Sexing up animal rights: is it wrong?

Earlier this year, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) announced plans for a porn site intended to highlight animal cruelty. Overland asked Katrina Fox and Stephanie Honor Convery for their thoughts on the relationship between sexualised imagery and political advocacy.

Katrina Fox

When PETA recently announced plans to launch the porn site as a vehicle to expose consumers to animal cruelty and promote veganism, it was denounced by many feminists and animal rights activists. Some viewed the idea as the culmination of the group’s trademark objectification of women over the past twenty years through its use of sexualised images to ‘sell’ animal rights. Others raised concerns about associating animal cruelty with sexual arousal.

So is it wrong to use sex to promote a cause – in this case, animal rights?

Not necessarily. That doesn’t mean I support unequivocally PETA’s plans for a porn site or its use of naked women in its advertising campaigns. I have my reservations about the juxtaposition of material designed to sexually arouse with images of violence towards animals. I’m also fed up with the same tired presentation of slim, white, conventionally attractive young women trotted out as the gold standard of sexiness in the group’s campaigns.

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss sex as a creative way to encourage people to think outside the box on a particular issue. Should something have to be considered ‘sexy’ in order to gain traction? No, certainly not. But we live in a world where stereotypes are ingrained into our cultural consciousness. In the case of animal rights, activism is considered the domain of either unwashed, dole-bludging hippies or militant, balaclava-wearing extremists, while veganism is associated with sickly, pale, unhealthy wimps.

In an attempt to counteract these stereotypes, groups such as PETA use sex to draw attention to their cause, to reach audiences who would often otherwise not be exposed to the issues, either through choice or ignorance. Aside from very sick minds, who enjoys seeing an animal being skinned alive for his or her fur? Who really wants to ‘meet their meat’?

Not many people will actively choose to go to an animal rights website and watch these kinds of horrors, and not many consider veganism an enjoyable and fun lifestyle. But a cheeky video of Pamela Anderson as an airport security guard searching passengers for animal products or PETA’s banned 2009 ‘Veggie Love’ ad may provide the catalyst for a visit. While searching for more ‘fun’ material, visitors will be confronted with the realities of the horrendous atrocities inflicted on animals for human consumption or entertainment. As the US band Goldfinger put it, ‘If you don’t look, I’ll force you to.’

Does it work? According to PETA spokesperson Nicole Dao: yes.

‘More than one million people watched PETA’s “Veggie Love” banned Super Bowl ad, and 333,000 of those viewers went on to watch PETA’s hard-hitting exposé of the meat industry,’ she told me. ‘Many thousands ordered a vegetarian/vegan starter kit. When people log on to to see the latest sexy campaign or ad, our figures show that they stay to watch our more serious videos – and that’s when their perspectives are changed.’

Using sex to promote a social justice cause in itself isn’t the problem. The key is context, as well as content. PETA may attract even more visitors to its site by featuring a range of ‘sexy’ people with varying sexes, genders, ages, ethnicities and body types.

Finally, it’s worth noting the hypocrisy of non-vegan feminists who decry the tactics used by PETA. As I’ve written elsewhere, for the majority of feminists, the marginalisation of animals is not only secondary to that faced by any kind of human, it’s of no consequence.

In fact, many feminists actively support the oppression, use and abuse of animals every single day by ‘consuming’ (in the same way people consume porn or anything else) animal parts or products. There is no greater irony than feminists championing reproductive rights for women while actively supporting the exploitation and hijacking of the reproductive systems of female animals. In the dairy industry, for example, female cows are systematically raped, confined and have their offspring stolen as part of the process to produce milk and dairy products for human consumption.

As I noted earlier, PETA is not perfect and should not be above reproach. But let’s save most of our moral outrage for corporations that use sex to sell products involving the torture, mutilation, murder and objectification of other animals and their bodies – like the KFC ad that sexualises women to sell ribs or the Nando’s ad that does the same thing or the ad by the California Milk Board which is both misogynistic and speciesist.

Let’s get our priorities right.

Stephanie Honor Convery

Many animal rights activists see their work as part of a broader movement against oppression. The term ‘intersectionality’ is often used to describe how one kind of systemic suffering or injustice (for example, racism) combines or colludes with other forms of oppression (for example, sexism).

PETA frequently pays lip service to the logic of intersectionality by justifying animal rights activism on the grounds that the meat, livestock and fur industries engage in practices that are comparable to ‘child labour, human slavery and the oppression of women’. By inviting such comparisons, PETA asks its audience to draw a parallel between one kind of suffering and another. It should go without saying that the parallels are supposed to indicate that all forms of oppression – including the oppression of women – are equally abhorrent.

However, PETA’s sexually explicit marketing campaigns regularly position women as objects for consumption, undermining the organisation’s own moral stance. Its use of such marketing campaigns doesn’t just damage the animal rights movement and reinforce sexist structures: it has broader implications for progressive activism in general.

Advertising is a space in which the unequal power relationships within society are most frequently played out. Working in a medium in which messages must be communicated instantly, advertisers draw on common, instinctively-accepted social contracts and understandings. In a society that both consciously and unconsciously considers the active social subject to be male and sees women primarily as objects for consumption, that means sexism. In fact, advertising that positions women’s bodies as objects for consumption is so much a part of the mainstream media landscape that women are not only presented as objects of consumption for men but for themselves, too.

Advertising campaigns involving pornography are only possible because broad shifts in the social, economic and political landscape over the last few decades have normalised the sex industry. Pornography is problematic in and of itself – those same power imbalances evident within advertising are even more obvious within pornography (male agent, female object). Such is the power and prevalence of the industry that its imagery saturates Western media: ‘sexy’ and ‘pornographic’ are often considered one and the same.

The sexism within advertising and the sex industry needs to be challenged, not accepted uncritically. You don’t have to believe that using women’s bodies to sell products is ipso facto bad to believe that there must be something amiss in a culture that simultaneously frames women themselves as essentially commodities. You don’t have to be convinced by the radical feminist argument against pornography to see that there is something wrong with the power relationships that both underpin it and are expressed so explicitly within it. You don’t have to be opposed to expressions of sexuality or sexiness to think there’s something wrong with an industry controlling the definition of these things – particularly when those definitions mimic traditional conservative power relations that position man as active subject and woman as object.

But there is a broader concern here. If we accept that it’s okay for an animal rights activist organisation to use sex to get attention, then there’s nothing wrong with extending the tactic to other kinds of campaigns – for example, an anti-war campaign. Picture it: a woman sprawled across a bed, naked but for some strategically placed white feathers, and the slogan Pacifists get laid. What about a feminist campaign itself? Perhaps an equal pay campaign: Get naked to get paid. Irony, anyone?

‘Using sex to sell social justice is as old as social justice movements, and not something to get upset about, per se,’ writes Lindsay Beyerstein on On the contrary, using sex simply to sell is as old as capitalism, and that is something to get upset about. For PETA, ignoring the problems inherent in highly sexualised advertising and pornography means privileging the cause of animal rights over women’s rights, which is not only hypocritical but undermines the ethical legitimacy of its entire platform. For the Left, accepting such gendered images as unproblematic means not only asserting that the fight against female oppression is over but also suggesting that the structures that position people as objects are similarly unproblematic. And this we cannot afford to do.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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