Sexism in the Animal Rights Movement: LUSH

Lush is a cosmetics company originally founded in the UK in 1994. Although not entirely vegan, the company sells many vegan products using natural ingredients. They also do not test on animals. Their reputation is that of a vegan-friendly, environmentally friendly, ethically conscious company.

Recently, Lush held a promotional stunt to protest packaging. How did they protest it? By having nearly naked women (wearing only aprons and high-heels) standing outside of their stores, handing out leaflets with information about their reduced-package products.

You can probably see the problems with this already. By using naked women to (supposedly) make a point about packaging, they’re comparing the women’s bodies to consumer products. They’re saying, “Hey look, isn’t it great that our women products aren’t all wrapped up? Wink wink, nudge nudge”.

It’s sexist and juvenile at the same time. And just like PeTA’s sexist campaigns, it’s also counter-productive. How many men came by just to look at the women, and get a pamphlet that they probably threw away without reading? That’s hardly a win for the environment, by the way.

Lush has stirred up even more controversy with a recent publicity stunt against animal testing. The stunt involved a live woman sitting in front of a glass window while a man performed violent and graphic reenactments of animal tests on her. This included force-feeding her, pouring chemicals into her eyes, shaving off part of her hair, abrading her skin, among other things.

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In the latter half of a Guardian article about fashion, the performance artist, Jacqueline Traides, was quoted as saying:

“I knew there were going to be various experiments but I wasn’t aware to the full extent.”

So Ms. Traides might have been lied to or misinformed about what the stunt would actually involve. And once it got started, it probably would have been very difficult for her to ask for it to stop, or to refuse specific things. But this stunt would have been problematic even if she had been fully informed and had agreed to it – a stunt like this can only serve to further desensitize people to violence against women.

There are some animal rights activists who supported (and support) these sorts of tactics. The idea is: people already know that violence against women is wrong, so why not use that to make a point about animals?

The problem is that “people” don’t “already know that violence against women is wrong” (sic). We live in a world in which, by conservative estimates, 1 in 6 women will be raped or attempted to be raped in her lifetime; in which 1 in 7 women will be raped or attempted to be raped in marriage; in which women frequently have to be on guard, and cannot walk  the streets (or inhabit our own homes) feeling safe, because the threat of rape is very real. We live in a world in which everything from wife battery to honour killings to female infanticide to FGM (female genital mutilation) to bride burnings to acid throwing to breast ironing and beyond are common; and in which all of these acts of violence (and more) are done to women and girls because they are female. We live in a world in which a global, $97 billion dollar a year industry known as pornography turns violence against women into public entertainment for men. We live in a world in which violence against women is not only normal; it’s also eroticized.

So we are far from that ideal, egalitarian world in which violence against women is pathological or abnormal. If we did live in that world, a stunt like the one performed by Lush would be unthinkable to begin with. The fact that many people, including animal advocates, can cheer on a stunt like this without thinking twice only goes to show how desensitized we are to both violence against women and violence in general.

Interestingly, when this campaign sparked controversy, the campaign manager, Tasmin Omond, made a public statement that I found to be very revealing:

“We felt it was important, strong, well and thoroughly considered that the test subject was a woman. This is important within the context of Lush’s wider Fighting Animal Testing campaign, which challenges consumers of cosmetics (a female market) to feel, to think and to demand that the cosmetics industry is animal-cruelty free. It is also important in the context of Jacquie’s performance practice: a public art intervention about the nature of power and abuse. It would have been disingenuous at best to pretend that a male subject could represent such systemic abuse.” [emphasis mine]

So Lush did this because:

  1. They know that women buy more bathroom and cosmetic products than men, and
  2. They know that singling out a male for “systematic abuse” would be absurd, but that doing it to a woman is par the course normal.

The first point has a lot to do with how women are pressured to look and think about their bodies in a sexist society, but since Lush is a business, it’s not surprising that they would attempt to capitalize on that fact. The second point is pretty much an admission that Lush is willing to promote violence against women to grab attention.

