The Reality of Sex Trafficking in the U.S. and Women-Positive Alternatives to LUSH Cosmetics

Thistle Farm Vegan

PBS is currently streaming an amazing documentary on sex trafficking in the United States called, A Path Appears. The statistics are sobering. While most Americans believe prostitution to be a “choice” and a “victimless crime,” the truth is that these women (primarily poor women and women of color) are surviving severe emotional trauma and child abuse (usually sexual). Prostitution is the revictimization of the most vulnerable. As with the consumption of Nonhuman Animal suffering (“meat,” dairy, rodeos, zoos, “pets,” etc.), it is simply easier to view this relationship of dominance and destruction as a mutually beneficial one built on consent. But that is far from the case. Prostitution is for all intents and purposes sex trafficking.

In my vegan feminist work, I am frequently critical of how women’s bodies are also degraded within the Nonhuman Animal rights movement to sell organizations, to sell veganism, or to sell vegan products. Women’s bodies are bought and sold for someone else’s gain, but we too often take the “live and let live” path and presume that women are engaging in these behaviors purely out of “choice” and that it’s “victimless” or just “harmless antics.”  The degradation of women’s bodies should be our business and we should not look away because this is not simply a matter of personal choice. Powerful gender roles and a culture of sexism provide specific opportunities for women, and these opportunities are unevenly distributed. The research is so desperately clear that the sexual objectification and degradation of women’s bodies is linked to actual, physical harm to women as a group, but vulnerable women in particular. White women of means may have the privilege of some degree of agency when getting naked to pass out Tofutti deserts for PETA or flyers for LUSH, but real women in our communities are being hurt by the ideology of misogyny that is upheld by the notion that women’s bodies are commodities.

Two LUSH employees wearing aprons that read, "Ask me why I'm naked." They are both white and young, appear to have no shirt on underneath their apron

Readers are often flabbergasted to learn that LUSH engages the sexual objectification of women, and, while many stubbornly defend the company, others ask what other alternatives might be available. The truth is that LUSH is not even a vegan company. Many 100% vegan companies exist that produce body products in a way that respects women and other animals alike. Of course, we do not always have access to 100% vegan companies and some of us like to support the vegan options made available by vegan-friendly companies to encourage the growth of veganism. I was actually quite thrilled to learn that the non-profit featured on A Path Appears that saves and supports women and girls who have survived the sex trade also employs these women and funds the non-profit’s services with an animal-friendly bath and body business. They report on their website that almost everything they produce is vegan (except for some products that contain beeswax and lanolin and are products of violence) and no products are tested on Nonhuman Animals.

Veganism should not end with compassion and justice for Nonhuman Animals alone. If women or any other vulnerable group is being hurt by your consumption, it should also be questioned. I highly recommend this documentary and I hope that you will (after suitably preparing yourself for this potentially triggering material) watch, learn, and expand your activist imagination.  The next time you consider purchasing from LUSH, reconsider. Take a peek at Thistle Farms instead. We must understand oppression in terms of intersectionality, because all of these issues are entangled.

Film expires February 17, 2015. Streaming free online through PBS to American viewers. For viewers outside the U.S., try Hola, a free browser add-on.

By Corey Lee Wrenn, M.S.

Vegan Moon – Food, Control and Masculinity

By Stevie LynneBook cover: White heterosexual in the nude embracing.

I read Vegan Moon so you don’t have to.

Trigger Warning: Abuse, racism, and sexual assault.

Not Safe for Work: Contains graphic descriptions of non-consensual sexual encounters.

Note: If you’ve come to this post expecting romance fiction bashing, you’ve come to the wrong place. Romance fiction is important. Yup, that’s right: romance fiction is important. In arts and academic circles it’s a struggle to get this popular genre to be seen as anything other than some kind of fleeting triviality. Probably because it’s a genre dominated by women and prioritises women’s pleasure (both physical and emotional) and as we know, those things are “trivial”. This is not a space to dismiss the romance genre.

