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PETA: Sexy or sexist?

petaboyfriendLong accused of objectifying women in the name of animal rights activism, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ latest ad campaign has raised the ire of many feminists who have accused it of making violence against women ‘sexy’. 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, argues Rebecca Cleaver.

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.



-2 #7 Bridg 2012-05-03 01:46
I find it so horrifying that PETA employ such sexist tactics. I'm vegan and so sympathetic to PETA's objective but can't comprehend how they can continue to use such sexist campaigns when feminists seem to have point this out to them time and time again. Alas, it seems to be getting worse! The BWVAKTBOOFM video (SO BAD) and apparently they're going to launch a porn site... Gah! Anyway, thank you for pointing out how sexist stuff is so often so often dismissed as simply being so-called sexy.

On another, somewhat related note, apparently a lingerie football league is setting up shop in Aus. Disturbingly, it's meant to be the the fastest growing women's sport. They say it's sexy. I'd say it's seriously sexist. You can read an itty bit about it (and perhaps sign the petition) here:
0 #6 Rebecca Cleaver 2012-02-29 17:58
Hi everyone, thank you so much for your comments.

Amy - It shows absolute contempt for society to say that "the masses" only like one conception of beauty. It is not a static relationship - the media (including PETA, as a mass-communicat or) has a responsibility not to perpetuate harmful hierarchies. People are socialised to think that male dominance is natural, only young, thin bodies are sexy etc. through the media. PETA has an absolute responsibility not to reinforce these damaging ideas. Everyone does, but particularly groups that are attempting to reach mass audiences.
0 #5 Margaret 2012-02-27 04:58
Great article. I have wanted to write something on PETA's latest advert but have not had time to. I wrote to PETA and got a form letter back which basically said that the fact that I wrote to them means that the animal rights message is getting out there. I suggested that there was no reason to use sexism to promote their message. I am vegetarian but will never support PETA while they use these tactics.
0 #4 Josh 2012-02-26 03:47
And don't forget their whiteness or middle-to-upper class status.
0 #3 Hazel 2012-02-24 23:37
Thanks Rebecca for a truly thought-provoki ng article. I've loved some of PETA's work over the years and have no problem with them using celebrities such as Pamela Anderson to make the smaller actions people can take such as going vegetarian or no fur acceptable to mainstream society- I think it does more good than harm. However, it's not the mid 90s any more, those ads aren't taking advantage of the culture of the time like they were then and the latest one is offensive. PETA do great work but you've really made me think about the extent to which I feel I can support them.
0 #2 Amy Johnson 2012-02-22 23:32
so what i'm trying to say is, just becuase they stick to main stream culture that healthy body weight women who are feminine are attractive for their advertising. Doesn't mean they are saying all other sub groups that find over weight, annorexic, masculine women etc etc aren't beautiful or they are wrong... all they are trying to do is appeal to the masses.
0 #1 Amy Johnson 2012-02-22 23:20
you say this in your article ''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.'' Don't you realise they are just trying to promote stuff with what most people find atrtactive..... just because they exclude other forms of beauty doesn't mean they are saying this is the only type of beauty... all they are doing is trying to appeal to the masses.... peta can't be responsible for what people find attractive... just because they won't appeal to small sub groups in society doesn't mean they are saying hey only this is beautiful... they are a charity that need to appeal to the biggest number of people. They appeal to the biggest number of people by sticking to main stream culture... and by doing this doesn't mean they are trying to say other forms of beauty in sub groups is wrong.

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