By Kasun Kamaladasa –
It’s quite fascinating how ones need for both food and sex can be described by the same words (Appetite, Hunger, Crave, Thirst, Desire etc.). It’s as if people just unknowingly brought these seemingly unrelated activities together due to the similar importance they play in our lives.
What surprised me for a long time is that although our attitude towards food has been changing to accepting of diversity, our attitude towards sex has been changing towards rejecting diversity. Both being basic human physiological needs, how it has happened is rather tragic.
Food & Sex – 101
Last year, I had some opportunities to visit villages and other groups of people in Sri Lanka, who would talk about their attitude towards food. That is when I realized that even though schools, hospitals, food industry and media all heavily invested time and money to teach people the value of diverse nutrition and healthy food habits, our economy and policies have not yet done a good enough job to reinforce it. I’ll elaborate on that little later.
First let’s take a short journey through time of how our modern cuisines came to be.
Everyone knows that we used to be hunter gatherers, then we learned how to domesticate animals, then we became farmers, then we moved to processed foods and today sometimes it’s even hard to say where all the food comes from. (But this change didn’t happen simultaneously everywhere in the world, there are still millions of people who die of hunger, millions more who are poorly fed, some eating the same thing every day, billions who don’t eat correctly to receive the required nutrition)
Since sex-education is still a taboo and not so many people know how sex changed throughout the ages, explaining it is little tricky. Lack of it in school history lessons and its change being much less consistent throughout the world ads up to the confusion.
Similar to how our cuisines evolved interaction of sex started from the hunter gatherer tribes that had their own practices that suited their tribes (or the tribe leaders). When some groups started establishing villages they came up with concepts of marriage. Marriage between two people was set in some tribes while in others it was more dynamic. When farming required fighting for huge chunks of land, concept of marriage was modified as means of sharing land. When Industries allowed people free time and freedom to travel a concept of dating was formed. Diverse forms of brothels and institutions coexisted throughout history and finally some parts of the world came to re-acknowledging sexual liberation (in some communities the story might be slightly different).
Similar to how in some parts of the world, people continued to take insects (Around 2 billion people regularly eat insects as part of their diet, and over 1,900 species are edible) and other animals that we normally do not see in our restaurant menus, people in certain parts of the world have very different tastes, when it came to sex and sexuality.
Just as important it is to know how these industries and environments changed, it’s also important to understand how we ourselves and our attitudes changed, in Sri Lanka.
It’s kind of fishy
Long ago eating a fish from sea would mean that you would have to live in the coastal area; you either have to have something valuable to trade or go fishing by yourself in a boat (with no one to warn you about storms and tsunamis); you would have to come back home and try to clean the fish (without any of the fancy knifes we have now); you’d have to be a person with a good immunity to not get sick after long days/hours of sailing in sea or after eating unpreserved/unprocessed fish.
Today, with societies that have relatively better systems in place you might be able to enjoy the same fish and receive its nutrients. You might even find other foods that supply some of the same nutrients that you would otherwise receive only from fish (If you were allergic to fish or simply intolerant to fish this would be amazing). You could eat it every single day without waiting for a fisherman or a merchant to come to where you live.
Why is eating fish so important? People who have met a nutritionist would never have to ask this but in case you do this is it. Fish that come from the sea contain omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins such as D and B2. Fish is rich in calcium and phosphorus and a great source of minerals, such as iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium. Omega-3 fatty acids especially do not come from other sources of our normal day-to-day food, which is not only responsible for brain development but brings benefits to your heart health as well (some researches shows up to 50 percent lower risk of dying from a sudden cardiac event if you have fish 2-3 times a week).
Finally, you could certainly live without eating fish but studies shows that people who have regular fish in their diet have better brain development than those who do not. Sure you don’t have to have a developed brain (relatively) or a healthy heart, plenty of people don’t, but wouldn’t you rather have those advantages than not?
Diversity of Sex
Dynamics and understanding of sex and marriage vary a lot depending on where you live, what class of society you belong to, sexual orientation, what you consider to be sexual (ex. Nudity for some might be purely sexual for others it may simply be nudity) and even your personal experiences (abused as a child, personal fetishes, incorrect sex education).
