A Vegan Feminist’s Response To The PETA Ad

Posted on February 16, 2012 by | 31 Comments


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.

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31 Responses to “A Vegan Feminist’s Response To The PETA Ad”

  1. Adam PogonowskiNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    Totally agree with you. What a disgusting video.

  2. DuncNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

    Seriously, what the hell is wrong with PETA? Are they actually trying to drive people away from animal rights, or are all their campaigns designed by porn-addled frat boys on crack? Who could possibly look at this and think “yeah, that’s a really good way of getting our message across”?

  3. StrandbergNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

    If you were vegan for any hint of an ethical reason, you’d realise there are literally billions of more pressing things to get upset about than this un-pc but quite funny commercial.

  4. Gary DunionNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

    If the ad is so inconsequential, then surely, Strandberg, a blog post about it is even more so. Where are *your* ethics?

  5. SybarisNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    Strandberg – Pssst Not to embarrass you or anything, but your privilege is showing.

  6. AndyNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

    The only reason why anybody would be outraged by this ad is if they believe that women are incapable of agreeing to and enjoying anything other that ~uber gentle~ sex, with ~the love of their lives~. The voiceover says that she got hurt because they had crazy tantric sex and she’s smiling and happy at the end – what could possibly lead you to believe she didn’t agree to the sex and liked it “rough”? I find your ~all women are asexual porcelain dolls~ attitude about 100 times more offensive and sexist than PETA’s silly ad.

  7. SybarisNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    That women comprise the majority of sexual assault and sexual violence victims is not a trivial factor here. Sure, women can consent to kink – must that result in actual bodily harm to her and not her boyfriend? The imagery and language is that of passivity, just as Alyson has said.

    The advert did not feature a women who was happily fulfilled by a lively sex life. It injured her. That is not a necessary byproduct of rough sex, kink, or anything else. It’s unnecessary, gratuitous, and portrays women as passive entities to whom sex is ‘done’. Where was the guy’s sprained muscles from his sexual prowess? This advert and “joke” could easily have been made without evoking the kind of connotations it did.

    Moreover, some people are offended by something. When the response is to defend the offensive material instead of accepting that maybe some “jokes” aren’t worth making, there is a problem with priorities.

  8. Mhairi McAlpineNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 4:02 pm


    This ad is *vile* – its making an explicit connection between actual physical damage done to women and enjoyable sex.

    The only reason why anybody would *not* be outraged by this ad is if they believe that women desire sexual activity in which they get physically hurt to the point of needing serious medical intervention.

    Look at what the ad is saying – seriously look at it. We want you to go vegan, if you go vegan you will such rough sex with your girlfriend that she will require medical treatment. It feeds into all kinds of dangerous ideas that women secretly like to be hurt they just don’t tell men that but men know that deep down thats’ what they really want.

    So you get women telling men repeatedly that they dont find this funny, they find it offensive and dangerous, and then teh menz tell us that we don’t have a sense of humour.

    Women suffer real sexual violence because of attitudes that its what they really want or they must be prudish if they object to being hurt, or that their consent isn’t really relevant for some acts because men know what they really, secretly, deep down want whatever they actually say.

    This ad reinforces those attitudes.

  9. MollyNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

    Er, Andy, did you just not read the paragraph in which the author acknowledges that some people like rough, pain-involving sex? That she then goes on to say how this advert seems to be talking about abuse rather than consensual kink does not negate that acknowledgement.

  10. TomNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

    That is a fantastic ad! The protagonist is a nerd with vegan-derived sexual superpowers, that his girlfriend clearly appreciates, hence the bag of veg. It’s humorously persuasive, engaging, provokes discussion, and enrages prudes. What’s not to like?!

  11. DuncNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    Come off it lads… The BDSM mantra is “safe, sane, and consensual”, not just “consensual”. If you wind up in a friggin’ neck brace, you’ve crossed both the “safe” and “sane” lines.

    And it’s not like PETA don’t have form on this kind of shit. This is part of a well-established pattern of behaviour.

  12. TomNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

    I understood her injury to be accidentally, rather than intentionally, inflicted: a by-product of her beau’s new-found potency, hence his sheepish tone at the end. Accidents can happen during any physical activity, sex included. Maybe one sees what one wants to see.

  13. StrandbergNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 5:41 pm


    My ‘privilege is showing’? That’d be my mixed-race female privilege?

    Try thinking instead of trotting out tired catchphrases.

    This commercial isn’t an anti-feminist crusade, it’s a cheeky joke.

    You may find it funny, you may not. But to cry offense is to legislate for your own taste.

  14. Joseph CapeNo Gravatar
    February 16th, 2012 @ 8:52 pm

    Thanks Alyson for a well-argued post. I am drawn to asking what you would propose instead as an awareness-raising strategy.

    Of the various outfits that promote animal welfare in one way or another, Ingrid Newkirk’s stewardship of the organisation since the 1970s has made PETA the highest profile such advocate by a long shot. Many of these organisations held similar objectives to PETA, and relied on well-reasoned arguments, which is the prescription you suggest in the article, and have not courted controversy in the way that PETA has. That they have remained in obscurity should not be surprising: just ask yourself how many important social advances have been brought about by well-reasoned arguments. Reason on its own is inert, and tends to follow the passions.