I was curious to pick up the novella Vegan Moon as it has a vegan werewolf as the hero. But it didn’t take me long to realise that this wasn’t the fun, sizzling, romantic romp I’d been promised…

Vegan Moon is a cis-het paranormal romance novella by American author Kerri Nelson. The central themes are masculinity, flesh-consumption, control and animality. The story follows the perspectives of Santiago Salazar, a Venezuelan dog trainer and werewolf, and professional chef Gabrielle (Gabbi) Connor as they experience instant steamy attraction to one another. Santiago’s plant based diet (there is no mention of veganism as an ethical system) is a source of conflict for the characters, along with the fact that Santiago is a werewolf.

The Hero and Heroine

Santiago is a werewolf who is struggling to control his urges for killing humans and part of his mechanism for control is his vegetarianism/veganism. Other examples of this trope are Munroe from Grimm as well as plenty of vegetarian vampires.

Santiago is described as a “a tall, dark mystery man… with pure lust in his eyes,” and as “[t]he tall, dark creature”.

The heroine of the story is Gabbi. She is described as “petite” and “blonde”, and although it is unsaid, she is probably white. She has a successful career as a celebrity chef, but finds her personal life a little lacking.

I won’t pretend to be an expert in race, but I think it is worth pointing out that constructing Santiago as “dark” and Venezuelan and as part animal in addition to making Gabbi as a pretty, petite, white woman, who spends a good chunk of the narrative afraid of Santiago, is problematic.

Veganism and Self Control

The novella’s thesis is outlined in chapter one. The hero, Santiago, as a werewolf has killed and eaten humans in the past. However, ten years ago, Santiago killed a drug dealer whom he says “deserved” it. But Santiago had a bad experience:

[ . . . ] the man’s blood was so full of chemicals that it had made Santiago sick for days. After that, he’d decided to turn over a new leaf…He’d become a practicing vegan with a new lease on life… Of course, since wolves were carnivores by nature, Santiago still had cravings that required serious impulse control management.

We learn a number of things about the premise:

  1. Santiago’s choice to go vegan has nothing to do with non human animals or systemic injustice
  2. Santiago’s choice is based on personal cleanliness
  3. It is against Santiago’s nature to not eat meat, therefore abstaining from it is a difficult exercise, showing him to be a strong-willed character.

The author has a foreword in which she explains her own desire and failure to go vegetarian (in the text, she uses vegetarian and vegan interchangeably):

I’ve always believed that I could be a vegetarian as I’m addicted to the crisp, delicious selection of produce that calls to me at the grocery story [sic]. However, there’s apart [sic] of me that still craves the juicy taste of a well-prepared hamburger… I’ll never truly be a vegetarian despite my best efforts.

Nelson then goes onto say that she wrote this novella while she was pregnant and explains how much food cravings, especially for the flesh of non human animals, took away her control when it came to food choices. (Now, I don’t know what the food availability options are where Nelson lives, I can only go from what she says in the foreword. It may be the case that she lives in an area where a wide variety of plant based foods are not available all the time.)

Nelson has provided us with a tool to help readers construct one possible reading of her novella: Santiago can be read, in part, as an exploration of Nelson’s own desires and struggles to go vegetarian. What both author and character have in common is that non human animals are missing from their reasons. Nelson in her foreword constructs vegetarianism as an addiction to produce and the ability to conquer cravings. For her character Santiago, it’s all about overcoming and controlling his craving for human flesh.

It’s worth noting that the hero’s perspective in cis-het romance novels is never just a masculine perspective. There is a complicated interplay between author, cis-het hero, and reader. Not to mention how socially indoctrinated ideas about masculinity, identity and action inform the construction of the hero in cis-het romances.

Food and Arousal

After the our two main characters hit it off on a coffee date, Gabbi offers to cook Santiago dinner to show off her super fancy professional chef skills. She decides to make… pasta primavera (Note to any pro chefs looking to impress a vegan: that better be one heck of a pasta primavera).

Gabbi’s cooking puts Santiago close to losing control of his “animal libido” and the sensations he feels remind him of “hunting” and “feasting on meat”:

… all the scents of herbs and spices wafting around them, he could barely keep his animal libido in check.

He’d never known cooking and eating a meal could be this sexually stimulating. Well, he’d felt similar surges when hunting his prey and feasting on meat back in the day.

