PETA and other animal liberation campaigns are often criticized for exploiting the bodies of women in sexually provocative campaigns for nonhuman animals. Through these campaigns, women are encouraged to prostitute their naked bodies in the street, all for the professed sake of drawing attention to the plights of nonhuman animals. My friend and former colleague Corey Wrenn draws attention to the harmful effects of using sex to sell the animal rights position, noting that “the socially-accepted degradation of women and their sexual objectification is directly linked with discrimination and violence against women.”
While I agree that PETA-like tactics harm women and that these stunts perpetuate the objectification of women, which in turn engenders sexual violence, I would like to point out that there is yet another way certain animal liberation campaigns commonly harm both animals and women: the use of masculinity to sell veganism.
It is not uncommon to see animal liberation organizations, like Vegan Outreach, illustrate in their leaflets how one can still maintain one’s masculinity even on a vegan diet. In fact, in Vegan Outreach’s “Even if You Like Meat” brochure they include a photo of body builder Robert Cheeke in a “vegan bodybuilder” muscle tank top, giving a thumbs up sign to draw attention to his bulging muscles. Advertisements like these perpetuate the following message: you can be vegan and have your masculinity too.
Let us pause for a moment to consider what masculinity is and why it is harmful.
Masculinity stems from society’s expectation of males; there are certain gender roles that are said to be appropriate for males to foster. While gender role is often defined as a “set of expectations for behaving, thinking, and feeling that is based on a person’s biological sex,” masculinity is the set of gender role behaviors and personality traits expected of “real men”: strong, independent, achieving, hard working, dominant, heterosexual, tough, aggressive, unemotional, physical, competitive, forceful (Kilmartin 1994, 7-17).
The idea that masculinity is responsible for violence, including sexual assault, is rarely disputed. As Kilmartin points out, the vast majority of violent acts are committed by males, leading us to conclude that there is a high correlation between masculinity and aggression (Kilmartin 1994, 211). According to the FBI (2011), approximately 90% of violent crimes in the United States are committed by men.
In addition to the connection between masculinity and violence, masculinity is assumed to be responsible for sexual violence, since “sexual assaults are almost exclusively perpetrated by males” (Kilmartin 1994, 212). In her cross-cultural study on rape, Sanday (1981) reports that societies with a high incidence of rape “tolerate violence and encourage men and boys to be tough, aggressive, and competitive.” Likewise, Kilmartin (2005, 1) suggests that “men’s socialization to be aggressive and to be sexual initiators, their disproportionate social and organization power, and their ability to intimidate based on greater size and muscle mass” can explain the phenomenon of male driven sexual assault. The moral of the story, then, is that, “masculinity is one of the most powerful contexts within which sexual assault occurs” Kilmartin (2005, 1).
When we use individuals like Robert Cheeke, whose image depicts the masculine, to promote veganism, we perpetuate the idea that masculinity is some sort of ideal “real men” should all strive to live up to. Yet, if masculinity is responsible for violence, especially violence against the weak or “feminine,” then we might pause to consider whether it makes sense to use these sorts of marketing ploys to send the vegan message.
Let us recall what the message of animal liberation entails: one of the goals of the animal liberation movement involves challenging the model of dominance by rethinking why we give privilege to and admire “dominant” or “stronger” beings. Yet, when organizations use bodybuilders to sell the vegan message, they send the opposite, dangerous message: masculinity is preferable to the feminine and there is a hierarchy where the masculine reign and dominate at the top.
Not only does this idea endanger women, but the idea that there is a dichotomy between the masculine and feminine disadvantages animals, since animals are identified as part of “nature”- and nature is in turn identified with the feminine.
If we want to eradicate the exploitation of animals, we must challenge the idea that “it doesn’t matter why someone’s vegan, it just matters that they are vegan.” Why someone is vegan does in fact matter if our end goal is complete animal liberation. If one does not understand the underlying principles behind ethical veganism, such as the rejection of domination and hierarchy, then what will prevent him from exploiting animals in instances that allow him to express his masculinity, such as in bullfighting, hunting, and so forth? Masculinity is a dangerous message to send, and if we can promote the health benefits of veganism without resorting to imagery of masculinity, why don’t animal liberation organizations like Vegan Outreach focus on doing just this?