    So when you say that “PETA’s new ad campaign isn’t going to save any animals”, the obvious rejoinder is to ask: what will?

    First off, there is a basic gap – more like a chasm — between the ability of PETA to get its message heard and the ability of LYNX-alikes to convince us to obey the hedonic imperative (to smell better, eat more & lose weight, etc.). As long as 98% of airtime is devoted to plying these products, charities will indeed be in a race to the bottom to make their miserly 2% punch above its weight. PETA has been more unscrupulous than most in pushing ‘low’ as far as it will go, but the evidence suggests that this is more effectual than trying to remonstrate with tele-spectators in a more earnest way.

    Now on to the ad itself. As has been pointed out above, it is new-found sexual superpowers, not wanton partner-beating that results in injury. I Don’t mean to split hairs but I know which I’d prefer to be on the receiving end of; but it would be obtuse not to recognise the overtones of sexual violence.

    That said, the accusation that the ad “tells us that enjoyable sex involves a man injuring a woman,” is wildly overstating the case. It is like the xkcd skit “How it works” in reverse (http://xkcd.com/385/). A bloke commits a howler of a maths blunder and the stickman says “Wow, you suck at math [sic]”. On to the next panel, a girl does the same and the stickman says “Wow, girls suck at math”.

    If you can see what’s going wrong there, you must be able to see what’s gone wrong in equating the fact that sex (even enjoyable sex) is portrayed as a product of male strength with sex in general being about this.

    Indeed, if PETA had reversed the gender roles, and a male was injured by his female partner, would you have claimed that “As far as PETA are concerned, he’s not really a person at all”? Surely even if you found it tasteless, you would have assumed that this was intended to depict a one-off, unusual relationship, rather than being intended to undermine the personhood of men in general. So it seems like the fallacy exactly maps on to the “Girls suck at maths” attitude above: Sometimes we are too willing to draw general conclusions from limited data when it comes to one gender, but not the other.

    Finally, I appreciate that you are stating the case of someone who cares for both gender equality and animal welfare, and I respect that. But those who make a stand against the ad without defending its aims are caught in a tough place (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/16/peta-vegan-sex-ad, http://www.salon.com/2011/08/22/peta_porn_stunt/ ).

    The motivation for encouraging vegetarianism or veganism must be to reduce the suffering inflicted on, for instance, the 900 million or so chickens slaughtered in the UK each year. It is born of the duty to protect creatures who have some moral worth and are defenceless.

    As this does not seem to be important to the writers of the above article, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they implicitly accept the logic of ‘might makes right’. If so, why should they expect men to raise a finger in defence of gender equality? The principle that should rally us against domestic abuse – concern for those more vulnerable than ourselves – is the same one that forces us to engage with our treatment of other animals, and consider giving up meat.

  15. PriyaNo Gravatar
    February 17th, 2012 @ 12:30 am

    This is a mindbogglingly awful advert which is likely to put more people off veganism than anything. I am a lifelong vegetarian with vegan sympathies but I find this very distracting as far as ethics are concerned. It’s hard to even remember the vegan spin after watching. Another thing it’s stupidly ill informed. Tantric sex has got nothing to do with violent sex. Quite the opposite in fact. Insane. Peta deserve to be put down. Pardon the pun.

  16. RichardNo Gravatar
    February 17th, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

    While I don’t like the advert. I think that your blog is highly innacurate and (mis)leading.

    There is nothing within the advert’s scenario that suggests that she was sent to the shops, that she wasn’t at all consensting. In fact, it seems she went to the shop on her own volition, and actually smiles when she throws the veg at him.

    The advert is pretty moronic, and they could have chosen to shoot the same advert and put it out more overtly as a joke, but I think people have played right into their hands by reacting like this. The ‘abuse’ tone of the ad doesn’t really come from the scenario depicited but rather is triggered by the lampooning of the well-established ‘abuse charity appeal’ genre of adverts.

    Women are actually capable of making informed choices and consenting to types of relationships that some other people disapprove of. That idea as I understand it underpins the whole struggle against patriarchy through to heteronormativity.

    Again, I don’t like this advert at all. But not because I disapprove of people having extreme sex, but because PeTA are dicks, and I don’t think the connotations of the charity ad theme are really that funny. I don’t find them offensive, just stupid.

    But this blog has displayed a level of stupidity that is at least on a par when it misdirects people and flat out lies about the content of a video to overreach into claims of it being abuse apologia.

    Oh and you also overgeneralised the reasons for being vegan.


  17. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    February 17th, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    Joseph, (and a few others),

    one of the things that people seem to be missing is that you can’t take this out of its social and cultural context. So, you ask if it would be OK if the gender roles were reversed. I’m not sure what I think about the answer to this question – I suppose it might depend how it was done. But I am sure that it wouldn’t be as bad.

