CW: Sexual violence, rape.
For as long as I can remember, and having begun in some undefined way, I have identified as a feminist. The notion of not being one simply never occurred to me – I believe in equality for all, and as self-identified women are in a position of being among the most oppressed on a global scale, “feminist” (rather than equalist or humanist) is a word I feel comfortable using to describe myself and my strongly held beliefs.
Contrastingly, I started to identify as vegan in a very sudden and passionate way, in response to information I’d been processing and research I’d been doing. Although I didn’t make the switch straight away, my mind was pretty much made up in an instant, and the strength of my beliefs regarding the environment and animal welfare has not faltered. But what about feminism and veganism? How, if at all, do these two ethical forces intersect?
Last week, in their latest bid to cause as much offence as possible, activist group Peta released a video which essentially likens the sexual abuse of women to the practice of artificially inseminating female animals in industrial farming. The video begins with some emotionally charged statements from survivors, and ends with them holding up images of female farm animals, along with the assertion that these animals have all been born as the result of rape.
Peta have a long history of unapologetically objectifying and dehumanising the female body to further their agenda, so the message and content of this video does not come as a surprise. Their approach – attempting to erase any level of speciesism or differentiation within the animal kingdom but also between animals and human beings – is one that is used to varying degrees by the animal rights movement; the same attitude often compares the industrial abuse of animals to the colonial slave trade.
One of my main reasons for being vegan is that I do not believe that humans* are superior to animals, nor that we have any right to use them for entertainment, convenience, food or hides, etc. This is quite a radical theory which, in the modern day and age, is pretty much impossible for me to live fully in practice, which I am OK with. I do my best and feel that is all any of us can do, depending on our particular lived experiences. But how, then, given this belief, can I be so disgusted by Peta’s campaign? How can I continue to fiercely separate the oppression and abuse of women from the mistreatment of female animals? Is this not just another hurdle of cognitive dissonance I am yet to overcome?
*When I say “humans,” I am speaking primarily of humans living in areas of the world or in conditions where a certain level of geographical, practical and economic privilege is afforded, enabling them to adopt a vegan lifestyle.
In the realm of industrial farming, female cows are routinely inseminated to bare calves and produce milk far more often than they naturally would. The calves are taken from them almost immediately for use in the meat industry, and their milk is then used for human consumption. Egg-laying hens’ bodies are wreaked havoc upon as they are forced to produce unnatural quantities of eggs in terrible conditions. My emotional response to these issues, and my belief that we don’t reserve the right to use animals in this way, led me to adopt a vegan diet.
But as much as I believe female animals deserve to be treated with compassion and respect, as much as I am against the industrial abuse they suffer, I can’t not set them apart, and the injustices they suffer, from women. As much as I don’t believe humans are superior to animals, I know that they are different from us, and the structures that abuse them do not behave in the same way as the structures that abuse women. Failing to acknowledge this difference – indeed, aggressively denouncing it, as Peta advocates doing – is, in my opinion, a very damaging way to think, which is helpful neither to female animals nor to self-identified human women.
Anthropomorphising animals to the degree that Peta calls us to is to suggest that they are subject to the same stigma as human survivors of sexual assault. It is to suggest that, when an animal is artificially inseminated, they must deal with the exact same consequences as human rape survivors must deal with. It is to suggest that the practice of forcibly impregnating female animals is wrought with the same connotations of power and entitlement that are inherent in the sexual mistreatment of women. It is to suggest that there is no morally acceptable way to care about human survivors of sexual violence without also caring about cruelty towards female animals. It is to suggest that you can’t be a feminist if you are not vegan, which is to ignore the many reasons why not everyone is able to be vegan. For these reasons, I find Peta’s approach pretty damn reprehensible.
Not only that – it is simply not a helpful solution for animals, which is what they are ultimately trying to achieve. Their blatant dehumanisation of survivors of sexual assault is extremely inflammatory, triggering and offensive, which pushes omnivores further away from the vegan cause. A vegan who likens the rape of a woman to the artificial insemination of a cow is just going to piss people off, and Peta have done that time and time again on a much larger scale. They just don’t seem to get that we are capable of deploring the mistreatment of animals without having to see it from a human perspective; that we can empathise with a species other than our own, while maintaining the belief that we are different to them. Hell, we can even assert that humans are superior to animals without eating them.
While I’ve never really seen animal agriculture as within the remit of the feminist cause, I can see why some people do. For me, the mistreatment of female animals simply falls under the general cruelty of the farming industry; it is true that female animals are at a greater disadvantage within animal agriculture, but the specifics of their position are completely different to the issues that women face under the patriarchy. The intersections of class, race, gender identity and sexual orientation do not apply to female animals as they do to human women. As I mentioned, the particular rules of power, entitlement and societal mistreatment that women are subjected to under the patriarchy do not befall female animals. There is, on the grand scale, little room for comparison, and any attempt at it is largely reductive.
I’ll leave you with a link to this excellent video by Celia Edell, which goes into more of the arguments for and against feminism requiring a vegan lifestyle.
Have any thoughts on this topic? Let me know in the comments!