A Bitch, a Cow, and a Pig Walk Into a Bar: Why Misogynists Animalize Women

 by Sherry F. Colb

[Note to readers: The following is the text of a lecture I delivered last week as part of an online conference. At this link, you can view the lecture--which is pretty much a verbatim statement of what appears below followed by Q&A]


To fully understand what happens when misogynists call women “bitches,” “cows,” and “pigs,” we need to begin with what has been the cardinal sin in science for many years: anthropomorphizing. To anthropomorphize in the prohibited way means to attribute supposedly uniquely human attributes to nonhuman animals. People writing for science journals were not supposed to say that an animal they had tortured “suffered” or that an animal reunited with a family member experienced “joy” or “pleasure.” Scientists could say that animals experienced “pain” because experiments often aimed at causing and then relieving pain, but “suffering” referred to a supposedly higher level experience special to humans. In some circles, it is even verboten to refer to a male animal as “he” or “him” or to a female animal as “she” or “her” when the preferred term is “it.”

Though scientists were the ones most committed to such linguistic censorship, there was nothing scientific about it. Nonhuman animals have the same basic brain anatomy, circuitry, and chemistry as we do. They suffer, they feel joy (when we are not slaughtering them), and their emotions—once you are around them for a bit—are quite clear and mirror our own. Indeed, and sadly, they feel empathy for us and react to our suffering, though scientists often seem incapable of returning that empathy. In one experiment, a scientist observed that the stress levels of rats in their cages rose when one of their number was taken out and decapitated. I say “sadly” because watching, let alone carrying out, the killing of an innocent animal appeared to have no similar impact on the human scientist.

Moving away from scientists, ordinary people use special words for things that affect animals, though we already have words for those things when humans experience them. When one person kills a lot of other people, we tend to call the one person’s behavior “mass murder.” The words signify the fact that we have many innocent victims and the fact that someone killed them without any justification. When a person instead orders the killing of countless numbers of innocent nonhuman animals, we call the killing “meat processing.” In doing so, we pretend that the innocent living beings were “meat” all along and that no one engaged in any killing. When I refer to a person ordering the killing of animals, I refer to someone who consumes the innocent murder victims at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snacks. The word “meat” originally meant solid food, but using it to refer to the flesh of murder victims erases the violence of the slaughterhouse and the complicity of those who consume the fruit of the slaughterhouse instead of actual fruit, vegetables, grains, and other non-sentient foods.

What you see thus far is that we have a lot of lying when it comes to nonhuman animals. We lie about the range of their experience. We lie about our violence towards them. And we lie about the places where our hired guns cut the throats of the terrified, innocent creatures. The photos on a container of lacteal secretions—the breast milk of a cow—lie too. They typically show a mother and a baby calf. The reality is that the mother undergoes a violent vaginal and anal procedure to impregnate her, she then is pregnant for nine months, and then at the end, she—like other mammals, including humans—produces milk designed as food for her infant calf. The dairy farmer, however, views the calf baby food as a commodity for humans. He forcibly separates mother and infant, sends the infant to slaughter, and hooks up the mother to a pump to bank her milk for humans. Mother cows bond to their newborns and express agony and misery when the farmer takes the calves away so humans can pay for the calves’ food. The dishonest picture on the container of lacteal secretions is just another lie.

Why All the Lies?

There are many more lies where that came from, but I just wanted to give you a taste of some of the ways in which we resist recognizing how similar animals are to us. Our linguistic conventions, however, defend us from seeing that similarity. We require this defense, the objectification of living beings, because we so thoroughly exploit them. I want to introduce a term here, and that term is “psychopathic exploitation.” What I mean by this term is that we have an elaborate structure of speaking and thinking that prevents us from experiencing normal reactions to another being’s suffering and distress. Most people in the U.S. witnessing a man beating a dog would try to intervene, either by stepping in to protect the dog or by calling the police. We are capable of empathizing with dogs because, despite the extreme exploitation that produces all of the flavor-of-the-month breeds, we have loving relationships with them. We take care of them like they’re our children, and we grieve when they die. There is plenty wrong with what we do to dogs, but our exploitation of them is generally not psychopathic. This is why the country was so outraged to learn of Michael Vick’s cruelty toward dogs. We felt for those dogs.

