Animal Rights

#MeToo for the Voiceless: Why We Can't Ignore the Animal Victims of Human Sexual Assault

A farm animal's body is considered a plaything used for profit.

Photo Credit: Oleksandr Lytvynenko/Shutterstock

For years, women in the animal rights movement have complained of a predatory permissiveness at conferences and in offices, in conflict with the movement’s purported commitment to justice for all creatures including humans. But just as in the radical social justice era of the 1960s and ‘70s, when women on the left were patronized by men who dismissed them and their issues as nonissues compared with the “real” politics of oppression, so in the animal rights movement, female activist complaints of male misconduct have not struck a major chord. This is because the animal rights movement, like society at large, is headed mainly by men, and because the plight of women experiencing harassment or worse by male affiliates has generally been viewed as trivial compared with the plight of nonhuman animals.

The politics of sexual misconduct may finally be shifting. Women's voices are finally being heard, their stories are being told and a system of sexual exploitation is being exposed. All of these blazons are comprised in the #MeToo movement that erupted in 2017, with "its mass base and its revelation of the pervasive and perverse alignment of misogyny and power," making it "dangerous to the established power structure," writes Martha Sonnenberg in Tikkun.

Igniting social media, actress Alyssa Milano wrote in 2017 that if "all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me Too' as a status [a reference to Tarana Burke's nonprofit, Me Too, founded in 2006], we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem."

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In fact, there's a whole other magnitude of the problem of sexual assault, only the victims belong to other species. Farmed animals, in particular, are trapped in conditions of rape and ridicule without recourse. One can feel the bristling of some readers, indignant that a cow or a turkey would be taken seriously as a victim of human sexual assault, but there it is.

Photo by permission of Jim Mason courtesy of All-Creatures.org

In all cases of victimization, a problem is how to win attention to sufferers and suffering that most people do not want to hear about. One way that oppressed people, such as slaughterhouse workers, have sought to impress others with their plight is to say of themselves, "We are treated like animals." But turn around and say, for example, that sexually assaulted chickens are treated like sexually assaulted women, and resentment flares.

It isn’t just "human" versus "animal." As Susan Sontag observes in her 2003 book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others, anything that appears to demote one's own unjust suffering to "a mere instance" of generic suffering tends to be resented: "It is intolerable to have one's own sufferings twinned with anyone else's," she writes. An oppressed group might further feel that their suffering is more important than that of any other oppressed group—especially one they reflexively regard as inferior.         

That said, to the evils of sexism, racism and other injustices, speciesism must be added. To misogyny, misothery must be compared. Jim Mason explains misothery in his book An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other:

I have coined the word misothery to name a body of ideas. ... It comes from two Greek words, one meaning "hatred" or "contempt," the other meaning "animal." Literally, then, misothery is hatred and contempt for animals. ... I deliberately constructed the word misothery for its similarity to the word misogyny, a reasonably common word for an attitude of hatred and contempt toward women. The similarity of the two words reflects the similarity of the two bodies of attitudes and ideas. In both cases, the ideas reduce the power, status, and dignity of others. (1993, pp. 163-164)

The rape of farmed animals has been practiced by men and boys of all cultures that raise animals for food. The direct proximity and availability of animals on farms, added to the fact that farmed animal abuse is institutionalized by the food industry, makes it easy, writes Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers in Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, for sexual urges and sadism "to find satisfaction."

But it isn't just personal deviance. Animal agriculture is rooted in manipulating the sex organs, mating choices and reproductive processes of helpless animals. Agribusiness consultant Temple Grandin follows her salacious description of the "art" of masturbating boars and sows in Animals in Translation with a disclaimer that "this is a business we're talking about." Her account portrays the interface between business and prurient pleasure on the part of the "breeder" and the storyteller.

In a business culture of interspecies sexual assault, the animal's body is a plaything for profit. Involuntary physical arousal on the part of a chicken, cow or pig being penetrated or electro-ejaculated is equated with “consent.” The violated animal is nothing to the perpetrator, except in being characterized, if anyone should ask, as "enjoying" this enforced intimacy with a human being. A reproductive physiologist named Annie Donoghue blandly told The Washington Post, speaking of her laboratory turkeys, that "it’s almost like they line up sometimes" to be electro-ejaculated. (And if an animal refuses to "line up," then what?)

In "The Feminist Traffic in Animals" in Neither Man Nor Beast, Carol J. Adams challenges: "As much as men's accounts of women's lives have been partial, false, or malicious lies, so too have humans' accounts of the other animals' lives." Toward other animals, the majority of women exhibit a patriarchal disdain for the idea of a shared sisterhood with a chicken or a cow, and many feminists have felt affronted that food served at a feminist conference should be animal-free instead of merely including a vegan "option." They want the animals to be quiet and just be meat. In such instances, the oppressed are the oppressors, ironically acting out their own analysis by silencing the voices of their victims in terms that align them with the patriarchy they claim to reject.

One might think that the environmental movement, like the women’s movement, would include other animals in its purview, but so far the consciousness of both movements tends to exclude animals except in generalized terms. (See: Thinking Like a Chicken: Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection.)  In "Missing Shulamith and The Dialectic of #MeToo," Martha Sonnenberg exemplifies the absence of animals in her description of "what a non-misogynistic and non-patriarchal culture might look like," including:

A changed approach to the environment and ecology, as the male "domination of nature" approach has led only to continuing abuse of the environment. We might look forward to a more nurturing and caregiving approach to nature and a healing of the harms inflicted on our planet.  

This is all fine, but I don’t see any animals in this picture or any animal-free tables being set. Am I unfair in fearing that behind these soft sentiments a defense of culinary violence and fur coats could lurk as aspects of women’s "liberation"? I hope not. Veganism is not a mere food choice. It is ethical activism on behalf of the most profoundly victimized beings on the planet. As activists working for justice and peace, we must put teeth in our talk and project the animals' voices: “Me too!”

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Karen Davis is the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities.