Social Movement Prostitution

Trigger Warning: Discusses prostitution and pornography.

Not Safe for Work: Contains nude images.

Nude PETA protester (white and female) stands in city street and is surrounded by menNude protest has a long history in social activism, but it is certainly gaining a lot of momentum in today’s hyper-sexualized world where pornography is mainstream and third-wave feminism prioritizes sexualization as empowerment.  Media attention is a social movement’s best asset.  It gets the organization more recognition, attracts more volunteers, and more importantly, it brings in more donations.  These days, to get media attention in a digitized, high-speed media landscape that is bombarded with trillions of competing images, some social movement organizations attempt to stand out with free soft-core porn. Free sampling is a technique heavily utilized by pornographers in a highly competitive online pornography space.  They give the consumer a little taste of the product with the expectation that the consumer will become excited and will want to purchase more.

When I set out to write this essay, I had hoped to explore social movements as a whole, but sadly, once again, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement steals the show in its problematic treatment of women.  The only other large social movement (that isn’t the nudity movement itself, where people advocate for the freedom to be naked without penalization) is the peace and anti-war movement.  Breasts Not Bombs, for instance, has female volunteers march in public spaces holding political signs.

Protesters (mostly white and middle-aged or older) holding a number of signs, predominantly a banner that reads "Breasts Not Bombs"

Then there’s Femen, a male-led feminist group of mostly white, thin young women who claim to speak on behalf of all women (and sometimes brown women in particular) by going topless in public spaces.

Four young white thin women wearing only underwear holding signs in front of the Eiffel tower, "Muslim women, let's get naked," and "I am a woman, not an object"

Aside from these exceptions, getting naked for a cause is the Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s modus operandi. And, though many supporters of Nonhuman Animal rights organizations that utilize sexualization as a tactic may claim that men’s naked bodies are used, too, the overwhelming majority of sexualized bodies presented to the public are that of young, thin, white women. With 80% of the movement identifying as female, the movement’s largest volunteer pool offers to organizations a wealth of physical assets. Body parts are politicized to the exclusion of women’s intelligence, skills, creativity, dedication, or leadership ability.

Organizations like PETA take female volunteers, put them on street corners, posters, and film, and, for all intents and purposes, prostitute these unpaid women to extract funding, media attention, or other resources (incidentally PETA may be the most infamous, but it is certainly not the only organization engaging this tactic). This systemic social movement prostitution is defended in ways similar to that of typical street prostitution: women choose to do it, or she’s getting something out of it. But free choice is often an illusion. Women do not have the same choices available to them that men do. Women in Nonhuman Animal rights are being funneled into the “choice” of stripping down for the male gaze in public spaces. Do women get something out of it? Some do, particularly middle-class white women. Is nudity a bad thing? No, of course not. But we need to be cognizant of patterns and power. There is a pattern of women’s bodies being used in a world where men have the power.

PETA protest with person in fish suit holding sign that says "Fishing hurts," next to a thin white woman holding a sign that says, "Don't let your kids become hookers."

PETA sign reads, “Don’t Let Your Kids Become Hookers.”

Female activists are “selling” their bodies for resources, but none of the profit goes to these sex workers.  Instead, the money raised goes to the organizations that they represent.  If a John buys a prostituted woman for sex acts, he pays her, and more often than not, the money goes to her pimp.  If a John buys a PETA membership because of his interest in PETA’s women (see PETA’s “Veggie Love” campaign for example), the money goes to her organization.

Incidentally, there is a vegan strip club in Portland, Oregon where women are also being prostituted for “the cause.”  The male club owner insists that “throwing boobs out there” is the only way to get people to visit his restaurant and try his vegan menu.  He claims he wants to “end the suffering of all creatures,” but it seems that he and the movement ignore the fact that women are “creatures,” too. We can be certain that “throwing penises out there” would draw some attention as well, but, patriarchy ensures that it is female nudity that will expected.

Stripping, like prostitution, is sex work that often preys on vulnerable populations of women (many feminists and survivors regard “sex work” to be a euphemism; for women who are trafficked, we must recognize it as sex slavery).  It is “work” with extremely high rates of sexual assault, rape, and other forms of violence.  It is “work” that is extremely difficult for most women to make a living with and it is “work” with little job security.  Strip clubs have a strict set of rules that ensure most money stays in the hands of the male owners, not in the hands of the hard-working women.  Like prostitution, stripping is glamorized or romanticized in the liberal imagination as something freely chosen by independent women who have full control over their work and lives. Some women enjoy that kind of agency, but most women do not.