Psychopathic exploitation happens in the industries that use and slaughter animals to serve human purposes. It is worth noting here that one could and some do serve these purposes without exploiting animals. We know it is possible to eat a plant-based diet, and we know that animal experiments tell us almost nothing about what we need to know. In both of these areas, we need to feel nothing for the animals whose lives we fill with misery followed by a terrifying slaughter. It is necessary to alienate ourselves from those animals so completely that their cries have no effect on us. If we are going to continue to consume murder victims from the slaughterhouse and attack them in the laboratory, we cannot afford to empathize with them.

The problem with cutting off our empathy is that it is not normal to witness great suffering and feel nothing. For a psychopath, a lack of empathy is one of his attributes. He has no conscience, and he feels no empathy. Serial killers are often psychopaths, and they characteristically torture animals as children. Normal children do not want to torture animals. And yet most parents force children from a very early age to consume tortured animals. By the time the children reach adulthood, many have successfully become partial psychopaths when it comes to nonhuman animal victims, feeling no empathy and believing in the animals’ degraded status.

People who consume nonhuman murder victims are not complete psychopaths. They feel love for their families and their friends, and they have a conscience. But when it comes to the animals whom humans psychopathically exploit, animals like cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys, most of us lack empathy. We exhibit a version of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” In fact, to help fortify our exploitative psychopathy, we attribute absurd and false characteristics to these animals, and we make false claims about their behavior. People say that pigs are dirty. They are not dirty. They go into mud if it’s hot out to cool off because they cannot sweat (so much for “sweating like a pig”). Turkeys do not drown in a rain storm from looking up instead of going inside. Cows are not stupid. I used to walk by a cattle farm each day, and one time, I stopped and sang a song. I’m not a good singer, but I can more or less carry a tune. The cows stopped grazing and came close to where I was. They stood and made eye contact with me as I sang. They are emotionally and mentally engaged with their surroundings, and they are entitled to peace and freedom from slaughter.

Cultivating a categorical psychopathy toward nonhuman animals has a number of consequences. First, and most importantly, it enables us to actively participate in mass murder by consuming its victims. We pay money and thereby order more torture and more killing. Second, it creates a foundation for so-called “dehumanizing” groups of humans. I say “so-called” because I dislike the word “dehumanizing” because it endorses human supremacy. It embraces the notion that humans alone are sacred and infinitely valuable while all other living creatures on this earth are resources for our use. Nonetheless the devaluation of animals that characterizes the psychopathic exploitation to which we subject them offers a way to demote groups of people by treating them the way we treat and think about animals. By adulthood, we have become accustomed to thinking of living beings who feel fear, anger, sadness, depression, love, and the other feelings we share as objects for our utilization. Chickens, plural, who are birds, become “chicken”—a substance for our consumption. And since we habitually demote a sentient, emotional, thinking, feeling being to the class of things, doing the same to a group of humans becomes child’s play.

Large numbers of people, sadly including not only many men but many women too, regard women as ripe for demotion in this way. People look at women with a very different eye from how they look at men. Everyone knows this is true. Just think about the movies. Plenty of old, fat, and ugly men continue to enjoy starring roles into their seventies and eighties, often including a sexual affair with a very young woman or several very young women. But the most talented female actors around rarely get star roles in movies once they pass the age of 50, and if they do, they can forget about any hot romance with a young man. And they must almost always be very slim and very pretty. There is a reason that a disgusting man like Harvey Weinstein was able and willing to carry on such a prolific career of sexual assault and sexual harassment. If a woman is not visually pleasing to men, then she can generally forget about a successful acting career.

