PETA does it again

Other feminist bloggers have covered the PETA breast-milk campaign, and you should read their thoughts. And yes, it is obvious that PETA is doing its usual over-the-top schtick, and the campaign — which encourages Ben & Jerry’s to use human breast milk instead of cow milk to make their ice cream — is not meant to be taken literally.

…but so what? PETA’s point, unfortunately, is not to highlight cruelty to animals by pointing out the fact that it would be cruel to force women to produce milk for mass consumption, and that it’s just as cruel to use cows for their milk. No, as usual, PETA is going for sensationalism. And in this case, for the gross-out factor (coupled with the titty factor).

Because the reaction to PETA’s breast milk suggestion hasn’t been, “Hmm, I guess making cows produce milk for us is kind of cruel;” it’s been, “Breast milk in ice cream?! Gross!”

If that’s what they were going for, fine. But it’s not a tactic that makes anyone think about animal cruelty. It’s not a tactic that’s going to make anything think anything beyond, “Those PETA assholes are crazy.” And as Renee says, “PETA has no issue privilging animals over women. Social change on the backs of women is not social change.”

For those animal-loving feminists among us, PETA is a major thorn in our sides. The fact is, animal abuse and human abuse are related. Meat consumption is gendered, with meat-eating as something men do, while women’s bodies are literally imaged as pieces of meat. It’s well-established that people who abuse their partners and their family members often abuse the family animals as well, and use beloved pets as a way of controlling, manipulating, threatening and further harming their victims. And the abuse of animals is sometimes disturbingly sexualized (violence and sexual assault trigger warning):

On the video [of a pig farm], obtained by AP, a supervisor tells an undercover PETA investigator that when he gets angry or a sow won’t move, “I grab one of these rods and jam it in her [anus].”

“I hate them. These [expletives] deserve to be hurt. Hurt, I say!,” the employee yells as he hits a sow with a metal rod. “Hurt! Hurt! Hurt! Hurt! … Take out your frustrations on ’em.” He encourages the investigator to pretend that one of the pigs scared off a voluptuous and willing 17- or 18-year-old girl, and then beat the pig for it.

(Above links via Elaine).

This is an animal rights issue, and it’s a women’s rights issue. PETA does some great investigational work, and they deserve credit for sounding the alarm on animal abuse and for promoting cruelty-free lifestyles.

But if abuse of animals and abuse of women overlap — and I believe that they do — then I have a hard time seeing how exploiting and insulting women does much good to achieve their goals.

Feminists should absolutely be concerned about animal welfare — but we should also be concerned about women’s welfare, and we shouldn’t make excuses for groups like PETA, no matter how important their cause.

It’s not just using naked women’s bodies to promote their cause; I don’t have much of a problem with naked bodies. It’s the sexualization of abuse, and the fact that PETA uses naked women’s bodies in place of the bodies of abused and dead animals; it’s the fatshaming; it’s the ongoing treatment of women’s bodies as gross; it’s the Holocaust, lynching and slavery exploitation; it’s the fact that they target women who wear fur, but are nowhere to be seen at leather-filled biker bars; it’s the trans-hate (link via Renee).

I’ve criticized PETA a lot on this blog, and it always makes me feel a little guilty, because the fact is that there simply aren’t enough people out there doing animal rights work. But there are also too many people doing anti-woman work, and I find it particularly disappointing when it comes from a group that could be allied with women’s rights. PETA makes a conscious decision to play not just into sexism, but into the existing sexualization and gendering of meat-eating. They also use a lot of the same tactics as anti-choice extremists; those tactics don’t become ok just because we may be more sympathetic to PETA’s larger goals.

For a lot of us, feminist theory and animal liberation theory are deeply intertwined. Even if we aren’t animal rights activists, many of us do see the overlap between abuse of animals and abuse of women; the problematic social understanding of meat-eating as masculine and necessary for strength, and vegetarianism as feminine and indicative of weakness; and the disturbing imaging of women’s bodies literally as meat for male consumption. To see an animal rights organization that blatantly feeds into those stereotypes and that consciously does harm to women (and to people of color and to transgender people and to Jews and to a whole slew of others) isn’t only disturbing and disappointing, but it’s counterproductive to broader progressive goals and to PETA’s own mission.

