In November I was victimized by the administrator of "The Bloody Dairy Industry" who made repeated references to my gender to discredit my critique of his posting photographs of sexualized women on his Facebook Page in the name of vegan outreach. I was referred to as "This woman" and "Some woman," and told that I “might want to listen to Steve Best.” Steve Best, of course, has made a name for himself by screaming at women for "feminizing" our movement and insisting we all take baseball bats to animal exploiters. Instead of taking a mature, professional, and reflexive look at the problematic posts, this man instead went on a defensive tirade, posting comment after comment on his group about my lack of intelligence, my being worthless, and the obligatory: “You’re not really doing anything for the animals.” Meanwhile, the comments from women and men who stepped in to rationally discuss the problems with sexism in outreach efforts were promptly deleted. Comments from women who obediently adhered to the subservient, objectifying, and dehumanizing gender norms expected of them in a patriarchal society were "liked" and allowed to remain. All of this occurred because I dared to speak up for my fellow women whose bodies were being exploited for a cause we all care deeply about. Fortunately, my Examiner article that covered the incident received tremendous support and has become one of my most popular articles. I was pleased to see that many others were just as disturbed by this nasty trend in modern animal rights advocacy. Really, one would think that in a largely female movement, sexism and misogyny simply wouldn’t make sense.
I wish that were the case.
In fact, the amount of outright harassment I have received as an individual female activist since I joined the online community in 2008 has been absolutely baffling…and, to be honest, extremely threatening.
My first experience began when a fellow abolitionist activist struck up a friendship with me that became relatively personal very quickly. He called me regularly and even drove from several states away to meet me and stay the weekend in my apartment (I lived alone). I found this strange, but I had a naive trust in our movement and allowed it. However, when he abused that friendship and took a personal correspondence between the two of us and reported it to one of the professors on my dissertation committee, I cut all contact with him. My silence infuriated him. How dare I not bow to his demands and respond? He continued to call, leave nasty voicemails, text, email, and post about me in a public forum attempting to rouse a response. This continued for over a year, to the point where my mother insisted I file a police report. I didn't do this, but in retrospect, I probably should have. Others in the movement (including important and influential leaders) were well aware of his behavior and harassment, but they turned a blind eye. After that incident I dropped out of activism altogether for a year until the harassment stopped. I even canceled my trip to an animal rights conference because I knew he would be there and cause trouble for me.
In another incident, I struck up a friendship with another prominent abolitionist activist that lasted only two months. The friendship, while only short-lived, took a romantic turn. This man also abused our relationship when he involved me in an ongoing internet battle between two factions and regularly attempted to police my behavior (specifically, he insisted I renounce my critical thinking and "divisiveness"). He also constantly harassed me for naked pictures, despite my refusal. Repeatedly pressuring a woman (it is almost always women who are targeted) for naked pictures is sexual harassment. It is also often an attempt to control her, because once the pictures are out of her hands, the person with those pictures has all the power. Many girls suffer depression, anxiety, and have even killed themselves over the experience. When I soon decided that I was not interested in pursuing the relationship, I was bombarded with regular emails that graphically detailed his fantasies of how I would die.
One very influential leader in our movement also regularly stalked my Facebook profile...even though we were never Facebook friends. On one occasion he emailed me to tell me that my current profile picture was too provocative and I should remove it immediately (I had my head turned over my bare shoulder and was wearing heavy eye makeup). This is known as slut-shaming, whereby a woman is made to feel guilty or inferior for violating traditional gender norms. This same man attempted to control who I befriended and who I collaborated with. When I began working with an abolitionist that he didn't like, I was soon faced with an ultimatum and even a threat to prevent me from entering academia. As a grown woman with more than one college degree under my belt, I don't exactly take kindly to a man telling me what to do and threatening me. Against his wishes, I proceeded with the collaboration. Not too long later, I received notice from the chair of my dissertation committee that the man had emailed him with something so foul that he worried that my career might indeed be in jeopardy. I find this incident to be especially despicable, given the immense obstacles preventing women from obtaining PhDs and the fact that I was raised in dire poverty. As a woman and as a poor person from a disadvantaged background, I have had to struggle to obtain my education and have accrued a debt that will saddle me for the rest of my life. I have done this because I want to help animals--because my heart is completely devoted to ending oppression. But other animal rights advocates are hellbent on preventing me from doing this...or even putting food on my own plate.
