Why Constantly Questioning Ourselves and Staying Informed as Activists is Key. Interview with Carol

Carol J. Adams, feminist-vegan advocate, activist, and independent scholar talks about the development of the concepts introduced in 'The Sexual Politics of Meat' since her book was first published in 1990, the dangers of single-issue foci, why it is crucial to constantly educate ourselves as activists, the importance of self-care, and how to stay positive in an oppressive world.

'The Sexual Politics of Meat' was first published in 1990. Has the relevance of the book changed over the years?

I think it's really sad that it's still relevant. You would think that at some point we would get to the place where misogyny did not roam through representations and attitudes and that we were getting closer to equality, but I don't see that.

In terms of veganism and animals, on the one hand, veganism has completely changed since when the book first came out. 'Vegan' was not a term that most people would recognize in 1990. Even in 2000, I was being advised not to name a book with the word 'vegan' in it.

Veganism has lifted the boat in terms of the conversation because so many people have joined in to talk about how animals are treated. But I think in terms of having a feminist perspective on veganism, we still need a whole hell of a lot more work.

Do you think that representations of the sexual politics of meat in the dominant culture and the media have changed?

Representations of the sexual politics of meat are those that show the connection between what I have called 'animalizing women' and 'sexualizing animals'. There is a point where you do not know if you are looking at a pig who is made sexy, or a sexy woman who has been made into a pig. I am constantly being sent examples of the sexual politics of meat. I just received two in the past 24 hours. One of them is advertising an agricultural fair in the western United States. It is of a sexy pig who even has a dating app! On this dating app she [the pig] can look at these other anthropomorphized male animals and make a decision about who to 'date', when of course we know that in animal agriculture, animals don't make choices at all. Animals are not having sexual relations; the females are being artificially inseminated and the males are so-called 'milked' for their semen.

So, the distance between what’s real and what’s represented seems to have gravitated even further apart. In the United States, there are ag-gag laws that keep people in some states from being able to expose factory farms. At the same time, factory farming animal agriculture is using the sexual politics of meat to advertise itself. I don’t see things improving, sadly.

In your opinion, do certain animal rights organizations like PETA also reinforce the sexual politics of meat through their actions and advertising?

In 'The Sexual Politics of Meat', I call animals 'absent referents' because they disappear as having their own lives, needs, and interests. What organizations like PETA prove with the sexual advertisements that use women's bodies is that they do not think that animals can represent themselves. Animals remain absent referents. Although they [PETA] do not have that much power in the dominant culture, in a sense they confirm the sexual politics of meat by the ways they try to influence the dominant culture. They say: 'You can keep your pornography, you can keep your attitudes towards women, just don’t eat hamburgers while you're oppressing women!'. That’s basically it.

But it is not just PETA and sexual advertisements. In the United States, a lot of attention in the past year has been given to the issue of sexual exploitation in the animal rights movement. Some of the same people who were most explicitly exploitative have also argued that the animal rights movement needed to be a single-issue movement. But what does single-issue focus bring us? Single-issue focus contributes to the viewpoint that the needs of women who were experiencing sexual exploitation did not matter - because for them to speak up and expose their oppressors would 'hurt the animals'.

People like Wayne Pacelle, the former head of HSUS, personally benefitted from this perspective in their serial acts of sexual exploitation. It silenced his victims and kept his behavior from being of concern to the movement for the longest time. I think that there is so much in the animal rights and vegan movement that has the tendency to be dangerous, reactive, and regressive rather than progressive. That is a problem.

Do you feel like there is also an issue with the vegan movement being largely represented by white males as leaders?

We have had a problem not only with how the animal rights movement activism is valued, but also with how animal rights theory is framed. There are two parallel problems that benefit men, in particular heterosexual and white men, as leaders.

First, is the way the history of the animal rights movement is told - in such a way that foremothers disappear (or we could say: are made into 'absent referents'). In the 1960s we had articulate women like Ruth Harrison ('Animal Machines', 1964) and Brigid Brophy ('The Rights of Animals' in the London Sunday Times) identifying issues about the experience of animals. Peter Singer's 'Animal Liberation' (published in 1975), in fact evolved from a book review he did of an anthology that was inspired by the writings of these 1960s women. Then, in his book, Peter Singer writes, to paraphrase, that 'first, we had black liberation, then we had gay liberation, then women’s liberation, and now it is time for animal liberation'. He says that as though they were teleologically fulfilling each other, like: 'Oh, we used to have those issues, but they been solved'. But that is not the case. This contributed to the idea of animal liberation as a single-issue movement.

There was a strong eco-feminist movement in the United States and Australia at the same time that 'Animal Liberation' came out - a movement that made connections among social oppressions - yet in the animal movement, we end up with these single-issue approaches. Therefore, eco-feminists like myself and others have to constantly be in dialogue with what tends to be a regressive attitude - an attitude that implies that we do not have to care about these things [social oppression], that either they are solved, or they are about humans and we need to stay focused on animals, or 'they' [oppressed humans] have a 'voice', and animals do not; or whatever is thrown out as a reason. Instead of being able to say that they are interconnected oppressions, and if there are interconnected oppressions, we cannot solve one without solving the others, we once again hear the drumbeat of the single-issue movement. What we end up doing in the animal rights movement is that we make all the other victims of oppression absent referents; they disappear, and we have this single focus. It's inaccurate, it's unjust, and it is self-defeating.