The fact is that PETA asks for animal allies, and then spits in the face of traditionally marginalized groups. No organization is perfect, but when groups are flat-out harmful, they lose my support.

When I was a wee activist, PETA was the first group I ever supported, and animal welfare was the first issue I ever really cared about — long before I called myself a feminist, I identified as an animal rights activist. Admittedly, my interest and activism in that area has waned, but it still informs my progressive worldview and my feminism. But PETA won’t be getting a minute of my time or a dime of my money; instead, I’ll be looking to Feminists for Animal Rights for a more holistic and productive view of animal welfare.

Also check out Friends of Animals, and feel free to leave non-sexist, non-racist, animal-friendly links in the comments. A lot of wonderful animal rights organizations exist, and they deserve more publicity than PETA. So I’ll also give a little shout-out to Anjellicle Cats, a lovely no-kill shelter in New York from where I just adopted two adorable kitties who will be coming home with me sometime this week (and yes, I will post pictures).

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29 comments for “PETA does it again

  1. Hawise
    September 29, 2008 at 10:27 am

    I’ve stopped feeling guilty about criticizing PETA’s national campaigns. Aspects of PETA do good work and if I could support those without supporting their advertising airheads then I would. I simply can no longer support an organization that takes the hard work of other charitable and educational groups and abuses it so drastically that it undermines the efforts of the other groups. The current campaign is a stellar example- women’s groups have been trying to normalize breastfeeding for decades and trying to decommercialize child feeding and PETA throws that effort back decades for fundraising purposes. Groups who support breastfeeding as a low cost, high nutrition option for low income families, try to encourage breastmilk donation for families that can’t provide their own safe supply or just try to recontextualize breasts for women’s safety are all going to have to invest ad money to reinforce actions that they have already done.

    PETA is a bad progressive ally and finding alternative groups to support is my only response to their shock tactics.

  2. Jessie
    September 29, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    Great post. I am a feminist, a vegan, and an animal rights activist, and I often get criticism from both omnivores, who expect me to be “one of those PETA people”, and from fellow veg*ans, who accuse me of being divisive and unproductive when I speak out against PETA. Not only does PETA release sexist (and sometimes racist) ad campaigns and protests, but they also launch campaigns that directly contradict their own animal rights rhetoric – for example, praising Kentucky Fried Chicken and giving them loads of free advertising just for including a (non-vegan) vegetarian sandwich on their menu (only in Canada), even though KFC is still one of the worst animal abusers in the world.

    I recommend Gary Francione, the Vegan Freak Forums, and the Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary as people and organizations who respect the lives of animals while staying cognizant of the fact that humans are animals and all deserve the same respect.

  3. Subah
    September 29, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I disagree, PETA clearly does this so they can gain attention. I have seen many Animals Rights groups, organizations, causes, etc. and none of them are as popular as PETA. Ingrid Newkirk has even said this, that the they use these tactics so they can grab peoples attention. What’s the big deal? So what you are insulted big f***ing deal. Who CARES! You people are feminists, that’s fine. But the last time I checked there are still rights for humans, animals grow up to be food and nothing but toys for humans to torture. The ads are meant to be taken as a cry for help not to be extremely analyzed. To blog about PETA’s advertisements and their tactics is just really lame and pathetic. I have read soo many posts about PETA on how they do this or do that and it’s not right and they’re pyschotic, blah blah blah. No one ever wakes up! Even after witnessing videos of tortured animals. The amount of cruelty animals face, no human will ever know. The sad part is, no one gets it. All I have to say is GROW THE F*** UP, there are far worse things happening in this world then to complain about how insulting PETA is with their ads and commercials. They are not physically harming anyone, they are trying to grab attention to help save animals lives.

