Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sex Sells - but should it be used to sell an animal rights message?

Las Vegan Bakery on Smith Street, Melbourne hosts a regular animal rights discussion group. I have been invited as special guest speaker this Wednesday and the topic they have set me is: Sex Sells - but should it be used to sell an animal rights message?

So what do I think about the link between sex, sexism and animal rights?

Carol Adams famously began the conversation with the publication of The Sexual Politics of Meat in 1990.  

In Carol Adams' own words:

The 'Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory' explores a relationship between patriarchal values and meat eating by interweaving the insights of feminism, vegetarianism, animal defense, and literary theory.

Yet despite warnings from Carol Adams and others about the link between the exploitation and subjugation of women and nonhuman animals, sex is regularly used to promote an animal rights message. 

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims to be the world's biggest animal rights organisation. It is also the organisations most famous for using images of naked, or semi-naked people (usually women) to grab the media's attention and make (or be) the headlines. Their strategy has been spectacularly successful and the media does not seem to tire of a naked PETA protest.    

The abundance of online photos of naked PETA protests suggests that the organisation has no problem finding people willing to strip in the name of animal rights. Indeed, in scrolling through images for this post I saw numerous photos of people I have personally met, posing nude for PETA. I can only assume that those people do not think that the use of sex to sell an animal rights message is an ethical concern. Indeed, of the people I know who have stripped for PETA I am not aware of any of them feeling pressured, coerced or exploited in the process. 

But has PETA taken it to another level?

Regular readers of this blog will recall that earlier this year PETA produced an online ad which suggested that a young woman had sustained serious injuries after her boyfriend went vegan and therefore became more forceful in bed. As you might expect, the ad caused quite a stir.

More recently PETA launched a new xxx website which features a photos of two young, apparently naked, women embracing. At first blush it appears to be a porn site. 

The site includes a statement under the heading 'The Reason Behind PETA's Naked Campaigns' which reads in part:

PETA's mission is to put an end to animal suffering, and we use every available opportunity to spread this message—we always have, and we always will. Unfortunately, this is not always an easy task. Unlike our opposition, which is mostly made up of wealthy industries and corporations, PETA must rely on getting free "advertising" through media coverage. It's a safe bet that many visitors to didn't set out to learn about how animals are mercilessly slaughtered on today's factory farms; understandably, such topics are convenient to ignore. That's why PETA must make our message impossible to forget—and launching a website with a .xxx domain name is one way that we can achieve that goal.

In PETA's view sex is fair game because the suffering of animals is so serious, and their adversaries so powerful, that they must harness the free advertising that comes with sexual images.They do so for the sake of the animals. 

So what's my view?

Well, I can see both sides of the argument. I appreciate that the sexualisation of women's bodies for the purpose of marketing is morally problematic. I also continue to be impressed with the effectiveness with which PETA disseminates its message. In a world where animal suffering is almost always invisible, their contribution is arguably important. 

But do the ends justify the means? Well to learn what I really, really, really think about the issue you will have to come to the Las Vegan Bakery discussion group.

However, what I will tell you now is that I will be watching the number of hits this post receives very closely. I have tagged it with the word 'sex'. What's the bet that this post will receive more page views than any other? Sex sells, but should animal advocates fight them or join them?  


  1. If there was an empirical quantitative way to identify the reach and change in behaviour in both intended and unintended audiences that would help answer the question.
    There's a spectrum of responses that I've seen ranging from amusement to distress.
    If 'naked women' is a cheap way to get around male editors, maybe the final effect is worth what was paid but the real cost remains what it has always been when you turn someone into something.