According to Mort Rosenblum, the author of Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, when the spoils of the New World arrived in Spain, “The men drank coffee and stronger stuff, and the women drank chocolate.” But in Enlightenment-era Europe chocolate was still also seen as an arouser for men. Giacomo Casanova reputedly drank it in the lead-up to assignations, and Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress, supposedly fed chocolate to her lovers to improve their potency. (Racial anxieties surrounding chocolate—typified by that awful Axe ad—also date to Enlightenment-era Europe; Rosenblum tells an anecdote about Madame de Sevigny “writing to her daughter saying, ‘Don’t drink too much [chocolate]; Madame So-and-So drank it, and her child came out black as the devil.’”)
Chocolate’s somewhat taboo but relatively gender-neutral status continued even after industrialization, which, in the words of food historian Barbara Haber, “turned [chocolate] from a bitter and chalky product into the smooth, sweet and sensuous bonbons and bars we eat today.” According to historian Kathleen Banks Nutter’s article “From Romance to PMS: Images of Women and Chocolate in Twentieth-Century America” (which can be read in the anthology Edible Ideologies), early 20th-century advertisements for chocolate often portrayed a woman smiling coyly while offering chocolates to the (implicitly male) viewer rather than indulging herself. One ad’s tag line read, “A visit to Pleasure Island is best when made by a man and a maid, and together they enjoy the plunder from this wonderful chest of chocolates.”
In fact, the modern stereotype of the crazed chocolate-craving woman didn’t appear until the 1960s. According to Nutter, that decade’s casting off of the strict gender roles and sexual prudishness of previous years compelled chocolate advertisers to try a new tack. Advertisers responded to women’s increasing legal gains, financial independence, and social power with pseudo-feminist ads that told women they didn’t need a man so long as they had chocolate. At the same time, advertisements began to sell men on the idea that access to a woman’s sexuality could be bought with chocolate: In 1967, Brach’s ran an ad geared toward men with the slogan, “Free kisses with every box of Brach’s Valentine Chocolates you give to her.”
Today’s chocolate ads, though more explicit, echo the themes of 1960s ads—and age-old sexual double standards. According to Katherine Parkin, an associate professor of history at Monmouth University and the author of Food is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, contemporary chocolate advertisements don’t need to appeal to men’s desire to indulge themselves, since “Men have more freedom to indulge in all kinds of pleasures.” Instead, chocolate marketers tell men to look at chocolate as an investment: per Parkin, “It’s a pretty inexpensive gift to hope to secure sex from a woman.”
But women still face social stigma for being too sexual, so chocolate advertisers sell them on a different story. Parkin explains, “Our society across the 20th century became more open to women’s sexuality, but … the pressures on women remain to be chaste and available.” Chocolate lets women avoid that pressure, and it’s more socially acceptable for women than other sensual consumables, like alcohol. Mainstream America still isn’t comfortable with the idea that women might actually enjoy sex per se—but it’s more than happy to watch beautiful women feign sexual bliss while biting into a piece of chocolate.