  4. September 29, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    @Jill thanks for the link love. I will say the whole thing with PETA leaves me so conflicted. I am not nor will I ever be a vegetarian however I certainly do not believe animals should be treated cruelly. I have not been able to reconcile their message with anything that approaches respect for marginalized bodies.

  5. September 29, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Jill, don’t feel bad for criticizing PETA, you’re completely right. I was a member in high school but have since come to find their sexism, fat-phobia, racism etc etc etc just way too much to excuse. I still sign their petitions if its for something I agree with and will lend that kind of limited, case-by-case basis support, but much as I love animals, am vegan, etc etc etc, I don’t love animals more than I love myself. Ugh.

    Subah, you don’t seem to have really processed anything Jill said. PETA could use shock tactics to force people to pay attention without pandering to misogyny or otherwise devaluing trans people, larger people and others marginalized groups. The hateful messages PETA puts out in the name of helping animals helps support institutional oppression, which does physically harm people. Check out the murder rates of trans people, and the response from the criminal injustice system if that doesn’t sound serious to you. The fact that they’re doing it in the name of teh animalz doesn’t make it okay.

  6. scamps
    September 29, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    @Subah: The problem is, PETA’s ads ARE most likely doing harm. They consistenly use sexism as a theme, and in doing so, are approving sexism in society.

    And humans have rights? You might want to read up:

  7. September 29, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    They are not physically harming anyone, they are trying to grab attention to help save animals lives.

    Are you sure they’re saving animals’ lives? Most of the people I talk to who see their ads find them offensive and through extension PETA as well. Racism, sexism and colonialism in ad campaigns through doing things like casually co-opting oppressions faced by humans like the Holocaust and slavery is probably losing you many more supporters than those tactics attract.

    As far as Growing the F-word, not only does that sound childish but that’s not going to attract much support on your issues either. Instead of telling people to grow the f-word up because they don’t agree with your rather rose-lensed view of human rights in this world, why not work within your organization to come up with less offensive, less shock-value-at-the-expense-of-marginalized-humans ads and create more intelligent ones. Who knows? People might actually start looking at PETA as something other than a bad joke.

  8. September 29, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    @SUBAH..yeah just plain and simple offensive. Seriously So what you are insulted big f***ing deal. Did you even bother to read this post about the racism, sexism, fat hater, transphobia? This is not about insulting this is about reifying isms for gain. When you live in the body of someone who society has chosen to marginalize every little campaign like this creates you as less than human. Honest how dare you tell someone to get over it, you get off it.

  9. Dustin Rhodes, Friends of Animals
    September 29, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    This is a wonderful, thoughtful and enlightening post—and I concur that the message that PeTA is sending is not only short-sighted but anti-feminist. I cringed along with many other people when this “campaign” emerged.

    The dairy industry (and every other form of animal agribusiness) is, indeed, tragic. Oppression and domination are sad facts of life for many animals, both human and non-human. However, there is a silver-lining; there is something all of us can do to change the lives of dairy cows, the planet and ourselves: we can become vegan. By making this life affirming change, we challenge—at the root—one of the most insidious and harmful practices that people engage in: consuming animals and animal products. When we adopt a plant-based diet and vegan lifestyle, we act according to deeper values—habits that inevitably change society.

    I believe that it’s important work to challenge “animal activism” that trades one form of oppression for another. No one is helped or lifted out of oppression when another is degraded. When advocating for animals, all of our lives must be taken into account.

