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The sexual politics of meat

SPOM_busy_crayfishA process of objectification, fragmentation and consumption connects women and animals in a patriarchal culture, where misogyny and speciesism are rife, writes Carol J Adams.

This month my book The Sexual Politics of Meat is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its publication with a new edition.

Twenty years! It just doesn’t seem possible. And that doesn’t include the years writing the book. All those years when I argued with feminists working to stop domestic and sexual violence, “How can you be eating a hamburger—a product of violence?” and when I tried to help animal activists see the inherent danger of sexism and misogynism in the animal movement.

Because of the book’s 20th anniversary, I am often asked, are things better or worse? And my answer is yes – they are both better and worse.

What is the sexual politics of meat? It is the dangerous intersection of misogyny and speciesism. I know sometimes it’s a challenge just to challenge one form of oppression and then someone like me comes along and says, we’ve got to make connections and recognize how racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and speciesism intersect. 

I am not arguing that first there was black liberation and then gay liberation and then women’s liberation and now animal liberation, a la Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. I am not positing that there is some sort of fulfillment of liberal reform in being an activist for animals. I am arguing that we live in an oppressive world that creates interlocking oppressions based on race, sex, class and species. 

My book proposes a feminist-vegetarian theory (vegan really) that posits that meat-eating exists in and operates to legitimate a patriarchal world. That is why meat is associated with virility, masculinity. Meat eating societies gain male identification by their choice of food.

We can also see the functioning of a racial and colonial politics of meat (always inflected with gender). An example? The notion of the British “beef-eater.” In earlier centuries, one of the demarcations of the evolutionary status of a culture was whether it was dependent on animal protein (high status) or not (low). 

The ‘sexual politics of meat’ is expressed in the assumption that men need meat, have the right to meat, and that meat eating is a male activity associated with virility. 

Recent examples of this include this Burger King ad against ‘chick foods’. Watch for several misogynistic moves (besides using “I am Woman” as its theme song). Burger King can have it both ways: spoofing men who need burgers, while showing how eating burgers unites men across all classes and races. 

As Susan Faludi shows in The Terror Dream, after 9/11 masculinity and virility were the essential qualities the media hyped.  I would say masculinity and virility and meat eating. 

Thus we learned that Mayor Guiliani would come home from the World Trade Center after 9/11 and eat “meat that sweats.” Where there is (anxious) virility, one will find meat eating, as a not-so-distant-in-time Hummer advertisement demonstrated. A vegetarian man must compensate for his tofu-buying by also buying … guess what?! 

For more than 30 years I have heard, “Oh I could be a vegetarian/vegan but my husband/partner needs meat.” Two forms of oppression in one statement! (Men need meat, I need to feed my husband meat; I can’t change how I eat even though I don’t want to eat animals.) 

There is more to The Sexual Politics of Meat than this. Behind every meat meal is the death of the animal whose place the “meat” take. One cannot eat meat without the death of an animal, thus animals are the absent referents in the concept of meat. 

The absent referent functions to cloak the violence inherent to meat eating, to protect the conscience of the meat eater. 

The function of the absent referent is to allow for the moral abandonment of a being. Words like “hamburger” and “steak” and “pork” empty violence from the language. With words like “hamburger” and “wings” and “bacon,” a meat eater is merely a “consumer” not someone who has morally abandoned another being. 

Meat eating requires an act of violence, and if the meat is from factory farmed animals, a lifetime of suffering. Meat eaters are happiest when they don’t have to deal with these facts. That’s the power of the absent referent — to remove the fact of what we have done to the animal. 

Oppression isn’t just an idea; it’s an activity. It’s this activity – raising and imprisoning a being, killing that being and then chewing on the fragmented dead body.       

SPOM_hamtasticThe Sexual Politics of Meat argues that women and animals are overlapping absent referents in a patriarchal culture. In advertisements, domesticated animals are presented as female – as buxom chickens or leggy turkeys or svelte pigs.  

With what I call “the pornography of meat” can be expressed freely in a disguised way—with animals as the objects. 

The images tacitly assume and approve of the availability of women’s bodies. They can assume it, proclaim it, joke about it, because in the past 20 years women’s bodies have been industrialized and globally diffused likes pieces of chicken. From a sausage that says “Undress me” to advertisements for “Live Nude Lobsters” and a tool called a “turkey hooker,” the sexualized woman is the absent referent. 

