By Melanie Joy, PhD
This article was written following multiple charges of sexual harassment against male leaders in the US animal rights movement. The issue has been a hot topic among US animal advocates and it’s even attracted mainstream media coverage, from publications such as the New York Times and Politico. Some men in top leadership positions in animal protection organizations have resigned and major donors are pulling funding from organizations that are not committed to ensuring a safe and respectful working environment for women.
When I heard about the recent sexual harassment charges in the vegan movement, I was saddened but not surprised. Where sexism prevails, sexual violations are inevitable, and sexism is a deeply entrenched, global system that impacts everyone, vegans notwithstanding. Sexual harassment is the tip of the iceberg of sexism, a visible manifestation of a deeper problem. Sexual harassment couldn’t exist in a world without sexism, just as (unnecessarily) eating animals couldn’t exist in a world without carnism.
So while it’s important that sexual harassment is addressed in the vegan movement (and beyond), I believe we must be sure to also focus on the roots of the problem, the sexist beliefs and behaviors that create fertile ground for sexual harassment to emerge, something a number of brilliant feminist vegans have been advocating for decades. I also believe that we need to discuss the problem in a way that increases the likelihood that we will move toward positive change and not end up reinforcing dysfunctional communication patterns and deepening divisions that harm individuals and disempower our movement – that discussions about the issue honor the dignity of all involved and provide practical opportunities for transformation.
So how do we go about addressing sexism? First, we need to understand what gets in the way of us doing so, and therefore what means we can use to bypass such a barrier. The primary obstacle to addressing sexism is the fact that sexism creates a mentality in men (and also in some women, who may unknowingly defend sexist behaviors) that causes them to both not see, and yet intensely defend, it. Given the extensive harm caused by sexism and the prevalence with which it’s expressed – sexist attitudes and behaviors are woven through the very fabric of daily life – those who can see it, and who are on the receiving end of it, necessarily feel an urgency to raise awareness, similar to the way many vegans feel about raising awareness of carnism. And, indeed, the primary tool for transformation is awareness.
Many vegans recognize the central role of awareness when it comes to transforming carnism: awareness of the consequences of carnism (e.g., animal suffering, environmental destruction, human health problems), of veganism as the ethical alternative to carnism, and, often, of the ways non-vegans defend themselves against becoming aware – awareness of carnistic privilege. Carnistic privilege is a defensive mental structure that is triggered whenever a non-vegan’s right to eat animals is challenged, and it distorts the non-vegan’s perceptions and blocks their empathy, rendering rational conversation impossible and, therefore, compassionate action improbable.
Awareness is also central to transforming sexism – awareness of the nature and dynamics of sexism, of feminism as the ethical alternative, and of the defensive structure that keeps sexism in place by causing men to resist becoming aware: male privilege. We need to recognize the specific ways that sexism is manifested and perpetrated – many of which are subtle and undetectable without a base of knowledge of sexism and gender dynamics – and we need to make visible the ways male privilege distorts men’s perceptions and blocks their empathy, turning potentially enlightening discussions about sexism into destructive debates that reinforce, rather than transform, the problem.
I (and many of my female colleagues) tried to talk about sexism in the movement over the years. But the vast majority of the time, my concerns were responded to in the same way that vegans’ concerns are responded to by defensive non-vegans: at best, they were acknowledged but then quickly forgotten. More often, they were reacted to with fervent opposition against me and, likely, what I represented: a threat to the sexist status quo. Time and time again, I would raise my concerns – objectively, gently, yet with the urgency I felt they deserved. I would point out sexual boundary violations I saw on some of my visits to animal rights organizations, such as male supervisors trying to flirt with their female staff, and be told that I was making a big deal out of nothing. I would point out sexist attitudes, in which men would openly appraise a woman’s physical attractiveness – her “youth and beauty” – the way they’d esteem a fancy car and be told that’s just the way men are. I would suggest using non-sexist language or ensuring that girls and women were sufficiently represented in outreach materials and be told that political correctness was going too far. I would share my personal experiences of sexism with men I thought would understand – such as when, for example, I was the only woman on a panel and was constantly interrupted and spoken over by the men – to be told “that’s got nothing to do with gender; it’s just culture.” I would hear men at animal rights conferences calling each other “pussies” and otherwise using “female” as a slur, and when I’d point out that this language was offensive, I was told that I was overreacting. These are just a small handful of examples that have marked my experience as a woman trying to navigate and raise awareness of sexism among men.
