I wrote this essay several years ago and never ended up doing anything with it. A friend recently asked me if I had any essays regarding the importance of animal rights activists and feminists standing in solidarity, particularly around the issue of reproductive control and the imperative for animal rights activists to embrace the pro-choice stance. I wrote this for a feminist audience and I know that several more things need to be–and are being–written about animal oppression’s connections to other human movements. It is on my to-do list to write another with an animal rights audience in mind. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll define women as anyone who relates to the label and anyone who has ovaries/a womb etc. I know it’s long, but I feel it’s important enough to warrant a lot of words. I’m cross-posting this to the Myth About the Vegetarian Myth blog.
Note: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” is a phrase that comes from Audre Lorde’s seminal essay of the same name, published in her collection Sister/Outsider in 1984. Also available here to read.
The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s Rape Rack
The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.-Alice Walker
Feminists and animal rights activists don’t want to talk about it, but they have a lot in common. They don’t want to hear about it, but they need one another to move forward. Being a feminist and an animal rights activist gives me an interesting perspective. I have managed to straddle both movements and witness this fantastic resistance that each side has to the other. This resistance becomes deeply painful when you’re standing in the middle, attempting to be a bridge, watching so much revolutionary potential fall through that stubborn chasm.
Most feminists have been pretty good at asking hard questions. We demand that male privilege, white privilege, able-bodied privilege, heterosexual privilege, Euro-American privilege, class privilege, and many other privileges be analyzed. Some of us have addressed these questions about privilege better than others but, generally, serious feminists have gotten to the point where we recognize that the movement is not simply about gender. Women’s lived experiences stretch across multicolored, multitextured layers of identity, culture, history, and context. In order for feminism to be truly relevant, then, it needs to examine all of society’s power structures. If it doesn’t, it will apply only to rich white women who are not negatively affected by hierarchical orders of race, class, and nation, to name a few. In its most revolutionary form, feminism is a movement that seeks the dismantling of domination itself and all of the frameworks which allow it.
So it worries me that hardly any feminists have questioned one of our most fundamental expressions of power and domination: human privilege. It worries me that so few feminists have examined how this particular aspect of experience shapes our beliefs and actions on virtually every level, just like all other aspects of identity do. It worries me that so many feminists have overlooked the fact that determining one’s inherent worth based on their membership in a species is just as arbitrary as determining one’s inherent worth based on their race, gender, body size, sexuality, national origin, or any other identity marker. It worries me that feminists have overlooked the reality that human privilege is an analogue to all other privileges. It worries me that all of the same mechanisms which have been used to justify and enable violence against human groups have also been used to oppress nonhuman groups. It worries me that human privilege is indelibly connected to violence and misogyny in a tangled web of hierarchies and binaries, and that feminism, with its revolutionary potential, with its uninhibited call to justice, has generally been silent about all of this.
I want to ask the animal questions. Keep in mind, they are not unreasonable questions. We have asked similar questions about race, class, and nationality. We’ve done a similar analysis of many other power structures. We have recognized the complex, intersecting configurations of experience which allow so many oppressions at so many junctures. Yet most of us stop when nonhumans appear at such junctures. Even though examining the domination of nonhumans is nothing but a logical extension of feminism, even though this is the place feminism almost arrives at so often, virtually all feminisms have sidestepped when the next logical question would have been, what about animals?
When we get to places where animal questions might arise, we turn away. We lock up our wellsprings of inquiry and empathy. We don’t ask about how billions of nonhumans fit into webs of power and violence. We don’t want to know how nonhumans fit into this capitalist, patriarchal, racist, hierarchical scheme that has reached deeply into so many of us, in so many different ways. We challenge the false dichotomy of masculine/feminine but put so much faith in the false dichotomy of animal/human. It doesn’t occur to us that human privilege may not be any more “natural” than male or white privilege– that the human/animal dichotomy is just one more socially constructed method of organizing power. In an arbitrary and illogical swipe of its arm, feminism has reserved for human groups its important insights about social constructions of power and identity. Conceptually, feminism has written nonhuman animals out. It has erased them using mechanisms that are alarmingly similar to the ones men have used to erase women.
