Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Sexual Politics of Meat

This book by Carol J. Adams is something of a "bible for feminist and progressive animal rights activists."  The central idea is that there is a connection between meat eating and a patriarchal world view. Animals are exploited and so are women.  When meat was available, our forefathers grabbed first.  Men hunted meat, and men hunt women.  Adams is at her best when drawing attention to the rhetoric of animal and female exploitation.  For example there is the "butchering of women."  Snuff movies disproportionally celebrate the death of women and, apparently, the details of the pornography resembles butchering.  Knives and daggers are used against both women and animals.  When an animal's habitat is destroyed, it is often said that it was "raped".  More provocatively, men try to domesticate both women and animals.  The book is good at reminding us of the male fondness for meat.  Men's night out is often at a steakhouse, while women go to Mindy's Hot Chocolate.  By the way, when I went to Karyn's, I noticed that the clientele was eighty percent female, and while there were groups of women there was not a single all male table.

It is interesting that several women and not one man recommended this book to me.  There are, of course, differences between the two exploitations, and the connection is only partial. I wish Adams had addressed such things, but her book is more of a brief for the woman-vegetarian connection. For example, she could have noted that men are also described as animals.  The Chicago Bulls is just one team name that celebrates men as animals.  The stock market, which is male dominated, is commonly described with animal terms such as bull and bear.  A male employee might be described as "strong as an ox," so it is not just dominant men that are described in animal terms. But Adams is less interested in the differences reflected in these examples than about pounding away at the provocative idea that males hunt and exploit flesh, and that feminism and vegetarianism are partners.  At one point, Adams discusses the origin of the term "vegan" in 1944, and describes veganism as an "ethical stance based on compassion for all beings." There is an implication, and many references to ancient and modern writings, that while hunting is masculine, compassion is feminine.


  1. Now that it seems to have worked, here is my real comment. I want to go right out and get that book, because it seems very helpful in connection with the Feminist Philosophy class I am teaching. What you report her as saying fits in very closely with longstanding feminist discussions of "objectification," that is, men using women as objects for their use and control. (I've written about this, most recently in THE OFFENSIVE INTERNET: SPEECH, PRIVACY, AND REPUTATION, edited by Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum, about internet harassment of women.) But i had not seen the connection to the abuse of animals before, and it is fascinating.

    There are two points I'd make though. First, I think there is at least some cultural variation. All cultures have images of "the real man," and it's always somehow connected to domination, but the domination of animals is particularly central in the American tradition, with its combination of a frontier tradition with a strong meat industry. (Our friend Cass Sunstein got into so much trouble with the American Farm Institute, the pork producers, etc. when he was up for Senate confirmation, just for sympathizing with vegetarianism.) In India, things are somewhat different. Gandhi was surely extreme in his dietary and sexual restrictions, but the very fact that someone with his views and practices, and his emphasis on compassion and non-aggression, could be a mass political hero is significant. It could not happen here. When Martin Luther King, Jr. appropriated many of Gandhi's ideas for U. S. use, he was wise not to include the vegetarianism or the sexual asceticism.

    The other thing I'd add is that Americans make a strong distinction between domestic and "wild" animals. The "real man" views his dog as an extension of his own masculine aggressiveness -- one reason we see so much dogfighting. And dogs are carefully protected by laws regarding cruelty and neglect. But the "wild" animal is by definition an enemy, to be mastered. You might want to read The Yearling, a classic novella by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings about a boy who befriends a young fawn. But becoming a man means understanding that the fawn is an enemy, and in the end he kills it.

    Thanks so much for provoking me to think hard about these issues!

  2. I have another thought, after teaching my Feminist Philosophy class today. We were talking about why British judges in India opposed raising the age of marriage for Hindu girls, even in the face of very brutal treatment of a 12-year-old, who died of injuries inflicted on her wedding night. One of my students (an Indian woman from the Bopth School) said that she thought one big issue was racism: the body of an Indian woman was seen as not fully human, therefore expendable. They would not have judged the rape of an Englishwoman in the same way. This led to a broader discussion of how victims of crime who come from stigmatized minority groups, racial in particular, are often not focused on because they are perceived as less than fully human, a kind of animal that the dominant group may use at its will. Very often, for example, rapes of African-American women were not thought of as serious crimes; the same applies to the rape of lower-caste women in India today. This bears out the thesis of the book, suggesting that the minute a group gets defined as more animal, it becomes "ok" to use it as a mere thing.

  3. Hi Nathan and Martha,

    In eco-feminist arguments -- Karen Ann Warren's being probably the most clearly worked out, and Val Plumwood's being the most evocative -- there's often an ambiguity: is the claim that --due to sexism-- a culture takes all "feminine" things, such as some descriptions of nature, as exploitable? ("Feminine" in scarequotes, because it is itself a concept produced within the sexist culture, as one of its building blocks) Or is there a widespread appearance of objectification that prefigures the sexism but allows sexists to rationalize the objectification of nature within their misogynist terms? The difference between these two is considerable -- the first gives sexism a causal role, whereas the latter gives sexism a rationalizing role within a wider background trend toward objectification.

    Historically, as Carolyn Merchant might show, probably the two are conflated. When Bacon describes technology raping nature during the rise of modern science, he appears to be relying on sexism to tempt us to indulge in a kind of crime which is then rationalized as not really a crime. But, thanks to the linkage of modern science and capitalism, nature, people, and women too --think the sex trade-- all become objects for functional analysis (the science part) and value extraction (the capitalism part). Hand in hand, then, the background objectification relies on sexism to rationalize parts of it, make parts less blatanly inhuman and so on. In such a picture, eco-feminism ought to be a movement within a larger movement of anti-objectification which is in some form largely reformist of capitalism's and techno-industry's core dynamics. But I am not convinced that eco-feminists usually tend to think of things this way. I find that the core statements of the field lay the problem on the steps of sexism, whereas it seems to be rather a mode for the wider background problem to take root and pass through some people's minds with less glaring contradiction.

  4. I'm not sure what makes one argument broader or a "step back" here, but I am just an amateur. I don't think "technology raping nature" justifies a crime. To me, that aggressive verb does the opposite, warning us that we, through technology, might be doing something wrong, or might be overstepping the bounds of what would otherwise be good (sex).

  5. And I am thrilled that you have joined the conversation! See the questions I have posed today.

  6. Hi Nathan! Good -- I'm glad you're mixing it up.

    I'd have to go back and read the Bacon quote (and I don't have his works here in Syracuse -- my family's home for the summer). But my memory is that a lot of authors of the period romanticize rape in contexts where its violence is cloaked by the insinuation that the rape isn't in some sense unjustified, but is understandable, even "natural". This confusion of the natural with violence, with women with "nature", with passion with violence, and so on, sets up a whole chain of circulating and loose meanings that fog one's vision from thinking clearly about each of the terms --- and most importantly about the crime. For there is a crime -- a crime, at the least, against future generations, and also against other species.

    One of the things about feminism is that is has unearthed how totally sick many traditions have been when it comes to rape -- which is often cast, before the era of feminism, as a natural indulgence of the "man".