Comes Naturally #117 (December 14, 2001):
Visions of Sugar Plums

By continuing to browse this web site you are certifying your agreement to its terms of use; please read them if you have not done so already.

Spectator Magazine -- December 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001 David Steinberg


Food is sex. Sex is food. Obviously they're not exactly the same. But, equally obviously, the two are intimately intertwined, which is hardly surprising since food and sex are, after all, our two most primal physical needs.

Hunger, nourishment, satisfaction, craving, appetite, eating, nibbling, licking, sucking, swallowing, biting, devouring, gobbling, stuffing, feasting. Are these about Christmas dinner or a hot time in bed?

Whatever distinctions the rational mind may offer to distinguish the need for food from the need for sex, in the non-rational realm of the psyche, these distinctions often become profoundly blurred. In the psyche, it's the connections between things, not the differences, that count. Metaphor is the native language of the unconscious, and in that subterranean, subconscious world, feelings, experiences, and images have a way of standing in for each other all the time.

That's what makes dreams -- the territory where the psyche speaks on its own terms -- both so fascinating and, for the rationally obsessed, so hard to understand. Trying to explain dreams with the literal, specifying language of the rational mind is a bit like trying to understand Afghanistan with the mindset of a Texan -- the heart of the matter, the essential spirit, and all the important nuances, get hopelessly lost in translation.

It is one of the functions of dreams to speak about things indirectly that are too frightening to address straight on. It is also a function of dreams to remind us that the specifics of our lives often hold power for us because they connect to larger, more universal, matters. Presenting material symbolically, rather than liiterally, neatly accomplishes both of these goals.

Thus, in a dream, a spear is more likely to represent a penis than a hunting object. A cup often represents the womb. Your husband may stand in for your father. Your daughter may represent yourself as a little girl. In dreams, it's the essences beneath the details that are the real point -- the essence of maleness, perhaps, or of femaleness. Of essential quality of being penetrated, or of being enfolded. Those male and female figures who have most deeply affected your life. The core sense of what it is like to be young, vulnerable, and in need of protection.

In the symbolic, essential, world of the psyche, eating and sex are, in many ways, two parallel ways of relating to issues more primal than either eating or making love. Both eating and sex, for example, are paths for the primal pursuit of physical pleasure. We both eat and have sex because in an attempt to satisfy our essential need for physical and emotional comfort and safety. We both eat and have sex to feel physically embodied, to provide for our fundamental biological and emotional survival, and to assure ourselves that we are able to nurture our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

If either food or sex is taken away from us to any significant degree, we often unconsciously substitute the other as its psychic equivalent. If the primary object of our desire is unavailable, the psyche arranges to satisfy its needs indirectly. One way or another, the psyche has a way of making itself heard.

In this culture, where expressions of sexual desire are severely restricted and food, for most people, is abundantly available, it's usually the quest for sexual satisfaction that transfers over to food, rather than the other way around. In the absence of satisfying, fulfilling, abundant sex, we turn to food with an intensity that has nothing to do with the body's need for calories or specific chemical nutrients.

With sexual confusion, fear, and general dissatisfaction running rampant, it's hardly surprising that so many people eat in ways that are both emotionally and physically devastating for them. Sex may be constantly suspect and subject to attack, but food is -- well -- just food -- a much safer, saner, and generally more reliable avenue for physical fulfillment. No one, after all, is organizing a multi-million-dollar national program haranguing teenagers to eat less, to eat food that doesn't taste very good, or to cook everything they eat for three hours to make sure they don't end up with some horrible disease. No one is trying to save the souls of people who like turnips instead of potatoes, or squid instead of beef. And if you want to spend a week and hundreds of dollars putting together an elaborately scrumptious meal for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you can enthusiastically tell all the people at work what a wonderful time you had feasting without having them look at you like some kind of obsessional pervert.

The contrast between how we relate to eating and how relate to sex is a vivid indicator of just how twisted this culture is about sex. Because we respect our need and desire for food, we can go about satisfying our food needs relatively simply and directly. If only we could do the same about sex!

