‘A Hunger of the Body’

In his article Eat Your Words, linguist Mark Morton (2004) deftly remarked that ‘the language of food and the language of sex often tangle and interpenetrate, like the tongues of kissing cousins’. The use of food as a metaphor for sex in Western media is overdone and predictable, with popular sexual slang such as ‘creampie’ or ‘popping her cherry’ reinforcing this pairing. However, such sexual discourse is present in a myriad of languages too – from Nootka that is spoken in the west coast of Vancouver Island, to Guna that originates from Panama and Colombia. In fact, rural women from North India frequently describe a desire for sex as ‘sharer ki bhook’, meaning ‘a hunger of the body’ (Sharma, 2013). Across all cultures, what remains similar is that the ‘food’ refers to sexual acts or partners, ‘hunger’ or ‘thirst’ represents sexual desire, and ‘eating’ alludes to sexual acts. This essay seeks to examine food-as-sex metaphors, by first analyzing the ways in which they are employed, followed by the reasons for their use.

Although the linguistic pairing of food and sex is prevalent across the globe, different languages and cultures employ an array of metaphors to various ends. A disparity between the food-as-sex metaphors of languages arises due to their varying degrees of linguistic instantiation, elaboration, and entailments. This results in said metaphors possessing levels of productivity unique to each individual language (Emanatian, 2009). For example, the phrases ‘to eat to the fullest extent’ from Mehinaku and ‘to eat her out’ from English illustrate the disparity. While the same element in the schema of food, eating, is applied, both depict different acts. The former is a term for having sexual intercourse (Gregor, 1985), whereas the latter specifically refers to giving a woman oral sex. Additionally, the food-sex pairing can be intertwined with hunting metaphors too. Hunting as a metaphor for sex includes elements such as searching for food, or the physical prowess of the hunter in securing their food (Kyratzis, 2007). This association surfaces in a diverse range of languages, such as Hua (a Papuan language) (Haiman, 1980), Ojibwa (an Algonkian language), and Kikuyu (a Banta language) (Nelson, 1987). Evidently, identical or similar elements of the food or hunting schemas may be chosen in different languages. Yet the precise composition of these schemas, such as how its entities are related via acts or attributed varying levels of salience, are specific to individual languages (Emanatian, 2009).

Another distinct characteristic of metaphors linking food and sex is that they fall along gendered lines, with women regularly being sexual ‘food’ for men. Men exert their sexual agency by doing the ‘eating’, whereas women remain passive objects of sexual activity to be ‘eaten’. Such a relationship was discovered in Gail Labovitz’s (2008) comprehensive study of rabbinic literature too, where women were associated with a small assortment of edible items, including bread, wine, fish, and meat. Interestingly, her research not only revealed that women were food to be eaten, but also vessels that men ate from. Women were regarded as ‘cups’, ‘bottles’ or ‘vessels’ out of which men could consume from, such as in the sentence ‘A man should not drink from one cup and have his eyes on another cup.’ (Labovitz, 2008) Men are endowed with the power to freely reach into the submissive vessels that are women, and eat or drink as they please. Women, on the other hand, possess no similar agency over men. Women simply satisfy men’s desires and serve as sexual sustenance. Women are trapped in bodies deemed far more penetrable and vulnerable than men’s in Western cultures as well, and it is this divide that plays a part in laying the foundations of our patriarchy (Counihan, 1999).

After exploring two facets of the ways in which food-as-sex metaphors are used, the next question to delve into is: why has this connection formed? One possible explanation is that both food and sex are means of survival. Food sustains life, and sex (or more precisely, reproduction) ensures the perpetuation of mankind. Author Miriam Hospodar (2004) phrases this notion in a vivid, succinct manner: ‘food and sex are bedrock to the survival of the species and have been rocking in bed together for as long as they kept all creatures great and small alive.’ At the base of his Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow identified food and sex as physiological needs mandatory for the basic survival of humans. If these needs are unmet, the human being is unable to move up the pyramid, or even function correctly. The fundamental idea then is that food and sex are intrinsic to humans’ existence, and this relationship is what gives rise to metaphors associating food with sex. However, this link is tenuous – food cannot be embedded in languages as a metaphor for sex simply because they are both basic human needs. If that were true, our other physiological needs would function as productive metaphors for sex, but that is hardly the case.

Hence, another reason dependent on the psychological and social functions of food and sex has been posited. Having healthy sex or eating with others are both stress-relieving sources of pleasure. On a psychological level, an orgasm leads to a general feeling of relaxation due to the body’s release of the hormone prolactin. Furthermore, a study revealed that regular sex lowers stress-related blood pressure (Brody, 2006). In a similar vein, sharing meals with others provides opportunities for communication and the expression of emotions, thereby reducing anxieties. On a social level, both activities connect people. Sex opens the door to greater physical and emotional intimacy, creating a sense of belonging for both parties. Likewise, the idea that sharing meals together strengthens social bonds has been evinced by a study concluding that children who eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week report having a better relationship with their parents (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2012). Therefore, it is the similar psychological and social functions of eating and sex that contribute in part to our linguistic pairing of the two.

The resemblance between our scripts for eating and sex could also account for why the former is very readily projected onto the latter, and this notion is elaborated by Michele Emanatian’s journal article Everyday Metaphors of Lust and Sex in Chagga (2009). A script refers to a conception of the sequence of actions that typically occur during a particular experience. The script for eating thus entails (in chronological order) feeling hungry, searching for food, acquiring it, consuming it, and then feeling satiated from the nourishment. In comparison, the script for having healthy sex encompasses craving sex, looking for a sexual partner, coming to an agreement to have sex together, having sex, followed by feeling content from the experience. It is clear that both scripts are relatively similar, so much so that the script for eating ‘forms a natural source domain for the metaphorical expression of sexual feelings’ (Emanatian, 2009). The script for basic eating experiences is hence projected onto the domain of sex. Potential sex partners are cast as eater and food, while flavour (usually sweetness) is occasionally mapped onto the positive sexual attributes of the partner. Establishing this relation between eating and having sex then begs the question: why is eating more frequently used as metaphor for having sex, and not vice versa? This is because metaphorical targets tend to be comprehended via more general metaphors that are easier to grasp. In this case, the target domain of sex is understood through the source domain of food and eating because the experience of the latter is more clear-cut, common and organized. Eating is more basic experientially – it is more essential to survival, done more regularly, a more public act, and it occurs throughout our entire lives. It is so elementary that it is part of one of the four special case conceptual metaphors, namely, ‘Thinking Is Eating; Ideas Are Food; Communication Is Feeding; Understanding is Digesting’ (Lakoff, 2014). In contrast, sex is more enigmatic because it is more private, regarded as a taboo topic in certain cultures, and experienced or learned at no specific age. Eating and having sex are thus linked linguistically because of the similarities their scripts share, with eating being the source domain because it is a more straightforward, concrete experience.

The use of the schema of food and its related elements or scripts as a metaphor for sex will remain ubiquitous across languages and cultures. For that reason, this essay sought to understand how these metaphors are employed by examining their productivity across cultures and the highly gendered fashion they are deployed in. The question of why these metaphors exist was then tackled, by proposing three possible answers: food and sex are a means of survival, share similar psychological and social functions, and have scripts that bear a resemblance to each other. In the future, research could utilize this family of metaphors to decipher various cultures’ attitudes towards sex and gender (Shore, 1996).



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Featured image retrieved from The Pickled Spruit.