Over the lifetime of the last generation, pornography has saturated our culture — or so the line goes. It’s an argument you’re likely familiar with; pearl-clutching declarations of porn’s ubiquity are neither new nor unique. Though the word “pornography” has been used by English speakers since before the American Civil War (and although the depiction of human sexuality is itself a prehistoric practice), representatives of every point on the political spectrum — from religious conservatives to radical feminists — will have you believe that, in recent years, it has managed to diabolically ooze into every crevice of our lives.
If you’re hesitant to take this claim at face value, there’s certainly evidence to support it: the billions per year generated by the global porn industry; the appearance and normalization of (mainstream) porn’s tropes, themes, and styles in (mainstream) culture; and the gradual decline in the mutual exclusivity between Porn and Real-World Legitimacy, at least for certain kinds of people. An example of the latter are women whose “legitimate” careers have been based on a foundation of heretofore taboo sexual labor — like Kim Kardashian, who launched her multimillion dollar superstar brand all from a home movie (or what’s been framed as one, anyway).
Just look at the word itself: “porn.” Plosive and punctuated, the epithet has become a modifier, its traditional meaning — “traditional” here applying to content, rather than to medium — diluted. “Porn” is now a shorthand for the visual consumption of just about anything you might like to look at — particularly if doing so evokes the kind of gratification that feels at once visceral and indulgent — from the great outdoors and litters of puppies to haute couture and perfectly applied makeup.
Whether or not pornification is an actual phenomenon, the ascent of food porn shows us that our consumption of sex is mirrored in the way we consume other things. As #foodporn has climbed into the millions across social media, the inevitable comparisons between it and the more familiar kind of indulgence has shed light on internet users’ anxieties about the human body.
At the moment, I follow around 300 Instagram accounts. That means my feed doesn’t refresh enough for me to see new content every time I check the app, which I do a lot. Luckily, there’s the Explore feature, which suggests images and accounts based on my activity, like the accounts I follow and the type of content I view, double-tap, and search for.
The Explore feature’s algorithms are constantly suggesting that I look at posts and accounts in which human bodies prominently feature. If I hang out in the app long enough, this parade of corporeality can get overwhelming, though I don’t have anyone but myself to blame.
Though I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way, even if you don’t get burned out on all those internet bodies, you have to admit there are a lot of them on the app, clothed and naked alike. (Instagram’s user agreement forbids nudity, which has resulted in the #FreeTheNipple campaign, as well as a lot of creative circumventing of the rule.)
For some reason, the anxiety caused by these images isn’t quite bad enough to outweigh the pleasure (Charge? Thrill? Dopamine high?) they bring me. I could unfollow all the punks, the activists, the sex workers, the artistically and casually and provocatively unclothed, the yogis, the straight-edgers, the addicts in recovery, the #TranformationTuesdays, all the people undergoing or pursuing gender transition, weight loss, sobriety, muscle-building, or spiritual fulfillment, the people whose bodies figure prominently, if not principally, in their Instagram presence — but then I wouldn’t have anyone to follow.
That’s what I used to think, anyway. As much as I enjoyed (or felt compelled to use) Instagram, I began wishing I could scroll through it without being reminded of my own subjectivity, that I could just submerge myself, purely as an observer, among images that evoked feelings similar to the ones I felt while consuming other human bodies, but that didn’t make me feel guilty as I inevitably objectified them.
Is it pornification that has troubled the categories of acceptable public nudity, marketing, creative expression, and self-documentation? That has warped the distance between selfie, personal brand, transactional performance, and art? Is it pornification that has created this embodied sprawl across this particular user-generated platform, and others? And what relationship, if any, does this destabilization have with the social media anxiety we hear so much about?
In the midst of this Instagram ennui, it happened: A friend tagged me in a post made by a food porn account. It was a photo of a deep-fried ball of mac n’ cheese mounted on a home-rolled ice cream cone and drizzled with ranch dressing. More joke than comestible, my friend’s find was a gastronomic outrage. Rather than laugh (or shudder) and move on, I was intrigued.
