Has Food Replaced Sex As The American Moral Code?
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. Valentine's Day is Saturday, and so, for the fortunate, there will be a romantic dinner followed by maybe a little romance. But attitudes towards dinner and romance have actually evolved, with dinner taking on more importance than sex, if you can believe it. Mary Eberstadt took the long-range look at this in an article called "Is Food the New Sex?" She's a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. So, is it? Is food the new sex?
Ms. MARY EBERSTADT (Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; Author, "Is Food the New Sex?"): Well, I think it is, Madeleine. Let me explain what I mean by that provocative-sounding question. Over the past half century or so, something really interesting has happened throughout western societies. On the one hand, moral beliefs about sex have all gone in one direction. And generally speaking, it's been the laissez-faire direction. That is to say, people today are much less moralistic about sexual behavior than they were 50 years ago.
On the other hand, at the very same time this has been happening, people's attitudes about food, which, say, in the 1950s, were very laissez-faire. Food was just seen as a matter of taste. Those attitudes today have evolved such that people are much more moralistic about food and food choices, whether the issue is vegetarianism or what's good for the planet. People in general have come to adopt a sort of moralistic universal code about food. It's not accepted by everybody, but it's clearly the direction in which things are moving.
BRAND: What do you mean by laissez-faire about sex?
Ms. EBERSTADT: I mean, having generally the idea that as along as things are consensual, there's nothing external, like a moral code, that should put a restraint on things. I don't mean that people have become completely amoral about sex. I just mean that if you look at the course of ideas in the last, again, say, roughly 50 years, you see a clear movement away from a strict, well-defined sexual morality, according to which extramarital sex is wrong under any circumstances. And again, what you see in the area of food is the rise of various moral codes - macrobiotics, vegetarianism, et cetera - at the same time that people are moving away from them in sex.
BRAND: Well, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, most people in their 30s and 40s are married, and within those marriages, most have only one sexual partner in a given year - each other.
Ms. EBERSTADT: Oh, sure.
BRAND: So, how is that an indication of a laissez-faire attitude towards sex and morality?
Ms. EBERSTADT: I think, if you look at what happens in the years before marriage by all kinds of measures, it's clear that, say, a 25-year-old today who's single is living very differently from her grandmother. In, for example, the Policy Review essay, I actually make up these two people called Betty and Jennifer, because I think it helps to see how differently people live now. Say, Jennifer, a 25-year-old today, is exposed to lots of things that Betty never got near. For example, young people are much more likely to use pornography. They're much more likely to experiment sexually. They're much, much more likely to have very liberal attitudes about sex. So, there's a clear change of attitude.
BRAND: And do you find that the people who have more, I guess, moral strictures when it comes to having sex - people, perhaps, who are more religious - have looser strictures when it comes to food? Or is this something that you're theorizing about?
Ms. EBERSTADT: Yeah. Look, I don't have longitudinal studies to demonstrate that. But I have heard expressed very often by social conservatives, say, the sort of head-scratching idea, why are people so crazy about food now? Why does nobody, you know, talk about traditional sexual morality? So, I think on that side of the spectrum, people are genuinely puzzled, and they sense that there's a lot of morality still floating around in society, but that it's drifted away from, you know, traditional moral concerns, particularly about a sexual code, and drifted over to this area where really, it hasn't existed before.
All religions have rules proscribing food. For example, Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarians. Muslims, Christians, Jews all have their own dietary rules, but those rules were understood to further the religion. It's only really in our time that things like vegetarianism have come completely unmoored from any other moral system. It's become a thing in itself.
BRAND: Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Her article is in the Hoover's Policy Review magazine. It's called "Is Food the New Sex?" I have to say, that's a very provocative title. Thank you very much.
Ms. EBERSTADT: Thanks for having me.
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