I’m writing this from the lovely (though currently chilly and rather soggy) town of Halifax, where I’m teaching a series of workshops at the ever-wonderful Venus Envy. I’m fresh home from a bathhouse event (attended by 90 women and trans people!) during which a most accommodating demo bottom was so kind as to allow me to fist her in front of a very large audience, having met me barely twenty minutes prior. I’m telling you, this town rocks.
Even more exciting, this Sunday I’ll be attending the inaugural meeting of AWOL, or Atlantic Women of Leather – how cool is it that the Maritime ladies are starting to get a group going? I’m thrilled that I’ll be in town to witness its birth!
Anyway, what with teaching and related adventures, I am not in a position to write a new post this week, but I hope to do so once I’m all finished here. In the meantime, I give you a re-post of something I wrote on a completely unrelated topic. Nope, I can’t come up with a clever segue… sorry. *I originally posted this on January 6, 2007.
Oh, and if you’re in Halifax and you might be interested in the remaining two workshops, check out the registration information on my Workshops tab.
Way back in Women’s Studies, I got my first taste of ecofeminism – basically, a political position that involves the marriage of environmentalism and feminism. I’m a feminist, a vegetarian (17 years and counting) and I’ve got pretty strong views and practices around respecting the environment and animal rights, so it just made sense to me that they’d go together to some extent. I never really questioned the link.
But I just read an article in Bitch mag (yes, my eternal fave) by Aimée Dowl, entitled “Friend or Food: Raising the Flag for Feminist Vegetarianism,” which in fact has clarified several reasons, for me, as to why I don’t believe they go together after all. I’m going to focus on what the article says, which is specific to vegetarianism and not to ecofeminism as a whole, but a lot of it can be extrapolated.
It’s not so much that I think the causes of feminism and vegetarianism are totally incompatible. It’s just that some of the reasons that are often cited as common ground strike me as a bit of a stretch in some cases and downright sex-phobic in others. Some of course still make sense to me, but they tend to be the reasons that make sense independently of each other, each part of the tapestry of progressive politics but not fundamentally related.
The article explains: “Leading proponents of the feminist-vegetarian connection generally argue along three, often interwoven, ideological threads corresponding to culture, labor issues, and the environment.” It also brings up health issues. (The “culture” thread seems to cover sexuality-related stuff.) Oddly, it barely mentions animal rights in their own right at all.
Going into labour
Let’s start with labour issues. If, as the article states, slaughterhouses often exploit women in their labour practices, well, that’s a bad thing. Who’d argue any different? And of course, when women are being exploited, there is a feminist issue at hand. But while this is a labour issue and a feminist issue, I’m not sure why it should become a reason to link vegetarianism and feminism. Because if more people were vegetarians there would be fewer slaughterhouses out there exploiting women? Dubious logic at best.
Really, labour practices should be fair to women regardless of what kind of labour we’re talking about. There’s no reason a slaughterhouse should be any more or less of a good employer than any other place, and there’s no reason why anyone should have to espouse vegetarian politics (or even feminist ones for that matter) to enjoy fair labour conditions. The idea makes even less sense when you acknowledge that a woman working in a slaughterhouse probably doesn’t have strong vegetarian politics herself – because if she did she’d probably be working elsewhere. Seems almost like a subtle way to play the blame-the-victim game, much like saying the military is anti-feminist in principle and treats women badly so therefore shouldn’t exist, instead of actually addressing the problems women face in its ranks. So why is the maltreatment of women in the workplace a reason to go politically vegetarian? I’d rather see activists, feminist and otherwise, targeting the real issue at hand, which is unfair labour practice.
(Yes, I’m going to get to the sex part.)
Hey, is that sandwich feminist?
Now let’s take health issues. Fact: meat is the primary source of most saturated fat; saturated fat is the kind of fat that leads to heart disease and other health problems. It’s pretty clear-cut. If you want a fast and simple way to reduce your risk of heart attack, drop meat out of your diet and replace it with plant-based sources of protein.
Why is this a feminist issue? Because, as the article states, heart disease is the number-one killer of women in the US? Because “Breast and some other cancers have been shown to be more common in countries where animal protein consumption is higher”? Both are strong reasons to go veg, but how is that feminist? Seems to me it’s more about taking care of our health, regardless of gender. If women have added incentives to change their diets because of vulnerabilities specific to the fact of being biologically female, fair enough… but I don’t think a health choice specific to women is necessarily a feminist choice, any more than getting a prostate exam is anti-feminist because it has to do with the health of the male body.
I’m a woman, so I’ve got women’s health needs to consider; I’m a feminist; and I’m a vegetarian. But this doesn’t all combine to make eating tofu and salad a feminist act. Perhaps educating women about our specific health needs could be considered feminist… but from there to labelling our lunches feminist or no depending on their content? Hm. Not so sure. Feminism, to me, is about choice, so if a person makes an educated choice to eat meat, should that disqualify them from supporting or benefiting from women’s rights? … And yes, the key word is educated, but men need good nutrition education too, and have specific nutritional needs and risks.