Food, killing and sexual arousal are all melded into one here, already we can predict the not-so-nice pathway that we’re headed down.

Werewolf and woman

Consent, and Manipulation

Before we talk about the “sex” scene, there’s a bit of information revealed later in the story that is, I think, required to frame the “sex” scene. Santiago says:

Now that we’ve mated, you’ll continue to be drawn to me. You’ll slowly start to lose your mind if you don’t give in to the call. I’m sorry that this happened this way, but I’d like to help you. If you’ll let me.

In theory, Santiago knows prior to “mating” (here meaning a sexual act – presumably penis in vagina because of the way our culture prioritises this type of sex act as being “legitimate”) with Gabbi, that it will cause her harm: she will “lose her mind” if she doesn’t stay with him. In addition, if Gabbi were to find out that Santiago was a werewolf:

Their species code required that they either kill or mate [stay with for life] with any human who discovered their existence.

Essentially after “mating” Gabbi’s only option would be to stay with Santiago. If she finds out he’s a werewolf, her only options are to stay with him for life (made contextually obvious later), or the werewolves will kill her. This prior knowledge of Santiago’s makes all his actions suspicious. If he knows pursuing a romantic relationship with her might lead to “mating”, which will then forcibly make her stay with him (which he doesn’t tell her up front), that’s downright manipulative. Communicating any possible bad outcomes for your potential sex partner to them is something that you should do, full stop.

On one level Santiago’s inability to resist Gabbi, even knowing the harm it will cause her, both actual and potential, is also tied to the theme that animal flesh is irresistible (as seen in the foreword by the author). Neither Nelson nor Santiago seem aware/care about the harm their choices create and frame those choices in terms that remove their agency such as “addiction” and “craving”.

This knowledge, that we only learn after the “sex” scene, makes the violence and abuse in the “sex” scene even more shocking. At one point, Santiago shoves Gabbi. Gabbi protests to being shoved, but  he ignores her protests and continues without her consent: “his hand continued to stroke up the inside of her thigh…”

After he makes her orgasm through manual stimulation, he also does not seek any kind of consent before penetrating her, let alone put a condom on:

She felt dazed and confused in the aftermath of her passionate storm. She felt the cool night air on her ass as her panties were thrust downward, and then she gasped at the feel of his hard cock shoving into her from behind… He was almost too rough in his possession of her tender, swollen pussy, but she was so lost in the moment that she just submitted to the frenzy. As he drove inside her, she heard the wet sound of their carnal connection… She closed her eyes and tried to imagine what they must look like as they mated like animals.

A comparison of who is doing what in this scene shows that Santiago is described with physical actions: he removes her underwear, he penetrates her, he “possesses” her pussy, and he drives inside her. Gabbi is described in a primarily passive ways: she is dazed, confused, feels, gasps, submits, hears and closes her eyes.

Note: I know this is not really sex, it’s assault. Also I know condoms and other safe practices aren’t “trendy” in romance novels, but it still pisses me off when I see it, because c’mon writers, you’re a creative bunch; make safe sex sexy.

Craving and Abuse

As if to emphasise the twin themes of craving and abuse, afterwards Gabbi observes Santiago’s personality change:

She shivered at the now delicate touch. It was in such complete contrast to the rough way that they’d just had sex. This man was an absolute mystery.

The “craving” for flesh has been satisfied. As it often is with domestic abuse: “The abuser’s ‘good side’ can give victims reason to think their partner is capable of being nurturing, kind, and nonviolent.”

After what the author calls “sex”, what can go wrong, does go wrong: Gabbi sees Santiago transform into a wolf. It of course totally freaks her out. As we already know, this means one of two things for Gabbi; either become his mate – i.e. stay with him for life – or the werewolves will kill her. She, however, doesn’t know these are her only options denies his phone calls and refuses to see him, even briefly thinking that he may have drugged her. She holes herself up away from him and spends time in hiding.

The werewolf council (there’s always a bloody council!) find out that Gabbi has seen Santiago transform into a werewolf, therefore steps must be taken to either make her be Santiago’s mate for life or kill her. Santiago seems remorseful about this fact:

He ached for the pain that he’d caused Gabbi, and he didn’t know how he’d go on living day to day as if he’d never met her… never touched her… never possessed her body and made her his own.

