Sex and Sexism in the Animal Rights Movement

Why Sexual Campaigns and Sexist Language Should be Avoided

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It's not surprising that there's a certain amount of sexism in the animal rights movement, since sexism so thoroughly permeates our society as a whole. What is surprising is hearing some animal rights activists defend sexism when it's pointed out to them. Since animal rights is a social justice movement, many animal activists believe that the animal rights movement is part of a larger battle against all oppression.

What is Sexism?

The term "sexism" applies to women and men equally:

Sexism means discrimination based on sex. Sexism can be compared to racism; in both the differences between two (or more) groups are viewed as indications that one group is superior or inferior. Sexism can refer to either the belief of the person doing the discriminating or their words and behavior.

In situations such as schools, businesses or the workplace, sexism might be more specifically called gender discrimination, and is illegal.

What is Misogyny?

The term "misogyny" applies specifically to women:

Misogyny means the hatred of women. The word comes from the Greek misein, to hate and gyne, woman. Misogyny is often used to describe contempt for women as a whole, rather than hatred of specific women.

The objectification of women - the portrayal of women as sex objects - is one example of misogyny.

The Harm

Misogyny and sexism hurt women and men, and hurt the animal rights movement.

While some believe that sexist jokes and misogynistic language are not harmful, these mere words contribute to a culture in which women are undervalued and objectified. Like racist or homophobic remarks, sexist remarks encourage sexist behavior which leads to discrimination and even violence. Alison Grundy, a clinical psychologist in the field of sexual violence, states, "Now we have 30 years of research to show that the sexualised and violent messages of popular music, media and video games do shape and provoke male aggressive and sexualised violence."

These remarks specifically hurt the animal rights movement because they distance us from other social justice movements when we should be working together to end all oppression. Also, any remarks that insult or offend a group of people will divide our own movement.

The Problem

Sexism shows up in the animal rights movement in the same ways in which one would find it in society in general – e.g. assumptions that women and men will fall into certain roles, or that women are less capable of performing certain tasks. However, there are also examples of sexism that are specific to the animal rights movement: the use of sex and nudity in campaigns, and the use of misogynistic language.

Sex in Animal Rights Campaigns

The most well-known examples of sex in animal rights campaigns come from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA’s sexualized campaigns include "I’d rather go naked than wear fur," their banned Superbowl commercials where scantily clad women breathlessly fondle vegetables, or the State of the Union Undress in which a woman strips while talking about animal rights on the PETA website. The problem is not necessarily sexism, but sexualized campaigns, although these campaigns almost always use naked or nearly-naked women.

The use of sexual imagery in campaigns is often defended on the basis that it works in getting people’s attention. Even if one believes that it works (see below), the ends cannot justify the means. While some may argue that the naked women participate in these campaigns voluntarily, the campaigns affect all women because they objectify all women.

Furthermore, the imagery cannot be viewed in a vacuum, but must be viewed in the context of a society in which sexism and misogyny are already a problem. In their Joint Statement by a Group of Abolitionist Vegan Feminists for International Women's Day, ten abolitionist vegan feminists write:

[T]he 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.

The use of images of thin, scantily-clad women to advertise the benefits of veganism is also misguided:

[T]hey reinforce harmful Western beauty standards by using only thin, large-breasted women, who tend to be posed to appear vulnerable and alluring to the (heterosexual male) intended viewer, as well as using only men who are muscular and trim and posed to look powerful and self-assured . . . Veganism is about animal rights, not about feeling sexy, or having better sex . . . and it is most certainly not about "looking better" than people who eat meat.

As to whether sexed-up campaigns work, Prof. Gary Francione writes:

I have never had anyone come to me to say that they had been moved to consider the animal issue because they saw a naked woman in a cage. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of thing that makes progressive people think that the animal rights movement is a pathetic joke to be dismissed and ignored.

Sexist Language

Some animal rights activists believe that all rules of civility go out the window when dealing with animal exploiters, and resort to using misogynistic insults. Women who wear fur are sometimes called "fur hags," "bitch," or the "c" word.

Misogynistic terms insult all women, not just the woman who is the target of the insult. Furthermore, they are completely unjustified. There is no reason to use sexist language when criticizing an animal exploiter.

Some activists defend sexist insults, claiming that the women deserve to be insulted when they choose to wear fur.

However, insulting someone’s gender, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation is never justified.

Some defend misogynistic language by pointing out that the animals suffer much more than the insulted women. However, this argument is based on faulty logic. Insulting women does nothing for the animals, and being vegan does not require misogyny.

One doesn’t have to choose between women and animals, so arguing the lesser of two burdens is a false argument. Keep in mind that this argument is very similar to one made by animal exploiters, who say that they would rather help people than animals. Helping people does not prohibit one from going vegan or helping animals, just as supporting animal rights does not prohibit one from opposing misogyny.

Such language also harms the movement because it is divisive and takes the focus away from the animals. Anything that compromises our ability to work together hurts the animals and hurts the movement, and instead of hearing our message, the public will focus on the sexism.

What About Men?

Using naked men in campaigns is still problematic. Again, these campaigns promote a very narrow definition of beauty and objectify people. The solution is not to feature more naked men in animal rights campaigns, but to stop objectifying people.

Using feminine terms to insult men is also misogynistic. For example, the title of the book "Meat is for Pussies" insults women because the message is that a man who eats meat is feminine and therefore inferior. Referring to a man in feminine terms, with rare exceptions, is generally considered an insult in our society.

As a California court noted in a 2010 hostile workplace lawsuit, "Calling a man a "bitch" belittles him precisely because it belittles women . . . Indeed, it insults the man by comparing him to a woman, and, thereby, could be taken as humiliating to women as a group as well." That’s in addition to the fact that the words "pussy" and "bitch" are offensive regardless of whether one is referring to a man or a woman.

Similarly, some animal activists call men "fur hags," and therefore claim that the term "fur hag" is not sexist. Again, the word "hag" by itself is offensive, and calling a man a "hag" is offensive because of the implication that he should feel insulted to be called a woman.

Women Using Misogynistic Language

Some female activists feel that they are entitled to use the term "fur hag" because they are women themselves, but being a woman is not a defense for misogyny.

The use of such language by women reeks of self-hatred, which results from society’s constant message that women are inferior. It also encourages men to use the same language, because it sends the message that the term "fur hag" must be OK if women use it.

Sexual campaigns and sexist language do little, if anything, to help the animal rights movement, but cause a great deal of harm to the movement itself as well as society as a whole. Attacks on someone’s gender, race, religion, class, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation are never justified.