I want to delve deeper into the animal questions, but first I have to ask you to put down your defenses. The answers to the animal questions involve things as intimate as what or who we put into our mouths, chew, taste, enjoy, swallow, digest, and eventually shit out. The answers to such questions can bring on powerful and painful psychological, emotional, and physical reactions; reactions which all too often make us shut down and become defensive. The answers present virulent contradictions in our worldviews and require lifestyle changes. The answers often highlight our complicity in massive, institutionalized violence. Unthinkable, unspeakable violence.
But I want to push feminism into that profoundly uncomfortable space, and I don’t think feminism can move forward without going there. I believe that the future of feminism lies there, in that hardest, darkest space of so many nonhuman animals’ experiences. If we go into this place, we will start to understand the workings of the basest domination.
There are times when black activists have to push whites into a similar space. There are times when “Third World” feminists have to push “First World” feminists into such a space. All the time, gay activists have to push heterosexual people into it. It is a space in which violent power imbalances are confronted by those who abuse their power. There are times when women have to push men into that uncomfortable space, a place in which there are two choices: look away from male privilege, or look it in the face and see the unbelievable pain it has caused. And there were times when all of these confrontations seemed just as inconceivable as the one in question. But pushing these comfort zones is the only way in which change has ever occurred or will occur.
Who is going to push humans into that hard space?
The answer is, unless nonhumans figure out a way to revolt, we are going to have to push each other into it. And even though facing our domination of nonhumans is an incredibly painful process, there is no justification for it not being done. The brilliant, important work we do for humans does not give us a free moral ride, a free pass to be violent toward nonhumans. So when you come upon this space, what will you do? Will you look away from human privilege, or will you look it in the face to see all of the unbelievable pain it has caused?
I want to push feminism into the space where it examines the consequences of human privilege. It will not be easy, but in this place we can examine how we have taken on the eyes, the actions, the beliefs of the oppressor. In this place we can see that we have used all of his tools. That we are complicit in the vile, unthinkable acts of physical and sexual violence toward nonhuman animals which are happening literally every moment. That we are using the master’s tools not to dismantle his house, but to help the master oppress those in his darkest hidden dungeons.
I invite you to come with me to this frightening space. To do so you will have to fight your will to defend and deny human privilege in the same way that men defend and deny male privilege. You will have to exchange your defenses for the deepest empathy imaginable. You will have to take the energy of those defenses and turn it toward your desire for change. To come with me, you must agree to witness beings the way you have wanted to be witnessed. To believe that their pain is as real as yours is. To feel their yearning for liberation the way you feel your own. I want you to look into this space with me, and I want you to make a choice about what you are going to see and what you are going to do about it. I want all of us, together, to use our feminist eyes to compassionately witness the suffering of nonhuman creatures.
Open the door. This is a violent space.
It is a frightening space, a space which throbs like a heart, a heart that is shattered but still alive. It is the master’s secret basement. Eyes look out at you from its darkest corners, terrified of you because you are a human. There are so many questions in this space which need to be asked. Look in. Find him. Find pieces of him in yourself. Ask the questions, even if they do not have answers. Create the conceptual realm.
Ask the master: Why are ninety percent of sport hunters men? I want to know why; I want to know what justifies this absurd “masculine” delight in killing beautiful creatures. These creatures, they are the defenseless prey of men just like I have at times felt like the defenseless prey of men. So often, I feel hunted, I walk down the street with the male gaze gauging me like a gun. I understand the deer’s predicament, her fear of men, I even understand her fear or me, her terrified eyes. It comes from the exact same place that my own fear comes from. After all, ninety percent of the hunters of women are also men.
Let’s walk in a little further to this nightmarish cellar. Let’s really try to see the world through the eyes of others. Let’s be brave.
Ask: Why do meat and masculinity have such a long, complicated history of symbolizing and constructing one another? Need I list off all of the meat-related euphemisms for penis and penis-related activities? Sausage, say it without laughing. Sausage. Beat that meat. Choke that chicken. Your meat is your manhood. Real men eat steak. Real men cook on the grill. Real men have meat on their bones. You’re never going to be strong if you don’t eat meat, and real men are strong. Real men play football. Vegetarians are fags. Vegetarians are pussies, faggots. Girls. And girls are like vegetables, passive and weak.
