An Open Letter to PeTA

Dear PeTA,

As a young animal rights advocate brimming with idealism in the conviction that animal exploitation can be ended, and as an active participant in the vegan movement, I am writing to you to offer some observations – observations that are increasingly characterizing a growing segment of those involved in vegan advocacy. Since being an animal advocate means speaking up on behalf of those who do not have a voice, it is crucial that any animal rights movement worthy of the name commit itself to the kind of dispassionate self-reflection that makes coherence possible, and long-term success inevitable.

Non-human slavery is, of course, a cruel institution that involves both unspeakable violence against the vulnerable and the demoralization of the humans who are committing the violence. In addition to being the oldest form of oppression, animal exploitation has often also served as a model for other forms of oppression, which involve human animals. Human slavery, for instance, did not proliferate until the ‘domestication’ of non-human animals became the common means of sustenance for humans. Women were actually the first group of humans to be owned by others (namely, their husbands) as chattel property; and throughout the long history of co-existence between animal exploitation and patriarchy, much has been noted about the commonalities that make both of these forms of oppression – indeed, all forms of oppression – possible. Animal exploitation and patriarchy are both rooted in the ownership over another’s body. Like animal exploitation, which turns non-human individuals into objects of consumption for humans, patriarchy as a cross-cultural and trans-historical phenomenon has always involved the ‘thingification’ of women’s bodies, manifested either through outright ownership (by husbands and fathers), or through widespread sexual objectification. Both non-human slavery and patriarchy are heavily steeped in the fetishization of violence. It would seem, then, that an organization ostensibly committed to the eradication of animal exploitation would also support the eradication of gender hierarchy. Yet judging from your track record, this has not been the case.

Your anti-fur ads, for instance, have frequently featured scantily clad women claiming that they would ‘rather go naked than wear fur’. Nudity, of course, does not carry any particular meaning in and of itself; but the use and portrayal of it can – and in the current reality of male power, it certainly does. In the ad pictured above, the women are set to ‘perform’ at a strip club, where they are turned into de-personalized sex objects. The men who watch them ‘perform’ will consume nothing more a series of fetishized body parts, in the same way that the meat eater consumes the dismembered body parts of a non-human individual. What sense does it make to treat women like pieces of meat to protest treating animals like pieces of meat? What sense does it make to single out fur – more commonly worn by women – when leather and wool, the production of which requires every bit as much violence as fur, are more common throughout society, anyway? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that, as a traditionally disempowered group, women make easy pickings for bullying from ‘progressive’, ‘peace-loving’ animal rights activists. No doubt leather-clad bikers would react less diplomatically to harassment and attempts at intimidation.

To say that there is nothing wrong with sexual objectification because women ‘voluntarily’ choose to participate in it – or, more ironically, that sexual objectification is an expression of our freedom – is like saying that African-Americans who ‘voluntarily’ chose to perform in blackface comedies were striking a blow for racial equality in so doing. Choosing to participate in the institutions that subordinate you might be expedient, but that does not mean that it is a liberating or empowering choice. Patriarchy creates the social and political reality of female subordination in society. We are socialized into an oppressive gender role, made economically underprivileged (relative to men) through de facto discrimination in the workplace, and sexually objectified through the relentless commodification of our bodies, not only in the media, but in every other aspect of society, as well. We are then seen to be individuals who make free choices. In reality, this claim is – at best – an unkind exaggeration, since freedom and individual expression are precisely what a group of people is denied when they are systematically discriminated against, and their social role and status is super-imposed on them by those who dominate them. We are free, all right: free to participate in the means of our own oppression, and to uphold the very values that are used to subordinate us. The ‘freedom’ to live within the limited and degrading confines available to us under patriarchy, and to play into the male-supremacist game – the only kind of ‘freedom’ that patriarchy has ever afforded women – is then mistakenly taken to be a token of the real liberty and dignity that we (allegedly) possess. There is a particularly bitter irony about having one’s oppression called one’s freedom; but war is peace, I suppose, when those who dominate you do the naming, and when they are the ones who decide what the permitted discourse will be.

