Among the more colorful figures hawking their wares at American universities is self-styled “ecofeminist” Carol J. Adams, known principally for her 1999 book The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. Adams traverses the campus speaking circuit and presents a slideshow that, according to her website, addresses “the animalizing of women in contemporary cultural images and the sexualizing of animals used for food.”
Personally, I’m not given to having erotic thoughts about my dinner–so I was a bit skeptical when I first encountered Adams’s ideas. But I was willing to hear her out, and disappointed to have missed her recent appearance at my alma mater. Fortunately, I was not to be wholly deprived of her wisdom, as she had released a new book–The Pornography of Meat–based on her slide show.
The book’s central thesis is that the culture of meat eating is an expression of male power. According to Adams, men see life on earth as a hierarchy in which women occupy a higher place than animals (or, to use Adams’s preferred term, “non-humans”), but men rule over both.
Adams adorns this idea with lots of pseudo-philosophical jargon, the most important instance of which is the concept of the “absent referent.” She writes, “Before someone can be consumed or used, she has to be seen as consumable, as usable, as a something instead of a someone.” Don’t let those words “someone” and “she” lead you astray: Adams is talking about animals, not people. Meat eaters take “someone who is a unique being” and make it into “something that is the appropriate referent of a mass term.” Bessie the Cow is thus transformed into an “absent referent”–and when you eat your hamburger, you think of it not as poor Bessie, but simply as ground beef.
Adams thinks the dominant male culture does something similar to women:
[Earlier], I proposed that nonhuman animals become absent referents through the institution of meat eating. Through socialization to sexual objectification, women become absent referents as well.
This phenomenon supposedly results in something called “anthropornography”: “the depiction of nonhuman animals as whores,” particularly in advertisements that portray animals in a feminine manner. (One of Adams’s examples is a mural at a Cajun restaurant in which a male crayfish ogles a large-breasted female crayfish.)
Confronted with such evidence, one might conclude simply that some advertisers use sex to sell food. This is hardly surprising: Advertisers use sex to sell just about everything, and while doing so might be in poor taste, it is rarely pornographic.
But Adams informs us that something much more sinister is going on:
With anthropornography the attitudes toward women found in Playboy and other heterosexual pornography can be expressed freely yet in a disguised way–with nonhuman animals as the objects. Anthropornography provides a way for men to bond publicly around misogyny.
This is about where reason bids Adams a final farewell, leaving her to reach such triumphs of critical analysis as: “[S]ome of the paraphernalia for hunters suggest the nonhuman as a fixated love object”; “Women used in meat advertisements aren’t selling a product through ’sex appeal.’ Women are being used to re-present sexual murders, of which meat eating may be one facet”; and “forcibly impregnating female nonhumans”–i.e., the breeding techniques employed on ranches and farms–is “the speciesist version of keeping females barefoot and pregnant.”
Now the obvious response to all this is that women, too, eat meat, and have done so for thousands of years. My own great grandmother lived on a farm and butchered many chickens during her life. Was she, too, celebrating her dominance over “non-humans”? Had my great grandfather, chauvinist pig that he was, forced her to commit chicken murder, thereby exerting his dominion over both women and poultry?
Or did my great grandmother just want chicken for dinner?
The last possibility never occurs to Adams, who manages to find misogyny in the most curious places–such as, for example, a photograph of a filet mignon with a bite cut from it. Just what she sees in that filet is something I shouldn’t reveal on a family website, but I will say that it makes you wonder whether she, and not the steakhouse’s ad man, is the one obsessed with sex.
The inadequacy of Adams’s examples, however, doesn’t capture the true noxiousness of her argument, which is to be found instead in her ridiculous assumption that animals are entitled to the same protection from harm as human beings. Such equality is precisely what her theory of the “absent referent” presupposes. Adams–who is convinced she “[knows] what it is like to look at a nonhuman animal and have an individual look back”–takes the idea that animals are “someones” so seriously that she places the word meat in scare quotes, and throws in a “sic” when quoting a farmer who refers to his animal as “it.”
Not that Adams bothers to explain why animals should be so highly esteemed. Instead, she simply repeats the adolescent cant that animals have feelings too–an unverifiable claim at best, and one that, in any case, contains no argument.
On the other hand, there are various arguments to support the claim that humans possess special worth. My own position, in a nutshell, is that a person’s rational will distinguishes him from the beasts of field and forest, and establishes an imperative against using him as a means to one’s own ends. But you don’t need to accept that view in order to see what is wrong with Adams’s; you simply need to look at the dead ends to which Adams’s theory leads.
One example will suffice. In discussing an ad for vegetarian burgers that depicts exotic animals–zebras, giraffes, etc.–fleeing from a hamburger bun, Adams writes:
The need to substitute giraffes and zebras for cows and chickens occurs because of circular reasoning: being devalued by the culture (e.g., “They’re only chickens!”) is taken as proof that they actually lack of [sic] value. What has been done to them is assumed to be the cause of the harm. As a result of such reasoning, harm to a now-degraded individual does not require our attention.
In passing, note that Adams is quite wrong to say that meat eaters are guilty of this “circular reasoning.” The meat eater, unless he is a fool, doesn’t think, “I may eat chickens; therefore they lack the intrinsic value that would make it wrong to eat them; therefore I may eat them.” Rather, he thinks, “Chickens, for [insert preferred reason], lack the intrinsic value that would make it wrong to eat them; therefore I may eat them.”
But never mind that. The important thing is to notice what Adams says next–indeed, in the very next sentence: “This is what happens with women who have been used sexually.”
It’s hard to imagine a more repulsive statement–or a falser one. What happens to chickens is not at all what happens to women who have been used sexually. What makes sexual abuse horrifying is that it happens to a person–and there are things you cannot do to another person simply because she is a person. To say that the suffering of an abused woman is like the “suffering” of a butchered chicken mocks the awfulness of sexual crimes and renounces the moral ground from which they can plausibly be condemned.
What, exactly, does Adams think people mean when they say that a woman was treated like a piece of meat, or that the victims of a genocide were slaughtered like animals? These statements mean nothing unless there is an important difference between people and animals, a difference that manifests itself in the way we treat both. The very concept of a natural right grew out of the idea that human beings had a unique nature from which their rights followed. That is why the rights were “natural.” This conception of rights, and of mankind’s place in the manifold of creation, effected the rise of liberal democracy and the rescue of millions from the clutches of tyranny.
And what does Carol Adams give us in its stead? A half-baked dogma according to which the injuries of women, children, cows, cats, crayfish, and insects stepped on by little boys are simply lumped together and understood as manifestations of the fragile male ego.
This is not a utopia of liberation for Adams and her barnyard friends; it is a kind of hell where being human doesn’t count for much after all. In such a world, there is no obvious reason to liberate anyone from anything.
–Jason Steorts is currently an NR editorial associate.