The domestic laying chicken has been intensely selected to be a persistent ovulator. That is, the tendency for broodiness has been nearly eliminated and, given the appropriate lighting and nutrition, many strains of laying hens produce an egg on almost every day. […] Commercial laying hens also spontaneously develop ovarian cancer at a high rate, and susceptibility to this disease has been associated with ovulatory events in women.
Think about all that for a second.
Hens are forced by genetic manipulation to lay eggs so frequently that they are highly predisposed to reproductive cancers. The thing they were bred to do for humans will likely kill them.
I’m in Chicago O’Hare airport right now, I’ve been on a trip that included New York, Philly, and suburban Illinois. This is the last stop. I’m on my way home. I’m about to catch my flight. But before heading out this morning I paid a visit to an old family friend.
An auntie as we say. Of course it’s always an auntie or a cousin. People who have been in your life for years, but don’t have a biological link, have to fit in some category. So if they’re close to us in age, they’re a cousin. But if they’re significantly older, they need some designation that establishes a type of respect. Hence auntie.
My auntie is in her 70s. Like my grandmother, she smokes Pall Mall cigarettes (and she pronounced them Pell Mell). And when she doesn’t have a good enough reason to leave her home, she wears her dressing gown all day.
As far as I’m concerned, #GOALS.
She muted the tv as we sat down and asked how I was doing. (I’m fine.)
She asked if I’m seeing anyone. (I’m still not.)
She didn’t ask if I was seeing a girl. She knows I’m gay, but we don’t talk about it. She’s not exactly homophobic. But she doesn’t really know what to do with this information. So instead of asking about boys specifically, she just plays the pronoun game. Which is hilarious considering where we collectively are with pronouns for trans people. But I digress.
We spent about 15 minutes with her getting me caught up on Days of Our Lives. Personally I gave up on ‘the stories’ in the early 2000s. But she keeps me in the loop so I’m not lost in case I come back to the fold. I was devastated when Stefano DiMera died. The actor’s death in real life reminded me that all my faves that I grew up will age and pass away.
Eventually we were both on our phones because ~21st century. I’m mildly surprised she uses her smartphone as much as she does. But auntie ain’t no goddamn punk. She might not own a computer. But she uses her phone nonstop, and she knows how to DVR better than I can.
Somehow we got on the topic of social media. She follows me on Facebook. She doesn’t know wtf I’m talking about half the time. But she thinks I’m pretty popular.
We talked about the piece I put up on Thursday. I told her the Internet was hauling me up over it. A couple of folks were pressed about the main gist of the essay, but mainly people took issue with the trigger warnings part.
Now all this social justice talk is pretty boring to her. So I did my best to explain in brief what all the terms and catchphrases meant and why I said wtf I said.
Not a week passes by in which I don’t have at least two messages from people either telling me that something I said in conversation online should have had a trigger warning, and two more messages from people telling me words that I should not say at ALL when talking about other animals regardless of the circumstances (btw, the list includes, among other words: slavery, rape, kidnap, abuse, captive, refugee, and prisoner).
At one point, I found myself trying to hold space in my head to accommodate this rapidly accumulating list of words while speaking and trying to monitor for anything that might remotely damage someone else. In some ways, it’s like my Czech language classes…except there’s a penalty for getting it wrong. And in some cases, that penalty is severe. Every single day, I could feel my anxiety peak with the understanding that I would inevitably fail and end up in an even worse depression than I am already experiencing (and for longer and longer periods, these days).
She sat calmly reading her phone, not even looking up. To the average person, it probably appeared as though she wasn’t even listening to me. But to a veteran smartphone multi-tasker, I knew she heard every word. Patiently she asked, “Sebastian, who are the people that are worrying you?”
“Intersectional vegans,” I answered quickly.
“No, I mean are they white?”
And I thought about it. Yes. Yes, they are white. Every single person rolling up through my DMs—of whom there are dozens—rolling up through my DMs with new demands is white. One hundred percent. And I don’t mean some approximate percentage that is close to one hundred. I mean every last one of them. I told her this.
Seemingly unsurprised, she asked further, “No black people at all?”
“A couple of black voices, to varying degrees, responded to my post that they had a dissenting position. But none who were particularly pressed. Mostly questioning or adding to the conversation. But no, I never actually received a message from a black person requesting a trigger warning or telling me what words I should use or avoid.”
“Sounds to me like you don’t have a problem with trigger warnings. You have a white people problem.”
And right there was the crux of my situation in fourteen words.
She smiled that smile of people who BEEN knew shit that you just now finding out and said, “Sebastian, black people have been dealing with trauma in this country for hundreds of years. We know what it looks like. We’re used to managing it. Even if we didn’t have the language to articulate it. Unfortunately, we were never afforded the privilege of avoiding these ‘triggers’ that traumatize us.”
She said ‘triggers’ in that tone people use when they don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about and would just as soon use the word ‘who-zee-wutz-it.’
“What frustrates you,” she continued, “Is that white people are finding new ways to dominate the conversation by making demands upon blackness to make them comfortable while they are learning to deal with it.”