Keep in mind that just like some people might enjoy and benefit from having fish for dinner you might not be able to enjoy it; some sexual experiences too might not be for your tastes (It doesn’t mean others should not enjoy it too)
Not that sexy
Not so long ago, marriage was a simple way of sharing wealth and dividing land. Sex and romance might and might not have played a role in it, depending on the individuals who came to the agreement of marriage. Brothels and extramarital relationships weren’t always frowned upon. In some parts of the world not so long ago when people went months on voyagers they would even write back to their wives/husbands about their sexual encounters/conquests.
Unlike with food however sex in some parts of the world became less diverse. Age old regulations, religious and social shaming that were put in place, due to lack of knowledge and medicine, still haunt us. Societies have failed to realize the damage it has caused at personal and social levels. Even though we have systems to deliver fish to everyone who so desires, we have failed to deliver diverse methods of sexual exploration/satisfaction for many and it is not for lack of any demand or even supply.
Why is sex a requirement? Unless you identify yourself as an asexual or have been shamed by society to the extent that you cannot enjoy sex, it’s pretty self-explanatory, but for sake of completion let me list a few benefits. After the simple fact that it can be very pleasurable the most profound gain in regular sex for both society and oneself would be the building up of compassion and trust with someone other than yourself. The amount of physical health benefits that regular sex brings-in, range from simply being a good cardio workout to reducing risk of cancer. Mentally it reduces stress and risk of going into depression.
Finally, just like when it came to fish. You will not die without having sex. You could be less compassionate, you could be untrusting and not trustworthy, you could live with depression and you won’t die today from a heart attack or cancer, due to the lack of sex, but wouldn’t you rather be socially and mentally healthy than not?
Hopefully my weird examples would have helped you to open your mind and explore human sexuality. But my intention of writing the article isn’t just about that. It’s to explore how society has been slow to realize this for several generations and how it came to be and what we can do about it.
Little bit of history
Couple of hundred years ago, human life spans were about 30 years. With sexual maturity coming at 8-11 (with time this has also increased, now it’s about 10 -14), with possible miscarriages, death during pregnancy, still births, infant deaths and simply dying of wars and natural disasters, women needed to have as many children as possible to ensure our mere existence. So evolutionary wise we had an advantage of loving sex.
Then as we advanced as societies and started to make the world a much safer place with less death in all fronts, population started to become an issue (we didn’t have any of today’s technology and resources were much more limited) instead of people dying because of natural disasters and health issues. People would die of poverty and hunger. Wars started to immerge just to grab resources that were needed for the survival. There was also the concept of marriage where children were supposed to be supported by couples, instead of society, so basted children had a huge disadvantage in society, not cared for by either of the parents. So one way or another, having children who the society failed to look after was becoming a problem. We of cause, cannot exclude the lack of knowledge and surveillance of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases).
So religions and some societies, came up with a half-baked solution of shaming people into not having extramarital sex and it evolved with time to a point where all kinds of sex became shameful.
Thanks to advancements in contraception, antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals and other medication, development of welfare and childcare systems and relatively safe abortion methods, science has made it possible to just enjoy sex and reap the benefits with much less negative consequences. Meaning while sex and childbearing are no longer linked, sex and relationships still are. STDs are avoided and cured not from shaming sex but understanding how to identify and protect yourself from them.
Coming back to food
It’s surprising, how food has also been a victim of similar sorts of shaming, even with all the education we receive about them. One of the most controversial of these being a vegetarian or a vegan. I do respect their compassion for animals, but just like not having sex should be a personal choice, so should not having certain foods. As medical students we see lot of statistics of groups of people and one significant group is vegetarians and vegans who are shamed and forced into not eating fish and meat. Since they are not educated on how to receive nutrients, they otherwise would only get from animal sources, they tend to fall sick with various diseases (There could be rare exceptions who will not get sick, but that is not the norm).