The reality is that society holds women up to a different and far more instrumental standard than it applies to men. And it is a heterosexual male eye that typically judges which women are and are not worth the time. A woman who defies the classic requirements of femininity will learn than she is a “bitch.” A bitch is a female dog, though female dogs are not especially similar to an unfriendly woman or a woman who refuses to “smile” when asked or to act like a subordinate when she is in fact the smartest person in the room. Female dogs are sweet and friendly. But everyone understands that when men call women bitches, they mean women who fail to act in the way that we believe women ought to act, a way that makes her useful to heterosexual men. She is useful if she is thin and pretty and young and nurturing and submissive and filled with awe and curiosity about what a man wants to talk about and quiet about her own complaints about a man’s halitosis, obesity, ugliness, inconsiderateness, unhelpfulness, witlessness, cruelty, and poor performance, in the bedroom and otherwise. The best woman makes the man feel good about himself and helps him enjoy his self-absorption. While I originally found the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally very funny, I have since then come to think it is terribly sad that so many women think it is their obligation to pretend that the sex they are having is satisfying. I have not done a survey, but I suspect that it is the rare man who pretends he is enjoying unsatisfying sex with a woman. We view men as entitled to enjoy sex, and we view women as obligated to enjoy whatever it is that a man wants to do to them.

Viewing women in instrumental terms—terms that demote them in status to the animal realm—happens in hospitals all the time. When women undergo gynecological surgery, we know from statements by many medical students that surgeons instruct the students to perform nonconsensual pelvic exams on the unconscious patients. New York only recently criminally prohibited this practice, but many states still allow it. Dr. Michael Greger, who wrote the popular book How Not to Die, says that doctors refer to the unconscious women being sexually assaulted by medical students as “vending machines.” Just as people demote animals to the status of objects instead of recognizing the sentient beings they are, surgeons demote women to the status of objects as well, vending machines, although one could also apply the moniker “guinea pigs” to the women treated as cadavers donated to science. Anyone who consumes cows, pigs, chickens, fishes, lacteal secretions, and ova, has experienced the sort of “grooming” that allows them to graduate to abusing a class of humans too, namely, women.

At Cornell, where I teach, one of the fraternities organized what they called a “pig roast” a number of years ago. This event involved the fraternity men competing with one another over who could seduce the fattest woman. The women targeted for this little game likely had no idea what was happening and believed that the fraternity men were truly interested in them. When the whole thing came to light, many people spoke of dehumanization. But they missed the foundation of these frat boys’ psychopathic treatment of Cornell women. The foundation was the demotion of pigs and other farmed beings from sentient life to objects for instrumental use. Once that happened, it could not have been easier to just shift more people into the degraded category. After all, it really is quite similar to treat a pig as a piece of meat as it is to treat a woman as a pig or a cow or a chicken or another farmed animal.

The Remedy

Understanding the logic of animalizing women or other groups such as Jews or people of color helps us understand how to exit this psychopathic way of viewing others. The key is not to understand how infinitely valuable humans are compared to all other animals. Once we have the psychopathic exploitation of animals firmly in place, we are bound to throw in some humans too, simply by reclassifying them. The remedy is to treat animals the way they are entitled to be treated in virtue of being sentient creatures. The remedy is to stop looking at them as things for our use and enjoyment. It is to stop participating in their immiseration, torture, and murder and to become vegan right away.

Does that mean that everyone vegan respects women and other groups? Absolutely not. Vegans grew up in the same environment as everyone else and are therefore very capable of psychopathic exploitation. But becoming an ethical vegan removes one of the central foundations of racism, misogyny, and the other practices by which we demote other humans. Once we remove that foundation, we must be mindful of how we treat our fellow humans, especially those whom our society habitually regards instrumentally: women, people of color, etc. We must remind ourselves that nobody exists to serve us, nobody. That means that we must treat everyone around us with respect unless and until they treat us badly. If we have subordinates at work, we must bend over backwards to respect their personhood and be compassionate toward their needs.

The atrocities that we commit against nonhuman animals and the status that we attach to those animals in particular have warped our character toward the psychopathic. We must therefore be very conscious about engaging our conscience and our empathy toward nonhuman animals and humans who differ from us alike. Then, if a bitch, a cow, and a pig walk into a bar, no one will have to worry about someone raping, slaughtering, or eating any of them. With self-training, we can all become less psychopathic, in time.