  10. September 29, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Luckily, there are animal advocacy organizations out there who do provide a holitic view of animal rights. I work as the NYC Campaign Coordinator for Friends of Animals, a group that respects all humans and non-humans in our advocacy. We understand that one cannot be part of a peace movement, and advocate for freedom for one group of beings (non-humans) while denigrating another group (women).
    Peta gets lots of attention for these kind of embarrasing and misguided media stunts-but at what cost? It’s Peta that benefits from this nonsense, not the animals.
    The movement for respect and non-violence that animal rights represents cannot be served by such tactics, and any serious debate on the very real issue of the exploitation inherent in milk production is relegated to a joke status–with women and their sexualized bodies being the punch line.
    The issue of how animals fit into our moral framework, and the how the choices we make everyday about what to eat and what kind of consumers we are are vitally important. We all have the choice to be conscientious objectors to the violence and exploitation towards other animals that is done in our name.
    That’s what real animal rights is about, and that’s what veganism represents.
    Peta is a media machine that exists mainly to promote Peta, so please don’t confuse that with animal rights theory.
    Animal rights is a progressive cause–at it’s heart is the simple idea that we don’t have the right to exploit , oppress and harm those that are weaker than us, just because we can. It’s an idea that feminists, environmentalists, and those that fight for the rights of all different kinds of oppressed groups can get behind.
    Those interested in learning more can visit

    Edita Birnkrant
    NYC Campaign Coordinator
    Friends of Animals

  11. September 29, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    You nailed it, Jill. I pay the minimum annual dues to PETA, honoring the good that is done (especially in teaching people HOW to be vegan on a budget). But most of my money goes to other AR organizations (Farm Sanctuary, PCRM, etc.).

    When we grasp intersectionality, we see indeed that (as Jill and other commenters are saying) that we can’t use the tools of one oppressive system to achieve liberation for another group of oppressed beings.

    By the way, it was my feminism that led me to Animal Rights — I’m struck that for you, Jill, and for others, it seems to be more commonly to go the other way. I wonder if that’s not an uncommon narrative, the “love for animals” leading into feminism.

  12. September 29, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Talk about portraying women’s bodies as gross. Why would it be grosser to have breast milk in ice cream than cow milk? At least humans are biologically meant to drink breast milk at some point in their lives, which is more than can be said for cow milk. And breast milk is richer and sweeter than cow milk.

    (Obviously “gross” would be a ridiculous understatement to the women involved if someone were to actually farm and milk women, but no one, including PETA, is actually literally advocating that. I’m just pointing out the inexplicable hatred for women’s bodies.)

  13. September 29, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    By the way, it was my feminism that led me to Animal Rights — I’m struck that for you, Jill, and for others, it seems to be more commonly to go the other way. I wonder if that’s not an uncommon narrative, the “love for animals” leading into feminism.

    In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher observes that a lot of young women and girls are interested in animal rights, and she theorizes that it’s because they can relate to feeling helpless. Animal rights perhaps makes more sense than feminism, because while the feeling of helplessness is there, the feeling of entitlement — as if you, as a girl, have a right to things that you don’t even fully know you’re missing — isn’t.

    Of course, I read Reviving Ophelia when I was about 13 (I took it from my mother), and I remember that part specifically because it pissed me off so much. I didn’t feel, at 13, that I sympathized with animals because I felt helpless, too. But in hindsight, maybe that was part of it — and I think that growing up and learning about feminism helped me put a name on that feeling, which is why it was a pretty natural evolution. When, as a girl, you aren’t taught to complain about your own situation — when you aren’t even really taught to recognize injustice or feel worthy of certain treatment — it’s easier to focus on the suffering of smaller creatures, whose injustices you can name.

  14. September 29, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis, you bring up so many great points.

    Many would believe that:

    PETA = Animal Rights

    But sadly, public perspective would also agree:

    PETA = Joke

    In the end, many conclude that this means:

    Animal Rights = Joke

    I don’t see how these stunts can in any way further animal rights issues. Veganism and AR are an important and necessary facet of the social justice and peace movement, yet *rarely* is it considered as such.

    This is very unfortunate, and to make matters worse PETA deals with these all these issues poorly. One could easily conclude that they have no grasp of the ‘rights’ concept. Both for humans and non-humans.

    So if they’re not promoting or supportive of human rights, nor animal rights, what are they?

  15. September 29, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    It’s not a tactic that’s going to make anything think anything beyond, “Those PETA assholes are crazy.”

    if that’s the case, it’s certainly a tactic that will make the average American know the truth about PETA.