I followed the account that posted that image, but not before going back several months into its history, liking its photos and devouring the videos of fat, sugar, and bread being put through an Inquisition-style gauntlet of rendering: plunged into vats of oil and dipped into bowls of melted cheese, only to be frozen, breaded, and then dipped again. Of course, Instagram began to suggest similar accounts, and I followed more and more. With hundreds of thousands of followers (at the moment, the tag “food porn” itself is over 92 million strong), I was just one in a multitude of users who check in daily to see what’s new in the world of pornified food.
Food porn is nothing if not diverse, encompassing everything from hi-res photos of thousand-dollar-per-plate French cuisine, to homemade mini-docs on how to make the perfect bowl of phở, to a gif of that moment the dressing, cheese, or chocolate drizzle — the icing on the cake, as it were — melts onto the completed dish. Despite this, whether amateur or professionally produced, a creation process viewed via video or a photo of the final product, food porn is all about looks. Scientists call the natural desire to look at food “visual hunger,” and the internet has become one means by which to satisfy (and by some accounts, to pique) this craving. Of course, by the very nature of the medium, the “goodness” of food is more about its visual appeal than how it actually tastes.
This principle, naturally, is foundational to human porn. The performance itself, rather than the quality of the sex, is what’s being consumed (although for many porn producers, including those that define their product as “feminist,” the sexual gratification of their performers is part of their brand). We see the importance of the visual in human porn featuring a penis as exemplified by the all-important cumshot1. The cumshot is replicated in Instagram food porn, not with the actual consumption of the food but rather its literal destruction by human hands. With these hands, croissants are torn apart, sandwiches split open, cakes ruptured in a deluge of their own innards. The humans attached to these hands are rarely seen. Interestingly, some videos limit even the amount of human intrusion that these hands present. Instruments for handling and holding food — and in this case, destroying it uneaten — are the viewer’s prostheses. It’s only in that moment of destruction, when the hands are tearing apart their delicious victim, that they are intended to be visible.
The general invisibility of the creators of Instagram’s food porn accounts means that whether they eat the food that they post can’t actually be known. From “eater-on-the-street” type accounts that document their owner roaming a major city in search of its best meals, like the thenaughtyfork, to accounts whose content is generated by user submissions, like gastronogram, the curators behind the meals are often almost unseen, precluding any opportunity to watch them consume their own content. This trend holds true for all classes of food porn accounts, from the proprietary ones of world-class, five-star restaurants, to the kind whose almost-nihilistic embrace of bad-for-you meals come across as distinctly Millennial in tone.
Though its star might have risen on Instagram, across social media, and within the popular purview, food porn is actually much older than its faddishness might belie. Is food just the next subject to be seized upon within, as Chris Chitty has described in his Marxist theorizing around sex, our “profoundly pornographic … postmodern attunement of the world”?
Food and cooking were popular long before the internet, and remain as much in legacy media, especially TV. But there is no American cooking show that doesn’t have at least a whiff of narrative, the pretense of an ongoing relationship between the host and the audience as the former introduces old recipes, develops new ones, pits contestants against one another in a battle of skill, or explores the local color that informs this or that regional cuisine.
With food porn, especially as found on Instagram, the cuisine is stripped of narrative and reduced to the visual, and then reduced again — like a hearty consommé — by repetition, including subsequent, nearly identical images. Although there are plenty of visual recipes for classic dishes or old standbys, there are just as many that function as filler, in which the food being “made” can only be described as such by its loosest definition (Can slathering a store-bought cookie in Jif creamy peanut butter actually be termed “making food”?).