Just like sex traditions would limit one from being emotionally developed, food traditions could also limit one’s ability to gain the most out of nutrients or receive too much of one type development. Sri Lanka is a prime example for this, where people prefer to eat white rice over everything else, many people I meet tend to eat it 3 times a day and feel hungry without it, in their diet. Restaurants and hotels all have white rice without exceptions. There is not enough research done to link white rice with increased risk of diabetes and heart attacks, but there is plenty that show increased and uncontrolled amounts of carbohydrates ultimately lead to these medical conditions (Statistics show that diabetes is a rising concern in Sri Lanka)
Beyond traditional lifestyles
If you are an athlete who requires extra proteins or an anemic person who requires Iron and Vitamin B12 or someone suffering from chronic kidney disease requiring control of salts and proteins or you live in extreme weather conditions, you would require different diets tailor made for you. Even if you are none of the above, you might need different diets to feel healthy, lose or gain a few pounds, or maybe you just like the way your bowel movements are smooth or rough after certain foods.
This same applies to sex for different people in different circumstances. Unmarried single people, married people with a spouse who doesn’t like sex, Disabled people who might find it difficult to engage in normal sex, People who have different fetishes, People who can’t have children, Prostitutes, People who are naturally little more sexually active, Children who achieve premature puberty and naturally start to explore sexuality soon after. Studying medicine and history has taught me that no amount of legal action and shaming will stop some people from engaging and exploring their desires. For those who do surrender to these social pressure it could lead to the decrease in their mental and physical health. It should not be hard to understand the declining health of individuals will lead overall deterioration of our society
Understanding food, took time
Benefits of having variety of nutrients is common knowledge to most of us now, since it is taught in schools, advertised in food packages, discussed in media, included in government policy, promoted by organizations like WHO, reminded by our doctors. But until recently food was thought as a means of survival for most of us. If people had rice and salt to eat it was considered enough. It took us a long time to realize how important it really is.
Unseen complications of denying sexual freedoms
Fertility – The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that girls first see a gynecologist when they’re between the ages of 13 and 15. In many countries medical professionals recommend yearly or 6 monthly visits (after ~16 years) to a gynecologist to ensure every girl (women) is well educated and know about their sexual & reproductive wellbeing. Sadly, in Sri Lanka due to the lack of sex-education many people don’t even know, who a Gynecologists is, until they are pregnant or fail to become pregnant for several years of marriage and a midwife urges them to go to an antenatal clinic.
Attraction – Sexual attraction is a very complicated sensation. It is heavily influenced by the world around us. Sexual shaming of different sorts could lead to reduction of self-esteem and make people believe they are useless and disgusting. The lack of understanding that different people have different desires might ruin an otherwise sound relationship.
Compassion – Lack of compassion in lot of people in our society is not a strange thing. Sometimes we even joke that person might be acting like that because the wife, husband or lover doesn’t look after them. What is sad is that it might actually be the ugly truth than just a joke.
Trust – Moving apart from basic intercourse is a difficult scenario that requires lot of trust. What may be one person’s “darkest” desire might be a joke or weird thing to someone else. Before we try to extend trust to society we must be able to share it at-least with the people who we choose to be intimate with. Without our most basic trust building exercise other attempts might be ineffective.
Life threatening scenarios – while learning forensics one interesting topic for me was autoerotic asphyxiation. It was till recently and even now sometimes misunderstood as suicide. But what it is actually an accident, while attempting to masturbate (enhanced by asphyxiation for more pleasure). So the conventional method of stopping people from getting into this would be to ban all literature and media about such events. The problem is plenty of people still find or stumble upon to this practice. Today what sexual therapists recommend is teaching everyone the dangers and teaching safe methods of achieving similar satisfaction without harming oneself.
Depression – There is depression and stress that everyone has and there is depression (medically diagnosed) when people cannot overcome it, on their own. While regular depression and stress could be easily overcome by healthy libido that excretes natural dopamine in the process, regular sex could reduce your risk of going into medically diagnosed depression.
