As abolitionist vegans and feminists, we oppose the use of sexist tactics in the animal advocacy movement. Ethical animal rights veganism is part of the logical conclusion of opposition to the exploitation of all sentient beings — both human animals and non-human animals. Opposing speciesism is incompatible with engaging in sexism or any other form of discrimination, such as racism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of oppression.
Unfortunately, we have witnessed many female activists saying that there is nothing wrong with using “sex” as a tool to get our message across, using various arguments to try to justify this view. Further, other advocates have been unfairly attacked for “sexism” because they are openly critical of sexism and sexist choices in the movement. Neither should be acceptable to advocates who take anti-oppression work seriously.
Some advocates defend the use of sex by accusing us of being “anti-sex” or prudish. Abolitionist vegans are not prudes by any means, however, we see that the way sex is used to sell things in our patriarchal society reinforces a view of women as commodities. For example, just take a look at the way in which PETA uses sex in its campaigns – they reinforce harmful Western beauty standards by mostly using thin, large-breasted women, who tend to be posed to appear vulnerable and alluring to the (heterosexual male) intended viewer, as well as mostly* using men who are muscular and trim and posed to look powerful and self-assured. When sexism is being used to try to “sell” justice for non-human animals, at the expense of reinforcing harmful attitudes towards human women, the irony is clear. The seriousness of the injustices committed against both non-human animals and human women in this world are cheapened by the use of tactics based on inane and harmful stereotypes; far from challenging the issue of animal exploitation, this kind of approach reinforces the very stereotypes that have harmed human women and non-human animals alike.
Some of the activists defending the use of sex believe that showing our sexuality will call the attention of potential vegans by appealing to their own self image, implying that when they see how sexy being vegan makes us, they will want to become vegan too. This notion is not only misguided but also detrimental to the actual message we should be getting across. Veganism is about animal rights, not about feeling sexy, or having better sex (characteristics we all know have little to do with being vegan or not, but with each individual’s lifestyle and well-being) and it is most certainly not about “looking better” than people who eat meat.
Promoting veganism as a way to become “sexy”, which unfortunately is almost always equated with “losing weight” in our society (for example, the book “Skinny Bitch” comes to mind), further reinforces prejudices against larger or overweight people, which harms both women and men in our society, but particularly women. Not to mention that veganism is not some magic bullet to lose weight – there exist plenty of vegans who are far from “skinny”, who are essentially being given the message that they are failures by these sorts of campaigns that imply or flat-out promote veganism as a way to achieve western beauty standards. Appealing to these harmful standards not only reinforces them, but draws attention away from the true reason people should go vegan, which is to acknowledge the moral personhood of non-human animals.
Many of these activists defending sexist tactics claim that they are not, in fact, sexist tactics, that they “empower” the women who choose to participate in them, and so that criticizing these campaigns is disrespectful to these women – some even claim that to criticize them is itself sexist. These arguments are false for a number of reasons. First of all, these claims are usually made to male activists when they criticize such campaigns. But one’s gender does not in and of itself make one more or less qualified to speak about sexism or feminism.
There is a real “men should shut up and listen to women” attitude in these claims that seeks to replace the egalitarianism that feminism demands with a hollow and biologically-based authoritarianism. As bell hooks suggests, while sisterhood is powerful, feminism is for everybody. As abolitionist vegan women, we are extremely glad to have as allies men such as Gary L. Francione, among others, who has been denouncing sexism in the animal advocacy movement and consistently speaking up for feminism for years. While we do of course believe that women should be listened to and taken seriously, listening does not equate to agreeing with or accepting someone’s arguments simply because that person is female; disagreeing with those arguments and presenting logical counter-arguments does not equate to being sexist. It is unfortunate, but sexism is so pervasive in our society that some women do not even believe that it’s still an issue, do not see how sexism has an impact on their lives, and do not feel that feminism is relevant to them. Some male feminist allies have spent years studying feminist theory; just because they’re male doesn’t invalidate this expertise.
Furthermore, the view that anything a woman chooses to do “empowers” her is simplistic in that it ignores the patriarchal context in which those choices are made. Yes, the women who participate in the campaigns we are criticizing have chosen to do so voluntarily, and some may feel liberated, or feel as if their choices are themselves a challenge to female objectification, and we do recognize that they feel this way. We are simply asking them to seriously consider that these campaigns are both harmful to women as well as ineffective in challenging the exploitation of non-human animals, and that, in view of this, women should no longer support or participate in them.