But Santiago’s remorse has virtually nothing to do with Gabbi, but himself. This is especially true of the phrase “possessed her body and made her his own”. This verbally echoes Gabbi’s observation that he “possessed” her pussy. She is not an agent, she is a thing to be possessed.

The werewolf council send Santiago’s friend, Tenny, to assess Gabbi’s suitability as a “mate” for Santiago. During this time, Tenny manages to convince Gabbi that she should stop being scared of Santiago and become his mate. We never see how or why she changes her mind. This is highly suspicious and once again shows that Gabbi’s agency is not important.

At the end of the novella Gabbi’s only reservation about everything that has happened is: 

We’ve got to talk about this vegetarian thing.

Nelson’s construction of Santiago as a foil for her own relationship with animal flesh foods manifests as an abusive man who disregards Gabbi as an agent in her own right. Even Nelson’s construction of Gabbi is mostly passive to Santiago’s physical onslaught. The world building choices that Nelson has created makes Santiago into an abusive figure – he knows prior to any kind of sexual activity that Gabbi has to stay with him or else she will “go mad”. It’s difficult to excuse his behaviour in light of this. Thinly, the author suggests that Gabbi is probably his “soul mate”, but this is grossly inadequate.

There are a few things I think are worth highlighting in light of this novella: firstly, that even men who identify as “vegan” can be abusers; secondly, that the author constructs a world and characters where manipulation and abuse are considered okay in the pursuit of desire; and finally that the author believes abstaining from animal products is an act of immense control tying into how the abuse in the novel is symptomatic of the author’s view that cravings for animals’ flesh can’t be helped.

It was disappointing to see abuse and assault in this novella presented as sexy and desirable. It was also disappointing to see veganism misconstrued. It would have been nice for this to be a fun, romantic romp with a non abusive vegan hero, but alas, Vegan Moon did not deliver on that front.

On Swedish Veganism and Goodness: Intersections of Species, Gender, Race, & Nationality

By Anna Nygren

Oat Drink

I think about: Buying things, buying food, buying bodies, buying inclusivity and exclusivity and subjectivity.

In Sweden, in the fall of 2014: The company Oatly sells its oat based products with slogans such as “It’s like milk only made for humans” and “Wow, no cow!” which made LRF Mjölk (the national organization for diary producers) angry and they sued Oatly. In the end, I think Oatly won (I’m not very good at understanding trials and commercial law, but I read that the process raised the sales figures). OK, milk producers being upset about what should count as Real Milk is not really a new thing, but still, I think this thing with Oatly and LRF make visible something about the relation between drinking milk and being human…and being Swedish.

Dairy Farm

The dairy industry quite often sells their products using arguments like, “From Swedish farms.” They also work hard to produce a history of milk-drinking Swedish people, and a Swedish self-image that includes drinking milk from cows. It has worked so well so that “Landet Mellanmjölk” has become almost a synonym to Sweden, referring to a Swedish people as being moderate (“mellanmjölk” means pasteurized cow milk with 1.5 % fat).

mellanmjölk

Making milk-drinking a criteria for Swedishness not only make violence part of the Swedish history, but also creates a limit for who can be a “real” Swede. It is a definition that excludes everyone who doesn’t want to be part of the milk industry, and it also, very physically, excludes those bodies (for example many Asian-Swedish bodies) that are hurt by lactose and so on. So, LRF’s reaction to Oatly’s campaign also reflects the threat felt by an Astrid-Lindgren-blonde-healthy-good-racist Swedishness to the national self definition.

I hope my references concerning Swedishness are not too internal. I recognize the history of racism and racial biology in Sweden. I think about the “folkhem” (welfare state, literally translated as “the people’s home”), “folkhälsa”/public health, and the violence and exclusions in these concepts. I recognize how Lindgren’s books have been used to define real Swedishness and a romantic nationalism, something light and bright and fresh and white.