Impotence – Past few months I have seen several articles written by doctors who inform public of how using medication such as Viagra should only be used after consulting with a doctor in certain conditions with the monitoring of other vitals (To be safe). Viagra can help certain people, but it isn’t a miracle cure. Most of the time young people face impotence out of fear and shame, and is (at least supposed to be) treated by behavioral therapy. Which would be much easier to do if sex was an open matter to discuss from childhood.
Abuse – Sex education gives younger people the confidence required to speak-out, when they are being used and abused. It allows them, at least partially, to understand the emotional connection and responsibility that comes with it. It also allows other people to understand that each person might be sensitive to certain experiences and require patients and understanding to build a consensual and thriving relationship.
Economical loss – Prohibition of prostitution has never in the history of mankind stopped it from happening. It only serves to enhance corruption, allowing gangs, police and politicians (people with power) control over bodies of sex workers. It promotes a black market that benefits only those who are willing and able to break the law without consequence. It allows them to run a multimillion rupee business without paying tax, without taking health precautions and without paying sex workers proper money or providing them proper safety.
Prohibiting and restricting nudity and sex in cinema has limited artistic outlook on the matter making understanding of sex in society even more difficult.
Prohibiting import and selling of sex toys yet another lost opportunity. (It is important to know that in most countries sex toys are already prescribed by medical professionals to boost people’s libido, as a preventative measure for prostate cancer, as treatment for impotence and many other similar uses)
Ignorance – understanding different people have different pleasures and interests and could even be physiologically different is a part and parcel of growing up. Even in this age of information, I meet too many people who do not realize that gay people, transsexual people, and other groups of people who just don’t identify with normal genders due to medically explained conditions also have the right to live happy, fulfilling lives.
Social (Dating/ Courting/ Wooing)– Lack of clubs and places where adults can meet and explore their sexuality creates an environment where people are forced to do it elsewhere creating unprofessional work places and institutes, Sexual harassment of Juniors and Peers. Even public transport has become a place of harassment since the lack of other spaces to express oneself.
Loss of other related freedoms – when we were young bathing in waterfall or pond naked was pretty normal. Nudity wasn’t sexualized as much as it has now. Seeing a breastfeeding mother in public wouldn’t cause people to start masturbating and both men and women could pee behind a bush freely without being harassed or feeling violated a norm. But religious extremists and self-proclaimed saviors of our “grand” culture have made these harmless activities into a whole mess. We have even gone a step further with policemen harassing young couples in parks, just for sitting together and holding hands. Kissing in schools made a spectacle in media with people shaming innocent children in public for something totally normal, scaring them and other children for life.
According to Maslow’s theory of motivation we normally do not go beyond to achieve other complex needs (safety, compassion, respect, morality) till our basic physiological needs are fully met, so sexual education and re-establishing freedoms should be a priority, if our society is to move forward. Reeducation of police, school staff and medical professionals on the matter, is also paramount importance in establishing sound education for children. A media campaign that fights off myths of extremist groups and having an open conversation would also be required to emphasis the importance of sexual liberation, as a country.
Education on food and nutrition hasn’t completely managed to bring all people to eat healthy, but many people are aware of it, and some use it to their advantage. Since less regulations are implemented in the sector now, than it used to be and less subsidies are given to one single industry, slowly we are transitioning from eating rice and dhal every day to having a wider variety of dishes (with nutrients) even at home. Restaurants and food chains are opening up with alternate and healthy food. If we had a little more effort from health sector to indicate the importance of different diets. A more updated, responsible(accurate) and dynamic information system that is displayed in gyms, schools and hospitals. Less politicians trying to bribe people by giving irrelevant subsidies and false visions of a nation filled with rice, we could achieve greater strides.
Sex and Food both require somewhat similar attention to build a better society. Both require moderation, but a significant amount freedom. Both needs could vary from person to person. Both should be openly discussed and researched. Both can be dangerous, if not understood and studied correctly. Both of them are basic physiological needs that cannot be substituted (at least for now with the technology we have). Let us not discriminate and let’s stop being ignorant about these matters that seem minor and irrelevant, but have discreet short term and devastating longer term social impacts.