Ask: Why do you feel like a piece meat after being violated or objectified? Hear the master shouting from the darkness: Leg of lamb! Chicken breast! Let’s order some legs and breasts! He fucked her like she was a goddamn piece of meat and she loved it! He fucked her with his meat! With his sausage! With his wiener! She wanted it! Bag her face, man! She’s pretty hot when you don‘t look at her face! She’s got nice tits! We are pieces. We are fragments. I love legs and breasts! Legs and breasts! Legs and breasts! I’m a real leg man! What about you? You seem like a breast man! Can I get a bite of that thigh? Thanks man! Ask him whether or not he’s talking about you or his meal. Maybe he’ll tell you he’s talking about both. After all, women and animals are consumed together. Made into meat and pieces, into pieces of meat, together. These are metaphors for our oppression. Animal bodies are the reality behind our metaphors. All of us know the reality of the sheer horror of animals’ lives on some level, which is why we don’t want to be treated like them.
Ask him, this master who has for so long held the pens: Why are there so many more animal words in that insult or objectify women than men? Ask: Why we are called bitches? Yes, ask this question and maybe he will remind you that, like the female breeding dog who struggles against being forced to have sex with the male breeding dog, we are difficult. Ornery. Angry. We are bitches who don’t want to be fucked. We are fat cows; we are hot young chicks; we are obnoxious old henpeckers. We are sex kittens, foxy ladies, evil vixens; we are mindless social butterflies. We have beavers. We have pussies. We don’t like to be treated like animals. Pens are power.
This space is enormous. It creates a bridge across thousands of years.
Ask him: Why was it that the men who dominated science started the practice of cutting apart live animals? The maps of science weren’t written by the oppressed. Would we have defined animals differently? Why don’t we redefine them, now that we have a stronger say? We, who have always known how it feels to merely be another’s goal? We, who have been raped by our fathers and brothers and partners and husbands and friends, prodded in secret places by doctors, sterilized without our consent? We, who, as men vivisected our nonhuman sisters and brothers, were being burned at the stake, pathologized, and lobotomized by those same exact men? What about those of us, largely people of color, who have been dissected by scientists right alongside nonhuman animals, who have been literal slaves on farms beside animals? We, who, together with an animal, destroyed Eden, and together were blamed for all of the evil in the world? But we always forget how we had company that day, how our dual fates were sealed on that page by the Father. We want to forget the destiny we shared with the snake in our most significant cultural myth.
Ask him: Would women have seen nonhumans as having inherent worth, worth beyond their use to humans, had we been the ones who set the standards? Held the pens? Made the maps? Written the textbooks? Founded the universities? Told the cultural myths? You do realize that this idea about nonhuman animals not having inherent worth was originated by men, right? One which we bought into for some reason? You do realize that these ideas about animals were specifically written out and articulated by the great male philosophers and the notorious schools of patriarchal “morality” so often ridiculed by feminists– Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Christianity, ad nauseum? How have we overlooked that common framework? Look at it. Stare at its violent, vile, disgusting face.
Ask: Why is it that abusive men regularly involve companion animals in woman battering? And why is this the aspect of domestic abuse that is the least recorded at police stations and shelters, even though it happens all the time? Can I ask, as I sit in this violent conceptual space, why it is that men are more likely than women to engage in violence in the home against the women, children, and companion animals who make up families?
Ask this master, as we walk through these deepest catacombs of pain: Why, for centuries, have men dominated both women and animals by domesticating them? By owning them? By consuming them? Ask the master, why these connections between animal husbandry and being a husband?
Why have powerful men co-opted the control of both women’s and animals’ reproductive systems? Ask the piece of the master that is in you: Why do women go along with this twisted scheme? Why do we drink the stolen milk of females in factory farms? How do we bear to know that their lives are defined specifically around their breasts being hooked up to machines or prodded and squeezed every day on “humane” farms? That they live attached to these tit-sucking machines and hands, often given horrible drugs so that they will keep producing for the master and his cohorts? That these drugs in our food give us reproductive cancers in turn?
