Is it ok to treat a person like a plate?

That’s not a question I had ever envisaged contemplating, despite philosophers’ well-known penchant for pondering strange topics such as the number of angels that can fit onto the head of a pin, and so forth. But I was recently prompted to consider that very issue (people as plates, not angels on pins) when I came across the practice of Nyotaimori – eating sushi/sashimi off a naked woman. As one might guess from the sushi reference, the practice originated in Japan. A brief trawl of the net revealed that it wasn’t (isn’t?) widely popular in Japan, and was (is?) instead the preserve of the Japanese elite, and according to one site, Japanese gangsters. But enterprising restaurant owners in other parts of the world are now offering Nyotaimori for those who can pay the typically high fees.

So, what’s one to think? Is it ok to treat a person like a plate? I must confess that the thought of taking a dainty morsel only to reveal a nipple, belly button, or even a knee-cap is enough to put me off my porridge. But personal tastes aside, one sort of answer to the question is ‘no’, it’s never ok to use people for one’s own purposes – nefarious or otherwise – so using a lady as a platter is definitely out. It’s what goes by the name ‘objectification’, and plenty of folk think that’s a bad thing. But that seems a bit hasty. For one thing, I use people for my own purposes all the time as I go about my day – the grocer to supply me with fruit and veg, the bus driver to transport me round the city, the teacher to help me learn French, and so forth. Providing these people have voluntarily taken on these roles, and in using them this way, I respect the fact that they are persons, with desires, aims, feelings, etc. of their own, my use of them seems perfectly innocuous. If a lady voluntarily consents to my using her as a sushi platter, and in so using her, I respect the fact that she is a person, then surely that’s ok?

Moreover, one might argue that Nyotaimori belongs in the realm of fetish, and divining the meaning or significance of fetish practices is a subtle and complex matter. Dominance and submission take place after a process of frank negotiation, and only if all parties have given their explicit consent. Who’s working hardest to please whom, and who’s really driving the show is not quite as it might at first seem. People often take on roles that contrast starkly with those they perform in their day to day lives, which further muddies the water.

These observations bring me to the crux of the matter. Whether or not it’s ok to treat a person like a plate is surely a matter of context. In some situations, it seems unproblematic. If, e.g., Linda, successful CEO by day, fetish scene-ster by night, trains up as a platter and spends her weekend having sushi eaten off her bosom in underground fetish restaurants, I have no problem with that. However, the establishments offering Nyotaimori in the UK, the US, Canada, and elsewhere are not fetish clubs, but exclusive eateries, aiming to attract rich business men hoping to impress their wealthy clients. And that seems like an altogether different kettle of fish (ahem). Women do work in business. But the upper echelons of the business world are still dominated by males, and a ‘masculinist’ culture prevails. There is still a lingering attitude that women are incapable of doing the Really Important Stuff, and are best off in lower positions with less responsibility, where their little fluffy brains won’t explode with the pressure, and they won’t get pregnant and ruin the next Big Deal, yada, yada yada. It’s against the backdrop of this Boys’ Club that we should consider Nyotaimori, and now we might see it as the ultimate expression of a certain objectionable attitude to women. Unconvinced? Well, here’s an old trick. Imagine that instead of eating sushi off naked women, the predominantly white, Western elite were going to expensive restaurants and using black people as platters to impress their rich clients. Now that’s an objectionable image.

There’s lots more to say, but I seemed to have waffled on for almost an entire page. So on to the links…

Here’s the wiki article on Nyotaimori. The practice of eating sushi/sashimi off a naked man is called Nantaimori. As one might expect, this is less popular. Well, men do Deals and Run Things, etc., they don’t lie around looking decorative and being passively used. Harumph.

Here’s an article from the Telegraph about the London establishment that has recently started offering Nyotaimori to those who can afford it.

Thanks to reader JT for sending us some links on naked sushi. Apparently a show called The Doctors, which claims to give health advice, brought out a naked woman covered in sushi on the pretext of discussing strange eating habits. The mind boggles.