Image of Pippi Longstocking, white, red-haired girl with long braided hair smiling in the snow

Pippi Longstocking is perhaps one of author Astrid Lindgren’s most famous characters

I think I love Oatly for challenging this, for saying, “Hey, your products hurt, and that’s not a necessary.” Still, I have a problem with a lot of Oatly’s rhetoric. Because they, in many cases, use the same arguments for selling their products as the milk producers do. Take, for example, the Swedishness aspect. They not only write, “Wow, no cow!” on their products, but also: “No artificial badness,” “Swedish independent,” and “Packed with Swedish goodness.”

Firstly, in the end of 2014, Oatly launched Oatly Apparel featuring t-shirts with their slogans written on them. The photos of the t-shirts on their Facebook page show only white models. People have reacted to this, and Oatly writes that the models are their friends who did the shooting for free, and that they gladly show cool people of other ethnicity, gender and sexuality in other spaces such as Instagram. Looking at their Instagram, I can see that they might be sort of right, but mostly I see only the packages of the products. I think the whiteness of the models are also problematic and connected to “Swedishness.” Seeing a blonde girl dressed in blue jeans, jogging shoes, and a pink t-shirt saying “Packed with Swedish goodness” doesn’t really broaden the definition of Swedishness.

Several images of models wearing Oatly t-shirts. All are in their early 20s, male and female, and white.

Using Sweden in their rhetoric might be a sort of counter-strategy. For example, it is working against the milk industry, connecting the Swedishness, not with Mellanmjölk, but with oat. And for a buyer in Sweden, the ecological aspect of using Swedish (i.e. local) oat might be of importance.

However, consider also the name. I can only think of American Apparel (and I most often don’t want to think of American Apparel), and well, Apparel might have other connections than American Apparel, but it’s not very often used in Sweden, and I think the choice to use the word might come from a similar strategy as the Swedish-thing. It is a way of using words in a different way: I can think of sexist American Apparel pictures and all the debate about them, I can see non-pornographic pictures with the same word connected to them, and I can think, wow, words can have different meanings, or something like that.

But, I still think the Swedishness aspect is problematic because of the whiteness and because of the “goodness.” Lately, the “goodness” (the superiority, the equality and being-best) of the Sweden (or the [self] picture of Sweden, or of Swedish history) has been questioned in different ways. Recall that Sweden was the first country to have a national racial biological institute. Observe that “neutral” can never be neutral because neutrality can never exist. Remember that Sweden has also enacted war and colonization. Researchers like Tobias Hübinette discuss Swedish whiteness as a discourse of Sweden as the whitest country, with the Swedish whiteness as the purest. This discourse creates violence on a lot of bodies. This Swedish whiteness is what I think about when I see Oatly’s t-shirts. It is a violent whiteness and it hurts. It reproduces a picture of a white Swedishness and Swedish whiteness.

On their website, under the heading, “Swedish independent” Oatly writes:

We know how it sounds. Tall, blond, beautiful, hard to get, extremely liberal with no sense of attachment or responsibility whatsoever. Sorry to disappoint you, that’s just not us. We are the other Swede – somewhat boring, super practical, painfully honest, notoriously hardworking and independent not because we don’t want to be social but merely because we want to have the right to say what we think and do what we think is right. 

It’s like, they make fun of the Swedishness, but they hardly challenge the whiteness. They also keep the discussion somewhat middle class-bound (that can be discussed), within a hipster-ish circle, and in line with a discourse of superiority. And then consider the use of the language, the consciousness, the negations. I mean, I think you might only want to abnegate your Swedishness if you’re not really risking losing it, and it might be impossible to distance yourself from it if you’ve never really been included.

So, I think that using Swedishness in any way is problematic. Maybe especially at the moment, when the elections in 2014 gave at hand that the third largest party in Sweden is a racist, nationalistic and fascistic one. I mean, I don’t think that nationalism in any case can save the world, or do much good, because nationalism per se is based on excluding (but still, some sort of “nationalism” might be temporally needed to fight colonialism and so on, though, Sweden doesn’t really need that kind of temporally nationalism).