Feminism has to mean more than “related to being female” or it’s kinda meaningless. I think feminism, in its many (and sometimes contradictory) facets, needs to be about women’s rights and gender equality – not reduced to hot dogs vs. bean burgers. Admittedly the territory of “women’s rights and gender equality” is pretty vast, but I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by presuming connections that require a logical leap.
(The sex part is on the way, I promise.)
But not a real green dress, that’s cruel
As for the environment – well, despite bringing it up as a central tenet of the veg/fem argument, the article doesn’t really say much about the environmental impacts of meat consumption. Which is unfortunate because they’re pretty significant – deforestation to create pasture; excessive resources used in processing, shipping and storing meat (compared to the resources for, say, grain); generally appalling levels of waste in the industry; the not fully known (but generally understood to be bad) human and environmental health impacts of excess antibiotic and hormone use in factory-farmed meat; etc., etc.
All of this is bad. Choosing to ditch meat is most definitely a good move towards helping reduce our impact on the environment. But again… why is this about feminism? Our zany weather and the rising number of endangered species should be enough to convince the entire planet that the environment is in dire need of our attention… men and women alike. If our consumer and waste production habits don’t shape up, freak storms in Vancouver and ten-degree January weeks in Montreal will be the least of our concerns in the next few generations. I’m not sure how any of these things affect women more than or differently from men. Environmental issues are everyone’s concern.
The article does bring up the existence of ecofeminism, which in addition to focusing on the environmental issues I just mentioned “also emphasize(s) spiritual connections between women and the earth, most prominently in discussions of goddess worship and pagan spirituality, or the ethic of ‘sympathy’ or ‘care’ hypothesized as elementally female.”
Well, that would be my problem with ecofeminism right there. What, because I have a uterus I’m closer to god? I’m responsible for being more sympathetic and caring because I’m equipped with a cunt? Fuck you. That kind of viewpoint serves only to reinforce the idea that men are naturally none of these things, which feeds right into the view that men are brutish, uncaring, unspiritual and generally evil, so of course they must rape and abuse we poor innocent spiritually connected gals.
I don’t buy it. Genitals are a shoddy excuse for poor behaviour and a stupid reason for good behaviour. How ’bout we all just try not to be assholes to each other, ya? If our culture can get rid of this fucked-up habit of socializing men to be particularly jerky, all the better, but don’t turn around and blame their penises for it. Not a great way to get any social change happening.
The article does say, “the essentialist tendencies of ecofeminism have turned many away; (…) the idea that women are nurturing and pro-nature and men are destructive and anti-nature is troubling to folks who reject biological essentialism.” Yes indeed. So… again, why are we still trying to make vegetarianism a feminist issue?
Great legs! Firm breasts!
Aright aright aright. Let’s talk about culture. Yes, the sex part comes up here.
For starters the article mentions the idea that advertising for the meat industry is often very sexist. Comparisons of women to cuts of meat, or vice versa; the equation of meat with manliness and vegetables with femininity, implying that the latter is shamefully wimpy; and so on and so forth. Finally! A feminist issue: sexism in advertising! I’m all for eradicating it. Let’s change culture at the level of its producers. Yee-haw. I’m on the bandwagon.
But… what does this have to do with meat and vegetarianism? There are sexist ads out there for everything under the sun, from clothing to makeup to beer to cars to sports gear to vacation packages. I might argue that sexism is a somewhat less frequently employed strategy nowadays than, say, twenty years ago – or maybe just in less blatantly offensive ways – but nonetheless it’s out there, and it’s far from being specific to the meat industry. So I should go vegetarian to protest sexism in advertising? I don’t get it. Why not protest sexism in advertising by boycotting companies, writing letters of complaint and buying from small, local women-owned or politically clued-in businesses? Vegetarianism is more than a little roundabout as a means to combat this particular issue.
And now we get to the sex part.
“(…) the cultural issues (…) connect patriarchal values with both meat consumption and exploitation of women, exploring how the latter two are linked through advertising, domestic violence, hunting and gun culture, pornography, and other forms of entertainment.”
Huh? They brought the porn argument into play to justify vegetarianism? Oh, gawd.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of meat consumption, the exploitation of women, or patriarchal values. But… how, exactly, are women exploited by hunting? Does shooting ducks on the weekend really make a guy more likely to beat his wife – and if so, couldn’t he stop beating his wife without sacrificing his interest in eating freshly shot bird? Is there something inherently sexist about hunting culture? And if so, why don’t we attack that sexism on its own? Conversely, if we want to discourage people from hunting, surely we can talk about animal rights as a reason – where’s the logic of bringing women’s rights into it?
And what does meat consumption have to do with pornography? It’s pretty telling that the only example of the latter that actually shows up in the article hearkens back to 1978 – almost 30 years ago now. Specifically, it’s a famous Hustler cover featuring a woman’s legs sticking out the top of a meat grinder, with a plate of ground meat next to it. Yes, it’s really quite disgusting. But come on, people! I’ve seen that thing in a dozen women’s studies textbooks produced in the ’80s. Is there no more fodder for your argument than that?