And how can we eat the coerced eggs of females? The females who are supposed to spread their wings, go outside, live freely but instead inhabit tiny cages where their feet grow around feces-covered wires? Where from sheer madness they peck one another’s eyes out with the remains of their seared-off beaks? Even on “humane” farms, billions of females have been designed–literally, over centuries of breeding–to fulfill the sole purpose of being egg machines. Do we truly consent to such a world? That milk isn’t ours. Those eggs aren’t ours. Those bodies aren’t ours. Meat and dairy are the opposite of consent.
How do we allow the babies of mothers to be stolen? Have you ever seen cows mourn the loss of their calves? It’s phenomenal. Have you heard the bovine mothers cry? You would have thought they were human. Or maybe you might have been reminded that you are an animal. Have you ever seen the enormous, beautiful pigs– animals who are more intelligent than dogs– go mad sitting in their shit and piss, throwing their largest bodies against the walls of their tiniest death-laden pens, ripping their mouths apart as they try to bite through the metal bars? Have you ever seen their babies suck on their breasts through those prison bars or read stories about how these creatures frequently jump fences and the like in escape attempts? Have you ever realized that the animal farming is the most large-scale, institutionalized control of female reproduction, sex, and bodies-in-general that has ever existed?
Let us never forget the male bodies victimized by this patriarchal space. The useless young male chicks are thrown away alive in dumpsters or turned into veal. And the bulls become eunuchs, honorary females, having their testicles burned off with hot irons. Any bull who dares run away from even the most “humane” farm will be stun-gunned and wrestled back into life-long captivity until slaughtered for his body when his reproductive mechanisms become useless.
And here’s the big question. The question I don’t really want to ask because it makes me wince, it makes my skin crawl and fills my heart with horror. This is the topic which gets me in trouble with both feminists and with the master, again and again, perhaps because it makes so clear the ultimate thing we are not supposed to notice, this horrendous interconnection of oppressions: Did you know that many farmers nickname that place where our nonhuman sisters are artificially inseminated “the rape rack”?
The rape rack.
They actually call it the rape rack. This is not a term I constructed to be shocking. This term comes from our collective psyche and the psyches of farmers. And some version of this device, no matter what it is called, is central to all animal farming, whether permaculture or factory farms, local or distant, “humane” or otherwise.
Here is where my mind starts to shut down because I become so horrified at the implications. How do we bear to live in a world in which conditions exist so that anything, anywhere, no matter who was hooked up to it, could ever, even by the smallest stretch of imagination, be called a rape rack?
Feminist visions cannot come true in a world where rape racks exist. A feminist world cannot be a world where anyone, any life, human or nonhuman, male or female, black or white, two legs or four, could ever be defined solely based on their relationship to such a paradigm. A feminist world cannot be one in which anyone is defined based on how many times they can be inseminated, give birth, have their children stolen from them, drugged, be hooked up to a breast-sucking machine or have their breasts kneeded, sometimes daily, by humans who make money on their milk, have their milk and eggs stolen from them, and then be sent back to the rape rack or, in more “humane” situations, the insemination rod that gets pushed into their vaginas. As long as the rape rack exists, we will live in a world of rapists.
It’s hard for me to go here and feel the enormity of this. How hard is it, then, I wonder, for those who don’t want to see the oppression of animals for what it is? For those who don’t want to analyze human privilege or believe in this power dynamic? For those who refuse to acknowledge this dungeon? When I think of it all, my mind starts to writhe with the pain, the pain of wanting to save them and knowing I cannot. There are billions of nonhuman animals who live these unbelievable lives–literally billions. Tens of billions in one year in United States agriculture alone. That is a number so large I cannot even fathom it. That is billions more than the entire human population, in one year alone. That does not even take into account sea animals, the millions in vivisection and dissection, the millions who are tortured in fur traps and go mad in fur farms, the millions who are turned into leather shoes, the millions of companion animals who are abused, the millions of unwitting nonhumans who are hunted down for no reason with men’s big guns, the millions of nonhumans who are murdered during men’s big wars, with patriarchy’s big phallic bombs.
