PETA: Sexy or sexist?
- Published: 23 February 2012
- Hits: 21562
23 February 2012
A few years ago, as part of the crash course in activism one takes in their first year of university, I read Dan Mathews’ autobiography Committed.
As Senior Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Dan describes himself as a "rabble-rouser", and spends much of his time defending PETA's controversial advertising techniques.
As a committed women’s activist, I was vaguely familiar with PETA’s campaigns and the general air of feminist chagrin they invoked. At that time, PETA’s main offence was to assault its audience with a barrage of naked women (and the occasional man) in the service of selling some simplistic slogan or other.
While I had serious doubts about PETA’s disjointed message (wouldn’t it be much simpler to just tell people to go vegan, rather than approach each issue as though it were a separate problem?), and its adherence to the unimaginative – and, frankly, insulting – "sex sells" school of advertising, I really wasn’t going to waste my time arguing against the right of Pamela Anderson to flash her bits at me in the name of animal liberation.
And so it was, with a general feeling of goodwill and solidarity, that I set about reading Dan’s book. It was here that I came across the following anecdote, which I will paraphrase for you with all the self-restraint I can muster. Here goes:
Dan has been invited to speak as a guest lecturer at an American university. He regales the students with stories of his daring activist escapades, and then graciously accepts questions from his enthralled audience.
A nervous looking woman stands up and meekly asks Dan if he thinks there is something wrong with PETA’s overt objectification of women. Dan, confident as ever, takes a moment to mull it over, and then offers a bitingly devastating response.
Looking this woman dead in the eye, he tells the lecture hall that “there is a difference between sexy and sexist”. The woman, looking slightly embarrassed and put in her place, promptly sits down and allows Dan to continue speaking. Dan, no doubt, is pleased that he has found one more catchy slogan to add to his every-increasing rolodex.
Well thank you Dan. Let me just throw away my copy of The Beauty Myth right now so that I can go and flip through the latest issue of FHM, confident in the knowledge that this is sexy, not sexist.
Like many of PETA's slogans, the "sexy not sexist" claim is borne of a gross oversimplification of what is at stake in feminist critiques of PETA's work.
What Dan and the rest of the folk at PETA fail to understand is that "sexy" is not a static term. Of course there is a difference between the literal meanings of the words "sexy" and "sexist", but that doesn’t mean they have no bearing on one another.
What is considered "sexy" informs how women are able to experience and express their sexuality. PETA’s "I’d rather go naked than wear fur" campaign bombarded us with the message that only young, thin bodies are sexy. Their "lose the blubber – go vegan" campaign told us that our sexiness was proportional to our skinniness.
PETA hasn’t plucked these ideas out of nowhere – the reason these messages are motivating is because they tap into existing standards imposed upon us – but that doesn’t mean their utilisation of these stereotypes is innocuous.
By reinforcing these messages PETA actively contributes to their proliferation. And in sharing this anecdote with us, Dan unwittingly demonstrates PETA's frustrating arrogance and refusal to engage with other social movements and their criticisms, an inexcusable problem for an organisation whose existence is based on creating a dialogue that centres on changing people's political beliefs.
Flash forward five years. I am still involved in both feminist and animal activism. I am aware that my feminist politics do not seem to align with those of PETA's PR department, just as my vegan politics frequently do not align with those of my feminist allies.
Violence against women is funny?
Even so, I cannot begin to describe to you the utter revulsion I felt when I came across PETA’s latest internet campaign, entitled BWVAKTBOOFM (Boyfriend Went Vegan and Knocked the Bottom out of Me).
The video mimics a public service announcement, and shows a bruised and battered-looking woman in a neck brace limping down the street in her underwear. The male narrator tells us that "Jessica" is a victim of BWVAKTBOOFM-syndrome, a condition whereby men go vegan and are suddenly able to "bring it like a tantric porn star".
The deliberately controversial ad’s supposed saving grace is that Jessica is seen hobbling back to her boyfriend with a wry smile on her face.
The message? Violence against women is funny, and it’s extra okay if they come back for more.
Is this PETA’s idea of sexy? I have no problem with consensual sado-masochistic sex, but I do have a problem with the message that women are passive receptacles to male strength in the bedroom.
We are not given the impression that Jessica had any choice in whether or not her “bottom got knocked out” of her. We are told that her boyfriend went vegan and his newfound strength resulted in her injuries.
Even if we take Jessica’s “cheeky” smile (as one PETA spokesperson put it) as an indication that she enjoyed being violently pounded by her boyfriend, the message doesn’t change.
The fact remains that PETA’s depiction of heterosexual sex is one where male virility is tied up with physical strength, and it is a woman’s place to “take” what is being “brought”. If this is what Dan meant by “sexy”, he has no business using the word.
PETA will not determine for me what is “sexy”. I will not be told that my partner’s worth is somehow linked to his physical strength and, in turn, his capacity to pound me to a hobbling mess. I will not be told that my enjoyment of sex is somehow tied to my male partner’s ability to “bring it” in the bedroom.
I can bring whatever needs to be brought, thank you very much. These are the same patriarchal notions of gender roles that have inhibited true expressions of sexuality for centuries, and it is PETA’s stubborn acceptance and reinforcement of these attitudes (even in the face of intelligent criticism) that renders their promotional material so offensive and, I would argue, largely ineffective.
PETA's problem, I think, is not only that they are unwilling to engage with feminist criticism, but that they seem genuinely to believe their work constitutes some kind of pro-sex feminist crusade.
Certainly they do appear to be pro-sex, but only of the skinny, middle-class, heterosexual kind. And only if strict gender roles are strongly adhered to.
This is not the kind of "sex" or "sexy" that is worth fighting for. We have hundreds of years of patriarchy already fighting that fight! We need a pro-sex agenda that remembers at all times that "sex" is a malleable concept, and that we are still in the midst of the struggle to reclaim it from patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, ageist, and classist forces.
If PETA insist on clinging to the old edict "sex sells", they desperately need to revise exactly what kind of "sex" they are willing promote.
Rebecca Cleaver is a Philosophy graduate with an interest in ethics, feminist philosophy, and human interaction with animals.