  16. September 29, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I really need to re-read Pipher — haven’t looked at in over a decade. But that point makes a lot of sense.

  17. Aaron
    September 29, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    PETA knowingly works with and aids the Animal Liberation Front—which engages in and encourages arson, destruction and theft of research equipment, and, while it denies involvement with attacks that actually cause harm to people, it condones and encourages those attacks. The Southern Poverty Law center published an extensive and well researched article on ALFs criminal activities in 2002, which can be found here

    PETA lies to animal shelters, convinces the shelters to turn animals over to PETA so they can “find good homes for the animals”, and then kills the animals. This made the news a few years back when PETA workers were found dumping the bodies of animals they had killed in a dumpster in North Carolina. See here: . See here for PETA supporting those workers arrested and stating that this is national policy . And see here for numbers suggesting that PETA kills a larger percentage of “rescued” animals than the shelters would have:

    PETA opposes ALL animal experimentation, whether that experimentation is needless, like blinding monkeys to test makeup, or badly needed, like testing life saving medicines and medical procedures (and regardless of how well the animals are treated). Here’s the official stance on it from their own FAQ: .

    PETA can claim to represent the mainstream Animal rights movement because it is so large, and it is so large because it lies about it’s real goals, agenda, and methods.

    There is nothing wrong with criticizing PETA, there is nothing to feel guilty about, it is those who support PETA who should feel guilty.

  18. r.
    September 29, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    this really is a great piece that lays out a lot of what needs to be said as far as PETA and animal rights as a social justice movement and the interconnectedness of issues. but if we’re arguing that:

    Feminists should absolutely be concerned about animal welfare — but we should also be concerned about women’s welfare, and we shouldn’t make excuses for groups like PETA, no matter how important their cause.

    (which is SO true) then by the same measure we should also try to pay special attention not to make any excuses for stuff that’s actively anti-animal rights coming from us as feminists. even if it’s “small” stuff, it matters – after all, PETA always argues that their sexism is small on the scale of things… and reading this post, i remembered that in a previous one, on a personal note, jill talked about celebrating with a piece of steak. and while that’s not quite so bad as promoting some feminist issue by encouraging meat eating (which would be the equivalent of a PETA tactic), by virtue of it being mentioned uncritically in the context of a feminist blog it’s still something in that vein, unfortunately.

    we should keep criticizing PETA’s sexism until they cease and desist, but we should also talk, whenever we can, about the fact that supporting animal cruelty isn’t absent from feminist spaces… as feminists, we should be aware that the impact of such things is the same response for animal righters as that of PETA’s ads for feminists…

    i hope this doesn’t come across as an attack, i mean it only as a constructive criticism and because i feel that it must be said, too, for consistency’s sake.

  19. September 29, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    i hope this doesn’t come across as an attack, i mean it only as a constructive criticism and because i feel that it must be said, too, for consistency’s sake.

    Oh if only all comment-attacks looked like this… :-)

    You make a really good point. I don’t write about animal welfare all that much, and it’s often in the context of criticizing PETA (and I have mentioned my unfortunate steak habit). You’re right that there’s a lack of criticism on that end.

  20. September 29, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    It’s ironic that you cited Elaine Vigneault. She doesn’t seem to be too concerned about PETA’s sexist campaigns and would accuse you of being anti-animal if she read this.

  21. September 29, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Jill, Thank you for writing this analysis. Though I don’t agree 100% with you (as if either of us would agree 100% with anyone), I respect your opinion and I thank you heartily for the in-depth, thoughtful post.

  22. September 29, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    It’s funny that you cite Elaine Vigneault. She’d accuse you of being anti-animal if she read this.

  23. Karina
    September 30, 2008 at 2:06 am

    As a vegan, feminist, and animal rights activist, I have a lot of problems with PETA – their sexist, racist, fat-phobic, & transphobic advertising and their support of KFC for simply offering a veg*n sandwich. However, I wish there was more positive coverage of veganism and the animal rights movement within the feminist sphere. I’m a feminist because I don’t believe in or support exploitation; which is also why I’m a vegan and animal rights activist.