Secondly, the use of goodness is, I think, another problem. For me, goodness is closely connected to Christian ecclestical discourse, and in the name of that goodness a lot of violent actions have taken place, like missionary colonialism and burning women for being witches. I think: The most violent and cruel actions are often made for goodness sake. And I think: in order for the good to exist, there must be a bad, and for some people to be good, some must be called bad, this creates a dichotomy that will always hurt the Other.

Goodness is also related to the individualistic view of the world. The goodness is tied to the individual person, who, by eating and drinking and buying Oatly’s products will do a good action and become a good person. And the problem is: Not hurting other is something that can never be done for your own ego, because then it is easily the case that what will gain this ego is instead something that will hurt other.

On the webpage for a post-humanist seminar in Lund, Sweden (that I wasn’t able to attend and for which I am crying my eyes out!), I read about the research of Claire Molloy (of the UK). I want to cite it because I can’t write it better!

She also problematized the (at least in the anglo-world) ongoing mainstreaming of (celebrity) veganism, arguing that when veganism becomes another private consumer choice, a hobby to find easy pleasure and fulfillment in, it easily gets detatched from its ethical dimension and radical driving force. The risk is that  the long term goal of abolishing the use of animals in food industry disolves and disappears under the horizon. 

I think this can be connected to the goodness concept. There are a lot of “good” celebrities, and it seems to me that it is quite easy for them to be “good” because they have the money, the power, and the opportunity. Not everyone has this privilege. This is another reason why goodness is a problem.

So, I think about Oatly, about being good, about buying things and selling things and living in a nation and who could be a part of this nation. I think that the problem is probably the market and the commerce and the capitalism, and the language and discourse existing within these, and building these. I think about violence and veganism and goodness. And the problems of how things get connected. And then, I think, I still like Oatly’s product (maybe except for the t-shirts).

Oatly Vegan

Rape Analogy as Fast Food Advocacy

TRIGGER WARNING: This essay contains a frank discussion of rape analogy in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, including images that depict violence against women. There are also discussions of other forms of human suffering (like pedophilia and racism) that may be painful for some readers.

Fast Food Advocacy

In this essay, I want to quickly address some common responses to Vegan Feminist Network’s position on misogynistic imagery as a tactic in Nonhuman Animal rights. I believe much of the response reflects a commitment to sexism, but some also reflects a general ignorance to the impact that patriarchal ideology and a social environment of misogyny has on the activist imagination. The response also reflects a need to deflect discomfort, because these are tactics that have come to dominate our social movement space, and many have taken them for granted as acceptable and useful. Being made aware of participation in violence triggers cognitive dissonance, and it is a natural response to debate, deride, or deflect in order to protect a positive self-concept.

One of the most common responses we receive is an appeal to alternatives (the implication being that alternatives are either too difficult to imagine or simply do not exist). Activists may be sincere in their inquiries for alternatives to misogynistic tactics, but I believe this response is often engaged to derail the discussion. All activists know that there are certain lines that should not be crossed because they will be so offensive that they will hurt others and repel participants.1 We don’t want to cause hurt and we want to grow our movement, so analogies that go too far are inappropriate.

Man artificially inseminating a cow

Just today, this image was shared by A Well Fed World and Free From Harm. While no women are pictured, the analogy is implicit. Research into morally shocking imagery suggests that this approach can easily repel audiences. We can imagine how this response would be magnified by female audiences that are triggered by images of sexual assault and rape.

More and more activists in the movement recognize that slavery and Holocaust analogies are problematic. True, there are still some white-identified/non-Jewish persons clinging onto these analogies, but there are other analogies that I daresay no one would get behind. For instance, I think it is fair to say that everyone agrees that pedophilia analogies would go too far. A common analogy between women and other animals involves the violence of dairy production. Women are often depicted as being assaulted, beaten, and raped to make a point about what happens to cows. When women are targeted, there seems to be little objection. However, if activists were to produce and promote memes of children being sexually assaulted to raise awareness to dairy cows being violated, most would have to agree that this approach would be so triggering and hurtful, that it would be an act of violence and would put the movement in a bad light. Indeed, because the cows in the dairy industry are still babies and children themselves when they are hoisted onto the industry-termed “rape rack,” wouldn’t pedophilia analogies be more accurate than those that draw on violence against adult women?