Forget pigs in space… try chickens in handcuffs
Dowl writes, “contemporary porn of all flavors continues to play with images of caged and bound women.” Sure, OK. But when was the last time you saw a cow in rope bondage being dragged off to the slaughterhouse? What does bondage have to do with meat production? Ever stop to think that some people like being tied up? I mean, you know your argument’s getting weak when you have to bitch about needing to renounce Japanese bondage in favour of vegetarianism. Um… apples and oranges, anyone? Same goes for cages – I’ve seen plenty of bondage cages, and trust me, they look nothing at all like chicken coops or pig corrals, and are most definitely not used for the same purposes.
If you’re going to argue that pornography is inherently exploitative of women, we’ve got a whole other discussion on our hands. With that logic, of course you could liken one form of exploitation (women) with another (animals). But that’s simplistic at best, and insulting to women at worst. Not to mention inaccurate.
You don’t really have to look very far to see examples of porn that are women-owned, women-produced, activist-oriented and politically progressive. Also, in a line that runs directly counter to the porn = meat = abuse equation, there are a fair number of explicitly vegan and vegetarian porn producers out there. Just for starters, we’ve got VegPorn, billed as “sex-positive indie porn made by vegans and vegetarians”; we’ve got the lovely local amateur porn star Seska, who details her vegan politics in her site bio; and if you check out NoFauxxx, Zenporn and even the Suicide Girls, you’ll find plenty of vegetarians among the porn-hottie profiles – tellingly, the latter specifically provides a space for each girls to mention her diet.
Beyond this particular point, there are other relationships between meat and porn. In fact I can think of several recent examples of meat- or animal-related eroticism, but none of them are mentioned in this article. Perhaps it’s because they’d cause the argument to fall apart?
One is the anthology entitled The Best of the Best Meat Erotica. Now, the concept grosses me the hell out so I haven’t bought it, but the book contains pansexual, pan-orientation erotica on a variety of meat-related themes, none of which seem to have anything to do with the gratuitous abuse of women.
Another is a recent performance by Midori at some fetish event – the details escape me, but I saw some photos and a write-up on her e-list. Apparently she trussed someone up like a turkey (bondage) and then “stuffed” her (fisting). Evidently I’m not into turkey dinners, but the idea’s pretty damned funny – and please don’t try to tell me anyone was being exploited. I get the sense the turkey was mighty happy with her stuffing.
Last but not least, I know that some BDSM players are really into animal role-play. For example, I know a woman who has the submissive personae of a kitten. She has a food bowl, a water bowl, a cute little tagged collar, and a charmingly feline meow. I also know a guy who’s really into puppy play – dog collar, leash, discipline via rolled-up newspaper, the works. There was a great documentary at Image+Nation a couple of years back dealing with puppy play enthusiasts, conventions and so forth. And I recently read a fascinating (and sometimes frankly revolting) erotic novel entitled Leash, by Jane Delynn, about a dyke who enters the realm of puppy play with a female dominant. Oh, and who could forget pony play?
Animal play really isn’t my bag; I fail to see the excitement, but maybe I’m the boring one, ’cause the people who like it like it a lot. Yup. I’m just way into actual people doing actual people-like things. But I hardly see animal play as exploitative – anyone who spends that much money on gear and that much time on behaviour training is hardly going to do so because they’re being duped by the patriarchy. They really must be getting something out of it. And unless the supermarket has recently started stocking kitten steak or dog chops, I don’t think it’s much related to the meat industry, either.
The article quotes vegan punk musician Dan Yemin as saying, in Herbivore magazine, “We reduce the animal to a piece of meat packaged in the supermarket. And it’s the same psychological objectification that results in sexism and rape.”
Honestly, a quote like that makes me ill. It’s fine to want to fight sexism and rape, and fine to adhere to progressive food politics and practices. But when you start equating meat-packing with sexism and rape, I must disagree. This kind of blanket statement serves only to obscure both issues. Slaughtering an animal is not the same thing as abusing your wife – both bad, but very different kinds of bad. Eating a steak for dinner is not the same thing as committing rape. It’s insulting enough when the ad industry reduces women to the status of meat, but it makes me livid when a supposedly progressive vegan does the same thing – or was he elevating the status of a steak to that of a woman? Either way – fuck you, dude. That kind of help I can do without.
Ultimately, the only way I think feminism and vegetarianism are ideologically related is if you approach the two issues – and many others as well – from the standpoint that no creature, human or otherwise, deserves to suffer. From that stance, you’d probably be against (for starters) sweatshop labour, environmental pollution, homophobia, child abuse, the unequal treatment of women, transphobia, racism, poverty, elder abuse, abuse of the dis/abled, the withholding of HIV treatments in poorer countries, and the exploitation of animals – whether, for you, the latter means going vegetarian, going vegan, or simply buying meat from ethical producers. But despite those fundamental links, I still think it’s essential to recognize that holding to a basic ethics of respect and care is not the same thing as conflating all the issues into one. In doing that we only hamper our ability to weigh the complexities and make informed choices about all of them – from what we wear to what we eat to how we go about standing up for our rights.