Arguably worse is the tendency of many of your campaigns to eroticize violence against women. In the ad pictured above, an ‘animalized’ woman is being hunted down by men who will dominate her. Having power – the power of force – over her, they have captured her and are now seen to own her, ready to use her for what she is, because she is hunted meat. They are hunters, powerful and self-possessed; she is a thing – an object – of nature, to be used and ravished by them. The chains on her body and the weapons wielded by the men suggest violence and domination. The thrill is in the chase, the over-powering; the pleasure is to be found precisely in the non-consensual nature of the act. The hierarchies alluded to in this picture (man over woman, human over non-human) are both believable and easy to take for granted at first sight because they accurately mirror the objective realities of our world as it currently stands. It is not altogether clear, however, how glamourizing this is supposed to educate or enlighten those who take such power relationships for granted as being in the ‘natural’ order of things. It is similarly unclear what the average viewer is supposed to have learned about cruelty towards elephants from this sexist advertising, or indeed, how such advertising inspires anyone to act in any meaningful way. But why worry about something as trivial as helping animals when you can create empty media hype, instead?

Given this track record, it does not come as a surprise that PeTA is now launching a porn site, where images of animal cruelty will be juxtaposed with scenes of women being degraded and abused – supposedly to promote an animal rights message. At this point, one has to wonder: is there no limit to just how low your organization is willing to stoop in your relentless quest for ever more publicity and attention? Your anti-fur campaigns, for instance, have not actually resulted in any decrease in fur sales, despite the media attention they have generated for you. Have the animals then become mere bargaining chips in your scripted kabuki dance of busywork, sexism, and self-indulgent glamour? Certainly, your organization has refused to consider that its campaigns might support the continued subordination of women, or that the women’s rights issue requires more nuanced consideration than an enthusiastic proclamation in support of our right to take our clothes off and bend over. But let’s not talk about how most of the women in the porn industry are destitute runaways who were sexually abused as children, or about how – once in the industry – they are frequently raped and addicted to drugs – we wouldn’t want to rain on the glamour-and-fun parade.

Perhaps the ends really do justify the means: a relentless stream of entertaining misogyny is justified when it brings in money and publicity. One can only hope that you are able continue on likewise for the forseeable future. Non-human victims of slavery should be so fortunate so as to have their movement spend another two and a half decades on entertaining misogyny, self-indulgent galas, an astonishingly high kill-rate of ‘rescued’ animals, and vapid campaigns to stamp happy-faces onto the corpses of the tormented, all while the actual number of animals bred into a life of misery and servitude continues to sky-rocket.

Sincerely,

An abolitionist of the most revolting character, dividing the feelings of the welfarists against the abolitionists.

Comments

  1. You’re not very knowledgable as a “young animal rights advocate” yet, so please don’t offer “advice” to PETA. PETA has been studying the best tactics since 1980 and their ads do work, they work well, and ultimatly they end animal exploitation.

    • Old AR Advocate says:

      As less than 1% of people are vegan, it cannot be working all that well at all! These campaigns may receive a lot of media attention, but it is not positive attention and detracts from the point they are trying to make when the focus turns to pornography and away from animal exploitation

    • I cannot agree more with you. No matter if I like or do not like PETA´s ads – it was PETA who made me go vegetarian 6 years ago and vegan 1 year ago.

    • lol

    • Jeffrey Coolwater says:

      Jordan, I am not a particularly “young” animal rights advocate and I have learned enough about marketing (and fund-raising) as well as the history of discrimination, animal welfare regulation, and the movement to abolish exploitation to know that your opinion of Peta and their purpose, while most likely sincere and well intended, is seriously misguided. May I encourage you to do some extensive research starting with reading, “Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?” and “Rain Without Thunder: Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement” by Professor Gary L. Francione, found on this page: http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/books/

      Find out why these organizations are, over the long term, doomed to fail animals, both human and nonhuman, by the very design under which they operate.

    • Jordan, your criticism is ageist and elitist. Just as we wouldn’t use computers that were built in 1980, we shouldn’t blindly trust in institutions whose roots were planted in 1980. Times change, knowledge is improved, and today, “young animal rights advocate[s]” are able to identify the mistakes of the past in ways that the prejudiced establishment are unable to comprehend.

      If you disagree with the articulated position, fine. But don’t play the age-and-experience card; it’s a fallacy, and you know that.