If you are a Lush customer, please boycott them and switch to another company. In many parts of the world, there are local companies that sell vegan cosmetics and bathroom products. There are also many online businesses that will ship to just about anywhere for little or no cost.

The animal rights movement should not promote or tolerate violence against any animals, including those of the human variety.

Sexism in the Animal Rights Movement: PeTA

Much has been said and written about People for the Exploitation of Tits & Ass, and their ridiculous, attention-grabbing campaigns. Their sexist campaigns (of which there are many) run the gamut from body-shaming campaigns (1, 2) to soft-core porn to actually glorifying violence against women.

Here, instead of simply giving them more attention, I’m going to answer some comments / questions that often come up when this is being discussed. I want to explain why some of these campaigns are sexist, since there is sometimes confusion about that.

Take an ad like this:

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What’s wrong with it? Lots of things. First of all, there’s no difference between fur and other animal fabrics, like leather. Singling out fur, which is mostly worn by women, unfairly targets women and female clothing. Secondly, this ad uses the woman’s body, and her sexual appeal, as a cheap way to grab (male) attention. It also reduces her to a series of body parts – the whole person is cut down, made into a sexual object. The woman as a whole person disappears, and only her fetishized body parts remain. Carol Adams has called this the “absent referent“, and compared it to the way that we pare down other animals and turn them into objects that can be consumed, one body part at a time.

It might seem extreme to compare an ad like this to meat. After all, the woman isn’t being slaughtered here. But this ad, like all other media, does not exist in a vacuum – it derives its meaning from the social and political realities of our society. In a society in which violence against women is normalized – in which millions and millions of women and girls are raped, beaten, and trafficked every second of every day, female nudity and sexuality are not on an even playing field with male nudity and sexuality. Sexual violence is heavily gendered. Men and boys are not raped and bought/sold for sex in anything nearly approaching the frequency that women and girls are. Even when a male is raped, he is usually raped by another man, and he usually has some characteristic besides being male (young age, poverty, race in a racist society) that makes him vulnerable. Women and girls only need to be female to be at-risk of sexual violence.

This ad, like virtually all (soft and hardcore) pornography, exploits the fact that men and women are not on an even playing field, sexually. It takes women’s sexual and economic inequality to men, and sells it. It makes inequality ‘sexy’.

‘Objectification’ might sound like some kind of obscure, academic term. But it is a real thing; it happens to real sentient beings. In pornography, it happens – is done – to women. Having your personality, sentience, and personhood annihilated so that somebody can use you as their object is a concrete way of making somebody socially worthless. It is a concrete way of saying, “I’m someone, and you’re a nobody. I’m worth something, and you are worth nothing.”

It is not at all surprising that in the commercial pornography industry, many women do not last more than a  few months because the of the extreme violence that is done to their bodies. Sexual objectification is no trivial matter.

So what about men?

PeTA has also used men in some of their ads:

NFL Star Terrell Suggs Chooses Ink, Not Mink

Turning anyone (male or female) into a sexual object isn’t great. But putting aside the fact that PeTA uses a lot less male nudity than they do female nudity, male objectification doesn’t have the same meaning as female objectification in a male-supremacist system. Men are not devalued on the basis of their sex in the way that women are. They also do not live with the reality of rape in the same way that women do.

To give just one example of why female objectification ≠ male objectification, look at the differences in body posture in the two ads. The woman is leaning back, made to look passive and vulnerable in order to grab the attention of the male consumer. The man, on the other hand, is learning forward, muscles flexed, in order to emphasize his strength and virility.

PeTA is a terribly misguided organization. Not only do they needlessly kill a huge number of healthy cats and dogs, but they have also resorted to using anything and everything – no matter how ridiculous – in order to grab attention.

Serious vegan advocates should not contribute to them in any way. They are not a radical organization; they are simply opportunists who have no problem maintaining the speciesist, sexist, capitalist status quo. Shame on them.