The animal rights community has a serious exploitation problem.
I’m never surprised to hear when someone believes that vegans put non-human animals above their human-animal counterparts. Many in the movement consider animal rights to be more urgent than any human rights issue, and aren’t afraid to be public about their beliefs. And it’s not a coincidence that this attitude so often comes from white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class activists.
There is an aggressive discourse around ending the exploitation of non-human animals and their bodies, yet human bodies are too often exploited by the animal rights community in unethical and problematic ways. These tactics reinforce sexism, glamorize sexual violence and revictimize survivors with triggering imagery or language. I want to explore these tactics in greater depth by giving examples of how they manifest in vegan activism and why they are antithetical to the aims of any justice movement.
Selling Sexism and Sexual Violence
Many animal rights activists talk about the link between feminism and ethical veganism as part of their outreach strategy. When exploring this link, it’s critical to consider that many animals are exploited specifically for their reproductive capabilities.
Considering feminists spend a lot of time and energy fighting for reproductive rights, learning about the experiences of dairy cows, for instance, can help them realize the gap between the values they hold for humans and those they have for animals. Dairy cows are impregnated against their will and forced to give birth. Their children are then taken away from them to be raised for veal, exploited as dairy cows like their mother, or simply killed and thrown away like garbage. Their breast milk is taken away from them while they are still mourning the loss of their baby, only to be forcibly impregnated yet again. Their entire value to the dairy industry is in their reproductive organs.
This cycle continues until their milk production slows, usually within five years, at which point they are slaughtered and their bodies are turned into low-grade meat to be sold as ground beef or made into dog and cat food. As a final, macabre insult, their bodies and likenesses are used to sell us on the idea that they are happy about this exploitation—like the “happy cow” we’ve seen plastered on our milk cartons, on our cheese packaging, and dancing around in TV commercials.
It’s a sick irony then that the animal rights community is so willing to exploit women’s bodies to sell people on the idea of giving up dairy. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), perhaps the most prolific and high-profile perpetrator, is infamous for using sex to sell veganism to the masses.
PETA’s ads and public actions center around women (young, white, thin, cis women) who are almost always naked and/or victimized in some way. Their bodies take the place of animals, supposedly to shock people into making the connection that what we do to non-human animals would be seen as criminal, barbaric, or downright evil if done to a human animal. However, because PETA buys into the idea that sex sells, these brutal images are also highly sexualized ones—essentially reinforcing and, I would argue, even encouraging the link between women’s bodies and sexual violence.
Print ads include women naked and cowering in shackles, women hung up on chains and dismembered, women with outlines on their body indicating different cuts of meat. In many of these ads, the women look scared but also aroused. Public actions include displaying naked, barcoded women wrapped in plastic and covered in blood on the sidewalk, and women laying on grills with grill marks painted onto their bodies, as if, in both cases, they are literal pieces of meat for our figurative consumption.
In one of their worst commercials, PETA shows a woman walking down the street in her underwear and a large overcoat, sporting a neck brace, carrying a bag full of vegetables. She’s shuffling her feet as she walks, clearly in pain. The voiceover informs us that this is Jessica, and she has BWVAKTBOOM: Boyfriend Went Vegan And Knocked The Bottom Out Of Me. Jessica gets back to her apartment where we find out that she’s been physically harmed by the rough sex she’s having with her newly vegan boyfriend, who has found endless stamina and can now “bring it like a tantric porn star.”
Beyond the fact that this reeks of toxic masculinity—equating men’s worth with how long they can have sex and how hard they can “bring it”—this also glorifies and excuses domestic abuse and sexual violence. The website PETA created for this ad campaign has a personal stories section where women are sporting bandages, broken hands, and helmets while they cheerfully talk about inner-thigh bruising and hip dysplasia.
The title card for these personal stories lists each woman as a “victim” of BWVAKTBOOM. However, it is clear that the true message is that these women enjoy being hurt and see their male partners as “real” men now that they can now fuck them into injury. PETA creates many ads and commercials that belittle impotence and equate erections to masculinity.
It is hard for me to write about this without devolving into pure rage. Besides the misuse of triggering imagery, which we’ll look at later, the use of battered women’s bodies to sell toxic masculinity to men in the name of saving animals is beyond gross. Even when shown an injured woman, we’re supposed to see her as a sexual object and a testament to her boyfriend’s sexual prowess—not a person deserving of compassion and consideration. She is simply there to sell our message, just like that happy cow is there to sell milk.
This “selling sex” culture pervades all animal rights spaces. Blogs, Facebook groups, Instagram accounts—it’s hard to find a corner of the internet where you won’t see support for using women’s looks and bodies to sell animal rights. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to about PETA who shrug their shoulders and say that if it gets people to go vegan, they’re all for it.
