Health

How Sex, Food, and Work Are All Intimately Connected

| 09/02/2020

food sex and work Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

I was raised in East coast suburbia in a house of excess and sensuality, by a zaftig mom who fed me chicken liver and an Armenian dad who sucked the marrow out of bones.

I always felt sorry for friends of mine with mean, hungry moms who were constantly worrying about their daughters getting fat. These moms were affluent, suburban Boomers, many of whom identified as “former hippies.” This meant that they were too versed in ‘70s feminism to directly invoke diet culture and beauty standards when they fretted about their daughter’s perceived or predicted fatness. Rather, they talked about “health” and “wellness” and “the obesity epidemic”—the full gamut of coded anti-fat language, which, as argued by writer and sociologist Sabrina Strings, is rooted in racist, classist understandings of fat bodies as diseased, burdensome on the healthcare system, unproductive, and promiscuous. 

These hungry moms did a pretty good job of convincing their daughters that to have a big appetite and also an active sex life meant you probably weren’t hot, that you lacked the kind of discipline necessary to succeed in life. Consequently, a handful of my friends spent their early twenties unlearning these restrictive food-sex-work narratives. For these friends, to eat and have sex and relax without shame were the ultimate forms of self-expression and self-actualization.

But as someone who’d been raised in a house where food and pleasure and sexuality had never been restricted, this renaissance didn’t resonate with me. Instead, I spent my early twenties attempting to transcend my physical body in order to better cultivate the garden of my mind. I began reading the French philosopher Simone Weil, a Marxist activist who used starvation as a form of protest, and American essayist Susan Sontag, whose essays read as a sustained battle between the needy body and the cerebral mind. “I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there,” Sontag wrote in her journals.

It’s no coincidence that this phase coincided with my entering a highly demanding, precarious freelance workforce sculpted by a cottage industry of products designed to enhance productivity and decrease reliance on one’s body, like nootropics and Soylent. I got really into Elon Musk and biohacking, and I bookmarked an article that quoted him as saying: “If there was a way that I couldn’t eat so I could work more, I would not eat.” I deprioritized the needs of my body — specifically its need for actual food — and within a year all sensuality and eroticism had fallen away from my life. I became a workaholic husk with a nonexistent libido. 

A body experiencing disordered eating, sleeping, and lifestyle patterns will develop problems with sexual processes, arousal, and libido.

The irony was that I’d always been told that work and achievement should go hand-in-hand with pleasure — that if you “worked hard” you could “play hard,” too. But food and sex and work are intimately connected, and if you become imbalanced in one space, the others are completely thrown out of whack. This was a lesson I didn’t know I needed to learn, because I didn’t think I had internalized shame around eating or having sex in the same way so many of my friends had. But it’s more complicated than shame or no shame, and there are a thousand-and-one backdoor ways into disordered eating, all with the same result: Our physical functioning deteriorates, and this includes our ability to have good sex. 

At the biological level, a body experiencing disordered eating, sleeping, and lifestyle patterns will develop problems with sexual processes, arousal, and libido. In a piece for Psychology Today, author and eating disorder researcher Emily Troscianko explored the complicated relationship between disordered eating and sexAt the heart of the problem, writes Troscianko, “is the simple fact that when a human body is starving, its priority is survival, not procreation. The resulting starvation-triggered chemical changes drive profound physical, cognitive-emotional, and behavioral changes that affect everything about sex … at some point, as malnutrition takes hold, hormones (especially ovarian steroid hormones) and neurotransmitter balances change radically, and most people’s sexual interest and activity diminishes drastically.”

Undernourishment combined with high levels of work-related stress can essentially eliminate any hope of vaginal lubrication, producing pain during sex and making it nearly impossible to reach orgasm. Low energy and a depressed mood turn sex into a sort of disgusting form of exercise to be avoided at all costs. A hungry brain lacking glucose can become judgmental and obsessive-compulsive. I remember lying in bed one night going through a list of everything I’d eaten as my partner “talked dirty” to me. He was telling me how good my ass looked while I was trying to remember how many pieces of eggplant I’d eaten the day before.

Of course, everyone has a unique relationship to food, sex, and work. When overworked and overbooked, some people turn to toxic sexual habits for a quick serotonin release or as a replacement for emotional intimacy that they just don’t have the time to sustain. Judy Scheel, author of When Food is Family, writes about how sexual addiction and/or binge eating often arise as replacement behaviors when individuals don’t have the capacity to sustain close relationships — which is one direct upshot of having a grueling work schedule or having to hold multiple jobs in order to make ends meet.

The common thread is that when we stop taking care of our bodies, we stop being able to have good or healthy sex.

Other people develop disordered eating and punitive abstinence regimes as a disciplinary response to career and academic failures. I’ve had friends develop controlling and obsessive relationships with food and sex in an attempt to create order and routine during precarious phases of their freelance careers. The food-sex-work matrix looks different for everyone, and it’s ultimately informed by the kinds of labor we’re doing on a day-to-day basis — by whether we’re rich or poor, freelance or with benefits, waged or salaried. 

The common thread is that when we stop taking care of our bodies, we stop being able to have good or healthy sex.

The cultural critic Mark Fisher acknowledged that mental illness can and does sometimes arise out of purely chemical, neurological proclivities — but that it’s also often triggered by trauma and stress responses to working conditions created by capitalism. Which is why dealing with disordered eating and sexual dysfunction (often at the same time) isn’t just a personal problem; the solutions have to be holistic and political. They should focus not only on the body, but also on other spaces in our lives in order to identify connections and triggers and links and remedies. In my own experience, this more holistic way of thinking has made it easier to understand and recognize when and why I begin to slip into toxic, life-denying food and sex patterns — and to shift out of these patterns or ask for professional help if I need it. 

It’s essential that we collectively remind ourselves, and each other, that nothing happens in a vacuum. That sex and food and work and pleasure are all tangled together in a cultural and political web, with our bodies at the center. That we’re subject to forces outside of ourselves. And that it’s a lot for any one body to handle.

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