The Sexual Politics of Meat

Pamela Anderson Poses for PETA

Carol Adams’ early 1990s work, The Sexual Politics of Meat, addresses the historical relationship between meat-eating and the oppression of women, by locating both within in a patriarchal system in which meaning is divorced from materiality, violence is both accepted and hidden, and women and animals are both rendered dispensable for male consumption.

Adams argues that a feminist stance on meat-eating is a vegetarian stance, one that calls attention to the life of the animal that stands behind the meat and one that also points out the ways in which male vitality and virility seem to rely on the consumption of meat, a blood sacrifice. She draws parallels between this consumption (making a clear case for the relationship between meat-eating and masculinity with ethnographic data, literary analysis, and sharp cultural criticism) and the language with which women are often referred to. As Anderson’s ad for PETA (shown above) shows, it’s quite common to refer to women by their parts. Women are reduced to an alienated set of anatomical objects- a “pair of legs” or, even more meaty, “a rack.”

The basic concept of fragmentation and alienation as tools of violence (what Adams calls the phenomenon of the “absent referent”) clearly relates to both women and animals and Adams makes a good case. However, there are aspects of her argument that gave me pause. On the one hand, it seems clear to me that there is a historical relationship between patriarchal power and reification or “thingification” through isolating the parts from the whole. On the other hand, I am not certain that the process of alienating a living being from either their constituent parts or the products of their labor is inherently patriarchal. To me, it seems inherently capitalist. Now, there’s definitely an argument to be had as to whether capitalism is necessarily patriarchal, but I think it’s worth considering if the consumption of animals in a non-capitalist system could be feminist.

I think where Adams’ argument breaks down a bit is when she starts to consider inherent commonalities between women and animals (or women and nurturing/vegetation/sustainability). Structurally and historically, it seems fair to consider women and animals in a similar (or analogous) subject position (at least, in the Western world). However, I bristle at the idea that, as a woman, I have a natural relationship with anything. I don’t think that “woman” is a natural category, honestly.

But perhaps that’s neither here nor there…

To link things back to Pamela Anderson up there, I’d like to address Adams’ proposition that a rejection of meat might be a part of a woman’s assertion of control over her own body. Anderson has argued that she’s presenting herself on her own terms, that she is “using her own body.”¬†¬†Interestingly, this seems like the kind of language that Adams identifies as part of the system of patriarchal fragmentation in which the body is a thing to be used. Anderson feels that by sexualizing herself, somehow, she has gamed the system. On the outside, however, she’s still a bikini-clad sex symbol on a billboard.

Adams also addresses a way in which women can take back their power, can claim autonomy over their bodies. She discusses rejection of meat as a way for women to assert control, claiming that by “refusing the male order in food, women practiced the theory of feminism through their bodies” (Adams, 163). The body becomes the tool of protest. I struggle with this idea, as someone who cares deeply about the ways in which women often turn their lack of control into a mission against their own bodies. Food choice becomes the place where the otherwise powerless can take a stand. That’s a stage that toddlers go through. That’s a symptom of disordered eating.

Now, as a vegan who believes that her food choices are political choices and who is deeply interested in reclaiming control of her own body, I would never make any blanket statements about a woman’s choice to eat or not eat meat. I’m just sitting over here and struggling with these ideas and struggling with what to put on my plate.

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