    Because part of the point about these adverts is that they perpetuate particular understandings of the world – they take what may be a small truth (that maybe sometimes some women enjoy sex so rough it injures them) and they show it again and again and again until people think it’s normal. Men feel like our masculinity is judged by how rough we can be in bed/in general, women feel like they ought to enjoy rough sex/violence or they are weird/boring.

    The media doesn’t work by telling outright lies. It works by twisting specific tiny truths into mirages of towers which warp our understanding of the world. And, in this case, there is a significant real world problem with these perceptions. Many men still think that being violent with their partners is acceptable behaviour. There are obviously lots of reasons for this. But the cultural trope that good sex is rough sex – really violent sex – surely feeds into that? Even if sometimes for some people, violent sex is rough sex, perpetuating the magnification of that small piece of the whole picture is really unhelpful.

  18. RichardNo Gravatar
    February 17th, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    Yes Adam, I agree: media campaigns calling for gay marriage are really unhelpful as it creates a cognative dissonance that a minority can be normal and valid. And charity ads for helping abused people should be banned because they just create an illusion anyone actually cares.

    I’d love for someone to attempt to properly research a thesis that there is “[a] cultural trope that good sex is rough sex – really violent sex ”

    I know there is a very consensual sub-cultural one. Never noticed a mainstream one.

  19. Alabaster Codify for 10nnNo Gravatar
    February 19th, 2012 @ 1:51 am


    could easily be summed up as:
    I am clearly much more right on and intelligent than the person making the comment above.

    Seriously, it could. I know you’re all very well meaning, right on, intelligent and all that, but really…

    besides, I love a bacon sandwich and I treat all women as perfect equals. And I’m not gonna change the world by being ‘offended’ in public on the ‘net

  20. SkinnyVegan GuyNo Gravatar
    February 19th, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    First of all, what makes you think he sent her out to do shopping? The boyfriend even asks her if she’s okay.This is actually a very empowered young woman who knows what she likes and doesn’t care what the politically correct crowd thinks.

  21. Joseph CapeNo Gravatar
    February 25th, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

    This may be a little late to chime in, but to respond to Adam:

    I agree that we should be sensitive to context. The point was not to say that the advert would have the same force and implied values if the gender roles were reversed, but to question whether the advert warrants the verdict that “enjoyable sex involves a man injuring a woman” according to PETA. I’m not sure that this is any more valid an inference than claiming that “girls suck at math” because one girl doesn’t know the value of pi.

    In both cases there is a confusion between type and token: one girl’s preference in the bedroom simply doesn’t generalise and there is no reason to expect an audience to interpret it that way. In fact, scanning the voluminous comments sections of the various articles that have been written in response to the advert, I have yet to read a comment that indicates that anyone takes it to be a general model of ideal sexual relationships.

    That does not mean that the advert is beyond criticism. You don’t have to be making a statement about women in general in order to do something unnecessarily offensive. Most of everyone who has seen it believes it is crass, unfunny and in poor taste. An exception to this would be the “Kinky vegan response…” since posted in this blog.

    I prefer to leave aside the possibility that the “kinky” message itself makes up for the above deficiencies. But the important point is made to defend the separation of reality from fantasy.

    But the fact that you have had two articles on this here, articles in the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Sun and many more exploding through the blogosphere gives an indication of its impact.

    Alyson is (of course) bang on when she says “women have a lot more to contribute to this, or any, debate than bare flesh and a vulnerable expression.” But isn’t one of the clearest examples of this Ingrid Newkirk herself, who defined PETA’s confrontational PR strategy and may well have given the go ahead to the present cause of contention. If she has not, then she certainly has been involved in PETA’s taste for the risque and flesh-bearing advert.

    If you don’t agree with this, fine. But if you don’t appreciate this as an example of female contribution, then you are in danger of crossing into “I want women to have more power and influence as long as they use this power to do what I agree with.”

    I also want to suggest that PETA deserves some credit for the general success that this tactic has had, as compared to other organisations with similar aims (what are their names?). Even if you object to this for all the reasons above, the question crying out is: what tactic should they use?

    Personally, I don’t think its good enough to be turned off a tactic by the ‘yuck factor’ without saying what could replace it which would have the same impact.

  22. CharlesNo Gravatar
    July 8th, 2012 @ 1:39 am

    That ad is vile and despicable. PETA seems to be dead set on destroying all respect for veganism.

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  25. KateNo Gravatar
    June 3rd, 2013 @ 9:07 am

    I think all forms of oppression are related so the oppression of animals and the oppression of women are related. PETA continues to disgust me due to their disrespect and denials of women’s and children’s rights. I am a Vegan myself and am constantly explaining to people why I hate PETA. It’s so terrible.

    Thank you for this post……… It is so important to meet people with whom I can relate.

  26. JakeNo Gravatar
    January 16th, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

    Seriously people need to lighten up! This ad wasnt made with the intention of upsetting all you crazy feminist folk! It is simply a light hearted witty ad about becoming vegan. Note to all feminists: the whole world is NOT out to get you and not EVERYTHING is created to objectify or offend women. Get a serious grip and find something more useful to do with your life.

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