Women Utilified

PeTA has a history of objectifying women in their campaigns. It’s no big secret and it’s been the bane of most vegans. Reactions are not always dissenting though. Some shrug and say “Well they make big differences in other areas.” as though that somehow lets them off the hook. It’s how vegans deal with the cognitive dissonance of being connected to such unethical behavior displayed by the biggest organization supporting the vegan movement.

Their latest foray has them talking about launching a porn site with their newly registered domain name: peta.xxx. This leaves many, as always, scratching their heads on how exactly this furthers their goal. Before we start the typical water cooler jeers over PeTA once again let’s hold that thought and come back to that.

Everybody is wondering why PeTA does what it does, Skeptifem hit the nail on the head in the post: PETA launches a pornography site. This is the salient bit:

PETA is a utilitarian organization (meaning they believe that the positive outcome of activism is more important than being principled about the means of obtaining the positive outcome). They don’t care if you quit eating meat because of health or empathy or because you think aliens contaminate animal flesh with space bacteria. Any reason, so long as it is combined with action, is a win in their view.

A brilliant deduction but I’ll run with that ball. Utilitarianism is the mainstay of veganism. It is this that compels vegans to think that their tiniest daily actions compile somehow into animal liberation. It’s what drives them to stand on street corners handing out literature trying to make everybody else “go vegan”. The more vegan you are, the more moral you are. The more people you get vegan the more you have increased your veganositude. Erik Marcus even coined this effect as being an animal millionaire. It’s a tidy little equation that makes navigating the moral abyss less scary. All you need to do is weigh two options and decide where the most suffering lies, and avoid or fight against it. Life doesn’t always plays by those dichotomous rules though.

In this utilitarian context does it not make sense PeTA would see saving lives as less morally reprehensible as objectifying women? Can you exploit one animal to save another? Apparently the answer is yes because the suffering is much worse when animals are killed than when women are objectified. So when vegans gnash their teeth at PeTA’s sexist campaigns they can hardly blame them for the context they themselves help perpetuate.

People wonder: “How does this crazy stunt help PeTA’s cause?”. They then argue over it, make jokes with their friends, blog about it, the news reports on it…you see where I’m going here? The real goal here is not to launch a porn site to further the cause but to pull a ridiculous stunt to get people talking about it. If it wasn’t itself an ethical train wreck it might be a fine, clever tactic. But PeTA pulled the switch to derail that trolley so rubber-neckers would gawks slack-jawed just enough to hopefully jolt them up out of their daily routine and maybe recognize their cause. In the wake of this disaster, women are the victims. That’s ok though because the other train (ok, I’m beating this metaphor to freakin death!) had a bunch of farm animals’ lives on the line. Women have served their utility.

And this is what so many have missed about PeTA’s actions. It’s the utilitarian nature of the movement that drives them as Skeptifem continues:

This is very important when understanding how to get groups like PETA to stop exploiting the position of women in society to sell their message. They don’t care about the well thought-out arguments of feminists regarding how pornography harms women. If it gets people to stop eating meat, they will continue with their porn campaign.

PeTA claims their controversial campaigns are the bait that gets people in and that they wouldn’t do this if it was ineffective. Skeptifem says we should challenge them on this because “it doesn’t fucking work” anyways. But let’s, for the sake of argument say it actually does work. Is it still worth the ethical footprint they leave behind? The problem is much deeper than a simple PeTA tactic. To understand their strategy one must understand the utilitarian context for which they operate. It’s the same framework behind veganism. It’s how they justify the ethical pollution they pump out into the culture disregardful for the people they exploit. This is what vegan utilitarianism can get you. It turns vegans into tools and condones exchanging oppression of one for another. If vegans would like to maintain their foothold on ethical behavior they would do well to re-evaluate the culture they think they’re building.

13 comments to Women Utilified

  • Aside from the question of whether the ends justify the means, I think that PeTA’s tactics don’t even achieve their stated ends as well as they think they do. I think they suffer from the type of blinkered math that allows one to focus on the hits while ignoring the misses. And they don’t even have to ignore the misses most of the time because no evidence of it ever makes it their way.

    What I’m getting at is the fact that PeTA makes veg*ans look like a bunch of irrational morons. So plenty of people never seriously consider veg*anism for that reason. And then others try and then abandon veg*anism because they’re sick of being so misunderstood by people whose main source of info about veg*anism is PeTA and its circus stunts. But I’m sure few people write them to tell them this. And I doubt they’d even take it to heart if they did. I think there is so much internal inertia behind this type of PR stupidity that we can probably expect nothing but entropy at this point.

  • I feel like giving them the benefit of the doubt at least because I’d think shoveling millions of hard-earned donated dollars into these campaigns must give one a modicum of prudence. This goes beyond PeTA campaigns though when vegans adopt ploys meant to get people vegan at any cost be it health or environmental or what have you. This sort of thinking can lead to the extremes like PeTA (or further, like ALF or NIO).

