PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) rose to promenance in 1981 when they were successful in getting the first conviction of an animal tester on the basis of cruelty to animals. Since then they have been involved in cases and campaigns as diverse as convincing McDonalds to introduce animal treatment standards and new training regulations introduced in the US for entertainment animals. I’m not here to talk about the good of what PETA has done for animal welfare however, I’m here to discuss whether or not it’s ok for one social advocate to kick another social advocate in the face, to achieve their own goals. Whose face is PETA kicking right now? Well us, feminists.
For some time now PETA has been using nudity in its campaigning. Starting with the “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” project, it has increasingly used the sexualisation of its models, not just their nudity, to garner support, particularly with one of its most high profile supporters, Pamela Anderson. Anderson has been involved in a number of PETA campaigns, most notably the “all animals have the same parts” project which pictured Anderson in a bikini and a sexualised pose with her body segmented like an old fashioned butchers diagram. This was just the start however, earlier this week PETA announced its plan to launch a fully fledged porn site, with an animal rights flavour.
So, is it ok for one social activism campaign to shit all over another social activism campaign just to get hits? Should the animal rights activists be using the sexual objectification of women for their own benefit, effectively stamping all over feminist and women’s rights campaigners in the process?
When I was in Istanbul recently, studying at the CREA Sexuality, Gender and Rights Institute, this is one of the questions we raised. Does it matter whose face you kick in your scramble to achieve rights or progress for your “group”? The main way that campaigners do this is through the “we’re not as bad as them” method. In sexual rights campaigning this means one group, eg: LGB rights activists will say something along the lines of
“we may be Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual but at least we’re not Trans or Intersex!”
“we’re really just like you, we love/work/bank/communicate just like you, unlike those others who are the real freaks!”
This type of campaigning can be incredibly effective, creating solidarity between otherwise at odds groups and fostering a sense of “togetherness” against the “other”. Does it however, have integrity? Is it a campaign strategy that we should be embracing? Is using Pamela Anderson’s body as a sex object and comparing it with a piece of meat an acceptable way of drawing attention to the plight of animals in the meat industry?
In my opinion, it’s not. Just like using “worse” sexual practices as a way of developing solidarity with people of “normal” sexual practices undermines the key message of sexual rights activism (which should be along the lines of “can’t we all just get along”). PETAs use of women’s bodies as a means to furthering their animal rights activism undermines their claims to “we all have the same parts” because they’re saying the exact opposite, they’re saying
LOOK BOOBIES! Now that we have your attention, meat is bad.
Which is really sad, as this could have been a match made in heaven. Instead of adding to the objectification of women, PETA could have used this problem to further its own cause hand in hand with feminists. It could have launched a campaign of
look how badly women are treated, dressed like meat for our consumption, now see how animals in commercial agriculture are similar, dressed for our pleasure, packaging that tells lies, the real truth is blah
In many cases feminists and LGBTIQ activists have found this balance. They’ve managed to show the common ground between women’s liberation and the need for sexual freedoms. In the past feminists weren’t so good at playing with everyone, in the early days feminism was very much a white, middle class privilege that women of colour, poverty or disadvantage could not work within. Times have changed (in most places) and feminism is theoretically open to all comers, including men! So where is the solidarity between the feminists and the animal rights activists?
PETAs introduction of a port site and the use of women’s bodies to further their campaigning isn’t just an issue of tastelessness either, it’s actually counterproductive in my opinion. The sexual objectification of women’s bodies is a real problem, it’s a problem because it turns women into objects, objects to be used and abused. Like campaigner Jean Kilbourne says, it’s a process of dehumanisation and dehumanisation always leads to violence. Which in essence flies in the face of everything that PETA is trying to achieve with its animal rights campaigns. They’re trying to get us to see the inherent value of animals and their right to live free from fear and violence by sactioning and encouraging violence and the devalueing of women. It’s like this; I don’t have a problem with pornography per se, pornography that’s made for its own sake with fun and enthusiasm and great OH&S regulations for participants is great, but porn can also be a bad thing, it can be harmful and we need to actively refuse to accept a society which objectifies womens bodies and assumes they’re only there for our consumption. I feel the same way about meat. It’s not inherently in my opinion a bad thing, neither is animal testing or even fur products. It’s the manner in which they are produced which makes it a bad thing, just the same as pornography. So by PETA participating in the objectification of women, contributing to it and actively involving itself in practices which contribute to violence against women its completely destroying its own credibility in my eyes.
Until PETA recognises that it’s not ok to shit all over other social activists, I will be speaking out against PETA and their campaigns and hoping to see qualified, collaborative players enter the scene and put PETA and their exploitative tactics back in the box they came from.
Image taken from Jonathon McIntosh’s flickr account under Creative Commons licence