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Carol Adams ~ The Sexual Politics of Meat ~ Abolitionist Online Interview

Carol Adams ~ The Sexual Politics of Meat ~ Abolitionist Online Interview


The Sexual Politics of Meat has positively influenced many activists and feminists so can we start with why you wrote the book in the first place and for our readers, what it is all about?

Carol Adams:

Basically The Sexual Politics of Meat argues that we cannot understand or challenge a meat-eating world unless we identify the patriarchal environment in which meat-eating flourishes. We need to see that meat eating arose and has a comfortable home within a patriarchal world that fosters the objectification of women and other animals. Under patriarchy, certain beings are seen as being able to be used.


What has the feedback been like?

The minute the book appeared, I began to receive fan mail. I still get letters weekly, if not daily, saying, “Your book changed my life.” This experience has been fascinating and thrilling for me as a writer because the process of writing it was such an isolated and lonely one. I had the original idea way back in 1974, but the vision did not easily shape itself into a book. When people tell me the book changed their lives, I tell them that they are giving me something I can never know, because I can only know the book from the inside out. When you are writing by yourself and all alone and trying to figure out what it is you are trying to say you don’t realise that there is a readership waiting for what you have to say. That was so thrilling! To receive those first letters from people who really got the message of the book.

When I finally finished The Sexual Politics of Meat in 1989, I thought I had said it all. Then the book was published and I learned what else remained to be said because people started sending me images that proved the point about The Sexual Politics of Meat! Immediately upon publication the response was so incredible to the book – not only loving it but also hating it. Back in 1990 in the United States there was an increasing dominance of right wing commentators who believed that people were trying to enforce political correctness upon everybody. Actually, the idea of “political correctness” was a reaction against being held accountable for bad behaviour and illegitimate beliefs.

Yet, anyone trying to point out ethical issues was labeled as trying to be “politically correct”. What happened was right wing commentators seized on the book as an example of the excess of political correctness. They tore into the book with glee! And I thought, “if these people agreed with the book I would be in trouble because this is a very radical book,” so it was actually a compliment that they hated it so much. I also thought, “they might disagree, but at least they feel it is a substantial enough idea to spend lengthy articles arguing with it!”


What is the relationship between meat and flesh as you critiqued it Carol?

Actually I really don’t like the word “meat”. I think the way the word “meat” is used is a way of avoiding the truth of what happens to animals. In Neither Man Nor Beast I call it ‘corpse eating’ because I felt that even the word “flesh” tidies it up too much. I think “meat” is a euphemism. You could say “flesh” is the raw, “meat” is the cooked but that’s not quite true either. Flesh is before human intervention, meat is after human intervention but the term “meat” is an avoidance of the truth. Yet, in order to try to reach people who had never really thought about this, I called the book The Sexual Politics of Meat.


Does your work at all intersect with the work of Mary Daly’s using the term “corpse” to distinguish between this death culture and it’s ghouls in patriarchy, propped up and ably assisted by their male and female counterparts?

I studied with Mary Daly in 1974 when she taught a two-semester course at Boston College on feminist ethics. By this time I had already loved her work and had already read Beyond God The Father. At the time I was studying with her, she was working on Gyn/Ecology. We were reading Elizabeth Gould Davis’s “The First Sex” in which Davis proposed that originally there was a matriarchy, then a patriarchy. She argues that the matriarchy was vegetarian; that the Genesis 4 story of Cain and Abel is describing the over-throw of the matriarchy by the patriarchy because God the father refuses the gifts of the land but instead accepts the gift of the sacrificed animal. The books that I was reading in her class and her lectures definitely influenced me, creating a wonderful catalyst for me to come up with the idea that eventually became The Sexual Politics of Meat.

I decided to go a different way theoretically than Mary. I think I draw more upon literary criticism in developing The Sexual Politics of Meat than philosophy and theology as she does, but certainly I would say I am one of the intellectual daughters of Mary Daly.


What connections are made in the west’s death culture, by you, on the similarities between the killing of women and the killing of animals?

Basically, I believe our culture objectifies, fragments, and then consumes women and the other animals. The consumption may be different—cultural consumption for women—but the process is one in which a being loses the right to self-determination. Our culture goes to great lengths to equate women and animals and so differentiate men, especially white men, from the objects of their violence. I believe that it is a
patriarchal culture that endorses and elevates meat eating: that meat is a symbol of male dominance. Women are often victims of a very sexualized form of killing (they are most likely to be killed by their sexual partners); and there are many ways that a patriarchal culture sexualizes the killing of animals when it is trying to sanitize that killing.