11 thoughts on “Is it ok to treat a person like a plate?

  1. All good observations, but I wonder if the range of venues is a bit wider than you’ve described here. There’s a crummy dive bar here in my fair city that offers nyotaimori from time to time, for example. It’s definitely not an underground fetish restaurant (or, really, a restaurant of *any* persuasion), and I suspect no rich business man has ever set foot in the place. The clientele are, for the most part, uneducated professionals. Is this objectionable? I can’t decide without talking to the naked woman.

  2. Not objectionable unless it is objectionable to the woman. Many people treat their lovers as plates all the time in bed, for example– basically anyone who has ever consumed food or drink off of his or her lover’s body has done this– and there is definitely nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Whatever facts might make this case distinct from the case of lovers doesn’t seem to have to do with whether it is simply wrong to treat a person as a plate, but rather with the circumstances surrounding the treating-as-a-plate.

  3. I vaguely recall something Martha Nussbaum wrote about how a little objectification can be OK (even fun!) in the bedroom, but that doesn’t make it OK in other circumstances. Can anyone fill in the reference?

  4. Dana – thanks for the info. I only know what I’ve read online, as my city doesn’t yet offer Nyotaimori (as far as I know?). Although it’s important to know what the women involved think, I don’t think they’re opinions on what they do are the only important factors. It also has to do with the context in which what they do is received, and how it contributes to themes in the culture at large.

    Michaela – yes, context – that was exactly my point! Thanks for the nice example of using someone as a plate in a totally innocuous way.

    Carl, I think the reference you’re after is: Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘Objectification’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 4. (Autumn, 1995), pp. 249-291.

  5. Judy Chicago turned a lot of women into plates in her famous (allegedly) feminist artwork The Dinner Party. That’s actually one of the (many) reasons I object to the work–turning women into plates.

  6. Monkey seems to distinguish the objectionable from the unobjectionable examples of this practice on the basis of the meanings/messages that particular instances involve. It seems likely to me that many of those involved in the cases Monkey finds objectionable would not only deny that she’s correctly interpreted their intended meaning, but even that they intended a meaning or message at all. Of course, people’s intentions are hardly decisive in this area; it sounds like Monkey would appeal to “context” and features of the “culture at large” to determine meaning. That’s entirely sensible, of course; I mention the intentions (or lack thereof) only because I think the lack of conscious intentions may be a distinguishing feature of many of the most objectionable cases. Almost any message can be used playfully in ways that I at least find essentially harmless. However, if people aren’t even aware of what meanings are active, they are not in a position to take any conscious attitude toward the meanings, and there’s some reason to think people’s most natural attitude, and so what’s likely to be their unconscious attitude, is accepting meanings as expressing truths.

  7. I’m getting concerned about what it is to treat a woman as a plate. One aspect is to eat off her. But other aspects seem to be to treat her as an inanimate object who is irrelevant when one is finished, something to put away or get rid of. It seems we don’t mind the eating off of part, but I’m wondering about the rest. Even supposing one liked being treated as a disposable object, it is really ok for anyone to do it?

  8. Just a head’s up: as far as the artworld is concerned, this is all old hat (e.g., Girl Table (1969) by Allen Jones).

    Also, while nyotaimori literally means “female body presentation”, the handful of times that I have seen “body sushi” stateside featured either both female and male models or, as in one case, only males (both of whom were preternaturally free of body hair).

    One last point. No one should be surprised to learn that the Japanese have yet another way to demean women. As far as body sushi is concerned in the U.S., however, given the cultural environment in the U.S. where the consumption of sushi is considered less than manly, we might take a little comfort in supposing that parties featuring body sushi would by and large be attended by comparatively progressive sorts of folks (e.g., sashimi eating lib’ruls). A far more dire situation would be if we started to see cases of “body nachos” or “body pizza”. Ouch!

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