Striking at the roots of patriarchy

December 6th marks the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre in Montréal. On this day in 1989, a lone gunman – Marc Lépine – walked into the school and specifically targeted women for shooting. After killing 14 women and injuring 14 other people, he committed suicide. His suicide note blamed “feminists” for ruining his life. As Canadians the country over commemorate this tragedy, we are encouraged to reflect on how violence against women continues to permeate our culture and negatively impacts all of us.

According to Statistics Canada, the average woman still only makes 71% of what the average male makes, and that gap has not changed substantially in the past decade. The overwhelming majority of spousal abuse victims – 8 out of every 10 – are women, and 1 in every 4 women in North America can expect to be sexually assaulted as some point in her life.

Although men who commit sexual assault are in the minority, their actions occur within the larger context of a culture that relentlessly commodifies the female body at every possible turn. From bikini contests to strip clubs to the use of supermodels to “sell” consumer goods, the message is clear: the female body exists for the sexual gratification of men. Thinking, breathing, feeling human beings are reduced, in our consumer culture, to a means to someone else’s ends. This hypersexualization of our bodies creates a tremendous amount of pressure on us to look and act sexy all the time, because we are told (implicitly and explicitly) that our primary measure of worth lies in our ability to please men.

The idea that some bodies exist for the gratification of others is, of course, obscenity. Yet all of us – male or female, feminist or not – subscribe to that very idea, not only through our constant pornification of the female body, but also through something else, as well: our consumption of animals and animal ‘products’.

By virtue of their sentience, all animals – human or not – care about their lives, and wish to avoid suffering and death. Despite having no nutritional need to consume animal ‘products’, and for the sole sake of our gastronomical pleasure, we sentence 665 million ‘farm’ animals (not counting fish) to miserable lives and hideous, premature deaths every year in this country alone. As we pause on this day to challenge the obscenity of men presuming ownership of the bodies of women, how many of us will challenge the equally obscene (and mutually reinforcing) notion that the bodies of non-humans exist for the gratification of humans?

When a sense of ownership over someone else’s body is presume from the get-go, it results in a power balance that invariably favours the ruling group at the expense of the disadvantaged. We’ve all heard of cases where men have walked out of sexual encounters feeling that all was fair and consensual, while their female partners were left feeling abused. A possible conclusion to be drawn here is that at least some men have a sense of entitlement when it comes sex, acquired over a life-time of indoctrination that equates masculinity with aggression and power – the latter being defined, in our patriarchal culture, as the capacity for violence and subjugation. And that’s exactly why it’s absurd to claim, as some do, that women can empower themselves by participating in their own commodification. Sure, the woman at the strip club ‘chose’ to work there. But that ‘choice’ was made in the context of a culture in which women do not have the economic resources that men have; in which she was taught, from a young age, that it is her job to please men; and in which the men who pay to watch her degrade herself have been taught, from a young age, that they are entitled to sexual privilege over women. Victim-approved exploitation is still exploitation.

The same thing applies to our relationship with non-humans. “Humane” exploitation – which is a misnomer, because all animal use involves unspeakable violence – is a delusion that ignores the structural dimension of said exploitation. That is, ‘domesticated’ non-humans are genetically manipulated freaks of nature who exist in a permanent state of vulnerability. Bred into existence for their utility to their human owners, non-human individuals – who are nothing more than chattel property in the eyes of the law – are continuously tormented and abused for the duration of their short and miserable lives, right up to the moment of slaughter. That last moment – at which point we rob them of their lives – amounts to a brutality that no words could condemn strongly enough. The idea that hideous violence inflicted upon vulnerable beings can be reconciled with anything that can be coherently described as “humane” is sheer fantasy. Along with the ‘choice’ of women to self-commodify in a patriarchal society, or the ‘choice’ of workers in a capitalist society to toil in an exploitative work environment, “humane” non-human slavery seems to be the latest in a series of moral delusions serving to reassure an oppressing group of the supposed legitimacy of their oppression over others. 

The connection between patriarchy and non-human exploitation becomes especially obvious if we look at the use of female animals. Hens, who would only lay a few eggs a year in nature, have been genetically manipulated by humans to lay several hundred per year. Since laying an egg depletes nutrients from her body, her utility to humans is dependent on the extent to which her female reproductive system can be exploited, and her body harmed. And once her productiveness ends at a fraction of her natural lifespan, she is slaughtered.

Similarly, ‘dairy’ cows are exploited for their ability to lactate. Because cows, like all mammals, need to give birth before they can lactate, they are restrained annually on something called a “rape rack”, where they are artificially inseminated. When their baby is born, he or she is taken away, and the mother’s milk that was meant for that baby is instead stolen by humans. The horrific grief that this separation causes both mother and calf, and the agony of the aggressive milkings that follow, are far beyond anything to which mere words could do justice. Interestingly, this milk – meant to help a calf gain several hundred pounds in the span of a few months – has a high fat and hormone content, which is linked to increased estrogenicity and breast cancer tumor growth in women. We exploit the breasts of bovine women to obtain a “product” that harms the breasts of human women.