Social activism today has been swept into the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, where organizations must compete for vital fundraising in order to survive. This extreme dependence on funding means that tactics are compromised, and advocacy becomes a means of making money to sustain the organization, not changing the world. In other words, even if viewers were to begin supporting Nonhuman Animal rights organizations as a result of being exposed to these sexualized tactics (and there is no evidence to support such a notion), most of the money raised will not be used in support of anti-speciesism. Instead, most of it will be put toward keeping the lights on, paying staff members, and funding more ways to raise money.

I argue that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement squanders an important resource by degrading women’s participation to stripping and legal forms of prostitution. So much more could be accomplished by nurturing women’s brains instead of objectifying their bodies. Beyond the negative impact that these tactics are having on so many of the girls and women groomed by the movement, we also need to take into account the impact that this type of activism has on women as a demographic. The socially-accepted degradation of women and their sexual objectification is directly linked with discrimination and violence against women. This is a consequence that social justice movements should take very seriously.


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).

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Are You Demanding Respect and Safety or Just Bickering?

Content Warning:  Discusses pornography and sexism.

Not Safe for Work:  Contains coarse language and sexually explicit subject matter.

PETA posted on Vegan Feminist Network today in response to my article that deconstructs their “Veggie Love Casting” campaign.  The campaign depicts young women in bikinis and high heels performing oral sex and other sex acts on vegetables “for the animals.”  The statement is reproduced here. I have emphasized the problematic statements and will unpack them below.

The smart, compassionate women who participated in this spot choose to do so because they supported the idea and wanted to take action to help animals. PETA admires them for that and would never tell them that they must behave a certain way in order to gain someone else’s approval. PETA applauds all that everyone does to help animals and attempts to have something to appeal to everyone.

Not everyone agrees with all of PETA’s tactics–and they can choose not to show our videos if they wish–but surely we can all agree that it’s more effective to focus our time and energy on animal abusers rather than bickering with one another.

If you want to learn more about PETA’s other campaigns, or see our ads featuring men, please visit http://www.PETA.org. Thanks again for all you do to promote vegan living and make the world a kinder place for animals.

A white woman deep-throating a cucumber.

An image from the campaign

PETA claims that it did not tell the women to engage these behaviors, but this is a disingenuous justification. Obviously, PETA designed the campaign and hired the participants. This was not a spontaneous grassroots movement to promote vegetable sex for Nonhuman Animals.  For that matter, is having sex with cucumbers what women are supposed to do if they want to help animals?

In one way, PETA is correct to say that women are not “told” to engage these behaviors. This is because PETA is normalizing sexist advocacy as female-appropriate advocacy. Female-identified activists increasingly enter the Nonhuman Animal rights movement with an understanding of what is to be expected of them (Gail Dines refers to this socialization phenomenon as “porn ready”). Pornified campaigning is now normalized in the political imagination of the movement. It has become taken for granted as useful, despite social psychological research demonstrating that it is not only ineffective, but also counter-productive.

The tropes embedded in PETA’s response work to protect this normalcy and thus warrant discussion.

1. Choice

“Choice” is a loaded concept that generally works to detract from structural inequality and places responsibility on the individual.  It hides privilege and reinforces oppression.

Women “choose” to work in porn because a patriarchal society gives them extremely limited options.  Women make this “choice” because they are raised in this society to understand that their worth is tied up in their sexual attractiveness and their sexual availability (unlike men who are taught that they can succeed with strength, leadership, intelligence, wit, etc.).

The Girls Gone Wild tour bus. Depicts two blonde white women, reads "Do you have what it takes?"

Most porn actresses come from low income and/or abusive households and have extremely short careers (about 3 years, a time span that has been declining dramatically). The vast majority of porn actresses make very little money.  We’re talking about a few hundred bucks for each movie, with a movie deal every few weeks or so. Once they’ve “done it all,” they’re spent, and no longer of use to the industry.  Sound familiar?  That’s exactly how humans treat layer hens and dairy cows: as expendable sexual resources.  Women continue to consent to increasingly degrading, painful, or dangerous sex acts in order to keep in the game as long as possible. The industry exposes women to these precarious and unsafe work conditions with zero job security. If this is the “choice” available to women, something is seriously awry with our labor system.

I’m not blaming these actresses (advocates?) who work for PETA. They’re just doing their job, trying to make a living. Some probably even enjoyed themselves and had fun participating. Instead, I’m blaming the patriarchy that raises women as resources for men. I’m blaming a social movement that is supposed to be about peace but instead exploits women’s vulnerability for fundraising.   Under a patriarchy, the rules of the game are rigged to benefit men at the expense of women (and other vulnerable populations, including Nonhuman Animals).  All women are products of a patriarchy that grooms them to believe:  “Your social worth = Your sex appeal.”

