We have to realize that just because we are in an era where women are coming forward about their experience of sexual harassment and sexual exploitation does not necessarily mean it’s safe to come forward. If you’ve experienced bullying, sexual harassment, or sexual exploitation within the workplace, while the workplace is liable, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily going to respond. Often the loyalty is to the institution, not the person being victimized. I think there’s some fuzzy understanding, or apparently there was some fuzzy understanding, within the movement of what each organization should do to stop sexual exploitation within. I am hoping that the kinds of new accountability being created by donors to animal rights organizations helps these organizations to clarify their responsibilities. See, for instance, http://tofurky.com/discrimination/
The vulnerability of inequality
But it’s not just organizations where this kind of behavior has been tolerated (and covered up). Grassroots activists are at risk, too, especially new activists who are so excited to be making a difference. They presume that the men they are meeting in the movement—especially because there are fewer men than women—are trustworthy and caring. The same gender hierarchy that functions outside the animal rights movement functions within the animal rights movement. Thus new activists, especially young women, find that, having trusted, they were placed in a position in which they were at risk for their own safety. This creates what I’m calling a “vulnerability of inequality.”
The problem with calling sexual exploiters “predators”
Why do we pathologize the behavior of animals doing what they’re doing by using their actions as the word for sexual exploiters? These are deliberate decisions on the part of men, and because they are not held accountable, they continue to behave in abusive ways. They are not at all like carnivores.
What can we say to those who have become victimized by serial sexual exploiters?
Get help. Report it, but be careful how you do that. Keep records of whom you have talked to about what happened (in a dedicated notebook.) I think we’re just now in a position to see change. I think Tofurky and the other donors who have said they’re going to look at how organizations perform around sexual harassments issues is a huge move forward. But that doesn’t protect grassroots activists unless they are victimized by an employee of one of the organizations. There can be exploitation by activists, as well.
We have to value the women who experience this as much as the male activists who appear to be so important. We should bring them down. We have to stop saying “this person is too important to the movement to do something about his decision to be serial sexual exploiter,” and then the women disappear from the movement.
What do we do about self-care?
In terms of self-care, I think we have to acknowledge that the animal rights movement, like every movement, has a problem of taking seriously our need to take care of ourselves. Creating the ability for self care within the animal rights movement has always been a challenge, because we’ve hear over and over again: “look at what the animals are going through.” Or, “Every animal needs us.” And so we end up in a movement that encourages us to get less sleep, to constantly be on the go doing something. I like to say that sometimes the something we need to do is nothing—is just stepping back.
I think one of the ways that self-care begins is to recognize that we have the right to boundaries. That especially if we’re caring we end up having difficulty with boundaries because we feel responsible for what’s happening to cows and chickens and pigs and primates. This openness and caring often might erode the kind of boundary we need to say, “I stop here and you stop there.” Having this boundary and being able to say “no” are beginning places. We need to be able to say, “No, I can’t come to that protest—I’ve got a cold. I need to take care of myself.” And, “No. Please leave me alone.”
But we have a compounded problem because of the disproportionate number of women to men, and this fear that the animal rights movement seems to have--at an unverbalized level--of naming caring as the reason we’re doing this. The motivation behind so much of our activism remains untheorized and unacknowledged. As a result caring does not guide our decisions about activism, and what we have are that some of our activisms border on bullying. Some of the activisms in the movement are models of bad behavior—calling out people because of their size or appearance. And this kind of bullying shades over into personal relationships, too.
Who gave us the model that bullying was the right way to change people? I don’t think that’s a feminist model.
Because of the inequality of the movement, there’s a lot of glamour and charisma to some of the men who have been serial sexual exploiters. Someone new to the movement might feel flattered by the attention they are getting. The behavior then shades over as the boundary-violating exploiter takes advantage of the weak-boundaried activist.
There should be no more male-protection racket in the animal rights movement, where the activists (and I have seen that this is especially true for some men) are protecting each other, so it becomes harder to hold someone accountable. Activists should ask if their behavior is bullying. Why is saving money by having everyone stay in the same airbnb a good idea? It creates an environment for exploitation. If we cannot protect the individual members of the movement, we aren’t really saving money. Some of these de facto policies should be reexamined.
If there are sexual jokes around a water cooler, say “This is inappropriate.” If there’s a campaign that’s going to call out women—women’s bodies, anything—say, “This is not a good idea. We are using appearance as a basis for a campaign. We are enabling exploitation.” Create accountability for behavior. This is what people seem afraid to do. It’s also up to men to call out other men on their objectifying activities. Start to create justice here.
Watch for Part 2 of this blog, which will focus on accountability in the movement.
A large part of this blog exists thanks to the note-taking of author and activist Mark Hawthorne, who interviewed me for a new edition of his important book, Striking at the Roots, and then kindly shared his notes from that interview with me.