What would it be like if we were to apply our basic attitudes about sex to food, and our basic attitudes about food to sex? One of the many novels I have thought about, but never written, is a sci-fi story about a group of earthlings who find themselves on a planet just like ours, except with on this planet all the attitudes and social mores about food and sex are reversed. On this planet, people have sex publicly, with different people on different days, often with many people at once, and with lots of joyous celebration. Eating, on the other hand, is denigrated and shame-ridden, done only in private with one's mate-for-life, spoken and thought about as little as possible.

On this planet, when people who arrive for a visit (as the earthlings do), they are graciously and automatically offered sex because they are, of course, hungry for it after the limited possibilities of a long trip. Friends and neighbors are constantly invited over for an evening of shared sex. Elaborate, ritualized sexual encounters are central to all holiday celebrations, both secular and religious. It is routine for all but the most destitute to go out regularly and purchase sex, both for variety and for the opportunity to indulge in the kind of sexual excellence and elaboration that most people just don't make time for at home. It is an act of laudable generosity (encouraged in church, particularly during the most religious times of year) to give sex to those in need. Large stores sell both necessary and frivolous sex-related products, and compete for customers by offering products that appeal to every subtle nuance of sexual preference. People who shun sex to the extent that it affects their health go to expensive clinics to deal with their condition, and are the subjects of countless magazine articles.

On this planet, eating, however, is extremely hush-hush and enmeshed in an elaborate culture of shame. Most people think of eating primarily as a matter of getting oneself fed quickly and easily, with as little fanfare as possible. Everyone eats alone or with their spouse, behind closed doors, in the privacy of the one room of the house set aside for that purpose. There are strict rules about which foods are good to eat and which are not. Most are not.

People generally eat the same meals over and over again, and wonder in middle age why they are becoming anorectic. People who enjoy eating "too much" are called a long list of nasty names. People with a taste for fruits and cakes make sure their friends have no idea what they eat. Many are so embarrassed by their craving for sweets that they adamantly shun sweets entirely and sponsor national political campaigns against the moral dangers of sugar. Stories of ministers and politicians caught eating a mango in a car with an obese stranger dominate the news media for months at a time.

Television programs in which people eat or cook are confined to late-night hours. Bakeries (prohibited from displaying their goods in store windows lest passing children see them) and the few illegal-but-tolerated, bare-walled restaurants (with prices so high that the earthlings laugh) are restricted by zoning to industrial parts of town. In many places, it's illegal for r estaurants or bakeries to exist within 500 feet of each other, or within 500 feet of a church or school.

Panic over isolated cases of food poisoning results in periodic police crackdowns on all restaurants, no matter how clean, and public campaigns for people to carefully scrub and overcook even the food they eat at home. If you catch your spouse or your children eating with someone (else), all hell breaks loose. Even talking enthusiastically about food with a friend or co-worker, especially someone who is considered overweight, is a common source of marital upheaval. It is well-known that only the emaciated go to heaven after they die.

Of course, the earthlings go through severe culture shock, but over time they begin to see that the system they've wandered into makes about as much sense as ours does. They get thrown into all sorts of delicious, if embarrassing, sexual situations which they protest at first but soon learn to enjoy, even while they deal with residual feelings of confusion and guilt, and wonder how they're going to explain themselves to the folks back home. Despite their best efforts to be sensitive to the people around them, the earthlings are constantly offending their hosts with their casual, suspiciously positive, attitudes about eating. There is a big incident when a child eats part of a chocolate bar that an earthling has stashed under her bed. Attempts to explain to their hosts that eating is just as healthy and vital a part of life as sex falls on deaf, even horrified, ears.

Food for thought, you might say, as we enter the season of sugar-plums and sugar-plum fairies. Whether the details be gastronomic or sexual, may all your holiday repasts be ridiculously elaborate, festive, delicious, creative, satisfying, and 100% guilt-free.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)

This document is in the following section of this site: Main Documents > Contributing Authors > David Steinberg

If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.