. For instance, certain foods are believed to facilitate in the act of sex-making by possessing aphrodisiac qualities. Oysters, chocolate, and strawberries are some of the most commonly cited. Other foods, however, possess a peculiar sexual power, stronger even than the inherent eroticism of eating. They are explicit representations of sex: bananas, eggplant, whipped cream, lollipops, cherries, pomegranates, and peaches are all homologous to sexual organs or functions. Since Adam and Eve devoured the forbidden fruit, food has always been inextricable from desire.

Advertisers are keenly aware of this relationship. Commercial imagery of foods is heavily informed by the “sex sells” mantra, particularly when food is positioned in proximity to female sexuality. Fanta commercials from the mid-2000s feature scantily dressed young women refreshing themselves with orange soda. Hooters and other hyper-masculine sports bar chains hire attractive, busty female waitresses to increase chicken wing sales. The confluence of sex and food in ads generates a double response from the viewer (usually male), who is both aroused and appetized by the experience. Sure, it’s an effective, albeit overused, marketing tactic. But it also renders female sexuality as ancillary to the male consumer. A man must first buy the product before the act of consumption can take place, which means the woman is incapable of carrying out her sexuality until the man has taken the bite. And Super Bowl ads especially are some of the biggest exploiters of the male gaze to sell burgers and beer. I’m looking at you, Carl’s Jr.

Not surprisingly, sexualized depictions of food in art seem to have been on the rise recently with the advent of “food porn.” There’s an unexplained sexiness to pulling apart melted cheese or pouring liquid chocolate, oozing slowly, lusciously, decadently. A steak sizzling over an open flame, as if murmuring a melodic, “Aaahhh….” when it hits the heat. A knife tenderly slicing through a rich dessert. The intimate images and cadences of sex are easily imposed onto things that we eat, sometimes even more explicitly than discrete signaling. Instagram artist Stephanie Sarley, for example, posts images of herself fingering kiwis and shaving bananas as a pedagogical project. Fruit, apparently, can teach us how to have better sex.

More than just sexuality in the abstract, foods are often attached to sexual orientations as well. There’s something about certain foods that are “gayer” than others, whatever that may mean. Quiche, panini, edible arrangements. Real men don’t eat salads. Gays order vodka sodas, or worse, something fruity, at bars. Real men wouldn’t be caught dead licking an ice cream cone. Fruit? Gay. Twinkies? Come on. And whatever you do, if you want a Skinny Greeny at Palladium… just say you want “the green one” as a precaution. The image of a straight man convulsing in his seat, weighing whether the threat of eating a strawberry is too gay, is kind of ridiculous but not that far from the truth. But what makes a food gay anyway? The daintiness? The sweetness? When extra effort is put in to make it look nice? I’d argue that any food can be gay if you believe hard enough. Take, for instance, a pulled pork sandwich. It’s manly and messy, a staple of tailgates and sports bars. But if you really think about it….. You’re pulling…. pork and putting it in between two….. buns. Sounds pretty gay to me.

Both objects of desire, the concepts of food and sex are intimately and inherently in bed with one another. Because of this, food is just as susceptible to interpersonal politics as sex. The idea that sexism and homophobia can be channeled through food seems absurd, but food and sex’s parallel functions in society have demonstrated otherwise. But despite this, the eroticism of eating is still too good to suppress. One can’t help but to have one… more… bite.

Kaylee WarrenComment