Sex, food, and shame.

Science, technology, and life.
July 12 2010 9:42 AM

Extreme Insertions

Sex, food, and shame.

Hot dog eating contest. Click image to expand.
Two competitors at Nathan's hot-dog eating contest

Is it wrong to criticize people for extreme sex or eating? Can the abuse of eating help us think about the abuse of sex?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

The blogosphere has been chewing on these questions since July 4, when Nathan's Famous held its annual hot-dog eating contest. On Thursday, I blasted Major League Eating—the pro league behind the contest—for promoting and professionalizing a "sport" in which contestants stuff 50 or 60 hot dogs down their throats in eight to 10 minutes. (Did I mention the buns? They're included.) I compared this orchestrated, commercialized, televised gluttony to pornography.

Jezebel, a Web site committed to sexual freedom, calls this objection "hysterical." Jezebel writer Katy Kelleher chastises me for seeming "downright disgusted by what these people are choosing to do with their bodies." She laments:

Sex and food. Food and sex. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of the two being combined in some horrible spiral of shame. Food is not sinful. Lust is not sinful. … Doing these things—enjoying huge amounts of food or conspicuous amounts of sex—does not make one self-destructive, gluttonous, or depraved. Saletan's sloppy comparison does not turn me off competitive eating—it just reveals his disgust and distrust of pornography. In drawing the two together, he makes both out to be something threatening, even dangerous. But a group of contestants shoving food into their faces while crowds cheer around is not symbolic of the impending downfall of our civilization.

Focal Point, a feminist blog, picks up this argument and extends it. The writer, Lindsay Beyerstein, says Kelleher is "justifiably indignant on behalf of pornography." Beyerstein adds:

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In fairness to porn, competitive eating only resembles certain sub-genres of porn where the squick factor is built into the appeal. Most porn is more akin to the relatively wholesome vicarious pleasures of the Food Network or Saveur Magazine than a Major League Eating contest.

Are these bloggers right? Is porn not so bad? Is it wrong to find porn disgusting? Is it OK to enjoy huge amounts of food or sex?

These are separate questions. I'm open to arguments about them, and I'm glad to see them aired in what I hope is a refreshing context: sexual and gastronomic behavior compared side by side. That's one of the conversations I was trying to provoke when I compared competitive eating to porn. (For comic brilliance in mixing the two, I can't top Stephen Colbert on the new Friendly's Grilled Cheese Burger Melt: "It's like your lunch and two other people's lunches are having a three-way in your mouth.") My impression from the conversation so far is that Beyerstein is right and Kelleher is wrong: We should sort the better porn from the worse, just as we should sort the better eating from the worse. What we shouldn't do is defend all porn or eating in the name of freedom.

Knee-jerk denunciations of shame, sin, and disgust are a tired and shallow kind of feminism. The food analogy makes that pretty clear. You can try to paint every moral criticism of porn or sexual extremity as an attack on women, but when the same criticisms are offered against men in eating contests—mindless orgies, commercial exploitation, abuse of the body—it's time to open your mind to the possibility that, no, this isn't just about patriarchy or controlling sex.

Beyerstein is on a more promising track. Picking up on the idea of food as a template for thinking about sex, she suggests a distinction between "most porn" and the "extreme insertions" variety. For those of us who missed the 1997 comedy Orgazmo, she helpfully compares competitive eating to DVDA, in which—how shall I explain this—the D's stand for "double," and the V and A stand for orifices.