Trigger warning: this post contains references to abusive relationships and sexual violence.
What kind of man injures his girlfriend to the point where she can barely walk, then sends her out to do the shopping? According to PETA, a vegan man.
If you haven’t seen their latest ad campaign about the effects of “Boyfriend Went Vegan And Knocked The Bottom Out Of Me”, take a deep breath before you click the link.
I’m a vegan, and have been for six and a half years, but neither I, nor any of the other vegans I’ve met, want anything to do with PETA. Most of us think they’re an embarrassment, and worry that their cringe-inducing publicity campaigns make the rest of us look bad too. But this isn’t about how they’ve hurt my delicate, tree-hugging feelings; I just want to make it very clear that this criticism comes from someone who shares many of their views on animals welfare, but is inspired to a feminist rage by the way they put their message across. In the past, they’ve run campaigns which objectified women, some literally comparing the female body to a piece of meat, but their new campaign goes beyond that and actually glorifies violence against women.
The ad opens with a woman wearing a neck brace and wincing in pain with every step she takes. She is introduced as Jessica, and it is explained that she “suffers from” a vegan boyfriend, whose recent change in diet has given him the energy for sex so rough that it leaves her needing medical attention. The language casts her as the passive recipient of violence from the start: “knocked the bottom out of me” describes sex as something which has been done to Jessica, not an activity which she took an active part in. It sounds destructive, and almost as if her body is an inanimate object, not part of a human being with thoughts and feelings. As far as PETA are concerned, she’s not really a person at all, just a demonstration of her boyfriend’s sexual abilities, which we are supposed to admire. By telling us repeatedly that they have had really good sex, and that the sex has caused Jessica pain, the narrator is creating an association between the two things, essentially telling us that enjoyable sex involves a man injuring a woman.
While pain is part of sex for some people, what we are being shown here is so steeped in the visual imagery of violence and abuse that it’s difficult to see how this could be a story about a couple engaging in consensual kink. When we first see Jessica, she looks pale, shocked, and dishevelled; wearing nothing but a coat, and limping down the street in the early morning light. Without the narration, you’d think this was a film about a woman who has just been raped. As she struggles up a flight of stairs we see an up-skirt angle (classy, PETA; really classy), and a flashback of her head being slammed into a wall. Add in her boyfriend’s token gesture of concern in asking her if she’s feeling better, showing affection after having hurt her, and you’ve got a 30-second synopsis of an abusive relationship.
Anything which portrays this type of abuse as sexy is offensive to women, and particularly to those women who have experienced intimate partner violence. It makes me feel physically sick to see the ideals that I care about casually linked to sexual violence for the sake of a cheap joke. Veganism is something which people choose because they want to reduce the harm that they cause to other sentient creatures and the planet we live on. You may not agree with the decision we’ve made, but the behaviour in the ad is the antithesis of the principles that motivate vegans make such a huge lifestyle change. It’s a big commitment, and no one who’s going to stick with it in the long term will be persuaded by claims that it’s the dietary equivalent of Viagra.
Despite to the misogynistic image that PETA presents, some people actually make a link between veganism and feminism. They claim that intensive livestock farming inflicts particularly cruel treatment on female animals because of their reproductive functions: only female chickens spend their lives in battery cages producing eggs, and only female cows can be put through a continual cycle of pregnancies needed to maintain their milk supply. This is relatively controversial (even amongst feminists and vegans), but it’s argued that this devalues women’s role in reproduction.
PETA’s new ad campaign isn’t going to save any animals, but it could do a lot of harm to women by perpetuating dangerous gender stereotypes.
It’s offensive to men to suggest that this is the best way of winning them over, and women have a lot more to contribute to this, or any, debate than bare flesh and a vulnerable expression. I’m not going to compromise my feminist beliefs to support a vegan organisation that doesn’t respect women; I’d rather stand up for all of my views and challenge PETA to make their case the way that ordinary vegans do on a daily basis – with well reasoned arguments, and no half-naked models.