You don’t know how many times I have been on radio shows in which a man calls up and says, “so if I eat a hamburger I am going to beat my wife?” I thought it was important to nuance the theory and try to say how things are different and how things are the same for women and animals. But I do ask, at the end of the Sexual Politics of Meat slide show, “Is meat eating the everyday enaction of sexual murder? What if
eating animals is the everyday re-enactment of the killing off of the mother goddess?”

Women and animals experience intersecting forms of violence and that intersection is found in the concept of the absent referent. The ‘absent referent’ is a term I wrenched out of literary criticism and applied to animals, so much so that I think that people think I invented it; that is the “absent referent” exists more in our culture as a concept from radical feminist theory yet it had its roots in literary criticism theory.

The absent referent is what happens to animals in meat eating: the animal becomes an absent referent to his or her own existence; his or her body becomes used by others for pleasure. Once that’s happened at the basic literal level (the separation of the animal from her body) it also manifests itself at a metaphorical or a conceptual level. The animal is disassociated from his or her body so absolutely that “meat’ becomes this free-floating metaphor that attaches to other things so that women say they were “treated like pieces of meat.” In that example, the animal’s actual experience becomes the metaphor for another being’s experience. Through meat eating, the animal disappears, and what is used becomes emptied of meaning. Then within the oppressive logic of patriarchy the animal becomes nothing, the “flesh” to be consumed is seen as a possession of the meat eater.

Similarly, through sexual objectification, women’s bodies become absent referents, as well. Our experience of sexual objectification—in which women’s bodies are seen as available, as possessions for men--gets lifted to knife and fork level and applied to animals. Animals are depicted as sexualized beings desiring their own consumption. I develop this more intensely in The Pornography of Meat where I show that women are animalized and animals are feminized. In that conjunction of women and animals is the intersecting point of the absent referent. It’s an interlocking oppression in a patriarchal world in which the objectification, fragmentation, and consumption of women and animals works together to intensify both oppressions.


In one study on prostitution it was found that 80% of prostitutes have been previously sexually abused. In one documentary on this subject a prostitute looked into the camera and said she felt they were being trained up for something. In The Natasha’s: The New Global Sex Slave Industry the author Victor Malarek talks about going into what is known as “the breaking-in grounds” a place where young women are “broken in” to force them to submit to their pimps, their captors and again we see this formula occurring with the breaking of the will and spirit of\ horses. Do you make these connections?

One of the most famous articles about child sexual abuse talks about the grooming behaviour of child sexual abusers and I have to say I sometimes see it in the animal rights movement in the way men move in on women in the animal rights movement. The majority of people in the animal rights movement are women and the women think the men in the animal rights movement are humane, considerate, and compassionate in this humane movement. Most men probably are, but some men engage in the same kind of grooming behaviour that men who are child sexual abusers do, first by beginning to lower the defenses of a child by the use of sexualized language, then to show sexualized films so that the child’s defenses are lowered until you have been groomed to accept abusive behaviour and the line gets crossed before you have any conception that has happened. The experience of being created as a used object is the creation of an absent referent because that being is being objectified.

Studies of domestic violence batterers and rapists have shown that one of the things they do is they don’t call the person being victimised by her name so there’s no individuality attached to the person being violated (for instance, calling her “cunt” or “whore”). Language is used that fragments or objectifies just as we use language in this way about animals. Animals are disassociated from their own being and become e.g., pork chops, legs and breasts etc. Meat eaters don’t say “a chicken’s breast” but instead chicken breasts. Language moves away from acknowledging that a being possesses her own body and instead positions the being as a possession of others. Part of the functioning of the absent referent is the denial of the person’s unique beingness and the denial of an animal’s unique beingness. Such a denial is essential to the on-going violence. In a sense, you could say, grooming behavior is the action of disassociating a being from a connectedness to her own body, so that violation can happen. Grooming behavior occurs when a being has already been made into an absent referent.


In the part of The Sexual Politics of Meat called “the patriarchal texts of meat,” you say we live in a culture that has institutionalised the oppression of animals on at least 2 levels: the formal structures such as slaughterhouses, meat markets, zoos, laboratories and circuses and
through language.