I suggest that a process of objectification/fragmentation/consumption connects women and animals in a patriarchal culture. The visual joke that substitutes one fragmented object shows the operating of this process, built on the structure of the absent referent. 

This cycle of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption links butchering with both the representation and reality of sexual violence in Western cultures that normalizes sexual consumption

Another aspect of the “sexual politics of meat” is the way female animals are treated. With meat eating, women’s power of reproduction is reduced to female enslavement—making more babies for meat eaters (veal calves are a byproduct of the dairy industry). 

There would be no meat eating if female animals weren’t constantly made pregnant. Female animals are forced to produce feminized protein, (plant protein produced through the abuse of the reproductive cycle of female animals, ie dairy and eggs). Female animals, therefore, are the absent referents in meat eating and in the consumption of dairy/eggs. 

The fate of domesticated female animals is a potent symbol of negation. In the day-to-day suffering inflicted on female animals, we can see the lowering that is femaleness. Cow, pig, bitch, old biddy, hen, chick – all carry negative connotations that derive from females who have absolutely no control over their reproductive choices. And they have all become negative terms applied to women. 

Unlike advertisements where women are shown as airplanes or liquor or any other commodity, woman as meat (just check out Burger King, Arby’s, or Carl’s for examples) is misogynist and hostile in its presentation. 

Meat, after all, is a once-living, now dead being. With meat, someone became something. These ads don’t just announce the something status of women; it tells us that women are situated as someones whom the viewer would like to make somethings. Moreover, it is the patriarchal perspective (someone becoming something) that precedes all other advertisements that commodify women. 

Here’s what popular culture wants us to see: symbolically defeated females. 

As I write in the Epilogue to The Sexual Politics of Meat, “We proclaim and reinforce the triumph of male dominance by eating female-identified pieces of meat.” 

Truly, we’ve got a problem and you are either part of the solution or you’re not. There is no neutral place from which to observe the sexual politics of meat. If we don’t want to be objects to someone else, why are we making others objects for our use? 

At the end of the sexual politics of meat I wrote, “Eating animals acts as mirror and representation of patriarchal values.” It was true then and it is true now.

spom_coverCarol J. Adams is a feminist-vegan advocate and activist whose written work explores the cultural construction of intersectional oppressions. Through an analysis of attitudes, literary works, philosophical positions, and contemporary images culled from various media and advertising sources, Adams’ books The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (1990), Neither Man Nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals (1994), and The Pornography of Meat (2003) theorize interconnected ways in which women and animals are subjugated and sexualized.  

She is also the co-editor of Animals and Women (1995) and The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics (2007) (both with Josephine Donovan), and has written extensively on vegetarianism and veganism. Her books Living Among Meat Eaters and How to Eat Like A Vegetarian even if You Don’t Want to Become One (co-authored with Patti Breitman) offer ways to embody feminist-vegan theory.  

She has also been an activist against domestic violence, racism, and homelessness, and for reproductive justice and fair housing practices. Visit her website here  and her blog here 

The 20th anniversary edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat is available now. Published by Continuum. Distributed in Australia through Palgrave Macmillan. You can find some of the early reviews here.

Images: Top - courtesy of Carol J Adams. Centre - by Lois Davidson.





























0 #3 Ida 2010-05-18 09:12
The following is an excerpt from my response "The Sexual Politics of Carol J. Adams (" on The Vegan Ideal (

Adams uses the trope of "the pornography of meat" to suggest that all sex work is analogous to the slaughtering of other animals' for their flesh and vice versa. In effect, sex workers of all types become Adams' very own objectified "absent referent." That is, by invoking things like "Live Nude Lobsters" and "turkey hooker" in order to conflate sex workers with slaughtered nonhuman animals, Adams in effect erases and silences sex workers. The lobster ad tells us nothing about the lives of adult dancers, nor does the tool for moving a turkey's corpse tell us anything about what it is like to be a prostitute. Yet Adams exploits this trope in order to make generalizations about all women's oppression, which means making absent the specificity of sex workers' lived experience and daily reality so that she can make overreaching references that center normative affluent White women like Adams and her target White middle-class audience.
Read the full post... (
0 #2 Paul Spencer 2010-05-18 01:16
That's really quite a good article. I first thought that it was stretching a point to say that sexism and speciesism were connected, as such, rather than just that they operate in similar ways and from similar motivations. But this article has made me realise that the two oppressions do intersect and interact. Now I want to read the book.
0 #1 Rico 2010-05-17 05:31
Wonderful, clear article!

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