During the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, Americans will purchase more than 60 million pounds of chocolate—and more than 75 percent of it will be given by men to women. No doubt, most of the heterosexual men who give chocolate to their partners see it as a token of affection, a way to strengthen their romantic bonds, a gesture to show their partners that they are loved. Plus, it’s kind of a no-brainer—all women love chocolate, right?
The stereotype that women are crazy about chocolate has become virtually axiomatic. Many women happily propagate the idea that chocolate is feminine fare: Bookstores teem with cocoa-themed titles written by and geared toward women, be they heartwarming (Chocolate for a Woman’s Soul), prescriptive (The Chocolate Lovers’ Diet), or sardonic (Give the Bitch Her Chocolate). Profiles of female celebrities routinely feature confessions of chocoholism—or at least occasional indulgences in the dark stuff. Even women who are keenly aware of stereotypes and double standards have a soft spot for chocolate; feminist blogs Jezebel and the Hairpin regularly feature posts on chocolate, with varying degrees of tongue-in-cheekness. Where did this stereotype come from?
It certainly didn’t come from science. Research on whether women like chocolate more than men has yielded mixed results, in part because craving—the term researchers tend to use when talking about chocolate proclivities—is an inherently subjective phenomenon. Some surveys have revealed virtually no difference in chocolate cravings between men and women, but others indicate a significant gender discrepancy. There’s no hormonal reason for women to like chocolate more than men (chocolate cravings don’t decrease much after menopause) but some studies indicate that American women crave chocolate more than women in other countries, suggesting that cultural factors are at play.
The more realistic culprit for the perceived link between women and chocolate is marketing. Television commercials and print ads often show women’s need for chocolate as desperate and animalistic. (For a few hilarious examples of this, browse through Slate’s slide show of stock photos of women eating chocolate.) What’s more, advertisers routinely depict the pleasure of eating chocolate as not only equal to the pleasure of sex, but identical to the pleasure of sex or redeemable for the pleasure of sex.
As an example of the first trope—chocolate as sexual bliss conveniently wrapped up in foil—consider a 2010 Dove Chocolate commercial, which features a beautiful, scantily clad woman lounging alone in a courtyard as sultry guitar music plays. She bites into a piece of chocolate, and a magical chocolate-colored piece of silk flies toward her and rubs itself against her bare skin as she smiles. This commercial, like others of its ilk, portrays women as bored and unsatisfied until chocolate enters their lives and fulfills all their desires.
Other ads take the ostensibly humorous tack of portraying the relationship between chocolate and sex as transactional. In these ads, men give chocolate to women and suddenly find them not only amenable to sex but aggressively interested in it. The most ridiculous example of this kind of ad—and possibly the most ridiculous example of any ad ever made—is Axe’s infamous Chocolate Man ad, in which a white man is magically transformed into chocolate and induces a frenzy of lust in every woman he encounters.
Though the notion that women become raging sluts at the sight of chocolate is relatively new, the relationship between chocolate and sex isn’t. The Aztecs are said to have ritualistically eaten cacao off each other’s skin during sex, and the Aztec emperor Montezuma reportedly drank copious quantities of a chocolate-based beverage to enhance his virility. When chocolate crossed the Atlantic in the 16th century, its salacious reputation followed it, fed by missionaries’ recollections of watching chocolate-fueled Aztec orgies.