The State of the Movement

Speciesism is wrong because, like racism, sexism, and homophobia, it excludes sentient beings from full membership in the moral community based on an irrelevant characteristic. Race, sex, sexual orientation, and species are all irrelevant to the capacity to be harmed.

But the rejection of speciesism on this ground implies the rejection of discrimination based on race, sex, or sexual orientation. It is unacceptable to perpetuate the commodification of one group for the benefit of another. Commodification involves treating the other—whether a woman, person of color, gay or lesbian, or nonhuman—as an object, as something rather than as someone.

For many years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has promoted sexist campaigns. This started with their “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign in the early 1990s and has degenerated through a series of increasing sexist promotions culminating in its most recent PETA’s State of the Union Undress.

We’ve now gone to full frontal (and shaved) female nudity—“for the animals.” You must first click to signify that you are over 18. And after you watch a woman strip completely while she tells you all about PETA’s welfarist campaigns designed to get you to consume with “compassion,” you see several minutes of gory photos of nonhumans being exploited in various contexts. The video ends with a quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King about justice. It’s really multiple levels of pornography.

This most recent video, although more extreme than past PETA efforts in this regard, is problematic for the reasons that all of PETA’s sexist and misogynistic campaigns are problematic.

First, these campaigns commodify a traditionally disempowered group (women) as a supposed means to the end of helping another disempowered group (nonhumans). But what sense does it make to say that we should treat one group instrumentally in order to help another group? It does not make any sense whatsoever. Indeed, by encouraging the public to see women as objects, PETA merely ensures that people will continue to see nonhumans as objects. As long as we continue to treat women like meat, we will continue to treat nonhumans as meat.

It is imperative that we object to the instrumental treatment of any group. Devaluing and commodifying one group for the supposed benefit of another is immoral and self-defeating.

Second, by coupling sexual imagery with images of violence toward nonhumans, these campaigns attempt to eroticize animal exploitation. We live in a culture in which violence, and particularly violence against women, is eroticized in a variety of ways. Perpetuating this, and extending it to the exploitation of nonhumans, is deeply troubling.

Third, these campaigns have everything to do with promoting PETA and nothing to do with the exploitation of nonhuman animals. PETA started its naked fur campaign in the early 1990s. The fur industry is stronger than ever. There has been a dramatic increase in the past decade in the number of stores carrying fur and the number of designers using fur combined with a significant drop in the average age of fur buyers. A 2004 Gallup poll “found that 63 percent of respondents pronounced the buying and wearing of clothing made with animal fur ‘morally acceptable.’” Although good results for nonhumans would not justify sexism, sexism has not produced any good results for nonhumans.

Fourth, these campaigns will do nothing to encourage serious discussion about the exploitation of nonhumans, including the importance of veganism, the problems with animal welfare, the property status of nonhumans, speciesist thinking, etc. Rather, they will cause any thinking person who is not already convinced to dismiss the “movement” as stupid, offensive, and juvenile. It is no wonder that other political progressives shun the “movement.”

The idea that PETA thinks it appropriate to end a striptease video with a quote from Martin Luther King about injustice is further indication that PETA is willing to trivialize anything and anyone in its relentless attempt to promote itself. Perhaps PETA should recall that Dr. King significantly advanced the cause of justice through intellect, tenacity, dignity and courage and without ever “going naked” to win civil rights or engaging in any of the exploitative antics that have become PETA’s trademark.

I have been critical of PETA’s sexism from the very beginning of these campaigns in the early 1990s. And every time that I have raised this issue with various PETAphiles, including Ingrid Newkirk, I have been told that there is nothing wrong with these campaigns because the women involved participate willingly and that it is an expression of feminism to go naked “for the animals.” That is as ridiculous as saying that the African-American actors who perpetuated racist stereotypes in blackface comedies in the 1920s and 1930s were striking a blow for racial equality. The fact that this exploitation is “victim approved” does not mean it is not exploitation. It just means that sexism is so pervasive in our society that many women are blinded to it. That should come as no surprise.

Those of you who regard PETA as “radical” need to rethink your understanding of that term. Being “radical” involves going to the root or the source. A radical solution is one that goes to the root of the problem and proposes a fundamental shift. PETA’s campaigns are indistinguishable from traditional animal welfare approaches. The fact that PETA also promotes sexism and tries to offend anyone that it can just to get media attention does not make it “radical.” PETA is not acting to change the prevailing paradigm of speciesist hierarchy and oppression—it is reinforcing that paradigm.

PETA may have started as a worthwhile organization, but it has become an end in itself and exploited nonhumans are merely “props” in an endless series of self-promotions that have turned PETA into a multi-million dollar organization that has abandoned any claim to be abolitionist in any serious sense. PETA is hindering, and not helping, the cause of animal rights.

But then, if PETA’s giving an award to “visionary” slaughterhouse designer and animal exploiter Temple Grandin, or PETA’s position that animal rights means dead animals, did not cause you to come to the conclusion that PETA has gone so far astray as to have lost the path entirely, then perhaps a full frontal striptease performed by a woman extolling the virtues of animal welfare juxtaposed with scenes of animal exploitation and ending with Dr. Martin Luther King will not bother you either.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione