Cake, Food, and Sex: Attraction Analogies & Hierarchical Comparisons

The concept of asexuality — human asexuality — confuses an awful lot of people, which is why it’s tempting to turn to a more familiar metaphor to explain it.  Comparing sex (the act) and genders (of people) to desserts, a couple of popular posts on Tumblr have used food analogies to explain this and other orientations. [ 1 2 ]

I’m not a fan.  If this actually does help someone understand or take a step toward understanding, then that’s great, but I prefer other ways of explaining* that aren’t entrenched in as many problems.

*For example, emphasizing “sexual attraction to none of the genders” (instead of just “no sexual attraction”) helps highlight where asexuality fits in with other orientations (I’ve also seen the description of it as “feeling gay toward other genders, and feeling straight toward your own gender” here and there).

donutsIn this post, I’m going to talk about problems with comparing food to sex, both in terms of explanatory analogies and a preference hierarchy.

For one thing, and this is a big one, aces already get the “but sex is a human need” and “necessary to life” objections enough without it being compared to something that is strictly necessary for survival.  Celibacy is not going to kill you the way that food deprivation will.

I don’t think anyone making these analogies meant to imply otherwise.  Rather, it’s the history of “human needs” being used to argue against our orientation’s validity that makes me wary.

However, there are a few salvageable aspects of this model.  Sexual attraction is comparable to having an appetite for a specific dish, while sex drive is more like the physical feeling of hunger. This works (insofar as explaining the difference) because they’re roughly parallel comparisons and because appetite and hunger are things we know are not always simultaneous.  A person can think a plate of spaghetti looks really good without necessarily being hungry at the time, and another person can be hungry while at the same time looking at the stuff in the fridge and thinking that none of it looks appealing.

This could be useful for explaining how the presence of a sex drive can be a separate issue from sexual attraction.  Extending the model, it can even can explain why some asexual people might enjoy sex: the sticky oatmeal I make looks repulsive, and I wouldn’t be drawn to it from just the appearance, but that stuff tastes good nonetheless.

I wouldn’t push the metaphor any farther than that, though, because comparing human genders or human bodies (whichever way you look at it) is a creepy thing to do.  Food is a non-sentient commodity to be consumed.  It’s a thing.  It’s an object.  It’s something that you buy and own as property, with no will of its own, and when it becomes no longer useful, it’s expected to be disposed of.

Some groups already have a history of being objectified or treated like property.  Let’s not talk in a way that continues that.

Another problem with comparing asexuality to unwillingness to eat desserts is that it mixes up things like sexual desire, sexual willingness, and sexual attraction.  I’ve covered before why that matters, but in a nutshell, who you have sex with is not necessarily the same as who you’re sexually attracted to.

So in the process of trying to legitimize non-monosexual orientations, food analogies dehumanize people as well as provide misleading models for understanding how there can be celibate asexuals, asexuals who will have sex but don’t care for it, and asexuals who actively seek sex.  Not to mention any attempt to mix in demisexuality just breaks the whole thing.

On the flip side, pitting sex and food against each other, the common proclamation within the asexual community is that “cake is better than sex” — a sentiment that’s more of an AVEN thing than anything else, but cake has been incorporated as a general asexual pride symbol nonetheless.  It’s a joke, mostly, but it’s a joke that gets a lot of airplay.  Although I appreciate being able to smile to myself whenever I see or hear anything about cake, the competitive statements about liking cake vs. liking sex always seemed to me something of a false dichotomy.

Despite being as of yet unable to provide personal data on the matter, I’d assume that for a sex-enjoying person, what’s likeable about sex is very different than what’s likeable about cake.  They don’t seem like all that similar of an experience, so it’s a bit strange to compare the two.  It’s like asking me which is better: rewatching The Emperor’s New Groove for the fiftieth time, or eating chocolate sheet cake?  There’s no answer to that.  How am I supposed to compare the two?  It’s not as simple as picking between two movies or picking between two desserts.  I like them for completely different reasons.

The joke is supposed to be reactionary to the way this culture and others prize sex above all else, and that’s understandable.  Still, it’s not true for all asexuals, and there are diverse reasons to take issue with the “cake is better than sex” statement. [1]  If for nothing else but accuracy’s sake, I say we abandon food comparisons altogether.

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