Sinful, sinful sodas
William Saletan—who has no problem understanding that pleasure is basically seedy and needs to be punished when it comes to shaming women who have abortion for being irresponsible sluts, and (hat tip Daily Texan writer who told me about this) encouraging a moral panic about anal sex—has decided to change his tune when it comes to the sweet, sugary pleasures of drinking soda. (Hat tip.) I guess drinking soda isn’t an illicit sex act associated with gay men, and it’s not indisputable proof that some lady had Teh Sex, so what could be wrong with it? But what’s hilarious about Saletan’s approach is that he’s misreading the mainstream opinion on these issues. Look, even James Dobson admits his life’s work of pushing women into the kitchen and gays in the closet was a failure, and the culture is trending in the other direction (with lots of pushing from feminists—and yes, despite the patriarchal implications, we do accept flowers as thank you gifts).
Imagine if Saletan treated female and gay sexual pleasure the same way he treats the sacred joys of inhaling high-fructose corn syrup. He’d say things like:
The sex police are closing in on their next target: women filling out birth control prescriptions.
Persuading Americans to fight contraception and abortion the way we condemn cigarettes won’t be easy. Isn’t contraception part of sex? Isn’t sex a good thing? And isn’t it a matter of personal choice? Doesn’t obstructing access to control people’s sexual behavior cross a fundamental line of liberty?
But no. People who are up in arms about the moral dangers about sexual behavior that is practiced in a healthy manner and adds a net good to society are sympathetic characters in Saletan’s world. People who are casting around for ways to lower the diabetes epidemic through high (and admittedly regressive) taxation are the food police. But what’s funniest to me is that he’s reading the winds on these issues and he’s got it wrong.
Take for instance, that second paragraph that I misquoted. It actually goes like this:
Persuading Americans to regulate soda the way we regulate cigarettes won’t be easy. Isn’t soda a kind of food? Isn’t food a good thing? And isn’t it a matter of personal choice? Doesn’t taxation to control people’s eating behavior cross a fundamental line of liberty?
Throughout the piece, Saletan makes it clear that he finds it incredibly hard to believe that Americans can be persuaded that food isn’t good. But I submit that outside of fundamentalist circles, the words “sin” and “sinful” refer to eating more often than fucking. When I googled “sinfully”, this is the first non-definition link I got, for context. Not that people wouldn’t be shocked by women who sleep with 3 guys a week, but the regular American fucking around that gets the fundies bent out of shape—having sex before marriage, daring to use contraception and breaking up with someone that you’ve grown apart from instead of getting pregnant and sticking out a miserable marriage—doesn’t bother people nearly as much as the existence and prevalence of chocolate cake. I’ve never heard anyone, male or female, say, “Oh, I’m bad, I’m interested in someone new,” but I have heard people routinely say that when they go ahead and grab the cookie off the plate.
In fact, compare and contrast Sarah Haskins’ videos about marketing yogurt or chocolate to women and marketing birth control pills. True, the birth control ads avoid talking about sex, which isn’t so great, but the food ads are the ones where the advertisers are trying to work with what they see as piles of shame about desire. Apparently, you can’t sell sweets to women without dealing with the fact that they feel horribly guilty about wanting the sweets in the first place. Placating that guilt doesn’t seem to be a major issue in birth control pill ads, though obviously the “we don’t talk directly about sex” thing is in play.
Saletan has this whole political process laid out that he assumes is about persuading people that sugary drinks are bad, but actually, they’re already there. The real issue is selling people on the idea that they personally will gain from such a tax. Leveraging taxes on cigarettes is easy, because smokers are a minority that everyone else can pick on. But a whole lot of people drink soda, and now they’re in the shoes of smokers—quitting seems hard and so the near-doubling of the price of a 12 pack of sodas will seem oppressive. The campaign is about getting people sufficiently interested in using the law to police behavior they already feel bad about. My suggestion is to highlight how much better diet sodas will taste when they’re $3 cheaper for a 12 pack. From everything I’ve seen about this, that would be the case, and if it’s not the case, they’d be shooting themselves in the foot. The time is ripe for a move like this, because you’ve got all those new Splenda sodas that don’t taste different on the tongue (though I’m sure people who really like their sugar would disagree, but perhaps $3 a pack will shift their self-interests enough for them to rethink that position). Certainly, laws like this could help persuade manufacturers of sugared drinks that they need to open up more shelf space for their low calorie alternatives. They could probably point to the number of people who found that they lost 10 pounds in the first year of switching off, which has happened to a few people I know.
Should they leverage such a tax? Well, I’ll bet your opinion on that tailors pretty neatly to your love of these sugary sodas. Me, I’m a diet soda fiend, so I’d pitch a fit if they tried to price that out of my range. Because while artificial sweeteners and caffeine aren’t good for you, they don’t present nearly the public health hazard that sugary stuff does when it comes to Type II diabetes. When it comes to sugared sodas, I have the same views that I do on cigarettes, except that I feel worse for smokers, since they’re addicts and they don’t really have many viable alternatives. Sugar soda fans can switch to diet drinks. Or an apple and a glass of water, if you want to be a purist about this. *
*Good luck with that.