  2. Thank-you for this interesting “take”.

  3. Virginia says:

    PETA has for at least 15 years done what they think will give them the best publicity (and I suppose if they can get some people to become vegan or vegetarian in the process that’s a plus). They no longer (if they ever did) call themselves a vegan organization only vegetarian. They were a helpful group way back when in the late ’80s and very early ’90s when I first went veg. Now, all they care about is publicity. I don’t know what it is with so many people thinking peta is the god of AR groups. I have seen time and again how celebs will go veg or not wear fur only to decide a year or so down the road “it’s too difficult” or fur is “in vogue” again.
    I agree completely with the open letter, and I’ve been doing this since the late ’80s.
    PeTA was good once, but they are doing a lot of damage to the movement. More than once have I heard “oh, you’re with peta…” and they tune you out. PeTA makes it difficult for the everyday vegan (and let’s face it, there are a hell of a lot more of us then there are celeb vegans) to educate the public. And then, if you happen to ask for some help (like, say, trying to keep a slaughterhouse from being built in the area you live in) they don’t want to help. They want the everyday vegan to do the grunt work and they’ll take the glory.

  4. What evidence do you have that these sexist PETA ads work? Do you know one person who saw a “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” ad and then went vegan?
    Imagine if PETA spent it’s millions of dollars raiser per year instead on educating peope how and why they should go vegan? Vegan cooking shows, vegan nutrition education, and most of all the connection between dogs, whales, dolphins, pigs, cows and chickens – if you care for any of them you must go vegan.

  5. vegansrus says:

    Please spend your energy proving your own efforts at animal activism. Your success will have P.E.T.A.’s better half, following your successful example.

  6. vegansrus says:

    To the author of this piece.
    Beware of the assuring voices within our movement who would exploit you for there own engrandizment. I say this because of the odd, predictable redundancy of subject matter regarding the post, and also your own defensive self description. This reads like a frat. pledge. In the 80′s, you’re A.R. initiation might have been to attack a fur store, ( also following some vegan mentors half baked philosophy intended to end ‘the’ suffering). Today, well you won’t face any jail time with this particular initiation. That’s a plus!
    Don’t buy into any of the assured pathes to victory, including the abolitionists, for you will likely feel such a fool in years to come.

  7. Susan Davis says:

    I agree with this, but you should sign your name to anything you right, without a name motives become questionable…but great article and I agree. PETA believes any publicity is good publicity, they couldn’t be more wrong, they haven’t a chance of ever reaching mainstream America with crap like this.

  8. Susan Davis says:

    sorry, meant write, not right

  9. “We are socialized into an oppressive gender role, made economically underprivileged (relative to men) through de facto discrimination in the workplace, and sexually objectified through the relentless commodification of our bodies, not only in the media, but in every other aspect of society, as well.”

    Did you mean to say we are socialized into an “oppressed” gender role?

  10. PrimalVeganPower says:

    As a long time vegan and activist, I loathe and despise PETA with a passion. They’re making a mockery out of every single thing I hold valuable.

    And you have no idea how many cursewords I had to edit out of those two sentences.

  11. I put this on my facebook page with the comment:

    And now they (PETA) are developing a porn channel with animal rights messages — another organization enveloped by the corruption of male supremacy and the pimped out so called entertainment industry …

  12. young abolitionist vegan says:

    PETA was like my mother, and Sea Shepherd was like my father……..PETA came to my fashion school and showed the videos of how the “FUR” materials are made. Since then, I became a “flexible” vegetarian/PETA supporter for over 7 years. I completely avoid using fur (of course), but kept using leather, wool, silk, consuming free range eggs as I thought I was doing something *right*=compassionate vegetarian. Now I regret these 7 years that I called my self “animal rights activist” wearing leather shoes and attending to the anti-fur demo. Can I blame on PETA for my stupidity? I wished PETA had told me that Veganism is the only way to go when you want to talk about “animal rights”.

    • Jeffrey Coolwater says:

      @ young abolitionist vegan You have precisely described why everyone needs to avoid these organizations. They rely on donations to survive and prey on donors’ emotions to accomplish that. They assure nothing but their own continued existence. As you’ve described, they waste our time. And as such, they waste animals’ time!

      There is only one very simple message needed and each one of us can carry it: If you care about animals, human *and* nonhuman, stop exploiting them in what you eat, wear, and use. Learn to be Vegan, it’s easy! Then teach it to others! The whole process costs NOTHING (no donations, and probably less than what you spend to survive right now). And it’s brimming with respect, justice, and fulfillment!

      • young abolitionist vegan says:

        Thank you for your comment, Jeffrey. I agree with you. I was hating humans very much from watching so many horrific images of animal abuse in past 7 years. But rejecting speciesism mind actually removed my hate toward humans. Now I respect all human/non-human’s rights. These disciminations are important social issues. Now I see what Tolstoi’s quotes means. “As long as there are slaughter house, there will be battlefield.” It makes total sense!

