It's not surprising that there's a certain amount of sexism in the animal rights movement, since sexism so thoroughly permeates our society as a whole. What is surprising is hearing some animal rights activists defend sexism when it's pointed out to them. Since animal rights is a social justice movement, many animal activists believe that the animal rights movement is part of a larger battle against all oppression.
What is Sexism?
Sexism means discrimination based on sex. Sexism can be compared to racism; in both the differences between two (or more) groups are viewed as indications that one group is superior or inferior. Sexism can refer to either the belief of the person doing the discriminating or their words and behavior.
In situations such as schools, businesses or the workplace, sexism might be more specifically called gender discrimination, and is illegal.
What is Misogyny?
The term "misogyny" applies specifically to women:
Misogyny means the hatred of women. The word comes from the Greek misein, to hate and gyne, woman. Misogyny is often used to describe contempt for women as a whole, rather than hatred of specific women.
The objectification of women - the portrayal of women as sex objects - is one example of misogyny.
Misogyny and sexism hurt women and men, and hurt the animal rights movement. While some believe that sexist jokes and misogynistic language are not harmful, these mere words contribute to a culture in which women are undervalued and objectified. Like racist or homophobic remarks, sexist remarks encourage sexist behavior which leads to discrimination and even violence. Alison Grundy, a clinical psychologist in the field of sexual violence, states, "Now we have 30 years of research to show that the sexualised and violent messages of popular music, media and video games do shape and provoke male aggressive and sexualised violence."
These remarks specifically hurt the animal rights movement because they distance us from other social justice movements when we should be working together to end all oppression. Also, any remarks that insult or offend a group of people will divide our own movement.
Sexism shows up in the animal rights movement in the same ways in which one would find it in society in general – e.g. assumptions that women and men will fall into certain roles, or that women are less capable of performing certain tasks. However, there are also examples of sexism that are specific to the animal rights movement: the use of sex and nudity in campaigns, and the use of misogynistic language.
Sex in Animal Rights Campaigns
The most well-known examples of sex in animal rights campaigns come from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA’s sexualized campaigns include "I’d rather go naked than wear fur," their banned Superbowl commercials where scantily clad women breathlessly fondle vegetables, or the State of the Union Undress in which a woman strips while talking about animal rights on the PETA website. The problem is not necessarily sexism, but sexualized campaigns, although these campaigns almost always use naked or nearly-naked women.
The use of sexual imagery in campaigns is often defended on the basis that it works in getting people’s attention. Even if one believes that it works (see below), the ends cannot justify the means. While some may argue that the naked women participate in these campaigns voluntarily, the campaigns affect all women because they objectify all women.
Furthermore, the imagery cannot be viewed in a vacuum, but must be viewed in the context of a society in which sexism and misogyny are already a problem. In their Joint Statement by a Group of Abolitionist Vegan Feminists for International Women's Day, ten abolitionist vegan feminists write:
[T]he view that women are "empowered" or "liberated" by choosing to commodify themselves ignores the structural dimension of sexism in our patriarchal society. Whether we like it or not, our choices to try to "take back" patriarchy's commodification of women by participating in it voluntarily affect the lives of other women, especially women with less power. In a culture that still views and presents women as sex objects on a daily basis, the "taking back" or "reclaiming control" intent of these choices is entirely lost to the greater public, and the objectification and commodification is simply reinforced. When this sexism is reinforced as being acceptable or no big deal, the overall effect is to reinforce the attitudes that allow the trafficking, abuse, and other forms of exploitation and violence that are inflicted on women in poverty and of lower socio-economic status around the world every day.