Stuart Parson
Aug 13, 2015

Food: The new sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll

if young people are having less sex and doing fewer drugs, what exactly does interest them?

Stuart Parson
Stuart Parson

More and more over the last decade, food has been heralded as the new rock and roll: with headlines about swearing celebrity chefs, queues round the block for no-booking restaurants, and a rising tide of food festivals; we even had Jamie Oliver playing the drums. But it hasn’t stopped there. The growing ubiquity of food in nearly all aspects of young people’s lives has meant it is no longer just the rock and roll, but the sex and drugs too.

As Steven Poole highlights in the fantastic You Aren’t What You Eat, it’s not the first time this shift has been seen, for food at least: Foucault argued in a 1983 television interview that, in modern times, sex had replaced the ancients' focus on diet as a means of defining oneself. “But three decades on, food is undeniably back on top."

The UK population is having less and less sex. The average heterosexual couple reports having sex three times a month between the ages of 16 and 44. This has, over the last 20 years, decreased from five times a month, reports the Telegraph. Reflecting these figures, the UK’s teenage pregnancy rates have fallen to their lowest level for 46 years.

So what might young people be doing with all this new free time?

Nikita D. Coulombe & Philip Zimbardo’s recent book Man (Dis)connected points a firm finger at the use of extreme online pornography and videogames. They raise concerns about young people (young men for the most part) and their need to create safe spaces where they can avoid the complexities of real human relationships. In Japan, the term herbivore men has been coined to describe a growing trend for young men to devote their energies to things other than sex. (Note the reference to food in the nickname.)

But these concerns aside, many young people online are doing the one thing they do best – being sociable.  And this involves food in a big way. There are an average of 70 million Instagram images shared each day, with UK Millennials sharing an average of 3 a week related to food. As a space enabling demonstration of experimentation and exploration it is no surprise that it has built a reputation as an ideal medium for reporting the consumption as well as the preparation of food. As Kevin Gould, the Guild of Food Writers’ Travel Writer of the Year predicts, “social media will continue to grow as a more rounded space for sharing and co-operation, rather than simply ego-led boasting.”

With the growing cultural currency of food, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, in modern communication modes, the worlds of sex and food overlap. The phallic possibilities of foodstuffs available in the emoji keyboard have been catnip for not so subtle sexters; notably the aubergine, since banned by Instagram as a hashtag on account of misuse.  One suspects the banana and sweet corn emojis will have risen to the challenge in its place.

Food & drink brands have already taken this pictorial code on-board: Coca-Cola have created a number of interesting campaigns deploying emoji URLs and Pizza Hut offer the chance to buy dinner with the slice icon. It will be interesting to see how brands in future go about tapping into in-jokes and memes like the aubergine.

Whilst the prevalence of internet pornography has generated a great deal of concern, it has also opened up a new set of reference points for brand communications and other inputs to the culture.  Marks & Spencer in the UK famously broke new ground with their ‘food porn’ ads. Cindy Gallop’s Make Love Not Porn also rode the theme, dealing with topics of feminism and authenticity. If popular food culture is happy to give a nod to a softer kind of porn, in the blue eyes of - The Great British Bake Off’s - Paul Hollywood or the butter-smothered double-entendres of Nigella, this culture has also shown its ability to borrow from more specialist and niche areas.

Originating in South East Asia ‘broadcast eating’  (or Meok-Bang locally) is the practice of broadcasting the consumption of your dinner, or watching someone else eat theirs.  The most popular performers can attract over 10,000 viewers a day and make a great deal of money from the tokens they earn from their avid voyeur audiences.  Korea’s biggest earning performers, Park Seo-yeon says: “I try to look pretty, eat pretty, and eat a lot of delicious food.”

There is a peculiar parallel to be drawn here between pornographic ‘cam girls’ (or boys) who perform strip teases via webcam for paying viewers, and these professional eaters.  All of this suggests that there is a great deal of overlap and interplay between the worlds of food and erotica and there is also an inordinate amount of time and excitement being dedicated to it.

Sex isn’t the only space that food culture seems determined to annex.  Britain is seeing long term falls in Drug use. The proportion of 16-24 year olds claiming to be teetotal has risen from 19 per cent to 27 per cent during the past decade and rejection of illegal substances, along with alcohol and smoking, is even more pronounced among younger generations.

The impact is to be seen in a key area of youth culture - nightlife, traditionally the setting for the consumption of drink and drugs. Today modern music festivals have better catering than ever, with many of the food stalls sitting alongside musicians on the promotional materials.  Some events are even dispensing with the music… at food-specific events, entry can cost as much as a music event, before you’ve even tasted anything. Alcohol free bars and healthy clubbing experiences are growing in popularity too, where smoothies and voga (voguing and yoga) are present in place of shots.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

So, if it feels good why shouldn’t food dominate these spaces?

Freed up from the hangovers and perpetual coughs they have given over to healthy highs and food indulgence. Our supermarkets are stocked with a more varied and diverse range than ever, street food is being pushed over expensive restaurants with dress codes, and the information to make anything, or at least have a go, is online.

Food has become the perfect hobby for any generation that has grown up with a refresh button. To re-imagine your identity—rather than ripping band patches off your jacket or erasing an ex-lovers name from your bicep—you can simply delete the evidence, by eating it.

Stuart Parson, cultural intelligence, Flamingo


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