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.