Animal Victimization in the Service of Male Vengeance

Consider the following story line:
1. Woman is assaulted/raped/kidnapped/murdered.
2. Man goes on rampage in revenge.

How many movies (and television shows, video games, comics, etc.) can you think of that follow this plot? Bravehart? Taken? Just about every video game ever created? The victimization of women is an extremely over-used plot device meant to allow for rampant, unabashed violence from leading male-identified characters.

Taken Vegan Neeson

Feminists have taken issue with the trope, not simply because it gives a green light to hyper-masculinized violence, but also because of the ways in which women are presented. In seeing women vulnerable, victimized, dependent on men, and rarely actively involved in their own protection or survival, women become objects. Women don’t exist as persons or meaningful characters–they exist solely as an excuse for Liam Neeson to blow up half of Europe in search of his daughter, or for Mel Gibson to disembowel and behead half the English army.

Consider the impact this imagery has within a sexist culture. Imagine what it is like to be a woman in a media space that is saturated with images of women being hurt. Think about how difficult it can be to watch an action movie or television drama without being subjected to the obligatory rape scene. Media socializes not only male viewers, but female viewers as well.

Are we being encouraged to empathize with the victim, or are we being encouraged to root for the “good guy”/”hero”?  Are we encouraged to think critically about the systemic violence that the victimization is embedded within? Or are we really just pushed to unload our hatred on one individual “bad guy” and his cronies? When images of violence against the vulnerable are presented as entertainment and cheap plot devices, is this not a form of revictimization?

Lee Hall, a feminist and legal scholar in animal rights, has a chapter in her book On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal Rights Philosophy Down to Earth which questions the use of violent images of Nonhuman Animal suffering in a similar vein. Social movement scholars have pointed to the utility of “morally shocking” imagery as a motivation for becoming an activist, but at what point do graphic images simply begin to reinforce the object-status of Nonhuman Animals as helpless victims? What impact could these millions of images be having on our conceptualization of other animals?

To me, it seems that activists are not only blasting the public with these demeaning images, but they are also sharing them within the activist community as a means of exciting rage and desire for vengeance. Crude images of Nonhuman Animals being kicked, beaten, sexually assaulted, dismembered, etc. are shared among activists with encouragements to “GET ANGRY!” or “DO SOMETHING!”

Ecofeminist Marti Kheel has been writing about this “savior complex” in anti-speciesist spaces for decades. Instead of examining the root cause of exploitation, activists and theorists are looking for a reason to call on their inner Liam Neeson. The vegan feminist perspective, however, sees social change grounded in respect for the exploited and peaceful, non-violent education for the exploiters. Kheel explains:

Whereas nature ethicists have tended to concentrate on “rescuing” the”damsel in distress,” ecofeminists have been more likely to ask how and why the “damsel” arrived at her present plight. [ . . . ]

The natural world will be “saved” not by the sword of ethical theory, but rather through a transformed consciousness toward all of life.

“From Heroic to Holistic Ethics,” Ecofeminism,1993, p.243-4

My concern is that “victims in pictures” simply become revictimized when their experiences are shared in a matter that does not necessarily respect their personhood. In doing so, they simply become objects in the story line of activism:
1. Nonhuman Animal is assaulted/raped/kidnapped/murdered.
2. Human goes on rampage in revenge.

Given that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement already operates according to patriarchal norms and generally celebrates violent direct action, it seems quite fitting that Nonhuman Animals are presented as victims in order to allow men the justification they need to rampage. While violent activism is done in the name of social justice, the “might makes right” logic that supports this approach clearly works within an ideology of patriarchy.

Baby elephant smiles and lifts their trunk upwards towards mother, whose legs and trunk frame the shot

Popular media loves to play this victim card so that audiences can quickly “cut to the chase.” But is it wise to employ the same tactic in social justice efforts?  I think it is fair to say that the norm in other movements is to focus on the personhood of victims and survivors, instead of blasting audiences (and each other) with images of bloodied and mangled corpses or near-corpses. The video capturing the murder of Walter Scott by a police offer has gone viral in the Black Lives Matter movement’s media circles, drawing criticism from some that the revictimization of Black men through imagery mimics the same process found in pornography (an argument I have also made regarding the use of rape memes in the Nonhuman Animal rights media):

Yes, we should celebrate that even though an unarmed black man was killed, his killing was caught on film, so there’s a better shot at justice and closure. But I’m trying desperately to make sense of why watching and sharing the video that tore his mother’s heart to pieces is as normal as making your latest Instagram post. So far I’m landing at this: In a world where we are inundated with explicit content, watching black men die on camera provides a thrill that America thought she lost when popular lynchings ended with no need for a “mature audiences only” disclaimer. [ . . . ]

The black man’s death is repeated, reproduced, shared, and celebrated in a macabre way specific to the snuff genre. These films and activities have always existed, but in the past people didn’t consume them so publicly, or so proudly outside of public executions and lynchings.

Perhaps the Nonhuman Animal rights movement should take note. Instead of revictimizing Nonhuman Animals, let’s present them as persons. Let the Nonhuman Animals take center stage, not their human avengers. This is a movement that seeks to restore dignity to Nonhuman Animals. Reproducing victimization through movement media might not be sending the right message.


