#FoodPorn: Why Attaching ‘Porn’ To Unrelated Items Is A Bad Idea

Around the time I was graduating high school, the Think Before You Speak campaign was launched to combat the use of the word “gay” as a replacement for “stupid” and other derogatory words. I will never forget Wanda Sykes confronting a group of teenaged boys for use of the word, suggesting that it would be like her referring to something she thought of as “stupid” as something to the extent of “teenage boy with bad mustache.” It was this campaign that sprang to mind the first time I really thought about the casual use of the word ‘porn’ to describe the very best, most alluring option in all categories: food, shoes, etc. At first, I was the ‘teenage boy with bad mustache”— carelessly using the word ‘porn’ to describe the epitome of a category, the perfect example. Then, one day, I was searching for subreddits relating to my work and was horrified to see that when along with the type of results I was seeking when searching “porn”, there were many groups that were using the word to exalt the crème de la crème of their particular focus-from cars to clothes to shoes to food, and that’s when I realized the dangers of conflating the two meanings of porn.

As any linguist can tell you, a word is nothing more than its denotation (literal meaning) and connotation (emotional response to the word). There are some words that have a neutral connotation, like ‘water’, so their meanings aren’t cultural: water is water, always. Some words, however, like ‘porn’, have a literal meaning and a very strong connotation. The problem is, decades ago, that connotation was negative, and ‘porn’ was only used in reference to things that were deemed smutty and inappropriate. In the Digital Age, however, the connotation of the word ‘porn’ has somehow become positive and associated with the best possible scenario. “#FoodPorn” describes the best sandwich, the best pot roast, the most epic of meals. The change of connotation has been so profound that there is now a second official definition of porn in the dictionary: “television programs, magazine, books, etc. that are regarded as emphasizing the sensuous or sensational aspects of a nonsexual subject and stimulating a compulsive interest in their audience.” The problem with this second definition and the use of the word porn as a synonym for the gold standard is that pornography, as it relates to sex and sexuality, falls short of the mark. By normalizing the word as one for greatness, we are desensitizing ourselves to what actual porn is, which is far from great.

On top of that, in an online world where pornographic material is increasingly available in unexpected places, common sense doesn’t warrant making the word “porn” more abundant. #Foodporn is now popular enough that a cursory Google search will turn out pictures of (mildly to extremely disturbing) foods, but with everything else that becomes popular, there is actual porn involving food that will come up eventually in the search as well. Anytime you use the word “porn”, you run the risk of exposure to, well, porn.

As someone familiar with the study of both language evolution and the effects of pornography on the world, I find it deeply troubling that, with the help of the Internet (particularly social media), the connotation for the word ‘porn’ has morphed from a negative one to a positive one in such a short space of time. While grasping for a way to describe something they found so profoundly perfect, someone used the word ‘porn’, which, given the research into its harmful effects on everyone involved, should’ve been the very last choice to convey such a meaning, and it caught on like wildfire. Now, we have a world of normalizing the term, of casually using it to describe the pinnacle of perfection in everything from clothes to relationships to cars, and in the process, we’re redefining the original meaning to convey the same. It’s important to remember, however, in a world of perfect steaks and beautiful clothes tagged with the word, that porn in its original meaning will never be the model for the best or most of anything except destruction.