    In this sense PeTA aren’t the only ones making vegans look like irrational morons. They often do a pretty good job doing it to themselves. Fortunately for them most people don’t pick up on those nuances. PeTA moved the Overton window over to such a degree it’s normalized the less extreme forms of irrational vegan behavior.

  • I think your point about creating controversy hits the point. I try to forget about PETA, as they don’t seem to do much but create controversy and make us look bad. It’s the same ashamed feeling I have when, as an Irish decendant, I step outside on St. Patrick’s day and see all the drunken nonsense.

  • I had no real objection to the nudie adverts, to be honest – wouldn’t want to feature in one, but up to others if they do. I know people who’ve been pressured into taking part in porn in the first place and/or into going further than they’d initially been ok with, often with the use of violence, and that – not the fact that there are naked people being filmed/photographed – is my problem with porn. I spent some time working at PETA and know of nobody who has been pressured, even through normal peer pressure, into taking part in naked protests or adverts. I was a young, foreign female intern, and the worst thing anyone asked me to do there was wear an elephant costume in what turned out to be a heatwave. I don’t feel terribly oppressed by that. Annoyed by kids wiping their nose on the costume, sure, but that’s a side issue.

    The porn site, however, that upsets me. Again, not so much because people are OMGNEKKID or indeed because they’re OMGHAVINGTEHSEKS on film. What bothers me is the suggestion of cutting the porno in with clips of animal cruelty. I really hate the idea of someone wanking to a video clip of some sexual activity then jizzing just as a scene appears of some mink being anally electrocuted. Way to give people fucked-up ideas of what is arousing…

  • Lorien

    Utilitarianism is also why PETA can support things like the massive euthanization of feral cats, on the grounds that their lives are “miserable”. Yeah, right. My life is miserable sometimes too, but I’ve got no desire to be euthanized. Utilitarianism as a framework for animal rights cannot work, IMHO.

    As to PETA and porn, I agree with Speciesist Vegan — it gives vegans a bad name. (I’m not up on the lingo so don’t really know what veg*an means). I’m not particularly interested, as an animal rights vegan, in having a good name, but I am interested in at least putting forth a position of integrity. Porn doesn’t help much with that…

  • Lorien, veg*an is just short had for “vegan or vegetarian.”

    As for euthanizing cats, I don’t hold PeTA to a higher standard than the thousands of county animal shelters that are essentially forced into the same decisions every month. Do you think that we should hold PeTA to a higher standard? Or do you think they should just stay out of that business entirely and let someone else do it?

    The problem, imo, lies with the breeders and the people that insist on buying cats when there are literally millions of them that they could adopt.

  • Dave, thank you for your critique of PETA’s obviously pandering, lowest common denominator tactics. I am an outspoken critic of PETA as well, and I can think of many others vegan feminists who also publicly criticize them. Here is one such essay I wrote:
    here is another:
    and another:
    Here is a collection of pieces against PETA:
    and a Facebook group against PETA:
    I agree with you on the ethical bankruptcy of their utilitarian approach. This is all to say that vegans are not walking in lockstep with PETA and many are overtly outspoken against them. As well we should be.

  • anonymous

    Phythagorean Crank, Please go and read philosophy 101. Utilitarianism does not mean ‘the ends justify the means’ it advocates the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ and therefore PETA’s approach is anything but utilitarian, as it serves to reinforce the oppression and cause harm to a very significant portion of one group in society in order to help another. ‘The ends justifies the means’ may be consequentialist, but that doesn’t mean that all consequentialist ideas completely disregard the interests on the ‘means’ when those interests are significant – that would be a very UN-utilitarian thing to do.

    Oh and by the way, I’m a feminist and a vegan and I hate Peta too.

    • While PETA’s utilitarian math doesn’t weigh the variables the same you or I might, it’s still the same framework for which utilitarianism, consequentialism and veganism operate. For all those vegans who profess disdain for PETA I have this to say: “Hate the game, not the player.” If you think this is a PETA bashing post then you’ve missed the point.

  • lurker

    “. What bothers me is the suggestion of cutting the porno in with clips of animal cruelty. I really hate the idea of someone wanking to a video clip of some sexual activity then jizzing just as a scene appears of some mink being anally electrocuted. Way to give people fucked-up ideas of what is arousing…”


    Anyone seen the covers for a bunch of the erotica ebooks churned out for 50 Shades of Grey fans lately? Lots of women tied up on those. Ads comparing beef to women stuck under plastic wrap and chained and all that probably make 50 Shades fans hungrier for hamburger.

    “Utilitarianism is also why PETA can support things like the massive euthanization of feral cats, on the grounds that their lives are “miserable”. ”

    I looked around for a source on that and everyone linked back to link back to…bla bla bla…to link back so a page on some lobbyist organization for red meat and tobacco. Any other sources? I mean, PETA still sucks but I don’t wanna hate it for the wrong reasons, y’know?

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