 

Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology and past Director of Gender Studies (2016-2018) with Monmouth University. 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).

The Misogyny of Animal Rape Imagery

Trigger Warning:  Discussions of rape.

Dear colleagues,
Many of you may have seen a meme that is floating around called, “Sexual Violation.”  It reads:

Sexual violation of female animal bodies for exploitation, murder and profit.

Animal Agriculture’s shameful standard industry practices.

It is time for the masses to reject these crimes.  LIVE VEGAN.

The image is not reproduced here because it is extremely triggering.  Several species of animals are shown in a variety of compromised positions, as men sexually violate and rape them, the point being that standard animal agricultural practices are similar to the rape of women.  In other words, Nonhuman Animal pornography is being used to promote veganism.

Cow's face is pictured, constrained by ropes and chains

Cow tethered to a “rape rack”

In the caption, the author writes, “I know this is difficult to see.  I take no joy in sharing it.” No joy in sharing it?  Well there’s something behind the rationale of those who have been sharing it…

The entire point of pornography is to titillate via the sexual degradation and humiliation of an oppressed body.  Those who consume pornography are consuming it specifically to “get off,” so to speak, on the demonstrated powerlessness of otherized bodies.  The relationship between the viewer and the viewee is one that reproduces and reinforces a hierarchy of domination.  Pornography users also report experiencing a “tolerance,” meaning increasingly degrading and shocking imagery is needed for them to feel something.  The pornography industry is happy to serve that need by producing increasingly disturbing media.

Male photographers at a pornography convention photographing a woman with her legs spread

So what makes it any different for vegan advocates who share these images with the intention of shocking people with images of violated and degraded animal bodies?  And for that matter, what gives them the right?  What’s stopping them from using images of men raping women to solicit shock value?  Should we also recount graphic tales of other women’s rape to rally for veganism?

I argue that sensationalizing the rape of other animals feeds rape culture and revictimizes women.  While the public may not be aware of the institutionalized rape of Nonhuman Animals, most of us are aware of the epidemic of rape against human women.  Most of us know this from first-hand experience.

Knowing that about 1 in 3 women have or will be raped, I find it extremely inappropriate to utilize rape imagery to promote veganism.  First off, our primary audience is women.  If 80% of the movement is women, and 1 in 3 women are rape victims, that means that more than 27% of our movement (or more than 1 in 4 activists) are likely to have been the victim of rape.  Any rape victim can tell  you, seeing images of rape or reading graphic descriptions is extremely triggering.  It is also revictimizing when it is made obvious that our community doesn’t care enough about our safety to avoid using our experiences for animal rights claims on our behalf.

These types of tactics demonstrate tokenizing.  That is, they appropriate the experiences of an oppressed group for the movement’s purposes, while the movement fails to address the ongoing and continuing oppression that group is still experiencing. What’s worse, the movement itself is responsible for aggravating that oppression.  For example, PETA’s slavery and Holocaust analogies use the horrific experiences of oppressed people of color and Jews for their purposes, but, in doing so, they fail to acknowledge that these memories are not forgotten, but are still hurting. In addition to that blatant insensitivity, PETA is presuming that racism, slavery, and human genocide are things of the past, when they are actually ongoing injustices.  Furthermore, PETA fails to acknowledge the present-day needs of communities of color, often excluding them.  In other words, PETA uses the experiences of the oppressed when it is convenient for them to do so, but they simultaneously haven’t done anything to alleviate those injustices and actually aggravate them.

Outdoor display of several animal rights posters with passerby stopped to read them

PETA’s “Meat Equals Slavery” display

Likewise, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is a very misogynistic space.  Not only does PETA and other groups like Animal Liberation Victoria, LUSH Cosmetics, and Citizens United For Animals regularly aggravate sexism through their tactics (see our Organization Watch for more examples), but activist spaces themselves are rife with male-on-female violence (See Emily Gaarder’s 2011 release Women and the Animal Rights Movement).  If the movement isn’t going to take violence against women seriously, it has no business using our oppression for its gain.

Recall the author wrote, “I know this is difficult to see.”  The author knew exactly what they were doing.  They wanted to trigger.  Those who utilize memes and arguments that liken Nonhuman Animal rape to women’s rape seem to forget that many people exposed to those arguments are rape victims themselves.  Triggering these memories and trivializing these experiences does nothing to dismantle oppression.  Indeed, they only facilitate it.  It becomes one more means of alienating women from anti-speciesist work. It becomes one more means of solidifying male rule over advocacy spaces.  It works to keep women in a constant state of not-belonging, of victimhood, of hurt.

Recognizing the intersections between human and nonhuman oppression is important, but we have to practice sensitivity in doing so.  Blasting activist spaces with violent pornography is one example of how not to practice sensitivity.

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.

 

Information provided on the pornography industry in this essay was excerpted from the documentary, The Price of Pleasure

By Corey Lee Wrenn, M.S., A.B.D. Ph.D.

Corey Lee WrennMs. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. She is an instructor of Sociology and graduate student at Colorado State University, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. In 2015, she was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory.

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.