Finally, disgruntled ARZone members created a Facebook page called "Vegans Against the VeganUK" last year where individuals, including adult men, inundated the wall with insults about myself and my colleagues. Specifically, they called me "big-mouthed," "insignificant," and a "bitch"--these are all heavily gendered insults meant to devalue and dismiss me as a woman. These same adult men, incidentally, also made a habit of trolling my Examiner articles to the point of my having to disable comments altogether They also enjoyed posting Facebook status messages and blogs about me calling me all sorts of things. One man continues to email me from fake addresses threatening to call the police and my employers and report me because I take an unequivocal stance against violence and problematic welfare reform.
Another abolitionist recently informed me that my being a professor of sociology and gender doesn't amount to a hill of beans in regards to addressing sexism in our movement. According to him, rape and sexual violence are no longer issues in the United States (I assure you, they remain at epidemic levels). In a manner quite reminiscent of Richard Dawkin's "Elevator Gate," my criticism of continued sexism and sexual violence in the developed world was dismissed as insulting, because, in other places of the world, "real" rape happens (In the developed world, the vast majority of rape is not even recognized as such because it is often committed by persons the victim knows. Furthermore, women are generally socialized to "put out" even when they don't want to, but they concede due to social pressures and expectations. This means that while up to 1/3 of American women will report being raped, probably 99% of women actually experience rape. Click here to read more on rape myths). Of course, the inevitable "You're the sexist" was thrown at me, because any woman who challenges patriarchy is immediately labeled an irrational, man-hating feminazi. As a result of this debate, I insisted that a project of ours required a section dealing with intersections of feminism, rationality, and animal rights. However, I was repeatedly told that such a chapter was wholly unnecessary and would even ruin the project. Meanwhile, sexism runs rampant in both animal rights and rationality communities, and men's insistence that sexism is no longer an issue is a major factor in why it continues unabated.
The lessons I can glean from the above incidents seem to be:
- Be wary of close friendships in this movement, as they can quickly work to your disfavor, especially if you are of the disempowered gender working with men. Expect and prepare for sexual harassment. If possible, keep your private and professional life separate
- Women should also expect that their gender will be used against them. You will be called a bitch, you will be called big-mouthed, and you will be called irrational. Your privacy will be violated and your social vulnerability will be exploited. Attempts will be made to monitor, manipulate, bully, and control you
- Sit down, shut up, do as your told, and don't dare question male authority--or you will be made to suffer dearly. Women must follow orders and not think for themselves
- Sexism doesn't exist because the men leading our movement do not recognize that it exists. Your experience as a woman doesn't count as evidence to the contrary
- The abolitionist faction is really no better than mainstream animal rights advocacy in how we treat our women
For these reasons, I have backed out of online activism in interactive environments where I have limited or no control. It’s simply no longer safe. Because of the ugliness and threatening behavior of others, I must be punished, withdraw from the movement, and restrict my activism for my personal protection. The perpetrators enjoy continued privilege and freedom in the community, while the victims must crawl away to safety and no one comes to their defense. Which is a shame, because I am committed to advocating for other animals for the rest of my life--come hell or high water.
How will alienating women, who comprise 80% of our movement, be good for advancing animal rights? How will forcing activists to shrink from their work be good for advancing animal rights? How will trying to get activists fired be good for advancing animal rights? The animal rights movement is, at its core, a site for female empowerment. Thousands of women have come together to fight for the rights of others, and this appears to be a threat to patriarchy. Thus, we see men rising to the leadership positions with women relegated to performing the drudging mundane tasks, that, while necessary, receive little recognition or prestige. Masculine approaches to social change, like those promoted by Steve Best’s violent Animal Liberation Front, are celebrated. And, sexual harassment and intimidation of female activists has become normative…even within the abolitionist faction, a group that purports to reject violence in all its forms.
