Is That Food Really “Porn” (And Should You Even Say That)?

There was a time when porn was a dirty word that referred to something that people in polite society don’t talk about. Today, the word porn is thrown around for a wide range of far less risqué topics.

Perhaps you’ve browsed some food porn on social media, for example, or have scanned through a stream of house porn images for decoration inspiration. Porn has become an add-on for everyday things and interests—one that many people readily tack onto comments and image descriptions.

The word porn also still carries its original meaning before this usage evolution: sexually explicit content. This influences all meanings of porn throughout its evolution, which has led to its fair share of problems.

What is porn?

Porn is sexually explicit content (especially in the form videos and images) that’s “produced to elicit sexual arousal.” It was first recorded in 1960–65 as the shortened version of pornography, which has the same meaning. The full word has a much longer history. It was first recorded in 1840–50, and it stems from the Greek word pornográphos, which referred to writings (gráphos) about harlots (pórnē), or “prostitutes.” The goal then, as with pornography now, is to, well, “stimulate sexual excitement.”

This definition has always been about sex. However, what specific qualities make an image, text, or video porn depends on who you’re asking. From a legal standpoint, the most famous definition of hard-core porn was made by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964: “I know it when I see it.” (Soft-core porn is “sexually explicit videos, photographs, writings, or the like, produced to elicit sexual arousal.”)

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Whether Potter would have known food porn when he saw it is up for debate—as is the case with all of the other words that are defined by porn’s second, less explicit definition.

When not talking about sexual content, porn can be used to mean content that’s meant to “cater to an excessive, irresistible desire for or interest in something,” such as a hyper-focused social media feed of images of cheese-dripping pizza, for example.

Food porn to house porn: the shifting use of porn

Even when porn isn’t being used to describe sexually explicit content, it still refers to content that people look at or interact with to satisfy a desire. It also still generally refers to content that is beyond what’s readily accessible in day to day life—gold-covered ice cream, for example, or meticulously laid-out cheese boards.

Pretty much anything can be—and has been—described using this second definition of porn. Often the content that’s being labeled as a type of porn is fanatically obsessed with the subject. House porn is 100 percent about the big and small details of homes, from the structural shape to the wall trimmings, and people who view house porn are satisfying a desire for a voyeuristic view into a home they don’t own.

Porn can also be applied to more abstract ideas. There’s moral outrage porn, which is when people seek out and view content that makes them angry—a contact on social media who espouses very different views than your own, for instance. Hustle porn refers to content that shows people who overwork themselves for a central goal. If you’ve ever seen someone post about working through the night and sleeping when they’re dead, then you’ve seen hustle porn. Viewing it gives the idea that extreme hustle is what it takes to achieve what you want in work or business.

There’s also poverty porn and famine porn, which are terms typically used when talking about content featuring people who are living on the street, wearing tattered clothing, or are visibly starving. Both exploit people who are suffering in order to garner attention or donations from people who viewed the content and want to help. The subjects of the photos, videos, or texts are often paid less attention than the idea of poverty or famine for shock value.

Though it’s prevalent in today’s world of niche internet sites and social media, the metaphorical meaning of porn isn’t new. In fact, it’s been used since at least the early 1990s to talk about content that’s designed to grab attention and obsessively cater to a person’s desires or goals.

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When the word porn becomes problematic

There are problems that can arise when the word porn is used outside of its original definition.

For one, porn still carries its original definition and sexual connotation with it everywhere it goes. Food porn takes something that a lot of people like—pizza, for example—and relates it to sexual objectification. So much of porn notoriously dehumanizes women through depicting sexual violence, and using the same word in relation to something frivolous such as over-the-top food glosses over the realities of women who work in porn.

Using porn is especially problematic when the word takes something negative like famine and relates it in terms usually used to describe sexual gratification (in the case of pornography) or objects like a fancy spiral staircase (in the case of real estate porn).

At the heart of how we use the word porn in the generic sense is gratification without investing in what it takes to obtain or upkeep what’s being described. It allows people to interact with an object or idea without any of the struggle that it takes to do things as far-ranging as creating an over-the-top Bloody Mary or understanding why people are experiencing poverty. In short, using the word porn for things other than porn can make the word lose its meaning. Context is lost when things are simply labeled “porn” and depict gratifying or emotionally moving images without any background information.

While calling something porn can be a signal that you’ve found a particular exciting example of your passion, whether a souped-up car or beautiful old tree, keep in mind that the metaphorical use of the word porn can still have a negative impact on the way people view very consequential things—sex, relationships, food, and possessions, not mention the big issues the world faces like poverty and famine.

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