On Junk Food and Pornography

Note: This article first appeared in The Daily on May 6, 2012 under the headline “Body and Soul.” It’s no longer extant, so I’ve republished it here.

In an interview leading up to the much-hyped debut of her HBO series “Girls,” writer and actor Lena Dunham explained how pornography has shaped her relationships. “Guys my age watch so much pornography,” the 25-year-old Dunham told the New York Times’s Frank Bruni, explaining how this results in “a lot of errant hair-pulling” and adding, “there’s no way that you, young Jewish man from Chappaqua, taught this to yourself.” It was an increasingly common observation, and one that Dunham dramatized perfectly in the unlovely first sex scene of her new series. “Perhaps someone should start a Slow Sex movement,” a commenter to the Times article suggested, something “along the lines of the Slow Food movement.”

The connection between how we eat and how we love is evident in different religious traditions, but our politics has made it unnecessarily obscure. Concern about nutritious food for children, local systems of agriculture and consumption and “sustainable” methods is considered “liberal.” When Michelle Obama settled on obesity, a seemingly-apolitical area for a first lady to do some high-minded advocacy, Rush Limbaugh said she was trying to “tell everyone to eat twigs and berries and gravel,” promoting a right-wing backlash. By the same token, any hand-wringing about the prevalence of pornography, the culture of hooking up and the impact that both may have for the viability of long-term domestic relationships, is interpreted by lifestyle libertarians as prudish or patriarchal.  

In terms of political tribalism, this distinction between concern for food and concern for sex is useful. American politics has always had a heavy cultural element, and a quick and easy way to galvanize your own side is to scorn the personal habits of people on the other — to mock their cars, their food, their domestic arrangements. Inasmuch as anxieties about food or sex are really stand-ins for our views about environmental laws or gender politics, they’re likely to be voiced by one electoral coalition more than another. But does it really make sense to pay attention to the integrity of our food while ignoring that of our intimate relationships, or vice versa?

For one thing, the polarization of these cultural wedge images — they’re not even issues in the usual sense — breaks down at the ground level. I know plenty of conservatives who are suspicious of stuff like the so-called pink slime that is used a filler in ground beef, and plenty of liberals who worry about the effects of online pornography on its viewers. At the same time, with Americans consuming an average of 22 teaspoons of sugar every day and with 100 million North American males going online for porn even back in the sleepy days of 2008, people who avoid either altogether seem to be rarer than partisans might wish.

More to the point, we have managed to defeat the scarcity that once defined these means of satisfying our very real needs and desires. Cheeseburgers and porn are both so cheaply had and so ubiquitous that it’s easy to persuade ourselves we’re being reasonable and restrained in their consumption — never mind that the rate at which we do so would have seemed extravagant not long ago (I am part of the last generation of Americans who will remember the elaborate hiding and hoarding of girlie magazines). In fact, I’ve come to think of porn as the high-fructose corn syrup of sexual life: It seems to strike the neural receptors so quickly and efficiently that it subtly replaces the things it was invented to mimic. Both appear to create patterns of psychological and even biochemical dependence. Both leave their most serious addicts curiously helpless against something that was unavailable within living memory.

Addiction to pornography and severe obesity may not be the worst problems facing American society, but they are the most characteristic of our age. They come about when we discover ways to fulfill (and then over-fulfill) our most persistent cravings. Natural and inevitable desires become a matrix into which the clumsy, inefficient reality of organic life gets plugged. The consequences of this development are ultimately more spiritual than political, as we risk becoming estranged and cut off from the physical world we have learned to use with such remarkable dexterity.

Not everyone in public life embraces the culture-war polarization over food and sex. Rod Dreher, an Orthodox Christian and a writer for the American Conservative magazine, once pioneered the “Crunchy Con” label for people who share his penchant for real food and old-fashioned morality. Erika Christakis, writing in the Boston Globe, suggested the idea of “fair-trade pornography” in which wages and working conditions would be certified with the same sorts of standards applied to farms and factories. While that sort of thing might not produce the “sustainable, local, and caring relationships” imagined by the Slow Sex visionary, it would at least introduce a level of discretion and thoughtfulness that might change a deeply diseased industry on the margins.

And ultimately that’s what cultural changes, as opposed to culture wars, are about. The heart’s desire and technology’s power can’t simply be thwarted. But if we can imagine being a little more patient, reverent, and careful about how we nourish ourselves — preferring what is healthy over what is easy and what is ethical over what is instantly gratifying — there’s no reason we can’t do the same for our intimate lives. As the weariest over-consumer can tell you, imagination is a very powerful thing.

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