Using Sex Work Politics to Preserve Animal Rights (and Vice Versa?)

Laurie and Debbie say:

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has never been one of our favorite organizations. Their campaigns have frequently been at best clueless and at worse offensive to a variety of groups.

Now, however, they have outdone themselves. If you click the link, you will find:

1) Pamela Anderson in a bikini made of lettuce (how fast do you think that will wilt?), promoting vegetarianism.

2) A series of videos using extremely conventional pornography-style visuals to promote the slogan “Vegetarians Make Better Lovers.” Be warned: The one with the “girl on girl action” is harmless, but the tofu-wrestling ladies in thongs (we kid you not) turns into an animal cruelty video with no warning.

3) A sop to the male gender (or to people who lust after the male gender) with the “Broccoli Boys.” The boy at the link is shirtless, hairless, and wearing a necklace of tofu dogs, but all you get when you click the link is three hunks in undershirts and boxers: the International Male underwear catalogue has better pictures.

4) More related material, selling the message “Vegetarians Make Better Lovers.”

What’s really going on, of course, is that PETA is using exploitive, predictable, and boring sexuality tropes to “sell their product,” which is the ethical treatment of animals. That’s what’s wrong with PETA: they don’t believe that people are animals, and they have no commitment whatsoever to the ethical treatment of people.

If this whole campaign wasn’t infuriating enough, Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy draws our attention to Gary Francone at Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, making a dangerously specious comparison between PETA campaigns and what he calls “postmodern feminism” (Twisty calls it “funfeminism”). We would call their arguments “straw feminism.”

Here’s Francone’s position: Postmodern feminists acknowledge that a woman’s choice to commodify herself sexually may represent an act of empowerment and cannot be assessed in any definitively negative way. These feminists are often pro-pornography, or are at least not anti-pornography. Radical feminists are more inclined to reject the commodification of women as inherently problematic. They are generally anti-pornography and are particularly opposed to pornography in which women are depicted as recipients of violent or abusive treatment. They regard most gender stereotypes as harmful to both women and men and seek to undermine these stereotypes. Postmodern feminists often argue that “feminine” stereotypes can help to empower women.

The claim that “postmodern feminists can always be counted on to serve as PETA’s cheering squad” is hereby disproved. Francone and Twisty would undoubtedly call us “funfeminists,” and we are hardly cheering for PETA. In fact, we say that the alliance here is between the PETA campaign and the Francone/Twisty attitude, because both groups are doing similar things.

Here’s how it works: 1) Eating meat is a biologically, ethically, and socially complex issue. Some pieces of it are simple: factory farming is indefensible, as is the rampant animal cruelty which characterizes our food supply. The rest of it is more complex, and rests on individual and personal moral decisions. Scantily-clad women necking with each other in public (and men watching lustfully) have nothing to do with the appropriateness of eating meat. 2) Sex work is a socially, economically, and ethically complex issue. Some pieces of it are simple: the commodification of women’s bodies, the exploitation of the powerless, and the characterization of sex as something women have and men want, are indefensible. The rest of it is more complex and rests on individual and personal moral decisions. At least Twisty and Gary Francone aren’t sending out lolcat sideshows to make their points about sex work (which would make about as much sense as what PETA is doing).

13 thoughts on “Using Sex Work Politics to Preserve Animal Rights (and Vice Versa?)

  1. Great post. PeTA’s exploitation and commodification of women is the primary reason why this vegetarian and animal rights activists refuses to support the organization. That, and its rampant fat-hatred. I don’t believe in promoting vegetarianism by treating women as a piece of meat, frankly, nor do I believe that vegetarianism ought to be promoted as a weight-loss diet.

  2. I think the latest round of PETA’s sexitarianism advertising has hit a new low (and I’m vegan myself). And, indeed, it is rife with fat hatred.
    To be fair, however, I believe it was a gym and not PETA that issued the ‘aliens’ billboards.

  3. See, I’m not vegetarian, but what’s wrong with thoughtful, reasonable discussion on the issue? I like eating meat, I believe we were designed with meat eating in mind (whether it was intelligent design or random design is an argument I’d like to avoid, please), but I’m willing to talk about it. PETA ads are turn offs. Every single one I’ve seen. None of the go anywhere near rational discussion. I’ll even accept the “you’ve been deluded and here’s why” mind set, because at least there’s some belief that a reasonable discussion is what is necessary to change things.

