Without a doubt, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has been compromised by sexism and manipulated by patriarchy. It’s not just PETA leading the way anymore–it’s countless other organizations (like Fish Love), companies (like LUSH), and pornographers (like Vegan Pinup). More importantly, it has trickled down into individual interactions as demonstrated in the increasing normalcy of male activists attempting to control, manipulate, threaten, or harass female activists.
Many feminists insist that men can’t be feminists (and the National Organization for Men against Sexism agrees). To be feminist is to be a self-identified woman fighting for female equality. To be a feminist requires a direct experience of gender oppression, because it is this unique experience as a member of the targeted group that will inform activism. Men who become disgruntled with this definition and demand inclusion only underscore the ubiquitousness of male privilege. When men reassert their entitlement, they are demonstrating their need to be in control and they are demonstrating patriarchy. While men can never fully remove themselves from the privileges of their gender, men can absolutely be allies.
And we sorely need allies in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. Perhaps the most to blame for rampant sexism and misogyny in our movement (beyond the oppressive nature of patriarchy) is complacency. It’s time we shifted responsibility to the male members of our community.
1. Never Be Complacent
If you witness a woman being bullied, harassed, or intimidated…speak up. If you are silent, if you “ride the fence” or play neutral, or if you defend the perpetrator (what I refer to as “boy’s club mentality”), you are just as guilty of sexism and oppression as the perpetrator.
2. Demand Equal Representation
If participating in a project that is led mostly by men (which is suspect given that our movement is 80% women), demand to know where the women are and refuse to participate until women are included. This issue also happens in the atheist/skeptic movement, and feminists and their allies have been very successful in pressuring event organizers into improving their gender ratios.
3. Never Use the “Reverse Sexism” Card
Women–who are an oppressed group living under a patriarchy that privileges men–cannot, by the very nature of their social status, wield sexism against men. Calling a woman sexist (or, worse, a “misandrist”) is intended to redirect attention from men–a privileged group that typically goes completely unexamined–to women. It is a tactic intended to divert focus from the oppressor to the oppressed. It is a tactic intended to silence.
4. Don’t Mansplain
The fact of the matter is, despite the infinite wisdom and extensive training some men may have, men still don’t know more about women’s issues than women. Mansplaining seems to have plagued our community. Many men insist on explaining to women everything from feminism to rape, with the intention of dominating the conversation or winning the debate. Women’s personal experiences go completely dismissed and devalued–even when those women have irrefutable qualifications to back them up. Mansplaining is not helpful, it’s oppressive and disrespectful.
5. Don’t Harass Women
While this should go without saying, harassment in our movement is a real problem. Through interviews with female activists, Emily Gaarder in her 2011 release Women and the Animal Rights Movement found that the problem is rather widespread. I, myself, have been victimized by several vegan men who have harassed me to the point of nearly reporting to the police.
Most men don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, having never had the experience of being a woman. Just as white people can never fully understand what it’s like to be a person of color, a cissexual man can never fully understand what it’s like to be a woman. It’s generally thought to be condescending and unhelpful for a white person to presume to have all the answers about the challenges facing people of color. I argue that the same applies for men who feel confident they understand the female experience and who also feel entitled to the privilege of defining or validating sexism. Instead of insisting, “That’s not sexist,” or, “You’re overreacting,” try listening. Work to understand where women are coming from, what problems they face, and what solutions they seek. Likewise, remember to give space. Try not to dominate the discussion and give women room to participate without being drowned out by your voice.
7. Don’t Gaslight
Gaslighting is a common tool of male control, generally manifesting in cases of domestic violence and emotional abuse. Gaslighting is a tactic intended to make a woman doubt her reality and her experiences. If a woman claims she has experienced sexism, and you tell her she’s making something out of nothing or “overreacting”–that’s gaslighting. Trying to make a woman feel “crazy” or appear “crazy” to others is a means of disempowering and controlling her.
8. Watch Your Language
There are hundreds of female pejorative terms (and only a handful for men) that utilize the female identity as an insult. They are meant to disempower. For example, Defending Pitbulls against PeTA refers to PETA president Ingrid Newkirk as a “wicked witch” and Nathan Winograd insinuates that she is mentally ill. Both of these draw on a long history of women who have been ostracized, institutionalized, and even killed for being a “witch” or “crazy.” The English language is vast and contains more words than the average person even uses, so there is really no excuse to use gendered pejoratives unless the intention is to draw on sexism to bolster your argument.
9. Get Critical of Violence
In her 2006 book Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror, Lee Hall argues that violent tactics are unmistakably associated with male expressions of power, bravado, and domination. I would add that these approaches are largely anti-feminist. Violence privileges the male experience and male control, and, at the same time, it belittles femininity and is intended to frighten. In a lecture presented to a 2012 conference in Italy, “The Paralysis of Pacifism: In Defense of Militant Direct Action and ‘Violence’ for Animal Liberation,” the speaker is literally screaming at a room full of young, female activists, accusing them of pacifism and insisting they abandon nonviolence.
10. Get Critical of Sexual Exploitation
If you are witness to a situation where women are being encouraged to strip for “the cause”…speak up. None of us should be in the business of policing women’s bodies, but we also can’t ignore the reality of a movement that routinely exploits and sexually objectifies women. The oppression of Nonhuman Animals cannot be dismantled through the oppression of women. Speak up, submit a comment, send an email, or write a blog. Don’t let sexual exploitation go unexamined.
Please recognize that these requests are not an attack on men. This is nothing more than an honest attempt to carve out a safe place for women in a movement that is becoming increasingly dangerous and demeaning. We must stand up against inequality wherever we see it. We’ve become increasingly cognizant of how we treat other at-risk groups, and yet we so often ignore the plight of women. What’s worse, those women who find the courage to speak up for themselves are accused of making a big deal out of nothing. This is indicative of how ingrained sexism and misogyny has become. When a movement that is 80% female cannot shake off the chains of female oppression, we should be seriously concerned. But the burden should not fall completely on women, men need to take responsibility as well and strive to be vegan feminist allies for the benefit of everyone, male, female, human, or nonhuman.