“Choice” relies on a very narrowly defined set of options that patriarchy allows women.  If we want to have a serious discussion of “choice,” I suggest we get a straight answer from PETA as to why they intentionally choose women for fundraising and media attention, and why women are disproportionately placed in degrading scenarios, oftentimes (though not in this case) simulating the horrific suffering and death of a Nonhuman Animal by drawing on scripts of violence against women. Like any pornography, PETA campaigns sexualize the humiliation and hurt of women.

2. Appealing to a Wide Audience

The demographics likely attracted to pornography are not likely to be interested in seriously engaging social justice.  Pornography further entrenches oppression and reinforces the notion that some persons are objects of resource to other, more privileged persons.  Hardly the type of framework we would expect to challenge speciesism. Again, research demonstrates that PETA’s campaigns actually repel viewers who can easily recognize that women are being demeaned.

3. Cricism of Rape Culture as “Bickering”

One in 3 women will be raped, beaten, or otherwise abused at least once in their lifetime. This violence is strongly tied to misogynistic media, and PETA both creates and promotes misogynistic media.  To refer to feminist criticism of this systemic violence as bickering is insulting and trivializing.  Standing up against the violence that I endure, the violence that millions of women endure, is not bickering, it is social justice in action.

4. Men vs. Women

We do not live in a post-gender/post-feminist society.  The bodies of men and women are not viewed or treated similarly.  One cannot say, “We use men, too!” with accuracy. It will not negate the misogyny being engaged in the majority of PETA’s outreach.  Ninety-six percent of the sexual objectification that occurs in the media depicts women.  Women are also many, many times more likely to be victims of rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.  It is unfair to disregard sexist depictions of women simply because a man’s body is used from time to time.

This argument is particularly nonsensical in PETA’s case.  PETA’s advertisements featuring men by and large depict men who are in command over their social space, and their power and status is reinforced.  Some of their ads depict men as being silly, Again, there is no serious sexism going on.  We find these ads silly because men are so rarely sexually objectified and portrayed in a submissive position.  Men are not depicted in sexually submissive positions or as victims of violence, only women are.

Take, for instance, this image of a Bollywood actor advocating for PETA.  Notice his confident gaze into the camera, his power over the situation, and his ability to control the space around him and enact change.  Notice the posture that depicts confidence.

Indian Bollywood actor freeing birds. He is shown giving direct eye contact to the camera and displaying his power and strength.

In contrast, examine this typical PETA ad depicting a naked woman.  She is shown in a submissive position, vulnerable, not on her feet, at the mercy of the viewer.  Her eyes do not meet the camera directly, but look up from a down turned face.  She gently touches the rabbit; there is no command over her space.  Her buttocks are raised to denote sexual availability.

Reads "I'd rather show my buns than wear fur." Shows a naked white woman prostrate on the ground touching a rabbit.

The argument that sexism is nonexistent in PETA’s campaigning because nude men are occasionally used as well is a red herring.

We cannot end the objectification of Nonhuman Animals with the objectification of women.  We cannot end violence against Nonhuman Animals with violence against women. It’s time to decolonize the activist schema.

 


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).

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PETA’s “Youngest Pinup”

From PETA:  Women and girls of all ages should “go all the way” . . .  for the animals.

PETA normally waits until people turn 18 before asking them to star in a “provocative” campaign, but not this time. Sixteen-year-old singer-songwriter Samia Najimy Finnerty stars in our new “Vegans Go All the Way” ad. PETA’s youngest pinup is the daughter of actor and longtime PETA supporter Kathy Najimy and Dan Finnerty of The Dan Band.

16 year old girl is posed provocatively with her hand in her hair, lips parted, legs slightly spread. She is wearing a tight fitting gray tanktop and tight black pants. She also has a guitar over her shoulder.

PETA “normally waits” for a girl to reach legal age before they are prostituted for fundraising, but, not anymore.

From this campaign we learn:
1. Statutory rape is condoned.
2. Girls should “go all the way” as though their purpose for existing is to be a sexual resource to others.
3. For women, helping animals means sexually objectifying her body–even if she is still a child.
4. Rape culture reigns. Children cannot consent, and only in a rape culture, would this campaign be acceptable.
5. The sexualization of childhood (girlhood) has encroached on Nonhuman Animal rights advocacy.