Yes, we structure animals’ oppression by normalizing it, by naturalising it, by hiding it, by denying it and language is always a force for dominance or for liberation -- that’s why it’s always such a contested field for feminists too. First of all, with oppressive language, animals aren’t acknowledged to be his or hers, they’re called “its”. Instead of saying “I’m going to eat a lamb’s leg” and thereby acknowledging that the lamb has a possessive relationship to that part of her own body, people call it ‘leg of lamb’ to disassociate, to deny the connection between a lamb and her body parts. So we recapitulate the fragmentation of the body through the fragmentation of the language. Just as meat eaters disguise flesh with various spices, the normative language disguises the language about the animal. You don’t generally say “brains” you say “sweetbread.” Cow is the most obvious example of the way language institutionalises oppression: as the cow is killed violently and hacked and then ground up, so the word ‘cow’ is replaced with the seemingly benign word ‘hamburger.’ In the change of language, no acknowledgement that any injury or violent death has occurred is necessary.


With all the problems facing western feminists I think it’s fair to say western feminists still never had to face public executions, gendericide and patriarchal violence on the same level as stonings or mutilations of the body as our Middle Eastern counterparts do. Are feminists today too disassociated from other women’s history to help other women in need?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we should posit an either/or approach to women’s experiences throughout the world. Catharine MacKinnon, a leading feminist theorist, in a new book Are Women Human? And other International Dialogues, points out that the devastating lost of life associated with 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, is in fact “almost identical to the number of women who die at
the hands of men every year in just one country, the same one in which September 11th happened.” She goes on to describe the language of the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which provides protections for civilians during conflicts that are not among nations: “It prohibits violence to life and the person, especially murder,
mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture, and outrages on personal dignity, especially humiliating and degrading treatment.” Then she says, “Imagine women’s everyday lives with all that.” She concludes, “Realized in what is called peacetime, Common Article 3 would transform the lives of women everywhere. But you need a war for it to apply.” And right now, what happens to women by their intimate partners—whether is it a husband murdering his wife, the rape of a date, the injuring or killing of a prostitute—none of this is called war. Whatever transformations have happened in the West, women are not yet guaranteed basic safety.

I also think there is a lot of help that women are providing other women and it is across national lines. One of the differences between the late 60’s and early 70’s and now is the Internet and the strength of women’s foundations. In terms of why ‘honour’ killings happen I would just say that I will not ignore the fact that in the United States and I’m sure in Australia the most deadly thing that a women can do is to have ended up in a relationship with a violent man. She is more likely to be killed by someone she knows and more likely to be killed by a sexual partner so no matter what the successes of the feminist movement in terms of violence against women, we have not achieved what we had hoped to achieve back in the 70’s when we thought that changing laws,tr aining police, training judges and creating resources like hotlines
would help stop a lot of violence against women or at least hold men accountable but as it turns out it’s very difficult to hold men accountable, and I think Catharine MacKinnon would say, “Does the law actually want to do it?” Does the law really want to hold men accountable?

I would say that the radical feminist vision has not been achieved but the radical feminist vision would point out that theocracies--whether it’s right-wing theocracies in the States or anywhere--that vest themselves with divine authority, a patriarchal god, and a very literalistic view of received scriptures are very dangerous.


Do you think that men feel they are “honouring” animals when they eat steaks?

No. They are honouring themselves, their masculinity, their male power, and patriarchy, all in one act. Sometimes I think they offer that as an excuse when they become aware that their privilege to eat animals is challenged, but I think most of the time they are not even aware of the animal they are eating. As I argue in Living Among Meat Eaters, until vegetarians come along, a meat eater thinks of himself as an “eater.” He is not aware of what he is doing until vegetarians remind him there is an alternative. Then they get defensive and argue on behalf of meat-eating; searching for an excuse within the patriarchal logic of their act, they will say the animal wanted to do this or this animal wouldn’t have existed without having being used as “meat.” As I say in The Sexual Politics of Meat, meat eating is a symbol of patriarchy – you remove the meat and you’ve threatened male identity. And notice how often the defenses of meat eating become de facto defenses of a patriarchal framework: blaming the victim, for instance, and using Cartesian, dis-embodied reasoning, or justifying violence.


Evisceration: the stripping away and hollowing out of self. Is the perceived passivity of women and animals a symptom of male dominance and its outcome?