In all cases, men who had virtually no literacy – no awareness – of sexism, feminism, and male privilege, argued passionately against me, despite the fact that I had lived in a female body for half a century, had taught college courses on feminism, and held a PhD in social psychology. Such is the nature of privilege: it distorts perceptions so that people believe they’re more literate than they actually are, and it makes them perceive opinion as fact and fact as opinion. And privilege makes people fail to see their own defensiveness: the mental fortress of privilege is only visible when we’re standing on the other side of it. This is why non-vegans, who know virtually nothing about carnism or veganism, may suddenly act like experts when faced with an informed vegan, and debate the vegan’s facts as though they were opinions and present their own opinions as though they were facts (e.g., “Animals don’t really suffer on humane/organic farms,” or, “It’s not possible to build muscle without consuming animal protein”). When the literacy gap is so significant, and privilege distorts perceptions to the point where we can’t agree on the basic facts of an issue, rational conversation and, therefore, viable resolution, are impossible.
At some point I stopped talking about sexism with the majority of my male colleagues (and decided I’d start writing about it instead). I realized that the conversational stalemate was insurmountable. Instead of listening to me, my colleagues would debate me, playing devil’s advocate, cross-examining my “arguments,” and using personal anecdotes to “disprove” my point that sexism is a problem among vegans (and beyond). And they were unwilling to become more literate in the key areas that would help them bypass their male privilege and actually discuss the issue from an informed perspective. Books I’d recommend were “too boring”; blogs and articles were “too triggering”; and films were “too long” – and these reactions were from some of the most voracious consumers of information I know. Or, they’d offer me a quid pro quo: “I’ll read a book on sexism if you read a book on how feminism has gone too far,” thus wholly denying the literacy gap. Imagine a non-vegan saying they’ll read Animal Liberation only as long as the vegan reads The Vegetarian Myth, as though the vegan hasn’t spent a lifetime being spoon-fed carnistic propaganda just like everybody else. I stopped talking about sexism also because my relationships with many of the men around me were starting to suffer (at least from my end; usually it’s only the person on the other side of privilege who feels unseen and unsafe and struggles to maintain respect for the other, similar to how a vegan who’s the butt of a non-vegan’s hostile carnistic humor is eventually unable to feel connected with them, while the non-vegan feels that everything’s fine).
Most sad, for me, was that I knew these vegan men genuinely cared – about others, their impact on the world, and justice. Of course, we could say the same about the many non-vegans who care and yet refuse to take veganism seriously and continue to eat animals. Indeed, while it’s the sexual harassers who carry out the overt violations, it’s the bystanders who create an environment where such violations are possible, even inevitable – just as the violence of animal agribusinesses is made possible by a populace of complicit consumers. One of the great tragedies of oppressive systems such as sexism and carnism is the invisible epidemic of good people who do nothing. It can sometimes hurt more to witness the passive bystanders to injustice than to see the direct perpetrators of it. We expect more from the people we believe in. Perhaps this is why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
If we wish to stem the tide of sexist destruction, we need to ensure that those who are unaware of sexism, feminism, and male privilege become literate. Being literate means being aware – being intellectually and emotionally informed. Awareness is both knowing the facts and empathizing with those who are harmed by privilege. This is especially true for men, who have inevitably inherited a sexist mentality (just as non-vegans have inherited a carnistic mentality) and for whom sexist thinking will continue to be the default until they make a conscious decision to intercept it. In other words, men can’t change it if they don’t know how the system they’re perpetuating operates and, specifically, how it impacts their perceptions and drives their feelings and behaviors. And literacy is important for women as well. Many women don’t speak out about sexism, not only because sexist culture silences them, but also because they don’t recognize sexist behaviors when they see them, in much the same way that many vegans don’t recognize carnistic defensiveness when they’re on the receiving end of it. Organizational leaders, in particular, need to become literate, so they don’t end up tolerating and perpetuating sexism.
And those of us who are trying to talk about sexism need do the hard work of honoring our valid feelings of anger, frustration, and often despair, while at the same time not allowing our emotions to cause us to violate the dignity of men by communicating with and about them in a way that denies or diminishes their essential worth, their being. I am not suggesting that our feelings are wrong: anger is the natural emotional response to injustice, and when someone is on the receiving end of, or is witnessing, unjust attitudes and behaviors and their concerns are consistently dismissed, denied, or attacked – which is what the defensive sexist mentality causes men to do when they are asked to reflect on their sexism – they become increasingly outraged and desperate for their message to be heard. And I am not suggesting that we not hold others accountable. I am simply suggesting that we, too, commit to awareness: awareness of how, and what, we are communicating to others when we are challenging sexism.