But on Instagram, food porn images are inextricable from the commentary posted below them. Sometimes an explanation or reflection, but just as often a string of emojis, hashtags, and requests for shares, the text below the picture is where the user will often find the food porn account owner(s) gleefully acknowledging the naughtiness of indulgence. From the self-deprecation of DudeFoods creator Nick Chipman, whose Instagram account has 26,000 followers and features the hashtag #EatLikeShit and jokes about the effects that food like the Double Decker Mac & Cheese Stuffed Bacon Weave Taco will have on his health; to the coyness of Jessica Hirsch’s CheatDayEats, which supplies exercises for “when you want to work off” your fry-stuffed pastrami Reuben po’ boy or sprinkle-festooned Nutella milkshake, a food porn account without a gendered, and inherently fatphobic, wink toward its own guilt is hard to find. Though it betrays an anxiety about how food affects our bodies, this playfulness is safe to express because, unlike with human porn, there is no stigma around enjoying this content.
In comparing human and food porn, the difference between shame and guilt is key. For Americans, the phenomenon of the eating disorder, the so-called “obesity epidemic,” and increasing wealth disparity — and thus, food insecurity — are all hot-button issues. In this context, and much like human porn, the licentiousness of food porn is intrinsic to its appeal. Yet indulging in it has a distinctly different moral flavor from the triple-X. When it comes to the food porn narrative, the concerns about America’s cultural “addiction” to human porn don’t seem to come into play. There seem to be few, if any, qualms about food porn’s potential to desensitize viewers to actual food, thereby making them dissatisfied with the food they do have and causing them to value it less.
The same, of course, can’t be said about critics of human porn and its dubious negative effects. That’s because the question of human porn’s badness unspools in a labyrinth of directions while seeming to rely on a single given: It harms women, both as performers and as a demographic, because of the way it affects male porn viewers2. According to some, this harm has grown to epidemic proportions. Released only last month, the draft of this year’s Republican platform declared pornography to be a “public health crisis” that must be stopped from damaging American children.
In light of the arch guilt performed by food porn creators and consumers, the cultural mandate of shame in consuming or performing in human porn is perhaps the most significant way in which our consumption of sex differs from that of food. Despite food porn’s many joking references to the adverse effects of gluttony (not just on Instagram, but across platforms), you’ll never see a “Fight The New Drug”-style campaign targeting vegan chilaquiles, because enjoying food porn is the opposite of controversial. Publicly supporting human porn (let alone porn performers), however, is so politically dangerous that even the cartoonishly amoral Donald Trump has promised to crack down on it in the event he wins the general election.
Why do we want to consume anything that we see online, particularly when this consumption, to varying degrees, seems to cause such anxiety? This question recalls one voiced by Cari Romm in her Atlantic piece about what food porn does to the brain: “What’s the appeal in ogling what you can’t have?”
What, indeed? Why is it that these unattainable bodies and foods are still compelling to us, and in such parallel ways?
I’ve been watching human porn on the internet since 2004 or so, less and less over the years — not because I think porn itself is unethical, but because I’ve become aware that consuming porn without paying for it is. And while I happen to be of the opinion that efforts to censure or criminalize human pornography are rooted in whorephobia and misogyny, I still think there’s something to the idea that certain ways of consuming porn — porn of all kinds — has the potential to affect us in negative ways.
It’s impossible to discount the perplexing intersections of power dynamics — whorephobia chief among them — that complicate our feelings about human porn; but I suspect that this drive toward visual consumption creates a conflict that is unique unto itself, a breed of anxiety that is distinct from all of the other ones we feel, or are told to feel, about it. Because if pornification is indeed real, then its object is not limited to the human body, but rather can be anything that we crave. Pornification, then, is when desire, rather than its object, becomes the primary drive for consumption.
The appeal of the internet is, or used to be, its ability to unburden us of the physical. But the rise of food porn hot on the heels of human porn suggests a breed of body anxiety than can only be redirected, rather than eliminated. Beneath the very real concern that desensitization — to sex, to violence, and yes, to food — will make us less open and responsive as humans, lies a bedrock fear, the crux and key to pornification’s terror and appeal: How will I satisfy myself when this is no longer satisfying?
1 It’s worth noting here that all kinds of bodies are capable of ejaculation, and it’s not only cis male performers that enact cumshots.
2 Few of these same critics to be concerned about porn’s effects on non-heterosexual male performers or consumers.
Image: Flickr, L.A. Foodie