Radhika Chandiramani founded TARSHI in 1996. She is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship for Leadership Development and the Soros Reproductive Health and Rights Fellowship. Radhika trained as a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) and is the author of the book Good Times for Everyone: Sexuality Questions, Feminist Answers. Radhika continues her association with TARSHI as a consultant.
In this email interview, Radhika talks about the connections between food, culture and sexuality.
TARSHI: Food and sexuality. Are they connected?
Radhika: In some ways, yes they are. We need to eat and drink to stay alive, and for the species to continue, well, a bit of sex can take us a long way. But on a more serious note, sexuality is more than the act of sex and just as the way there are rules governing food and drink, there are also rules that society makes up to control sexuality. Certain foods are taboo, so are certain kinds of sex. And then there is also the idea of aphrodisiacs – substances that are supposed to increase sexual desire. Many foods are touted as aphrodisiacs – dark chocolate, avocado, ginger, chillies, ginseng, almonds, the list goes on and on – and with good reason.
They all contain or release chemicals that either produce feel-good sensations or increase blood flow or deliver essential nutrients that are important for the physical experience of sex.
Both sex and food have to do with the senses… tastes, textures, aromas, juices, and of course the visual aspects as well. There are many fruits and vegetables that look like human genitalia – think bananas, cucumbers, apples, figs, avocados, coco de mer, and so on, and some sea creatures like clams and oysters may be especially evocative of vaginas. And then, the texture or taste or aroma of the food may remind some people of the texture or taste or smell of different body parts. People also use food in an erotic way – adding it to their sex play to widen the repertoire of sensations – ice-cream, custards, gooey chocolate, and so on smeared on to and then licked off body parts. There are also myths and legends associated with different foods and many of these allude to sex or reproduction.
There are other pleasing connections too. Variation. Diversity. Pleasure. Abundance. Different ingredients. Different combinations of ingredients. Different ways of using the same ingredient. Subtle differences that emanate from what was added at what stage. In what proportion. Whether it’s at a roiling boil or a gentle simmer.
TARSHI: The media tends to sexualise food and consumption. Do you think there is a connection between the pleasure of sex and the pleasure of consumption?
Radhika: The media sexualises anything it can – cars, computers, coffee – because sex sells. What is the pleasure of consumption in today’s so-called consumerist society? The pleasure of anticipating owning something that the media informs us is ‘the next best thing’? Then owning it and waiting for a higher-grade model to be launched? To me it sounds more painful than pleasurable! The pleasure of sex on the other hand is something quite different when it is not about owning or having and is simply about experiencing. The same goes for food: it’s the savouring that brings pleasure. Have you noticed that when you are very, very hungry, you just gobble up the first few morsels of food? It only after the initial hunger is sated, that you begin to notice the play of flavours and differentiate the aloo [potatoes] from the mutter [peas] or whatever it is you are eating.
TARSHI: What do you think about the regulations about food and sex – ‘taboo’ foods, or this much of this kind of food at this time of the day or the conditions under which one can have sex (such as within marriage, between man and woman, between people of a certain age bracket, etc.)?
Radhika: There is nothing wrong with following a sensible diet or a regimen of what one will eat at what time of day. After all, it makes sense to not have a heavy meal just before going to bed – not only will an overfull belly feel uncomfortable (and spoil sex as well as sleep), it also places an unnecessary load on one’s digestive system at night. But, yes, I think we take it too far sometimes, this business of food fads and fad diets. Something simple has become very complicated. Now, people are very confused. What sorts of foods are good? What about calories? Cholesterol? Good fats/Bad fats? How much sodium? High protein or no protein? And on and on. Earlier people (read: women) used to worry about how their sex lives were perceived. Now they worry about what their diets say about them. Earlier they would not have sex for fear of what people would think about them, or because they were worried about pregnancy, now they don’t eat because they worry about putting on weight. And in our country, despite a greater openness about sexuality in recent years, women worry about both – sex and food! Fat is the new F word. Fat is seen as Failure.
And yes, predating this current obsession with and confusion about food, there are also proscriptions in many cultures about what one can eat and on what one can do sexually at certain times of the year – think of the rules around abstaining from food and sex that some religions advocate at certain periods. Some fasting may be good for the body and function as a detoxification process, and occasional sexual abstinence might make for more pleasure later!
These proscriptions deserve to neither be dismissed as old wives’ tales nor treated as customs that cannot be questioned. Take for instance, the proscriptions about eating certain foods, especially certain meats and in island cultures, certain kinds of fish. They arose at the time when there were no refrigerators and probably made a lot of sense back then. Maybe they do not apply now. But they have acquired a sanctity that no one questions. And unfortunately, as we have recently seen, an excuse for intolerance and barbarity.
We see this kind of unquestioning adherence to certain norms governing sexuality too – some kinds of sex are okay, some are not, some people are okay to have sex with, some are not, sex with the lights off is okay, with the lights on is not. Yes, it’s ridiculous. What really matters is consent, but that gets lost in all the fiddle-faddle that society adds on to it of gender, caste, religion, social class, and so on.
TARSHI: We see the notion of ‘sinful indulgence’ in popular representations of food? Does it have anything to do with popular representations of sex as a ‘sinful indulgence’?
Radhika: In 2009, Mary Eberstadt wrote a paper called Is Food the New Sex?. She suggested that in the West, the longstanding morality about sex has been transplanted on to food, and now there is ‘mindful eating’ and ‘mindless sex’. I don’t agree with her formulations and am in no way suggesting that food has taken the place of sex.
This business of ‘sinful indulgence’ is so Judeo-Christian. Anything that brings pleasure becomes a sin! And it’s funny, but what is ‘sinful’ is forbidden and by being forbidden it becomes all the more alluring. So the language of sin, indulgence, and temptation is also used to sell things. For example, the more ‘sinfully dark’ the chocolate, the more attractive it is made out to be.
It all depends on where one sits on the continuum of relating to food and to sex. For the calorie-counting diet fanatics, in a modern rewrite of the story of Eve and the apple, the apple would be replaced by dessert. In fact, in appearance-conscious Argentina where I am writing this from, there is a huge weight of social disapproval that falls upon women who do not follow food regulations to do with being slim. Women who have eaten a dessert or chocolate or any other food forbidden in their dietary regimen actually confess to their friends or colleagues that they have ‘sinned’. They will literally say, “Yesterday, I sinned. I ate a cheese tart.” Curiously, amongst most people here, the language of sin applies to food, not to sex. If they are disclosing that they had a one-night stand, they use the language of fun, not of sin. These are non-religious women, ordinary folk, not people who have undertaken to abstain from food for a religious purpose.
So, for some people, food may be the new sex, for others food may be the new religion. I think we need to keep it all in perspective. Not make too many far-fetched connections and above all not impose our own standards of morality on what other people choose to do with both – food and sex – in their own lives.