    Some times I really can’t tell if they are advocating that animals should be treated with the same respect we think people should get or that people are only worth the abuse and degradation visited on animals.

  4. I heard a lovely new word to describe militant veganism–“vegan-gelicals.”

    For the record Vidya’s right that it was 24-Hour Fitness that put up the offensive “we’ll eat the fat ones first” billboard in San Francisco–even aside from their “Fat Hatred R Us” attitude they are famous for signing people up and then making it extremely difficult to get out of the contract (I’ve heard complaints from victims of their flypaper contracts).

    On the pornography/feminism topic, I found a fat acceptance perspective when I was researching plus sized porn for my mystery, A Ton of Trouble. Aside from the often-sorely-needed cash, it seemed that for many fat women, making porn films was a way of shouting, “Yes! I am sexy and desirable.” Unfortunately, there was backlash for them, and I never did find any fat women who had done porn who would talk to me about their experience. If I hadn’t already known it, that would have made clear the potentially damaging backlash to claiming ones sexuality through commerce.

    At least one feminist I spoke to found that the idea of writing about the porn industry with any hint of positivity was quite offensive.

    I feel that same ironclad “No!” reaction when it comes to using sexual images to draw attention to animal suffering. I think the arrogance PETA demonstrates in doing that actually trivializes animal suffering even as it struggles to push our buttons. Counterproductive to my mind.

  5. Thanks Vidya and Lynne for catching the mistake. Sorry about that.

    It was 24-Hour Fitness that put up the “When the aliens come they’ll eat the fat ones first” billboard in San Francisco. Deb and I knew all about this – some of our friends were fabulous costumed fat alien protestors.

    My only explanation is that watching women wrestling in tofu briefly fudged our brains.


    That photo of the nearly nude pregnant woman in the cage is probably even worse than the ones we featured. If you can talk about what’s worse at these levels.


    Interesting comments on fat acceptance perspective and porn.

  6. I too do not share the sense of humor with which the Lettuce Ladies site lampoons cheesecake to get the PETA message across. Ironically, I imagine the ad agency that created this campaign is dancing with glee about the splash-back press. A lot of conversations will go like, “Awful ads!” “No kidding!” “But geez, how about that factory farming?”

    I’ll take exception to one thing you wrote: “That’s what’s wrong with PETA: they don’t believe that people are animals, and they have no commitment whatsoever to the ethical treatment of people.”

    I’m frankly shocked. Such a gross, nonsensical generalization seems really beneath your usual standards.

    Who are “they”? Do you mean PETA’s director, board of directors, public relations group, or the entire membership of the organization? PETA has a very large membership whom I believe most people refer to when they say ‘PETA.’ Those multitudes surely cannot share an identical point of view, especially not one so ill as the one you ascribe to “them.” More likely, as with any large membership organization, there are thousands of motives and philosophies and circumstances behind all those joins.

    I’ve never met anyone who believed in ‘animal rights’ who didn’t understand that humans are animals. It’s quite the other way around: it’s the realization that humans are animals that often leads to a desire to care for other species. It’s those who don’t understand that humans are animals who permit and perpetrate the torture of others, human or not. The psychology goes, it’s OK for me to dislike you or hate you or kill you or render your kind extinct if you’re not my phylum, order, genus, or species; not my race; not my people; not my nationality; not my extended family; not my immediate family; not like myself. Those who extend their love and empathy as far as other species, in my experience, do so from their own hearts outward. The animal rights activist who cares nothing for human suffering is a caricature worthy of Al Capp. Even those of us who despise the gamut of human predations are still not cold to the suffering of our own kind. I’m sure you can find some people who think that way, but you can find people who think any damn thing if you look for them. Extremists who internalize such contradictions live on the far rim of the vast circle of the rest of us.

    “No commitment whatsoever”? Have you perhaps concluded that members of this special interest group are antipathetic to the concerns of all other special interest groups? Do you have stats on the number of other do-gooder realms in which the average PETA member is active? Surely being a member of PETA does not so occupy all of a person’s time and energy and spirit that there’s nothing left for the victims of other forms of human violence, any more than devoting one’s energies to defending the rights of the fat excludes one from caring for any other victims around us.

