Me Too Movement Intersects Animal Protection Movement

by Sherry Colb & Michael Dorf

As co-authors of a book about animal rights and a quintessential woman's right--abortion--we were keenly interested in the recent news that CEO Wayne Pacelle and former Vice President for Policy Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) were facing allegations of sexual harassment. Their behavior led to their respective ouster and resignation. As James McWilliams noted last week, a similar pattern of behavior at other animal welfare organizations raises the troubling questions whether such organizations are especially bad places for women to work, and if so, why.

McWilliams offers the provocative suggestion that the animal welfare ethos has at its core a message that conduces to strongman leadership that in turn can easily be turned to abuse. He notes that
male leaders in the movement portray themselves [as] handsome, charismatic men snuggling with cute, vulnerable animals.  . . . What's being manufactured . . . is a virtue-packed message of trust, tenderness, and compassion. These men are advertising what appears to be a rare sensitivity to the most vulnerable creatures in order to generate donations for their organization. This combination of institutional power plus the appealing image of compassion for fuzzy creatures places these men on a pedestal of attraction that other executives in other lines of work may not enjoy. This is a movement whose ranks are dominated by young women sickened by the notion of animal abuse. And here are these handsome sensitive types to fight the good fight, all the while cuddling a piglet. It's easy to see how this situation could turn exploitative.
We think that McWilliams may well be onto something here. We'll add a few observations based on our own experience in and around the fringes of the animal welfare movement. As proponents of animal rights who have expressed misgivings about some of the strategic and tactical compromises made by animal welfare organizations such as HSUS, we cannot offer a true "insider" perspective. That said, there is enough overlap among the people who work for animal rights and animal welfare--including many we count as our friends--for us to have a reasonably close view.

McWilliams raises the possibility that animal welfare organizations are especially likely to be sites of sexual harassment and related misconduct. That seems to us possible but unproven. For one thing, it is not clear that animal welfare organizations generally are led by men. According to statistics cited in an ASPCA blog post, women account not only for the clear majority of members but also of leaders of animal welfare organizations. However, perhaps those data reflect the gender breakdown at small but not large organizations. But even supposing that large animal welfare organizations tend to be male-led, that would hardly distinguish them from other public or private sector organizations. After all, nearly all sectors of the economy tend to be male-led, placing female subordinates at risk.

Nonetheless, we think that there is at least a possibility that the animal welfare sector has a special (though hardly unique) problem, because it may attract predatory men to the ranks of leadership. Think about the straight male college student who takes women's studies classes not because he has a genuine interest in the subject (as no doubt some do) but because he thinks it will provide him with romantic opportunities. Something similar might attract a man to the animal welfare world.

That scenario is speculative, just as the related scenario that McWilliams spins is speculative. But a sexual harassment problem in the animal welfare movement need not be unique or even specific to that movement in order for it to be a source of concern. Even if what we are seeing from Pacelle, Shapiro, and others is just another instance of what exists everywhere, there is reason to think that such conduct is especially problematic within the animal welfare movement.

Why? In no small part because one of the go-to moves of opponents of the animal rights and animal welfare movements is to accuse us of caring more about non-human animals than about people. Hitler was a vegetarian, we are told, with the implication that concern for animals is consistent with and maybe even causal of genocide. He wasn't, in fact, but even if he had been, that would not be a good reason for consuming animal products, any more than the fact that Hitler breathed air is a good reason for holding one's breath. Or we are told that our concern for animals crowds out concern for humans, even though abstaining from consuming animal products combats key drivers of human deprivation and suffering.

But if animal welfare and animal rights organizations condone sexism, well, that really does amount to a kind of hypocrisy. Whatever one thinks about the role of intersectionality in animal activism as a general matter, participants in a movement that is ultimately about ensuring that animals are not mistreated based on their species ought to be motivated by the same underlying justice considerations to oppose the mistreatment of women (and men and gender-non-conforming persons) based on their sex (or sexual orientation or gender identity or, for that matter, race or other illicit grounds). For that reason, many vegans, including us, have long been dismayed by appeals to sexism of one of the leading animal welfare organizations, PETA.

In the past, PETA has mostly been edgy-sexist in the way that much exploitative advertising for a range of products is--showing scantily clad women and using double entendres as a means to attract eyeballs. Yet PETA's latest campaign goes even further. It really needs to be seen to be believed. A young woman dressed only in panties, an army-surplus coat, and a neck brace, grimaces and limps along the street, carrying a bag of vegetables. The voice-over indicates that she is suffering from the fact that her boyfriend went vegan and has apparently been having violent sex with her non-stop. Really. Don't believe us? Here's the link again.