As stated above, the view that women are “empowered” or “liberated” by choosing to commodify themselves ignores the structural dimension of sexism in our patriarchal society. Whether we like it or not, our choices to try to “take back” patriarchy’s commodification of women by participating in it voluntarily affect the lives of other women, especially women with less power. In a culture that still views and presents women as sex objects on a daily basis, the “taking back” or “reclaiming control” intent of these choices is entirely lost to the greater public, and the objectification and commodification is simply reinforced. When this sexism is reinforced as being acceptable or no big deal, the overall effect is to reinforce the attitudes that allow the trafficking, abuse, and other forms of exploitation and violence that are inflicted on women in poverty and of lower socio-economic status around the world every day.
Some claim that these campaigns are necessary to get the attention of the public. As we mentioned above, this draws attention away from the real reasons behind veganism: the rights of sentient beings not to be considered property. Getting attention at all costs is not the way to promote a serious issue such as violence against animals; in a world where this violence is already not taken seriously, attention-at-all-costs tactics only serve to further trivialize the issue. PETA’s sexist campaigns do get attention, but overall it is attention for PETA, not for the real issues. It’s a guerrilla marketing tactic designed to get people talking about PETA so that the donations keep flowing. (And look, it’s working, since here we are talking about PETA, but we felt we couldn’t discuss this issue without mentioning the largest and worst offender, unfortunately.)
Even more disturbing are the video campaigns that juxtapose sex and explicit, gory images of violence to animals, purportedly to grab the attention of young heterosexual men and then to inform them about the treatment of non-human animals. For example, PETA’s “State of the Union Undress 2010″ features a woman stripping “for the animals”, after which a second video automatically begins playing, depicting graphic violence inflicted on nonhumans. How exactly is getting men to associate these sexually arousing images with gory images of violence going to help anything?
The campaigns that blatantly use sex and Western beauty standards are not the only sexist tactics used in the animal advocacy movement. For example, the longstanding campaigns against fur have a distinctly sexist element. By singling out fur, advocates are not only implying that there is some moral difference between fur and leather or other types of animal-derived clothing, which there is not, but they are also singling out those humans who wear fur while ignoring or minimizing the actions of those who wear other types of animals. Most fur in our society is worn by women. Effectively, these campaigns single out as morally wrong a particular use of non-humans mainly by women, while minimizing other equally morally wrong uses by all genders. Does pointing out that a little old lady in a fur coat is wrong to use animals while ignoring a biker in a leather jacket really help anything?
Also worth mentioning are the gender issues involved in animal exploitation. The animals exploited specifically for their milk and eggs are, it should be obvious, females being exploited for their reproductive cycles. They are repeatedly forcefully impregnated in the case of cows and other mammals used for their milk, i.e. raped, then their babies are taken from them, which causes extreme distress to mother and baby. Both mammals and birds are killed once they reach an age such that their reproductive cycle slows down or stops, and they are no longer profitable to their owners. Similarly, female animals of most of the species exploited by humans are used as “breeding” animals, forced to have litter after litter of young, and discarded when their usefulness for this purpose wanes.
While, as is to be expected in our speciesist society that considers non-humans property, feminism and sexism have always referred to humans, when looking at it from a perspective that is both abolitionist vegan and feminist, this exploitation of female animals’ “femaleness” could be seen to fall into the intersection of these two struggles. It is odd that some people claim to be vegetarian (but not vegan) for “feminist reasons” – one would think that if someone believes the eating of animal flesh to be connected with the treatment of women “like meat”, that they would also see the use of animal products that come specifically from female animals’ reproductive cycles as being connected. Feminism is not merely a matter of having a vagina and a monologue; it is a daily lived practice, a dynamic force for change and liberation, a dialogue, a community, and a social transformation embodied in words and actions every turning moment of our lives.
If feminism is for everybody, that includes nonhuman animals. As animal rights advocates, whether we are male or female or genderqueer, it is our responsibility to oppose the exploitation and oppression of all sentient beings. This will be achieved by educating others in a creative and objective manner. How can we presume to end the exploitation of non-humans while encouraging or accepting the exploitation of our fellow human beings?
The bottom line is: commodifying ourselves does not truly “empower us”. We can’t use sexist methods to further a social justice issue. All exploitation of sentient beings is related; we’re not going to end speciesism, the oppression of non-human animals simply because they are not human, without a firm commitment to ending sexism as well, and certainly not with the kind of attention-at-all-costs opportunism engaged in by certain activists at the expense of other oppressed groups.
Ana María Aboglio
Paola Aldana de Meoño
*While our original post used the word “only”, it is true that not *all* of PETA’s campaigns use men or women of a certain body type. While the majority of the people they feature in their ads conform to the Western beauty standard, some of them do feature celebrities with different body types. For this reason we have changed “only” to “mostly”.