On 8th September we travelled to London to see vegan feminist activist Carol J Adams in conversation with vegan comedian Sara Pascoe to celebrate the 25th Anniversary edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat: Adams' groundbreaking work calling attention to the intersected oppressions of women and animals.
Carol J Adams has laboured tirelessly as an activist all her adult life, working to end domestic violence, homelessness, racism, and violence against animals. We were a little late to the party having only discovered the 20th anniversary edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat shortly after we went vegan in 2010. Since then our copy has become quite dog-eared through reading, re-reading and lending to our friends, so we were excited to pick up the most recent edition - signed by Carol and including a photo taken by us (page 205)!
In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Adams proposes a trinity of oppression which links butchering and sexual violence in our culture:
- Objectification: allows an oppressor to view another being as an object, and violate their victim by treating them as something rather than someone
- Fragmentation: either literal (e.g. the butchering of animals into smaller parts), or metaphorical (e.g. women being referred to and/or treated as a "piece of ass" or "a piece of meat")
- Consumption: either literal (e.g. digesting the fragmented parts of an animal), or metaphorical (e.g. a culture which compares women to a product, both attainable and consumable)
In this way, both women and animals share the status of absent referent, which functions to "keep something from being seen as having been someone, to allow for the moral abandonment of another being".
As Adams explains, "Without animals there would be no meat eating, yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed by violence into food." A baby cow becomes "veal", its mother "beef", a pig becomes "pork", and together they fall under the mass term of "meat", all of which disguise and ignore the individual identity of each animal, and the violence and death inflicted upon them to become consumable objects.
"Just as dead bodies are absent from our language about meat, in descriptions of cultural violence women are also often the absent referent. Rape, in particular, carries such potent imagery that the term is transferred from the literal experience of women and applied metaphorically to other instances of violent devastation... The experience of women thus becomes a vehicle of describing other oppressions. Women, upon whose bodies actual rape is most often committed, become the absent referent when the language of sexual violence is used metaphorically. These terms recall women's experiences but not women." (page 22)
Have you ever wondered with frustration and annoyance why the general public seems content to eat ham sandwiches and steaks without a second thought, but whip themselves into an emotional frenzy when Cecil the lion or Harambe the gorilla are killed? - These famous tragic animals have names and individual identities which draw them out of absent referent status - they become very much present in the discourse surrounding their death in a manner not afforded to the 56 billion land animals killed for food worldwide every year. Rather than attacking omnivores for their hypocrisy on this issue, Adams instead encourages us to draw reference to the privatised structure of caring in contemporary society and to seek to encourage an extension of this process to other animals.
We could waffle on for ages about the many illuminating observations to be found within Carol J Adams' huge body of work, but we simply can't do justice to her theories in our own words, nor fit all her interesting ideas into one blog post! We heartily encourage you to check out her many works (in particular the most recent edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat which you can purchase from Bloomsbury here.) If money's tight, Manchester Central Library stocks the previous edition, and we've included a neat little animated interview with Carol by Suzy Gonzalez below.
Our main takeaway from the event was a feeling of validation and encouragement in our kind and gentle approach to vegan activism. We will continue to try to avoid aggressive patriarchal modes of discourse when broaching vegan feminist issues, and seek to embrace instead a softer, more nurturing approach in line with the feminist tradition of care.
Thank you, Carol, for all that you have done and continue to do for women and animals.