The second thing that we need to note is that women's status has always been lower than men's, not only in society, but in the animal movement. We know that it is harder for women to be heard than for men. Especially in the 1980s, when the animal rights movement was coming into its own, the media was not paying attention to many of the women in the movement. I heard examples of a woman who was president of her local group and a man was vice president. The local newspaper came to talk to them and immediately turned towards the man, assuming he was president.

Jim Mason, who has done a great book on interconnected oppression, [An Unnatural Order: Why We are Destroying the Planet and Each Other, A Manifesto for Change], discovered in the 1980s when he travelled to various places to support local grassroots animal groups, that the women who had been doing the work were so happy to see him because they told him, 'Now maybe we can have the local media listen, because they won’t come here for us!'. It wasn’t just that we had a problem in the movement; the problem in the movement reflected and was reinforced by a problem in the dominant culture.

We also have a notion - a very ableist, sexist, racist notion - of who accomplishes things. Someone like Wayne Pacelle, who is handsome and articulate, is seen as the person who can represent the movement, rather than having grassroots movements with decentralized and changing leadership. This reinforces the dominant way of accomplishing animal issues, which then empowers men and reinforces their unique role in the movement, although we know that 75-80% of the movement is women.

How can we challenge and counteract this dominant way of accomplishing animal issues within the vegan movement?

First of all, we have got to stop saying we are the 'voice of the voiceless'! It is ableist. Animals have voices; it is just that they do not have our language and we are not listening. Referring to animals as voiceless creates a hierarchy of whose needs come first.

It implies that we have to care for those who do not have voices and therefore those who do have voices do not need us. This creates a dualism or dialectic of focusing our interests and efforts only toward those who are ostensibly voiceless.

For example, in the United States there was this discussion about the NFL football player Michael Vick, who was convicted of dog-fighting. On a national radio show, someone who was an activist for animals claimed - regarding the importance of working for animals - that battered women had voices, but those dogs did not. What the hell? First, why is it even oppositional, especially when you know how many times battered women are kept or continued to be harmed by the batterer by harm to animals they cared for and loved? But it also positions 'voice' as though it carried power. But one of the effects of oppression is silencing those who have voices.

The second part of the problem in the framing of the issue is that 'we have to do this for animals'. And this is something I think DxE participates in: Everything has got to be for the animals (see this blog-post for more information). Where are our boundaries? If everything is measured by it being for the animals, it creates an inimical and regressive standard that does not acknowledge our needs for self-care and our need for boundaries. The boundaries are lowered if someone who is exhausted still says, 'I got to go to this meeting, I have got to go to this protest; it’s for the animals'. This does not acknowledge that even if I am out 20 hours a day, helping the animals, I am never in my lifetime going to be able to do everything the animals need.

I feel that a lot in the animal rights movement has been framed by white men's attitudes and white men's position of privilege and that for us to truly have a what’s been called 'intersectional movement', men have to start listening and stop framing the definition of activism in the movement.

Speaking of intersectionality, how can we work towards creating a more inclusive movement?

First of all, I am very wary of the term 'intersectional', now everybody is using it. The term was coined by feminist legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.

Intersectionality is not something that originated from recognizing connections between movements, its purpose was to recognize the unique situation of women of color who are constantly experiencing gendered racism and racist sexism. You cannot dissect them and say: This was a racist thing, but that was a sexist thing; they are intersecting. I did not know the term [intersectionality] when I wrote 'The Sexual Politics of Meat', as the book was completed at the same time Crenshaw's article came out. In that book, I used the term 'interconnected oppressions' to show how oppressed people and animals become intertwined absent referents under the dominant culture.

For us in the animal rights movement, we need to recognize how the oppression of animals is tied to colonialism, to patriarchal attitudes, and to white supremacy. We need to make our work be part of a challenge to colonialism, white supremacy, and a patriarchal society. We cannot eliminate what is happening to animals without recognizing the context in which the oppression grew up and from which it gets its legitimization.

It was colonialism that brought cows to the United States. It was colonialism that deemed that dairy milk was a superior food although the majority of people in this world cannot digest it. Some, like Lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Movement, have argued that we should call those who cannot digest milk 'lactose normal', rather than pathologizing their 'lactose intolerance'. When we look at how the inability to digest lactose was abnormalized rather than starting from the proposition that that is what is normal, we need to perceive how we have an example of colonialism, white supremacy, and animal oppression intersecting.

When we as activists start from that position of interconnected oppressions, we are starting at a different place. We would no longer say that we have to be the 'voice of the voiceless' and that 'we have to do everything for the animals'. I want to challenge this structural dominance that is constantly making beings absent referents, and thereby making them disappear. And I'm not talking only about animals.

Recently, a group of us - Julia Feliz, Meneka Repka, Carolyn Bailey, and myself - authored a Vegan Bill of Consistent Anti-Oppression. We explain, 'It is imperative that vegans understand that vegans from different communities experience veganism differently from one another, particularly due to intersecting oppressions that they cannot leave at the door simply because they are engaging in veganism/Animal Rights.'