The ad leaves the unmistakable not-even-below-the-surface impression that PETA endorses sexual violence against women. In reading the comments on the ad in one forum, we noted that one of its defenders observed that at the very end of the ad the young woman smiles wanly, so, this commenter said, she enjoyed the sex and it was thus consensual. This seems to us only to exacerbate the mischief the ad does, as it implies that women desire sexual abuse.

Let us return to the core question: Is the mistreatment of women simply ubiquitous and therefore present in the animal welfare sector for that reason? Or is there something specific to animal welfare that either draws or produces male domination and/or sexual harassment? We have not studied the phenomenon with anything like empirical rigor, so we can only guess as to the answer. Our guess is a little of both.

The animal welfare sector is not immune to the forces that shape the rest of society, so it would hardly be surprising to find that the people who run the leading organizations are mostly men and that the dynamics that follow from men in control of women will predictably involve sexism and sexual harassment. Furthermore, because men have more disposable income than women, on average, attempts to solicit donations may primarily appeal to men rather than to women. Whether this is a wise strategy is questionable. Although men have more money, women give more of the money they have to charity. But whether wisely or foolishly even from a strictly dollars-and-sense perspective, PETA, despite being headed by a woman, does seem to be aiming for donations from men in its many sexually themed ads.

Consistently taking the viewpoint of those with the most money to donate--and therefore displaying the always-willing-and-always-moaning female--will inevitably distort reality in a way that hurts women. One could say that the message of PETA--that what women want is a man who can have sex all night long because his arteries aren't clogged with cholesterol--leads men, within and outside of the animal welfare movement, to engage in sexual harassment, imagining that sexual advances are always welcome.

What about other organizations besides PETA? Not every animal welfare group trades in misogyny in the way that PETA does, so why are we finding misconduct elsewhere? One factor could be moral licensing or moral credentialing. This happens when a person who does good deeds comes to feel entitled to do some bad deeds. It is a bit like a person who has banked his vacation days for two years and then takes an extra-long vacation, except that moral licensing makes far less sense than binging on built-up vacation days. If you spend your time helping the sick, that really does not entitle you to park in a handicapped spot or sneak out of a diner without paying the check. You may, however, imagine that you have done so much good that you are "in the black" on your good/bad balance sheet and can afford to engage in some immoral behavior.

The people who work at and who run animal welfare organizations believe that they are helping animals. They think that because of them, animals in the food industry will experience slightly less intense physical pain and emotional misery. Or they believe that because of what they do, fewer companion animals will be homeless. Or they expect that people will consume fewer animal products and will accordingly lead to there being fewer suffering creatures on the planet. If they are correct about their assessments, then they are making the world a better place for nonhuman animals.

The perception or reality of this endeavor can predictably lead to moral licensing. A person who is the head of an organization that attempts to help animals in these ways might come to think that he gets to do what he wants in other contexts, even if it is wrong, because he has earned it. And because workplaces in general have long tolerated sexual harassment and misconduct, a tolerance that the #MeToo movement has begun to challenge, the temptation (if one is a straight man who does not want to get into trouble) may be to make advances on attractive, female subordinates.

So the sad truth is that institutions created to fight exploitation and violence towards nonhuman animals contain people who mistreat women. Humans are, of course, animals too, so such mistreatment is in tension with the professed goal of these institutions. But our social problems pervade all institutions, so we are unlikely to find many zones that are free of sexual harassment. PETA uses sexism and even sexual violence to appeal to male donors who may have more money than female donors. And beyond PETA, there may be quite a bit of moral licensing that leads the men who head organizations to think that they have earned the enjoyment they get out of sexual harassment.

Though we have diagnosed what we believe might account for the problem,  we find it more difficult to arrive at a solution. Change society? Well, yes. Once society becomes more egalitarian, it seems unlikely that the animal welfare movement (even PETA) will remain steadfastly committed to sexual harassment and misconduct. Have more women heading the organizations? (But see PETA, headed by Ingrid Newkirk, although we do not know of any allegations of sexual harassment against officers there.) And normalize compassion for animals. No one should feel like doing something good for animals licenses them to do something bad. Animals are entitled to our kindness and compassion and our will to refrain from harming them, by wearing them, by eating them, or by hitting them when they live in our homes.

So, just as veganism can help other humans by making land, food, and water available to the hungry and the thirsty, land, food and water that would otherwise go to "creating" the flesh and secretions that most people consume, widespread veganism may help curb sexual harassment within animal welfare organizations by eliminating moral licensing among those who treat animals with the respect they deserve. Such individuals will no longer be outliers who can think "I am so unusually nice to animals" but just regular folks who, like everyone else, wonder from time to time how people could have once supported a system in which feeling beings are burned, mutilated, separated from their children, trucked to slaughterhouses, and deprived of their lives, hanging upside down in a cold and smelly room over a wading pool of blood.