I don’t know that women and animals are passive. One of the things we know from the domestic violence movement is that women have many survival strategies and sometimes what we experience as submission within a relationship is her way of handling life with a violent man. We know that women are often less safe when they leave a violent man than when they are with him, so they must choose carefully how to leave. We know that animals, when they can, will escape from slaughterhouses. In terms of dominance, think back to the trilogy of violent forces that I identify in The Sexual Politics of Meat – objectification, fragmentation, consumption. That trilogy is also the way we achieve the neutralization of feeling. It is easier to injure and destroy an object; so it is important within the logic of patriarchy to eviscerate the ability to feel. Objectification not only makes someone into something, it objectifies feelings so that beneficiaries of the system fail to care about what is happening. Men do it, but women do it too. Women are meat-eaters, too. The patriarchal self exists through the objectification of another. Subjectification of the dominant occurs because of the objectification of the non-dominant.

As long as there is a creation of a self that needs an object to feel subjectified, we are going to have this objectification, fragmentation, consumption.


There’s a certain type of pain men don’t seem to mind inflicting on women and there’s a certain type of pain vivisectors don’t seem to mind inflicting upon animals. In both cases it’s breaking a trusted relationship. Do you make any connections here?

In Neither Man Nor Beast I have a chapter on “the arrogant eye and animal experimentation.” The arrogant eye experiences its subjectification through the objectification of another. I’m not going to classify all men as batterers; I truly believe that the patriarchal culture creatures this and that it can be uncreated. I think vivisectors are created through the intervention of patriarchal scientific language and masculine scientific beliefs to distrust and ignore the feeling self.

Josephine Donovan and I have a new book coming out The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics—A Reader. Columbia University is publishing it this Fall. We know people care about animals, but we live in a culture that does not value caring. We need to find a way to honour feelings because feelings teach us how to relate to animals. When we suspend all our judgmentalisms and rationalizations and our expectations that everything has to adhere rigidly to this mind-body split, we can experience what animals need because they will tell us and we can listen.


Are you concerned at all about men in white coats fiddling around with dead embryos, to be soon inviting impovished women to surrender their embryos, for money, to add to a corporate stock that then will be seen as just one more perishable consumerable?

One of the things I talk about in The Pornography of Meat is the whole exploitation of femaleness, the exploitation of the female reproductive system. We would not have meat eating if the female reproductive system weren’t exploited. If animals weren’t being made constantly pregnant there would not be future animals for meat eaters to consume. We know that many of the reproductive technologies of the 60’s and 70’s developed first through experimenting on animals. We know that many theorize that women’s subordination developed after the domestication of animals because that’s how men discovered how pregnancy occurs, that a relationship exists between impregnation and the delivery of a child 9 months later.

I know you have interviewed Ingrid Newkirk. I noticed she talked about how feminists who complained about PETA’s increasing use of naked and nearly naked women were as bad as mullahs wanting women covered.

And so, a feminist theory of sexual objectification is dismissed. But what if she understood the intersection of oppression, that a patriarchal culture controls animals’ bodies and wants to control women’s bodies, too? What if she really understood that because of the intersection of the oppression of women and animals, PETA supports through its advertisements the very culture they are trying to undo? Ingrid is adept at establishing everything as being black or white; it’s either this or that. By staking out the territory in this way, she keeps us from being able to introduce a more nuanced understanding, in which we could say, “No! I am neither a prude or a right wing theocrat. I am someone who recognises that because of the interrelationships of women’s oppression with animals, we are not going to free one without the other and we are not going to free animals on the backs of women.”


How do you see the feminist and the animal rights movements progressing?

I wish I had created a list of all the people who have written to me so I could have connected them with one another by the internet. There are so many thoughtful activists and scholars out there, continuing to make the connections! I’m heartened by how many people are trying to move the issues forward together. They are earnest and they are talented. When I go to college campuses in the US I am usually brought there by progressive vegans or feminist animal activists – I call them the soy crème of the soy crème.

There’s something so remarkable about the young people and all the people who get this and are moving it forward in their own way. I think that in the animal rights movement all change isn’t going to take place the way PETA is trying to achieve it. I like to see the way the right brain is engaged with theatrics and the incubation of ideas through the use of images and other non-linear approaches. I think that’s why The Sexual Politics of Meat works. I never went out and tried to say, “You must become a vegan; you must become a feminist”. I tried to start at a place where I invited people to see connections and then empower them to live with the insight of those connections, so that the desire to change comes from within.


Interview originally published at the Abolitionist Online Website. 

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Thanks, Kate. I agree, it is a great interview. It was a shame when Claudette ended the Abolitionist Online site. They had some excellent information on their site. 

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