Though women make up about 80% of the vegan community, the mainstream movement is headed by white, straight, cis men. The message is clear: if you are a white cis man, your job is to lead. If you are an attractive (white) cis woman, your place is to use your body as a commodity to sell others on the ethics of a vegan diet. Anyone else should stay quiet and unseen, furthering the erasure of women of color, fat women, disabled women, and trans women.
It teaches us that, yet again, women need to be quiet and sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, because everyone and everything else is more important than us. Carol J. Adams pioneered this feminist theory in her groundbreaking book The Sexual Politics of Meat, in which she details how the meat and dairy industries use similar tactics of blending sex and animal consumption to sell their products.
How far can we come as a movement if we are using the exact same tactics as our adversaries? The PETA ad I referenced earlier, where Pamela Anderson has cuts of meat traced on her body? That exact same concept has been used by the meat industry in advertising for years. By blending sex with violence and making women objects for visual consumption, we are literally swapping out one exploited body for another.
The most painful part of being an advocate for animal rights is the general public’s inability, or unwillingness, to understand that animals are deserving of autonomy over their bodies. It’s hard, often impossible, to open someone’s eyes to the injustices we inflict on billions of animals every year simply for the pleasure of wearing, eating, watching, or touching them.
It’s a heavy burden to carry, not being able to get otherwise compassionate people to see past the brainwashing. It’s a challenge to see that the label “animal” is just a social construct created to excuse and even encourage violence and apathy. We feel the crushing weight of the endless animal lives lost in every moment.
Unfortunately, many animal rights activists try to shock people into caring by using triggering imagery or language to force a connections between violence that humans experience and violence that is done onto animals.
These “ethical vegans” use images of domestically abused women next to images of battered animals. They call the forced impregnation of cows and pigs “rape” and liken the sexual assault of women to the reproductive exploitation of animals. When called on the insensitivity of this, most vegans double-down, telling victims that they are wrong about their feelings and experiences, often citing that “animals have it worse.”
In the most abhorrent example of this, PETA ran a “Grab A Pussy!” campaign to promote cat adoption. This campaign was an inappropriately tongue-in-cheek capitalization of Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” remark in the leaked Access Hollywood off-air footage of him and Billy Bush from 2005.
The ad for the PETA campaign features a cat in front of an United States flag background and the tagline “Grab a Pussy! Adopt a cat from your local shelter!” making it clear that PETA puts the importance of cat adoption above the dangers of reinforcing rape culture and potentially triggering sexual assault survivors (and has said as much in a statement to Buzzfeed News).
These methods are unnecessary, potentially triggering, and alienating. This comparison turns away potential vegans, teaching them that the animal rights community is an unsafe, hostile space that is willing to exploit their pain but unwilling to listen to their feelings. Many marginalized people bristle at being compared to animals, as they have suffered this comparison their whole life. Forcing this connection upon them, upon anyone, is an offensive tactic that has no place in what should be an inclusive movement.
There are spaces in which it can be appropriate to explore these comparisons, and there are ways to do it that minimize the risk of triggering others. But when we use this imagery in a general, public way—particularly when we are not directly affected by the comparison—we often revictimize survivors without their consent, which is cruel and ultimately ineffective.
For a thoughtful expansion on this topic, I highly recommend Christopher Sebastian McJetter’s article, “The Language of Justice: 10 Words to Use in Vegan Advocacy (and a Few to Avoid).”
We Must Do Better
The animal rights movement needs an overhaul, and it has to start with genuine compassion for one another. Selling veganism at the expense of fellow human beings is as hypocritical as it is short-sighted. How can we ask others to stop commodifying animal bodies when we are so willing to commodify human bodies to make our point?
There are organizations out there doing this work in a way that doesn’t alienate anyone or reinforce existing systems of oppression. The Humane League, for instance, focuses their efforts on animal rights education to high school and college students, leafleting at public events, and corporate campaigns. They keep the focus strictly on the animals so their ads and public materials feature only facts about the conditions around the animals they are fighting on behalf of. They never exploit humans to sell their message. This strategy has not lessened their efficacy; in fact, they are ranked a “top charity” on Animal Charity Evaluators and have been for five years running—the only organization to earn this distinction.
A pro-intersectional approach to activism is gaining traction in the vegan community, and I have a lot of hope that it is only a matter of time before the tactics of using sexism, sexual violence, and triggering imagery and language become completely unacceptable to those who fight for animal rights. We will get nowhere as a movement if we do not make this space as welcoming and inclusive to as many people as possible.