Women, Animals, and Victim-Blaming

 by Sherry F. Colb

(The following is the text of a talk I gave on Monday on a panel sponsored by the New York City Bar.)

When I was in law school, a brave classmate spoke openly of a marriage in which her husband regularly abused her. I realized as I listened that I had stereotypes of battered women in my mind. I was surprised to hear what she said because she did not seem like the sort of woman who would find herself in an abusive relationship. She was eloquent and strong and extremely intelligent. I looked up to her and admired her as a leader. What could have possessed her to absorb abuse? And what exactly did her husband do to her?

We can recognize this kind of thinking as victim blaming. We find out that a person is enduring cruelty and abuse, and we ask, “Why haven’t you left?” or “Is it really that bad?” instead of assuming that she has her reasons and that it is her abuser rather than she who has some explaining to do. As a good friend of mine said recently, if we blame the victim, then we can pretend that we are safe. It is an understandable human impulse. A colleague of mine died of lung cancer a few years ago. Almost everyone wanted to know whether she smoked. (She did not). But what if she did smoke? Then we could tell ourselves we would be fine because she brought it on herself by smoking. We don’t really believe that she deserved to die because she smoked, but we place distance between her and ourselves by identifying things that she did to increase the odds of her illness.

In the case of my classmate, the reason I think it was “brave” for her to talk about the abuse she suffered is that she was surely conscious of the stereotypes. And I imagine she had internalized the shame that goes along with victim blaming. She probably told herself at times, “I chose to marry him, so maybe it’s my fault. I must deserve it because I haven’t left.” It is risky to reveal something about yourself that people tend to judge. If you doubt that women feel shame after abuse, just watch the makeup tutorials online that let victims know how to conceal their injuries. When a woman says “I just walked into a wall,” it is not only to protect her partner; it may be to protect herself from judgment. How people react will depend a lot on how committed they are to the stereotype, and it is hard to know that in advance.

When feminists say the personal is political, one idea there is to stop victim blaming. It may be Marjorie whose husband abused her, but the crime tells us things about her husband, not about her. To quote a slogan, she is not what happened to her. And the same is true of rape victims. There is an enormous stigma attached to them. People want to believe that they brought it on themselves. It is a coping mechanism in a scary world, but it is wrong, and it is also counterproductive.

Things that appear to be the result of an individual’s choices are often the consequence of a political climate. One reason that Marjorie’s husband abused her and that Irma’s date raped her is that the men took in messaging that told them these offenses are relatively benign. How many people go to prison for domestic violence or date rape? It was not that long ago that judges would admit evidence at a rape trial that an alleged victim was promiscuous. We’d hear from the men that slept with them. And even though the official purpose was to prove that the woman consented or to discredit her as a witness (which is bad enough), the unofficial purpose was to shame her as unworthy of protection from rape. Though I am not a fan of the carceral state, I have to take issue with the decision to grant leniency if and only if the defendant’s crime was domestic violence or domestic rape. 

One of the backlash books that I recall from a few decades ago was by Katie Roiphe, entitled The Morning After. Her claim in the book was that by making a big fuss over everything from sexist jokes to date rape, feminists interfered with women’s sexual freedom. I think of Roiphe as one of the so-called “power feminists” (or, less charitably, anti-feminists) who embrace the converse of victim blaming. If you are safe and comfortable, it is to your credit. You are acting as a free agent rather than viewing yourself as a powerless target of misogyny. I would agree with the notion that thinking of ourselves as victims can be harmful, but before people can “get past” date rape and domestic violence, we need to acknowledge that these events happened and hold attackers accountable. While it might “feel” like just a personal and individual event, it is in fact a broader matter that deserves serious attention.

Justice Alito recently, as Federalist Society keynote speaker, bemoaned the fact that he cannot freely voice anti-gay religious sentiments. What he is complaining about is the fact that many more people now than in the past regard homophobia, whatever its source, as bigotry. He is a homophobia libertarian, and he would like to be out and proud about his views of same-sex relationships. A few years ago, food writer Anthony Bourdain died of suicide. I was vaguely aware of Bourdain prior to his death but learned more afterward. He was a food libertarian. In one video, he ate a live octopus. He said things like “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.” 

Sometimes you can learn about who you are by listening to your detractors. Self-styled libertarians mock both feminists and animal rights supporters in the same ways. If women choose to stay with men who occasionally let out some aggression, then that is their private decision, and we should not interfere by encouraging them to complain about it. Other women will choose not to be with men who do that, and that’s their decision too. If people choose to eat the remains and eggs and milk of animals, then that is their decision as well. No one should be telling them to stop because it interferes with their freedom; vegans are like terrorists who blow up libraries for expressing dissenting views. 

In both areas, we can identify two false arguments. The first is to equate criticism with censorship. If Justice Alito has the right to speak about his antipathy to gay relationships, then why shouldn’t others have the right to respond to what he says and even to judge his words as bigoted? And what exactly did vegans ever do to Anthony Bourdain? 

The second move is to claim that inflicting injuries on other living beings is a matter of individual freedom and choice. A man who assaults a woman is not exercising a free choice any more than a man who robs a convenience store is. Both men are victimizing people, the first in a manner that society still fails to take sufficiently seriously. And when we consume animals and their milk and eggs, we create demand for more cruelty and slaughter. As Lisa Kemmerer said, “Most consumers are unaware of the ongoing, intense suffering and billions of premature deaths that lurk behind mayonnaise and cream, cold cuts and egg sandwiches.” And as we learn in a quote attributed to several authors, “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.” Animals have noses too.

Does blaming the victim involve shaming in the animal rights area? I think it does. We use words like “bitch,” “dog,” “cow,” “pig,” and “clucking hen” to refer to women who fail to conform to whatever men desire. The devaluation of animals is barely veiled. The insults just assume that there is something contemptible about dogs, cows, pigs, and chickens. Failing to gracefully accept a compliment (like whistling on the street, for example) makes you a bitch. If your face is not pleasing to men, you are a “dog.” “Cows” are women who take up too much space and are presumed indolent. “Pigs” are more aggressive versions of cows. And then women are in the position of reinforcing the insults to animals by saying “I am not a cow. I am a human being.”

The animals might not feel ashamed of being “only animals.” But our blaming the victims of animal agriculture still affects our behavior. If a pig is a ridiculous figure that just keeps eating and has no feelings or sheep just go to the slaughter without a care in the world, then we can feel comfortable purchasing flesh or fur at the farmer’s market without any pangs of conscience. If I can think of you as worthless, then there are really no limits to what I can do to you. The only limiting principle is my desire. Carol Adams has written a lot about how images of women and animals work together to make men feel good about using both to satisfy their appetites. Recent revelations of “pig roasts” and “hogging” where fraternity men try to pick up and sleep with large women give you a sense of the merger of the two put-downs.

The meToo movement means many things to many people. One thing it means is that instead of blaming the victim, we will tell her that she is not alone. Together we will learn the empowering and horrifying fact that the abuse of women is common. Empowering because we can work together instead of blaming one another. Horrifying because the violence is so pervasive. And when we decide to consume plants and to represent animals, we are testifying to the pervasiveness of violence against animals. It is not just someone like Michael Vick who tortured his dogs. It is every place where people injure and kill animals to make food for consumers who demand it at the grocery store and at restaurants. By being a conscientious objector to violence against animals, we make their lives and their deaths visible, and we give them the dignity that most rhetoric takes away. And by supporting women who speak out about the violence and violation they have endured, we help make their experience less pervasive than it was before. When we stop blaming the victim, the perpetrator suddenly comes into focus, and a very different conversation can begin.