As happens with vegans who are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted from having dealt with carnistic privilege for so long, women (and some men) who have been dealing with sexism and male privilege can become similarly depleted. We can therefore lose the ability to think and talk about the issue with nuance, and we end up seeing people (including ourselves) as either perpetrators, victims, or heroes, with no wiggle room, no room for human fallibility. We need to remember that good people can engage in harmful practices and that doesn’t necessarily make them bad people, and that men are more than just their male privilege, just as non-vegans are more than just their carnistic privilege. Many men feel deeply insecure and even paralyzed by the current conversation about sexual harassment. They have been operating in a certain manner for a lifetime and are only now starting to realize that it’s problematic, since #metoo has finally pierced a hole in the blindfold of male privilege. So they worry that what they’ve always considered normal behaviors may in fact be unethical and possibly even illegal – but they don’t know which behaviors are appropriate and which are not. The focus of the current conversation surrounding #metoo has been on calling out abusive men, not on providing all the rest of the men with guidelines on how to behave.
Of course, expecting women to do the work of educating men so they stop acting unfairly is adding more injustice to an already unjust dynamic, placing an unfair burden on women in much the same way that some non-vegans expect vegans to handhold them to facilitate their transition to veganism. However, just as savvy vegans know that providing at least some guidance to non-vegans is essential to help end their support of carnism, savvy feminists know that the same is true to help men end their support of sexism.
For men who wish to be allies but don’t know how to do so, there are three first steps you can take. One is to become literate so you are aware of gender dynamics. I’ve listed resources at the end of this article for you to get started. You can also learn from listening to women when they talk about their experience of sexism. Listen even if you detect anger in their voice, even if they’re not communicating as eloquently as you’d like. Another step is to, as Dr. Lisa Kemmerer suggests, call other men on their sexist behaviors: intercept men’s sexism when you see it. And finally, be receptive rather than defensive when your privilege is challenged. You will make missteps; we all do. But it’s how you respond to those missteps that matters most. Know that you are not your privilege – but you are responsible for how you manage it once it’s made visible to you. As long as you are committed to changing how you relate to your privilege and you stay open and responsive to feedback – genuinely reflecting on the feedback you get and taking steps to change your behavior if it’s unjust – you can assume you’re standing on the right side of the issue.
Although many vegan men have as of yet not been actively engaged in working to end sexism, I believe that the vast majority of them can meet this new challenge and work toward the kind of transformation in our movement that they’ve been working toward in our world. I have met thousands of vegan men in my travels, men of integrity who are deeply committed to justice. And I have seen firsthand the power of those particular men who stand up as allies to women in the movement, men who listen with an open mind and an open heart and who speak out when they notice sexist attitudes and behaviors.
This is a call to vegan men to change their role within the oppressive system of sexism. For better or worse, you are all a part of the system. So your choice is not whether you participate, but how you participate. And no matter how you’ve participated in the past, every moment offers an opportunity to change, an opportunity for repair, an opportunity to more fully bring your integrity into the world. You can choose, right now, to become aware, and to become an active agent of social transformation rather than a passive bystander to injustice. In so doing, you will help heal a deep wound within our movement, and you will help mend and deepen your connections with the women who work alongside you in the vitally important struggle for animal liberation.
Below are some resources for readers who want to develop their literacy around sexism, feminism, and male privilege. Some of these resources also cover other forms of privilege and oppression, such as racism and classism, because they explain the basic structure of all systems of oppression (and of course these other oppressions are also important to be aware of). I have purposely kept this list very short so that readers don’t feel overwhelmed, and I haven’t included works that assume a base of knowledge or that are written in an academic style. If you feel I didn’t include an especially useful resource, please share it in the comments section.
Carol J. Adams has a number of enlightening, reader-friendly articles about patriarchy (the ideology that drives sexism), feminism, and veganism on her blog and her books on the subject are groundbreaking. If you’re looking for non-academic writing, it’s best to refer to her blog essays.
The Psychology of Oppression by David and Derthick is classified as a textbook so it’s a bit pricey, but it’s written for a general audience and is quite reader-friendly. It covers pretty much all of the basic, necessary-to-know information about privilege and oppression, and while it’s not exclusively focused on gender it creates a great foundation for understanding sexism.
Unraveling the Gender Knot by Allan G. Johnson gives an excellent overview of gender dynamics and is also reader-friendly, albeit pricey since it’s also classified as a textbook. Johnson also has a blog which includes essays on patriarchy, gender dynamics, and other forms of privilege and oppression.
pattrice jones is a vegan who speaks and writes about a variety of forms of privilege and oppression; this is an excellent blog post she wrote on sexism in the vegan movement and you can access more of her work on the same blog.
Lisa Kemmerer is a leading feminist in the vegan movement. Here is an excellent webinar she gave about sexism in the movement.
For readers who want to go more deeply into the issue, Dr. A. Breeze Harper has done groundbreaking work examining the interconnectedness of oppressions, including sexism. You can find her work here.