It’s 2010. Why Is Sexism Still So Common in Advocacy?
In the latest advocacy news from Canada, models have gone naked to support a ban on dog and cat fur -- having asked a certain campaign group if they could borrow the “go naked” slogan. Usurping the skin and fur from a dog is no worse than killing a fox for fur, or an alligator for skin; yet if they want to keep dog fur out of the stream of commerce, bless them.
But what does going naked have to do with it?
Nudity is used to distract people from one desire (the allure of a fur coat) to another (the allure of a body on display). Maybe. Or maybe it’s just plain entertainment. After all, do people see someone stripping and change their worldview? Not many people say, “I stopped using animals; it was people going naked that made the case for me.” Words from the mouths of onlookers are more like this comment, uttered in response to bikini-clad activists sitting in cages as part of a campaign for better chicken husbandry: “ Girls in cages? This is a good day!”
Getting our kicks from the exploitation of others is a psychological attitude that should change. Some advocates will cut off the discussion, insisting whatever gets attention is where it’s at. Sure, we could sell that, but it won’t do a thing to bring respect to our society.
Just what is it about animal advocacy that makes people show (1.) a lack of original ideas; and (2.) the notion that activists should be singled out as women and then be as unclothed as possible?
Pornographer and Pornographee
We often hear that women aren’t really steered into this; they want to do it. In fact, they feel “empowered” to be naked for a cause. But while we are asked to trust the decisions these activists make, it’s wise to question the context. Being womanly, as defined in much of our culture, can mean being anxious to please -- often subverting the independence of one’s mind in the process.
Recently, I heard this objection: “If people consent to something, at what point is it exploitation versus just work? Just happens that women can make above-average money as a model or in pornography.”
But does this really “just happen”?
And sure, many kinds of bodies can be exploited. So let’s put this in context. Women perform two thirds of humanity’s work hours, yet receive just 10% of the international income for their trouble. No wonder so many are stuck in the position of selling their bodies as objects of sexual gratification; for many, survival can’t happen otherwise. The idea that some feel “empowered” by doing what so many cannot escape should give us pause. What kind of paradigm, what kind of gender role expectations, does stripping for activism perpetuate?
Jim Schembri has addressed the question in the Australian newspaper The Age:
Here’s the thinking: when women take control of their own sexual exploitation it “empowers” them. This is perfectly true. But it “empowers” them to basically do just one thing, which is to extract money from the men who are watching them “empower” themselves.
Thus, writes Schembri, gender roles define the relationship between two groups of people, one using money as currency, the other using sex: “To witness this role play in stark fashion visit any men’s club, which perhaps should be renamed empowerment parlours.” Similarly, pop music marketers condition half the population of young people to do precisely what feminism tried to get past. It presses them to define themselves by what men want, then call it empowerment.
There’s yet another reason for concern whenever people conflate being objectified and being empowered. Animals are constantly exploited, and they are described as being empowered by it – often. Animals, whose bodies we have turned into our work machines, are discussed as being better off when they’re adapted to serve of humans than they were when living as they evolved to live, on their own terms.
Connecting the Street-corners
There’s an odd trend on the Internet these days. Some are saying activism must only be small-scale, involving leaflets and street-corner advocacy, and that fundraising for an organized cause is somehow “elitist” or wrong. Some would teach us to shun anyone who supports an advocacy group that’s legally incorporated.
A group’s integrity matters, and the quest for big membership lists and incomes shouldn’t be allowed to drive animal-advocacy decisions. Yet integrity isn’t automatically absent simply because fundraising is going on, or because a group has a large reach. Today, exploitation and oppression happen on a national and global scale. We live in an era of corporate personhood and biotechnology. Advocates do need competent networks with a broad stretch. Such groups can help and support small gatherings of individuals, local projects, and refuges. Each group depends on the support, decency, and reliability of the other.
To become part of a movement is about more than being on a personal journey. We who hope to transform humanity must be able to make compromises that anticipate others’ feelings and needs, accept some little discomforts and style differences, make a conscious effort to respect and appreciate others, and nourish our best connections.
The value of enjoyable social activity as a model is probably underrated. What’s the most difficult aspect of being an animal-rights advocate? For some, the answer that jumps to mind is “Oh, coping with the family dinner on Thanksgiving!”
Advocacy won’t attract large numbers of people if it’s seen as lonely and depressing. If we work as hard to make welcoming spaces for each other as we work to spread our views, we can create enjoyable social gatherings where dedicated people can recharge their batteries and exchange ideas. The broader community will pick up on this positive dynamic, and view advocates as friendly, well-balanced people.
The week I write this, I’m planning to attend a puppet show about the perils of natural gas drilling as experienced by free-living animals who live on top of the shale energy companies want to drill. Children will learn about the importance of clean water and unbroken land to all of us -- human and non-human alike. The performance, put on by Public Eye: Artists for Animals, will take place at The Rotunda, a West Philadelphia community-gathering spot animated by the belief that art is a catalyst for social change. Community gatherings and change go hand in hand; what the artists are doing is surely one of the most positive trends in animal advocacy today.
We’ve all seen philosophical debates turning into stressful clashes, and friendships falling by the wayside as people with various viewpoints compete for audiences. But what’s the point of spending our time and life engaged in advocacy if we don’t have a fulfilling and creative social life?
Dean, a vegan living in central England, points out that activism should include respect for activists themselves, not only the work we provide:
Some see me as a commodity to come to demonstrations and things they believe in. I believe in them too, with all my heart, but need friendships too. Otherwise, animal rights and veganism seem like a shallow excuse for living. There’s no point in this without friends.
So, let’s ask ourselves: Are we treating other people as capable of making sound moral, ecological, and nutritional decisions, or instead as objects of manipulation, the means to a short-term goal -- filling up a petition sheet, for example, or raising funds?
The best we can do, always, is to respect each other and, at the same time, those whose fundamental interests are at stake in our advocacy.
- The Observer : “Now, More Than Ever, We Must Push for Women’s Rights” (14 Mar. 2010); available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2010/mar/13/women-rights-equality
- Jim Schembri, “What’s New, Pussycat? The Wo-o-o-o-oes of Feminism” -- The Age (31 Mar. 2007).