Serious work needs to be done within our movement before we can reasonably hope to achieve meaningful change. Women have a right to equal treatment and respect in activist communities. Sexism in our movement needs to be taken seriously by male advocates and men need to speak out against it wherever it is found. Looking the other way when a woman is sexually harassed or intimidated is unacceptable and only allows that discrimination to flourish. Insisting that sexual discrimination doesn't exist is also extremely unhelpful, profoundly inaccurate, and outright insulting. It's time our movement got serious about the principle of nonviolence we tout so proudly.
My advice to female advocates:
- Do not use your real name unless you have to--use a pseudonym
- NEVER give out your personal information (address, phone number, etc.)
- If at all possible, do not engage with other animal advocates on Facebook or other social networks that leave you open to harassment. Facebook is especially bad because there is little recourse for victims and misogyny is exempted from their terms of service
- Be especially wary if you decide to build a friendship or romantic relationship with another advocate from the online community. Ask around to other female advocates to see if he has a history of harassing or abusing women
- Educate yourself. Be aware of how sexual harassment, sexism, and misogyny operate and how you can both recognize and challenge them
- Do not be silenced. Take precautions as necessary, but keep speaking up. With so many women socialized into keeping quiet and men too blinded by their male privilege to address these issues, your voice is especially needed
- Strive for leadership positions--recall that the key to leadership in the animal rights movement seems to be the ownership of a penis, not necessarily mastery over tactics, theory, or movement-building (though men do enjoy a socialization process that does indeed advantage them with leadership skills). Do not be made to feel inferior...you will come across a great deal of mansplaining and male advocates trying to throw their weight around and silence you. Ignore that and persevere
- Stand up for other women. While female advocates may be heavily divided over tactic and theory, no woman deserves to be victimized. We should be a united front against sexism and misogyny no matter our differences. Please refrain from engaging in sexism yourself (against men and women alike). Reject slut-shaming
Sexism in animal rights is alive and well, and I will push on with my fight for equality in activism. In the meantime, I can no longer ignore the fact that The Examiner is a leading offender in commodifying women in the media. The Examiner engages in blatantly sexist link baiting. Women’s bodies are displayed in thumbnail links to articles about sex, virginity, plastic surgery, weight gain, clothing "malfunctions," and other topics meant to objectify women and reduce them to their physical attractiveness to men (or lack thereof). While I am grateful to The Examiner for giving me a platform to discuss important animal rights issues, I find it horribly counterintuitive that my articles about peace, nonviolence, and equality are surrounded by fragmented female body parts beckoning viewers to click so that The Examiner can rake in advertising revenue. So, unless The Examiner prioritizes ethical journalism (which seems unlikely), I can no longer be associated with their anti-women business policy. What this means in terms of my past articles, I'm not sure. I believe I will lose rights to them once I become inactive and they will profit 100% from my work...work that unfortunately attracts readers to their sexist link baits.
For related reasons, I left Facebook. Facebook was leaving me extremely vulnerable to many of the aforementioned attacks with little recourse, forcing me to adopt a pseudonym, avoid community groups, and delete many friends and colleagues for my safety. At the same time, Facebook hosts a disgusting array of misogynistic groups and pages that clearly violate their stated terms of service. Facebook refuses to remove them, but feminist groups that sprout up to challenge the misogyny are routinely taken down and their admins banned.
Therefore, at this time, if you would like to continue following my work, I encourage you to subscribe to my blog The Academic Abolitionist Vegan, a project I began in November of 2011 to create an ongoing resource bank for other academics and vegans. I will also be posting entries similar to those I’ve published with The Examiner. I also contribute regularly to The Abolitionist, an online webzine on similar topics.
Thank you for the four years I've contributed to The Examiner, I've appreciated the feedback I've received and the contacts I've made. I hope to continue to hear from you all in the future. Best wishes.
Corey L. Wrenn
For more information on sexual harassment, sexism, and misogyny in the animal rights movement, please explore the following recommended readings:
Adams, Carol. 2003. The Pornography of Meat. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc.
Gaarder, E. 2011. Women and the Animal Rights Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Luke, Brian. 2006. Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.