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