If you’re a feminist, and you’re not a vegan – why not? If you’re against exploiting the vulnerable, and you’re not a vegan – why not? If you care about justice and non-violence, and you’re not a vegan – why not?

Condemning gratuitous violence against a disempowered group is easy to do when it’s someone else that’s doing it. But if we’re ever going to sort out the chaotic mess that is our world, the onus is on every single one of us to re-evaluate and ultimately reject the “might makes right” paradigm of violence and domination that we have come to accept as being “in the natural order of things”.  All forms of injustice are related and mutually re-enforcing. As long as we tolerate oppression of any kind, we will necessarily be tolerating – and re-enforcing – oppression of every kind.

This December 6th, say “no” to violence against women by rejecting the notion that some bodies exist for the gratification of others. Say “no” to patriarchy by rejecting patriarchal violence at its root.

Got feminism? Go vegan.

6 thoughts on “Striking at the roots of patriarchy

  1. This made my day. Really LOL’d in the library.

    You forget one thing: the human brain has an immense capacity of remembering trauma, which is very reduced in animals. Also, most animals that suffer at the hands of humans do not have to live with the trauma because they won’t live to remember it.

    You just can’t compare the two.

  2. Hi Adrienne,

    Although I’m not an expert in animal psychology/physiology/whatever, my experience is that animals do have significant long-term memories. For example, some friends of mine look after rescued hens (i.e. hens that were used in the egg industry for about 2 years). Not only did the birds originally have all sorts of physical health problems (most of their feathers had fallen out, broken bones, etc), they were also behaving in a way that could only be described as psychotic. They would scream (literally) whenever a human got near them, or touched them gently. Some of them would hide in random places for hours at a time, trembling whenever someone got near, etc. It took at least several months for them to calm down.

    Another aquaintance of mine has family that used to work on a dairy farm. She says that when the cows would be impregnated for the 3rd or 4th year in a row, some of them literally tried to run away. Presumably, at least some of them understood that pregnancy = their babies will be taken away from them. If you’re curious, I would recommend spending some time on a dairy farm. The cry that the mothers make when their calves are taken away is horrendous.

    Whether or not animals suffer in ways that are comparable to humans, they can clearly suffer in ways that are meaningful to them. And even if they had no long-term memory, and they couldn’t anticipate anything (i.e. they lived in a sort of ‘eternal present’) – the fact that they are conscious and perceptually aware means that they have a franchise interest in continuing to live (just as a person with eye-sight has an interest in not going blind). Even if we could use and kill animals painlessly (which we can’t do anyway), it would still harm them.

    Given that we don’t need to be eating, wearing or otherwise using animals in 2011, the logical thing to do (if we want to respect their right to life) is to live vegan. Veganism is really the only rational, coherent response to accepting that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals.

    My apologies for the long comment; I hope i’ve given you some (non-violent) food for thought!


    • Yes, you are talking about animals that have had basically no human contact and of course they shy away from people. That’s instictual. Even children that have been raised away from civilisation shy away from it. Also, animals’ cries for their babies are INSTINCTUAL. Animals don’t think, they react.

      As to going vegan, I really don’t get this tree-hugging attitude the West has started to embrace recently. They hunt around the town for vegan-friendly products, give up things they love and have grown up with (such as Harribos) for… what!? Protecting the feelings of animals? Newsflash people, while you’re spending way more than average on food you could easily replace with cheaper options, there are millions of people in Africa that would eat ANYTHING. If you want to do something good, try putting people before animals.

      • Suppose for a moment that you saw a guy torturing a dog. I’m sure you would agree with me that he is doing something wrong.

        Why? Because it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on (sentient) animals. Our personal enjoyment doesn’t justify harming animals. But like the (hypothetical) guy who tortures dogs, our uses of animals are done out of personal enjoyment. We eat animal products because we like the taste; we wear animal clothing because we like the fashion, etc. There is no necessity involved.

        The level of emotional or cognitive sophistication is irrelevant. Animals are sentient; they can suffer in ways that are meaningful to them personally. If we accept that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals, then the only rational/coherent response is to become vegan. Otherwise, we are torturing and killing animals for our enjoyment, in which case we might as well say that the guy torturing the dog isn’t doing anything wrong either.

        Basic plant foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, lentils, nuts/seeds) can be found almost anywhere and they are cheaper than animal products, even though the latter are heavily subsidized. You don’t need to buy expensive and unhealthy processed foods to be a vegan.

        And btw, animal agriculture is extremely wasteful. ‘Farm’ animals consume far more calories than what we get from them by eating them. In the US alone, enough grain is fed to farm animals to give every human on the planet 2 loaves of bread. Even if you don’t care about animals, a serious question is raised about why we are wasting so much grain on animals when there are so many humans who are starving.

        Given the current (insane) amount of violence in the world, I think that a shift towards non-violence could stand to do a lot of good for everyone involved.


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