But it isn’t about accuracy. It’s about swapping out one degraded and worthless body for another. As one reader pointed out, PETA’s foie gras campaign that positions women as the duck victim in advertisements and demonstrations across the world is illogical because ducks used in the industry are male. That doesn’t stop PETA from “telling it like it is.”

Woman at a dining table being forcefed by a man with a tube, she looks frightened Woman bound by rope face down on a dining table covered in her blood and vomit in an anti-foie gras demo PETA Founder Force-Fed Outside Fortnum&Manson Man standing over woman on her knees being choked by a feeding tube in an anti-foie gras demo Woman force fed with feeding tube, her mouth is stretched and bleeding Man standing over bound and kneeling woman, he is pushing her head down and forcefeeding her with a feeding tube, she looks scared

Indeed, a common response to misogynistic analogies is that “this is accurate; this is how it really is.” Vegan Feminist Network isn’t arguing against that, but we must be cognizant of media as a social construction. Media creators choose what story they want to tell and they seek to manipulate how audiences will interpret them. We live in a rape culture where violence against women is commonplace. The movement draws on this social reality to trigger a specific response. Patriarchal ideology may make many unconscious to this language they are using, but activists are not ignorant. No one (I hope) uses images of lynching or violence in nursing homes or mental institutions. No one uses images of humans with deadly diseases like cancer, AIDS, or ebola. All of these human experiences with violence and suffering could easily be enacted to make analogies about Nonhuman Animal exploitation. Fortunately, activists know better than to use them, because it is understood that they will be offensive and painful to the vulnerable groups whose experiences are appropriated. Except for women. The movement produces thousands of images and reenactments of women bloodied, bruised, assaulted, raped, dying and dead. Because women don’t count.

Women are still at the bottom of the ladder. Violence against women is so commonplace, it is rarely even questioned as a painful subject in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. This is to be expected. In all social movements, women have been ignored, exploited, and left behind.2 The anti-slavery movement would not let women participate and intentionally excluded gender from campaigns to make legislative language more inclusive. The Civil Rights movement kept women in organizational roles and pushed men into the leadership positions.  The gay rights movement seriously underserved lesbians. The free-thinking/atheist movement soundly denies the need to recognize feminist issues. In all efforts to advance social justice, women have been made to take a back seat, never considered fully equal or worthy of rights. The feminist movement has been seeking to challenge this ideology since women were first ousted from anti-slavery efforts in the 1800s, but female activists continue to be framed as loudmouthed, unattractive, mentally unstable, feminazis. Just last month, Time Magazine listed the word “feminist” on their reader poll of words that should be banned. We’ve come a long way baby…but not nearly far enough.

Sexism is so normalized in our society that it has become invisible. You cannot turn on the television without being exposed to sexist remarks, jokes at women’s expense, sexual harassment, sexual objectification, and violent assault and rape of women. We are all exposed to a nonstop onslaught of sexist imagery in our society. It becomes as natural as the air we breathe. The bodies of women have always been sites of violence and domination, to the point where it becomes mundane and expected. So, when Vegan Feminist Network takes a stand against the encroachment of this violent imagery in Nonhuman Animal rights spaces, readers are understandably taken aback. They’ve never been made to think critically about the gender-based violence they have taken for granted as acceptable and normal for all of their lives.

Readers often respond with disbelief or with weak justifications, demanding a soundbite explanation as to why this behavior is problematic in two Facebook comments or less. The information is out there (as just one example, the Vegan Feminist Network website is chock full of free information), but few really want to learn more, because I suspect that few really care. This is the way it has always been done, women are easy targets, and women’s pain doesn’t matter (or matters less).

Kim Socha refers to these kinds of trans-species tactics as “fast food activism.” There is no concern with investigating why these analogies might be problematic, that is, why they may not work as a scientific matter, how the state of sexism is in our society influences interpretation, or how they impact women. Just like McDonalds, these analogies pull on the readily available language of violence against women and pump out advocacy cheaply and quickly irrespective of the hurt it causes to vulnerable groups and the damage done to society.

Woman hugging cow

Violence-free activism that brings attention to Nonhuman Animal exploitation and the intersectionality of oppression is not difficult to achieve.

