Friday, February 14, 2014

Sex and Candy On Valentine

NOTHING is more symbolic of the romance of Valentine’s Day than a box of chocolates, traditionally a gift from Him to Her. Chocolate, with its luxurious texture and pleasurable taste, has become the edible correlate to love and desire. And although scientists haven’t discovered any definitive difference in the way men and women respond to chocolate, conventional wisdom is that women naturally crave the stuff.

It’s no wonder, given the barrage of advertisements that depict wild-eyed females smacking their lips, or breaking down doors and rioting in the streets, even for slimmed-down treats like Oreo 100 Calorie Mini-Cakesters. Once the women in the ads take their first bite, a chocolate-induced euphoria invariably follows, barely disguising the association of female sexual pleasure with the candy.

The comical and extreme versions of these ideas are new, but the association of chocolate with sensual pleasure is not. For decades after this “food of the gods” was brought to Europe in the 1500s by Spanish explorers, chocolate was promoted in medical and scientific treatises as a stimulant, love potion, cure for impotence, and an aid to conception. One Spanish physician, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, wrote in the 17th century that chocolate “vehemently Incites to Venus, and causeth Conception in women, hastens and facilitates their Delivery.”

Such potency was believed to affect men as well. The English doctor Henry Stubbs, writing in the same era, extolled his countrymen’s “great use of Chocolate in Venery, and for Supplying the Testicles with a Balsam, or a Sap.”

In the 19th century, an elegant box of imported bonbons was a favorite gift for men to give to their sweethearts. When candy manufacturers began advertising fancy boxes of chocolates at the turn of the 20th century, they emphasized this romantic connection by associating chocolate with female sensuality. Lowney’s Chocolate Bonbons ads of the 1890s featured flirtatious beauties holding chocolate morsels to their lips in a tantalizing depiction of the chaste moment just before consumption. A 1936 Whitman’s ad that pictured a woman lounging in pajamas on a sofa was simply captioned: “Your best Ambassador.”

As few women were economically independent in that era, the chocolate pleasure depicted in these ads frequently depended on men’s generosity — with a not-so-subtle hint that some reciprocal generosity might be expected.

With the onset of World War II, advertisers shifted chocolate’s implicit message from entree to sexual surrogate, capitalizing on the frequent and prolonged absence of men who were off fighting. In a Whitman’s ad from 1943, a wholesome young woman holds a piece of chocolate and stands in front of a photo of a soldier in uniform as if to say: If she can’t have the guy, she’ll have the next best thing. A cheekier ad from 1942, aimed at men, features a woman embracing a man while holding a Whitman’s Sampler. The caption reads, “Put yourself in his place” — an implication that securing a relationship was as easy as a box of chocolates.

These days, not too many women are waiting around for men to give them candy. Advertisements for chocolates marketed for women’s consumption emphasize a singular and detached idea of pleasure. Foil-wrapped morsels with names like “Bliss” are promoted as indulgences that women — empowered, economically independent, desirous of pleasure but not entanglement — can acquire and enjoy by themselves. Who could forget the overt sensuality of the “My Moment, My Dove” ads that featured lithe women caressed by brown silk, writhing in pleasure? Not every ad is so forthright in its evocation of sex, but it’s hard to miss the underlying message of much chocolate advertising: Authentic female pleasure can be realized in the solitary act of eating chocolate.

Recently, a faux-retro image of an apron-clad woman with a chocolate cake has turned up on posters, mugs, and earring boxes with the caption: “Because chocolate can’t get you pregnant.” The joke has two layers of irony in our diet-obsessed culture. Chocolate, as a sexual surrogate, promises today’s woman a sanitized form of pleasure without unintended consequences. Except, like pregnancy, too much chocolate “shows.”

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