  13. Princess Sarcasm says:

    Very interesting. It was very devious of PeTA to sneak in to Rick’s Cabaret with hidden cameras and photograph those innocent unsuspecting women in those provocative clothes and poses. And why were people not arrested for brutally kidnapping, beating and chaining that poor Ms. Jaitley?!

    • I explained in the letter why the “they choose to do it” argument doesn’t work. In a patriarchal society, women’s choices are limited.

      And eroticizing violence against women is a really terrible idea (with disastrous consequences) in a society of rape and male power. In a male-dominated society that rewards women for playing into this sort of nonsense, it is perfectly understandable that some women would “agree” to it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea or that the institutions/gender roles in question are above criticism.

  14. “it certainly does. In the ad pictured above, the women are set to ‘perform’ at a strip club, where they are turned into de-personalized sex objects”

    Women *work* at a strip club, and sell their labor, much like how in other industries workers must sell their time and labor to capitalists to get by. Some of these women are feminists. This characterization does not seem to be supportive of sex workers. To see sex workers as merely victims of patriarchy is simplistic and generalizing.

    • SHB: The overwhelming majority of women who do “sex work” are poor women with few other options. In pornography and prostitution, most of the women were also victims of childhood sexual abuse.

      In a capitalist society, all labour involves exploitation and alienation; but patriarchy (which involves the commodification of women’s *bodies*, as opposed to simply our labour) is a different problem from capitalism. I’d like to see the boring, 9-5 job where people are expected to pretend that they enjoy being sexually harassed (and, in porn/prostitution, raped).

      A woman who finds herself doing “sex work” for whatever reason (often outside of her control) can certainly be feminist in intention, but that does not mean that “sex work” as an institution is feminist.

  15. Bellygal says:

    So where are the men “going bottomless” rather than wearing leather/fur? Where are the men in shackles and skimpy clothing? Regardless of the success of these ads in the AR movement, it doesn’t take much to see that they are completely sexist and demeaning to women. That alone is wrong enough.

  16. Joint Statement by a Group of Abolitionist Vegan Feminists for International Women’s Week http://bit.ly/LXMbgt

  17. Unpopular Vegan Essays: PETA: A Corporate Tangle of Contradictions http://bit.ly/z3cD9H

    “PETA’s Sexism Indirectly Reinforces Speciesism

    Speciesism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism are all bigotries rooted in the same underlying confusion that ignores morally relevant characteristics, like sentience or interest, in favor of morally irrelevant characteristics, like species or race, in providing equal consideration to others. And yet so many people are strong, passionate advocates trying to eliminate one or more of these prejudices while ironically scoffing at another. It is common to see feminists, LGBT activists, and civil rights advocates ridicule concern over speciesism while blithely ignoring the underlying implications of their dismissal. Many condemn the bigotry of others, but cannot see their own.

    The same goes in the other direction for PETA and their sexism. If PETA is exploiting women in fur and flesh campaigns, reinforcing the current societal paradigm which sees women as objects and their bodies as commodities, why should anyone take seriously what such a hypocritical organization has to say about speciesism? Advocates of social justice issues render their own cause trivial when they trivialize the causes of others.”

  18. A very thoughtful article.

    May I request that you cite your sources next time? I don’t disagree with much here, but others might, and some citations could help to convince them. Also, it’s a great way of discovering interesting books to read!

    • “Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality” by Gail Dines is a good introduction to pornography, sexism, and related issues.

      If you’re interested in getting a much broader understanding of patriarchy in general (including some history), “Sexual Politics” by Kate Millett is good. The writing is (frankly) dry at times, but the research and analyses are thorough.

  19. This is one of the best pieces I have ever read addressing the hypocrisy of using sexist tactics to end the discrimination of another group. Hits the nail on the head. Well said. Thank you.

  20. Vegan Stripper says:

    Thank you to the author. Peta have incredible power via their mainstream exposure.. I wish they would use it better. I feel their campaigns are often cringeworthy, too sensational to take seriously. Perhaps they could promote & fund new forms of education, encourage people to view the film “Earthlings”. I doubt any person could be the same after viewing that film.

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  1. [...] post on Vegan Times got me thinking about the use of the naked human body. “An Open Letter to PeTA” makes a feminist critique PETA’s use of sexualized imagery in its ads against animal [...]

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