    If you’ve come to these conclusions about all of the members of PETA (of whom, I should add for full disclosure, I am not one) based on the obnoxious Lettuce Ladies campaign, think again. When is it authentic to ascribe to the members of an organization the moral character of the organization’s hierarchical heads? Are all US citizens as venal, vicious, and greedy as those who design and implement U.S. foreign policy? “Animal rights activists” “Terrorists” “Americans” “Fat people” Fuck overly-simplistic labels for large groups of individuals; they’re poor replacements for thinking.

  7. Dear Paul,

    What we meant was PETA as represented by the attitudes in this campaign. The one that is represented not only by the images and videos on the “Lettuce Ladies” site but also by the almost nude pregnant woman in the cage that Drema comments on above, and I suspect much more that I am not familiar with. I think it’s safe to assume that the core decision making folks in PETA approved this and I’d hope that PETA supporters who are offended by this campaign would make their disapproval clear.

    I agree that most of us are active around far more than one issue and of course you’re right that generalizations about activists are frequently wrong . But activists who care deeply about people are very ill served by these images.

  8. PETA has some very strange priorities for an organization supposedly devoted to animal rights. For example they have taken positions against the managed feral cat colonies, even though the strategy of Trap-Neuter-Release of ferals has been demonstrated as the most effective way of controlling feral cats. PETA advocates killing unadoptable feral cats based on the fact that they are non-native species. There are many, many cruel and non-common sense positions advocated by PETA.

  9. I do know some animal rights activists who don’t care very much about human suffering, but those people generally fall into the category of “I’ve been so fucked over by humanity that i just can’t make myselfcare about human beings any more, whereas animals are innocent and hurt no one”. In the UK at least, there seem to be a very, very high percentage of survivors of rape, domestic violence and/or sexual exploitation (as well as, for example, people who grew up in “care” institutions or other really shitty situations) in the animal rights movement, who seem to identify themselves with the animals and the rest of humanity with their abusers. Those i know would almost certainly approve of the “naked pregnant woman in a cage” adverts, because they would see it as self-identification of a harsh reality.

    Also, kind of like with religious fundamentalists, i can see where a lot of them are coming from in that, “extreme” though their propaganda is, it is fully logically consistent with their ideology – for example, if you genuinely believe that the life of a cow or a chicken is worth just as much as that of a human, and they deserve the same rights, then comparisons with rape or the Holocaust are justifiable, just as, if you genuinely believe that a fetus is a human being and deserves full human rights from conception, then calling abortion “murder” is justifiable. It’s the underlying ideology that is wrong – the tactics are in perfect agreement with it.

    I’m not sure where i stand on animal rights – i don’t eat meat, but my reasons are to do with ecology and energy efficiency, rather than anything to do with animal welfare. If anything, it’s the ecological abomination that is animal agriculture, rather than the killing and eating of animals per se, that i’d like to see abolished – i don’t, for example, have any problem with hunting (non-endangered) wild animals for food.

    One thing i do respect PETA for (if nothing else) is that they are willing to openly state that, ultimately, they want no animals to be kept in captivity, either as pets or as farm animals, at all. Maybe it’s because i tend to see freedom as more important than the “right to life”, but i always think animal rights activists are hypocrites when they keep captive animals themselves as pets…


  11. Of course, it’s equally possible to be sex-positive (and sex-critical), as well as kink-positive, while still contending that the right to swing one’s fist stops at an animal’s nose. Law of the excluded middle… or perhaps “middling on one path, hard left on another”?

    I don’t view the eating of animals as a personal choice, because the animal itself exists outside of one’s choice. Nonhumans are more than adjuncts to what a human chooses to believe; why should they be subject to our “individual and personal moral decisions”, when they themselves are individuals and persons? It’s disingenuous to yoke animal rights and sex work/kinky sex together (I’m bagging on Francione here, mostly). Even if much of it is symbolically violent (and I agree this is problematic), please let’s not conflate our fantasy role-play of violence with the reality of it as inflicted on animals; this would be, in and of itself, highly speciesist.

  12. You are misinformed about the plight of animals in the factory farming industry, as well as in the fur industry, etc. Animal rights are the final frontier, after civil, women’s and gay rights. The need to treat animals as entities unto themselves and not as sheer property for killing –to make dollars– will prove divine justice exists. I am specifically talking about the abuses of warehousing crated animals and injecting them with hormones to be grown and killed in the shortest amount of time possible.

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