I feel the siren song of denial tugging at me: Do you feel it, too? This makes sense. The implications are too unfathomable. Animal rights activists often say that their introduction to the reality of animal lives was like taking the Matrix’s red pill. You cannot go back. Opening to the true lives of animals changes one’s entire paradigm so that you almost cannot see anything the same way. You begin to see that our entire civilization is based, in one way or another, whether literally or metaphorically, on the mass, unnecessary, institutionalized destruction of fellow beings. This is a worldview a person can’t understand unless they have truly gone there. I, too, even as a long-term vegan activist, often feel the need to walk away from this horror, to stop attempting to create a language which does it justice. But then I remind myself that this intoxicating song of denial is a trap. I remind myself that it wants me to justify or downplay the violence, to unfeel the horror of this space, to unsee what I know to be real, solely in an effort to protect my conscience. The blue pill is comfortable but it’s truly nothing more than a dream.
We love animals. We do not want them to suffer. We are friends with animals. We spend our lives alongside cats and dogs, fish and rabbits, birds, squirrels. We grow up collecting teddy bears and watching cartoon mice. As small children, we are often horrified when we find out what meat is, only to be confronted by a society in which such a horror is unacceptable and parents who refuse to let their children become vegetarians. Just like other groups at other times have done, we stay complicit in this violence by shutting off when the burden of pain is too large, when the connections feel too real and the aura of helplessness too overwhelming. We go inwards. We deny and justify and rationalize and intellectualize and become fragmented. In panic and numbness we use our privilege to make arbitrary, unconscious decisions about who should live and who should not.
We stay complicit by smothering portions of our hearts that want to care, by disallowing the life-oxygen of empathy to extend properly. But hearts were not meant to be smothered in this way. Hearts become dysfunctional when they are not available in their entirety, just like bodies with broken legs do. So why do we push the nonhumans away, into that special, shadowy section of our hearts? Why do we collude with the master in maintaining this dark, horrible, soundproof basement of colossal pain when we could be knocking down the walls?
We are animalized and they are feminized in complicated rings of domination and control and coercion and abuse and domestication and alienation. We do not need to be scared of these comparisons. To extend empathy beyond humans does not mean trading the human struggle for the nonhuman struggle. It means that both struggles will attain a new depth, one we could not conceive of before. It means putting one more hole in the stubborn cycle of violence. There is simply no need to keep justice all for ourselves. Empathy is not in limited supply; rather, it is like a muscle which gets stronger and larger with use.
Sit back. Take it all in. Before leaving this place, allow yourself to wonder. Allow yourself to remember your incredible power. Allow yourself to envision a world in which there is no unnecessary domination of any animal, human or nonhuman.
Ultimately, we, as feminists, have to do some serious soul-searching about all of this. We have to earnestly consider whether it is fair of us to ask the world to witness our voices and our pain when we so often refuse to witness the voices and pain of others. At its deepest level, is feminism being honest if it does not engage in this witnessing? I’m not so sure. Is it fair for us to call for our own dominators to stop, while simultaneously being dominators of billions of others? I don’t think it is. Is it fair to expect that those who oppress us examine their privilege, even though we do not examine one of our most fundamental privileges? Is it fair to demand autonomy, while simultaneously defining animals only in terms of their use to us? Does any group have a right to demand freedom while systematically keeping another group unfree?
I don’t think that a revolution in feminism can happen while feminists themselves are still colluding with this patriarchy-defined framework of dominator-dominated, and when those in question are arguably the most helpless, outcast, and unheard of all. No, I don’t think a feminist revolution can happen while this paradigm, while this bottom line, is still with us, and we are not taking accountability for our role in it. I want a world in which there is no domination. I want a feminism that recognizes all hierarchical power arrangements and seeks to eliminate them. I don’t think this request is unreasonable. In fact, I think it is one of the most reasonable requests ever made, and I think it is the largest, most profound and authentic expression of feminism possible.
This is a call to honestly ask ourselves, a call to be brave: With what eyes do we look at animals? Do we look at animals with feminist eyes, or do we look at them with the eyes of the master, those eyes that believe in the rightness and naturalness of domination? Do we look at them with indifferent, entitled, or domineering eyes, the same kinds of eyes that have oppressed us? Or do we look at them with revolutionary eyes? This question is crucial to the future of feminism. If we continue to look at this entirely silenced, universally subjugated group with the eyes of the old paradigm, a feminist world will not be realized, because feminism’s feet will still be caught in that violent framework of human and male domination. Feminism’s hands will still be bound to the master’s rape rack.
Animals are the ultimate, the fundamental Other. Let’s make the connection.