Our Bodies, Our Choice

Revisiting The Sexual Politics of Meat

Hen: My Body is Mine, (detail); Sow: My Body is Mine (detail), Rabbit: My Body is Mine (detail), by Janell O’ Rourke, 2017.

One of the questions Carol J. Adams is commonly asked is, “Which came first — your feminism or your veganism?” She answers, “My feminism.”

A tomboy growing up, Adams bucked against social norms about what it meant to be a girl. By the time she attended college at University of Rochester, she had become an outspoken feminist. It was the early 1970’s and the feminist movement was making radical assertions for the time, naming domestic violence, date rape, and sexual harassment. They were advocating for women to take back their own bodies and their lives.

She went on to Yale Divinity School where she continued her feminist activism. There, it was the unexpected death of her beloved horse, Jimmy, that catalyzed a change in her consciousness about animals and her relationship to them. Upon returning to her family’s home after her first year, she received news from a neighbor that Jimmy had been shot during a hunting accident. She recalls running out of the house to find him lying dead. That night as she grieved, she bit into a hamburger, and it dawned on her that she was eating a dead cow. It struck her that she was crying for one animal while eating another. She would never eat Jimmy, so she wondered what the difference was between the animal she knew and loved and the animal on her plate. She had made a conscious connection between her hamburger and the death of an animal. She recalls, “That’s when I knew, I had to stop eating meat.”

Miss America Beauty Pageant, Atlantic City, NJ, 1968

Adam’s new awareness of the “absent referent” revealed a nexus between her feminism and her choice to become a vegetarian, though it would be another 15 years before she would complete her seminal work, The Sexual Politics of Meat. In the book, Adams applied the linguistic concept of the absent referent to the absence in our consciousness of the living, breathing animal who is killed for every meal of meat we consume. She drew parallels between the ways in which the animal was systematically removed from our consciousness, and the ways in which women were objectified to facilitate male domination, exploitation, and violence against them.

In the early 1990’s, the release of SPOM sparked a new kind of discussion about feminism and animal rights across college campuses. There was no shortage of cultural references and images one could find to illustrate the animalization of women and the sexualization of animals by a male-dominated culture that defined both by its interests. These tendencies were deeply embedded in our language and could be found, for instance, in the common use of animal names to sexualize and diminish women: chick, bunny, beaver, pussy, bitch, shrew, vixen, kitten … cow, pig, and dog, to name a few.

Fifty Shades of Chicken Cookbook, still from promotional trailer (top-left); Beymen Blender ad (top-right); Arby’s ad (bottom-left); Veehandel & Int. Transport, company logo on truck transporting pigs to slaughter (bottom-right)

I was a college student at the time, and, although I was galvanized a few years earlier by the issue of vivisection on primates, SPOM had a profound effect on me. My ability to see the objectification of my own body in the objectification and brutal consumption of animals planted an awareness in me that grew deep within my bones. I can recall the first time I watched footage of a mother cow giving birth to her calf. Minutes after he was born, brutal hands dragged him away from her. She charged and called after him, but she was powerless. Hearing her cry for him into the night, in the time-lapsed footage, pierced not only my heart but my soul. I was not a mother, but I understood the bond between a mother and a child. I understood longing and grief. I saw the terror in his eyes, cruelly deprived of his mother’s care and protection. His body trembled. Too weak to stand in the midst of a noisy cattle auction, he was kicked mercilessly and he fell to the ground.

Deconstructing Elsie (detail), by Nava Atlas, 2014
Veal Calf Wheelbarrow, by Janell O’Rourke, 2016

I was jarred by the experience, and yet, my ability to see a common cause behind the suffering of my gender and the suffering of animals gave me hope. I thought, if we could make progress removing the definitions, the labels, and the price tags patriarchy put on our bodies, so could we also remove them from the fragmented bodies of countless animals. One day.

Boobscape (left), Slink (right), by Lynn Mowson, 2016.

Over 25 years and several books later, The Sexual Politics of Meat is now being revisited in a traveling exhibition by fourteen contemporary women artists whose work has been inspired by Carol Adams’ theories. Her work couldn’t be more relevant than it is today, as we find ourselves experiencing a backlash against the progress that has been made over several decades around issues of identity and equality.

In the 2016 Presidential Election, Donald Trump appealed to a nostalgia for the good old days — before the margins spoke back to the center and began to redefine and reassert themselves. Emboldened by the election result, the old center is pushing back with fervor in attempt to put us all back in our places. However, their efforts are meeting fierce resistance and momentum for greater progress even in this regressive time. It seems the backlash has awakened a widespread consciousness of the need for even greater change. We have a long way to go to achieve justice on many fronts, but there is no going back to the good old days for the patriarchy.

There is also greater awareness today that animals are beings with their own value and interests than there was 25 years ago. A 2015 Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans believe animals deserve protection from harm and exploitation. An increasing number of people support animals having rights, and a third of Americans want animals to have the same rights as people. More and more of us are making personal choices based on our consideration of animals and the planet by going vegetarian or vegan.

Images from the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017: Washington D.C. (top-left); Unknown (top-center); Raleigh, NC (top-right); Portland, OR (bottom-left); Kona, HI (bottom-center); New York, NY (bottom-right)

The question Carol Adams asks us is, “How does someone become something?” We have seen through the course of human history that someone becomes something when they are defined by another for the benefit of that other. Someone becomes something when they are silenced or we cannot hear their voice. Someone becomes something when their being is absent in our consciousness.

The most powerful force in any social justice movement is the voice of the victim of injustice. It can cut through denial on the part of those who are witness to the oppression, isolating and exposing the oppressor. Animal rights activists commit ourselves to being a voice for the voiceless; but we can be easily dismissed or ignored unless we are able help others see their own experience of being reflected in the being of animals.

On January 21, 2017, the world witnessed the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. It is estimated that between 3 million and 5.5 million people participated, with solidarity marches occurring in cities around the globe. The dominant theme in this historic event was a wholesale rejection of the sexism and misogyny we experienced during Trump’s candidacy and election. While feminism looks different than it did 25 years ago and there are differing opinions among women about what constitutes feminist identity, there is pervasive awareness and potential for a more intersectional consciousness of oppressions. The Sexual Politics of Meat was ahead of its time in 1990, but it may speak to a broader audience of women and men today.

Images from the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017: New York, NY (left); Los Angeles, CA (center); New York, NY (right)

In a talk Carol Adams gave last week at The Animal Museum in Los Angeles, she shared that when she first began working through her ideas for SPOM, she realized there was no existing framework for what it was she wanted to say. Nevertheless, she had to say it, so she threw herself into uncharted territory. Her choice to do so led to a life-long body of work that would help to change the world for animals and inspire a greater movement of change-makers today. We have only to build on the progress that we have made, and to continue finding new ways to reach people. We can, and we must.