Sex and Dinner Guests

Watch any nature show and you'll see how life boils down to consumption and procreation, food and sex. As humans, a superior genus, we marvel at the simplicity of these animals' lives. Yet, when it comes to human interactions, what do we want most? Food and sex.

In some ways, these twin desires may even be linked. Now I'm not talking about George Costanza, his unsuspecting girlfriend, and a pastrami on rye hidden in the nightstand. Well, not just about that... The food-sex connection I'm considering is more subtle and much more pervasive.

Where do we go on dates? Out to dinner. What do we hope for at the end of a dinner date? Sex. Even our language describing food and sex overlaps. "Mmmm...." Is that a murmur of pleasure uttered after sampling a tasty dish or after sampling a tasty dish? Food warms us, food pleases us, food sustains us. And so does sex.

Here's the key difference: it's socially acceptable to freely share one of these appetites but not the other.

Going back to Psych 101, I remember a textbook example that asked us to imagine a world where the social acceptability of eating and having sex were reversed. Imagine that eating would only be allowed in strict privacy and with the company of just one chosen partner. At the same time, sex would be available anywhere and everywhere, with or in front of anyone. Sex would be a freely available public commodity and food would be a secret, somewhat guilty, pleasure.

It's easy to scoff at the idea. It's easy to say that sex and food are completely different and could never be switched in such a way. But why not? Why is sex a pleasure that is shared with only one partner, while food is publicly enjoyed with anyone?

Now, before I go further, I'll clarify that I'm all for monogamy. The many positives range from the practical to the passionate. But I'm also a fan of free thought. As my mind wanders over social conventions, it gets tripped up by these uneven surfaces, cracks and crevices. All the inconsistencies that are bound to exist in such murky, emotionally-charged ideas of "values" and "morality."

For one thing, it fascinates me that food is a well-known, acceptable stand-in for sex. Lonely? Grab a pint of double-chocolate chunk ice cream. Not dating? Bake up a better-than-sex cake (yes, that's a real recipe). Even when you socialize, what's the most common activity you do with friends? You eat. You go to dinner, you get dessert.

Eating fills the void when sex isn't on the menu and, by society's standards, that's preferable to actually meeting your sexual needs on your own or with an "inappropriate" partner.

But is this tasty sublimation actually healthier than having sex with anyone who strikes your fancy? As our obesity epidemic should be showing us, eating too much food carries just as many health risks as sleeping around. Sure, you won't get an STD by eating a triple bacon cheeseburger topped with onion rings (hold the tomato and lettuce, please), but a heart attack will leave you just as dead.

And you don't have to be sex-deprived or lonely to have an obsession with sharing sweet or savory treats. People are constantly pushing food on people that they like, as if it's the most acceptable way of showing their affection.

If only I had a bitcoin for every time I've heard, "You have to try this!" while someone waved a forkful of something decadent my way! Food is big in our society. Turn down an offered delicacy and you risk a serious offense.

This giving of food is so emotional for some people that I have to wonder what's behind the overt gesture. Is offering food a subconscious way of saying, "I like you. I can't have sex with you, but this banana nut muffin is the next best thing."?

That would explain why feelings are hurt when the offer is rejected. Or why friends eat to such excess when they get together. The dessert menu comes out and the pressure is on to share in high-calorie gratification. Perhaps it's the most visceral satisfaction friends can share without venturing into the realm of sex?

Think back to our last Presidential election and the news coverage surrounding what hometown food the candidates ate at each stop along the campaign trail. Woe to the candidate that didn't at least nibble at a proffered foodstuff. Just how many votes were bought with greasy bites of indigestion? And doesn't that seem just a little bit... well, odd?

There's also a pretty big ick-factor when you consider that mothers and grandmothers are some of the biggest food pushers around. Always wanting to fill your belly and indulge your sweet tooth. Always worried if it looks like you aren't getting enough food on your own.

Breastfeeding alone takes this whole discussion into a dark labyrinth of sexual repression and confusion. If you think about it, breastfeeding infants are the only humans expected (by some) to eat in hiding. And that's because they eat from a woman's breast, which is an object that our society has placed in the "sex" category, not the "food" category. Despite the fact that it naturally belongs in both.

Clearly our society does try to make a distinction between feeding our appetites for food and our appetites for sex. (Except for some fetishists and for people like me who are prone to imaginative over-analysis.)

But I have to wonder at where the lines are drawn and whether there are other social needs that are overshadowed by the drive for food and sex. After all, our genetics may be urging us to eat and reproduce, but there are other interesting things in the world.

Personally, I'd be happy if food and sex were both toned down a bit in our society. If our subconscious brains would meet new people and say, "I like you. I don't want to have sex with you and I'm not hungry, but let's play a board game and enjoy a witty exchange of ideas."

That would be neat.