Incidentally, PETA had originally planned for the 16 year old to appear on a bed.


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Why is the Animal Rights Movement so Toxic for Women?

Sexism is all too prevalent in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. Anyone familiar with PETA’s advocacy has seen their heavy reliance on female nakedness to garner attention and fundraise. Of course, how they hope to alleviate the objectification of Nonhumans while simultaneously objectifying women is questionable. Their inability to respect the interconnectedness of speciesism, sexism, and other oppressions has been criticized heavily by academics and advocates alike.

PETA Shoe Protest

However, sexism remains indirectly prevalent in other advocacy organizations and activist communities. The problem is so rampant that I would venture to say that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has become a microcosm of patriarchal domination. This is especially bizarre given that advocating against speciesism (which I define as the structural oppression of the vulnerable) is inherently an anti-patriarchy endeavor.

Femininity and concern for other animals have long been linked. Traditional gender roles view women as creatures of nature with an “instinct” for nurturing. Adding to this, the oppression of women often mirrors the oppression of other animals, and many times these oppressions reinforce one another. So it comes as no surprise that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is composed largely of female activists (to the tune of about 80%).

As we know, gender stereotypes are not always so flattering. Femininity is also associated with hyper-emotionality and irrationality. This is a socially constructed reality that women of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement recognize. In an effort to overcome these stereotypes and resonate with audiences, female activists often adopt rational discourse and suppress emotion in their advocacy. Sociological research has found that male Nonhuman Animal right activists are perceived to be so rare and so important to lending the movement credit that women (and other men) will praise these men heavily and readily elevate them to positions of leadership. Women are often relegated to the less glamorous and more mundane tasks behind the scenes.

Clearly, we wouldn’t expect to see organizations like PETA prioritizing female empowerment, but other more “serious” liberation organizations drop the ball as well. Some of these factions are so reliant on rational arguments that feminine perspectives are generally unheard of or are dismissed as unnecessary. Femininity is suppressed in favor of rational, unemotional, masculine discourse. This is especially unfortunate because emotionality is actually an asset in affecting social change. Social psychology has shown emotional appeals to be far more persuasive and motivating than rational ones.

To be sure, race and gender intersect as well. Masculinity and whiteness have become normalized and go largely unexamined. White world views predominate and white, thin vegan bodies have become the ideal. Vegan critical race activist Dr. Breeze Harper warns that this has had the effect of alienating people of color. Likewise, T.O.F.U. Magazine recently published a special issue on the detrimental impact of fat-shaming and privileging thinness.

When recognized at all, people of color are often tokenized. While white activists may draw parallels between speciesism and racist atrocities like antebellum slavery, most fail to acknowledge the ongoing discrimination that people of color face. Many campaigns are designed to sensationalize animal cruelty associated with people of color, exploiting racial prejudice for the cause. Still other campaigns default to the white world view and ignore human rights violations, environmental racism, and racialized food politics. Structural racism is ignored, unless it is something advocates can campaign behind.

Ignoring gender and race has real consequences, consequences that hurt at-risk populations. Women find themselves sexually objectified by organizations like PETA, Animal Liberation Victoria, and LUSH Cosmetics, who see them as nothing more than naked bodies to prostitute for media attention and donations. Women who advocate with their clothes on do not escape these consequences either. Sociologist Dr. Emily Gaarder, author of Women and the Animal Rights Movement (2011) reports that sexual harassment is a very common experience among female activists. By pushing men into positions of power and relegating women to subordinate tasks and stripping, the movement becomes toxic for the vulnerable. As for people of color, they are often left out of outreach efforts altogether. Those who are outspoken about this exclusion risk backlash and accusations of “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism.” Like many other critics of oppression, it has even been suggested that I have a mental illness (the exploitation of disability identity in Nonhuman Animal rights advocacy is another topic altogether!).

LUSH-Cosmetics-Sexism-300x228

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement would be wise to consider how gender and race continue to be salient identities that warrant special consideration in a social movement environment that privileges men and whites. Gender and race matter, despite any personal fantasies we may have about a post-feminist, post-racial utopia. Diversity in leadership and advocacy should be encouraged. Femininity and emotional appeals should be given their place alongside rational discourse and the language of rights.

Until the Nonhuman Animal rights movement cleans up its act in its treatment of vulnerable populations within its own ranks, I don’t believe it’s possible to make any real headway for other animals. A coherent battle against oppression cannot be fought so long as the movement’s own oppressiveness goes unchallenged.

This post was originally published on Feminspire on June 11, 2013.


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).

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