There are tons of ways we can help other animals without resorting to this tokenizing approach. I’ve published hundreds of essays on this website and on my personal blog, The Academic Abolitionist Vegan, most of which are grounded in my research in social movement theory and social psychology, and all of which are freely available. There are also hundreds of books on effective social change available. There’s no excuse for allowing patriarchal norms and PETA’s influence to dictate our activism. We don’t need to hurt women to help animals. We do it because it is easy and because women don’t matter, and that is a problem.

 
Notes

1. There are a few exceptions, including Israeli group 269Life which, in addition to “reenacting” sexual assault and violence against women in public, also uses shackles, chains, and branding on humans in street demonstrations. PETA, too, has utilized graphic analogies of African slavery and the Holocaust.

2. This is not to say that women were not leaders and important players (in all movements there are important exceptions), but only to emphasize that movements act as microcosmic social systems and too often exclude women and ignore their interests.

Dr. Harper’s New Book, “Scars,” Brings Intersectional Theory to Life

I recently had the pleasure of reading Dr. Breeze Harper’s new fiction publication, Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England and feel confident recommending the book for newcomers to intersectional theory, undergraduate students studying feminism, critical race, and other social justice issues, and seasoned advocates and scholars who might enjoy a fictional break that speaks to their interests. A trigger warning is in order because, as the title warns, Scars deals with many uncomfortable topics and visceral experiences, including racism, domestic violence, child molestation, and rape.

Although the concepts that shape the book are acute, Scars is an engaging read that both entertains and educates. The main character, Savannah (Savi), is a young college student that we can all look up to. As a poor white girl from Appalachia, I sat mostly silent in the classroom, absorbing what I was taught without question.  So, for me, Savi instantly becomes a hero of critical thinking as she challenges the white male normativity of the privileged world around her. She courageously speaks out against post-racial ideologies and the micro-aggressions of her more privileged peers, even when her friends and classmates resist. Savi is a little radical, and I love it.

Harper

Dr. Breeze Harper

But Savi isn’t a perfect superhero. She is certainly human, facing many structural barriers due to her race, class, and sexual orientation. Brave in some situations, she is scared and vulnerable in others. Her experience with racial slurs as a small child is heartbreaking. Her terrifying experience with a sexually aggressive customer alone in the gas station where she works brings chills. Her debilitating concern for her mother’s health and the constant burden of bills and cold temperatures reminds readers of the stark realities of difference in America.

There is also something to be said of the tension Savi faces in experiencing oppression. At times she is scrappy and outspoken, tackling challenges head on. Oftentimes, however, confrontation is pushed onto her and she feels quite helpless. We see this when she is engaged by her white male classmate who seeks Savi’s counsel in understanding his privilege, but we also see it with her struggle to come to grips with her lesbianism and the pressure to “come out” before she feels ready. Rarely does she feel comfortable admitting weakness and accepting help.

The book’s primary strength relies in its ability to carefully tackle the intricacies of oppression. Her best friend, who is hearing disabled, often engages his male privilege and abuses their friendship with near constant pressure for a relationship, seemingly unable to understand that no means no. Savi herself faces a considerable level of structural oppression, but she comes to recognize that she also maintains some degree of privilege as a human and as a Westerner. She learns that Coca-Cola is responsible for serious social and environmental injustices, but doesn’t want to give it up, so she creates rationalizations. Though she is lactose-intolerant, she continues to eat animal flesh and balks at the thought of giving up McDonald’s.

CocaColaInjusticeNone of the characters are perfect in understanding oppression; everyone is still learning. We see this in Savi’s heavy use of sexist and disableist language, the fetishization of animal bodies as food by most of the characters, and her vegan friend’s wool clothing. Oppression is never straight forward, and Scars helps readers to navigate these complicated concepts and relationships.

When all is said and done, Scars is not a doom-and-gloom story. Harper is careful to point out bright spots, altruism, and room for hope. There are characters that are willing to learn, and many individuals seek to disrupt violence in any way they can. Although there are definitely hierarchies of privilege, no character lives unburdened from some sort of systemic barrier or personal tragedy. Everyone has scars, but everyone has the potential to heal.