    In response to the previous comments, killing animals merely for our palate is cruel. Testing medications and procedures on non-human animals is as well; they have no voices, they can’t give consent, there are alternatives, and is often inaccurate due to the biological differences between non-human animals and humans. Basically, I don’t believe in exploiting animals (human or non-human alike) for the “greater good,” our pleasure (entertainment, food, clothing, etc.) or our vanity. And the feminist sphere is in desperate need of better coverage of the animal rights movement and how AR and feminism are related. I just feel so frustrated because the only times I’ve seen mention of AR or veganism is when PETA launches another offensive campaign.

  24. September 30, 2008 at 11:01 am

    “And breast milk is richer and sweeter than cow milk.”

    Uh… other way around. Breast milk is quite a bit lower in fat content than many other mammals because our children develop much slower.

    “And the feminist sphere is in desperate need of better coverage of the animal rights movement and how AR and feminism are related. I just feel so frustrated because the only times I’ve seen mention of AR or veganism is when PETA launches another offensive campaign.”

    Sorry but unless you were denied a job or a promotion because you’re a vegan it really doesn’t fit. Feminism is about human rights, not animal.

  25. September 30, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    PETA is FAKE. They dont seem to know that a cow can give 3 times the milk that it needs to feed her calf. They are bringing laws to close down Every American farmer. The Humane Groups are backed by the Socialist Party. They are taking your rights away from you. Most farmers also crop farm, it’s going to be a cold day in HELL when farmers refuse to sell grain to anyone who closed down there animal breeding operations, but it will happen… Wheres your right to decide?

  26. denelian
    October 2, 2008 at 1:47 am

    in the letter PETA sent, they said something along the lines of “this is cruel because the cow farmers have to re-impregnate cows every year! forced pregnancy!!!”

    this is a LIE. cows (and women) will continue to give milk so long as they are milked (in general).

  27. r.
    October 2, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Breast milk is quite a bit lower in fat content than many other mammals because our children develop much slower.

    that’s not true. human milk is lower in protein content, but the fat content is higher. human milk is perhaps not “richer,” but it is sweeter and fattier (though as far as babies are concerned what’s significant is the exact nutritional composition and many other factors – human milk is designed for growing human babies, while cow milk isn’t). you can do a search and select scientific data on “human milk compared to cow milk.”

    but isn’t it disturbing that we don’t have a clear idea about that? that we’re not very educated about the milk of our own species or that we find it gross (and that when we think of “milk” the default is cow’s milk)? and isn’t it strange that though it’s pretty straightforward information, even the nutritional facts are relatively obscure to most people?

    this is a LIE. cows (and women) will continue to give milk so long as they are milked (in general).

    nope – not at the level of “giving milk” (continuous over many years) that we are talking about in the context of dairy production. please look up information on dairy practices (go ahead and check out the info coming directly from the dairy industry — see what they do with the so-called “rape racks” for instance).

    unfortunately, peta’s campaign does nothing to dispel myths – that’s their problem in a nutshell: supposedly they try to “shake things up” and make people think about animal cruelty, but what they actually accomplish with their “the ends justify the means” approach is to make the public cling to their misconceptions all the more (including, as we’ve seen so many times, the sexist attitudes of those who don’t mind being sexist and the speciesist attitudes of feminists who don’t think an issue is feminist/worthy of their attention unless it involves a woman being denied a job promotion).

    and the other thing peta accomplishes with campaigns like this, unfortunately, is to give the whole animal welfare/rights movement a bad name… though it must be said, also, that it’s disturbing how ready the majority of people are to distrust and dismiss those concerned about animal cruelty, probably so that they won’t be forced to think about it (as any vegetarian knows by just existing in a meat-eating culture, you don’t even have to do or say anything – you’ll be considered a joke and/or a threat anyway). peta is making things worse (and in the process sadly ruining even their own positive contributions to reducing cruelty), but at the same time people should be honest and take responsibility for not being willing to hear the animal rights message anyway.

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