She sat there staring at me like you’d stare at a child who is figuring out that there ain’t no damn tooth fairy. Like, “Come on. Did you really think some white woman was coming in your house to pick up body parts that have fallen out of your face and pay you money for them?”
It seems so obvious now that I think about it. Of course nobody deserves to deal with trauma. And everyone should be afforded the space to manage it. But what I didn’t like was whiteness appropriating the intellectual property of black women, i.e., intersectionality, to prioritize their needs or otherwise avoid feeling offended.
Not prioritizing the needs of black women. Certainly not prioritizing the needs of other animals. Themselves.
That’s not the fault of trigger warnings. That’s an issue of white supremacy and white entitlement.
And here before me was a black woman without the trappings of a university education. Who didn’t define herself as a goddamn intersectional anything. And who wasn’t even vegan.
And then I felt ashamed and angry with myself for relying on her counsel. AGAIN. I’m yet another person using the emotional and intellectual resources of black women to unpack my own struggles.
So two things I learned from this experience. Number one, I need to more closely examine what I’m feeling and why in order to write with greater intention. Number two and more importantly, always check in with black women. Not for myself, but for them.
And as I left, the television still sat muted in the background. On the screen, the news was reporting the unfolding story of white supremacists waging war in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The trauma doesn’t end.
Author’s note: To everyone who participated in the conversation on Facebook from a place of loving engagement, thank you. I’m sorry. I appreciate having a community that wants to build instead of promote toxic behaviors and for understanding that ALL YOUR FAVES ARE PROBLEMATIC. Even and especially me. So we have to rely on each other to get through this. And as with all things, I’m leaving that previous post as is. Because if we don’t fucking allow people the space to evolve and change (spoiler alert: we don’t), then basically we’re saying that oppressive behavior is the default position forever, which is of course absurd. Otherwise nobody would ever be vegan…and I wouldn’t have written this post.
Author’s Note: I covered this in part during my October 2016 talk at VegFestUK on Queering Animal Liberation. But I wrote the following piece for anyone who doesn’t have time for a 30-minute presentation and just want an easy read that focuses specifically on this issue. Personally, I do NOT use rape in my own advocacy (perhaps not for the reasons you probably think), even though some ecofeminist vegans have done historically and still do. My views are not meant to silence anyone else or tell any reader how to conduct their advocacy. These are merely MY OWN reflections on MY OWN approach and why I choose it.
When it comes to discussions of rape, I commonly see two main positions. The intersectional vegan position frequently argues that use of strong language about rape diminishes human victims and frequently triggers women. Conversely, the mainstream community argues that omission of rape against other animals is speciesist against animal victims. Taking a radical position on this, neither of these arguments come across as entirely accurate or productive for me. Here’s why:
Rape discourse most often occurs with the dairy industry in mind.
And why wouldn’t it? Milk production for human consumption is an emotionally traumatic experience for parents and an ecological disaster for the planet. And although some people might call it emotionally manipulative, a nursing parent is a powerful image to connect with. But when we center dairy as the pinnacle of parenthood in the exploitation of reproductive autonomy, we unintentionally risk minimizing the experiences of non-mammalian parents who have their reproductive autonomy stolen as well because the same type of painful penetration is largely absent against them, namely chickens and fish who are exploited in far greater numbers. And speaking of penetration…
Rape discourse centers penetration, which feels inherently reductive.
If we go by the strictest definition of rape (and we all love a good dictionary definition), then yes it’s defined as unlawful and nonconsensual penetration. By that standard, there should be absolutely no argument that the dairy industry meets the standard of raping animals (and frankly, not just dairy animals, but all mammals who experience nonconsensual penetration for human interests). However, when we examine the larger social constructions around rape, I’m very reluctant to apply the strict definition.
Socially speaking, rape is less about penetrative sex and more about the one-on-one performance of power and domination against a vulnerable individual. So far as dairy production is concerned, this is often absent. The theft of reproductive autonomy is performed out of economic interest. Is it sexual violence? MOST DEFINITELY. And we should call it that unapologetically. But I don’t think rape actually even begins to cover how the scope and horror of that sexual violence. And centering penetration is also reductive with regard to the bodies who are molested in order to procure the sperm for impregnation. By the way, notice that I’m using the term bodies instead of male or female. Why? Because…
Our rape discussions unnecessarily genders bodies, which promotes gender conformity.
We’re so used to gendering animal bodies that we completely invisible-ize animal identities in the name of protecting them. But we don’t need to do this. Bodies with uteruses are exploited. Bodies with penises are exploited. Referring to them as male or female unnecessarily reinforces outdated language around masculinity and femininity. We can talk about sexual violence without erasing the diversity of sexuality and gender presentation present throughout the animal kingdom. Sexual violence against animals destroys families and creates trauma irrespective of gender. And what body parts they have doesn’t change the fact that it’s all bad. Also…
Reproductive autonomy and sexual autonomy are related but different.
When we talk about stealing reproductive autonomy away from animals, we often conflate that with sexual autonomy. But the theft of sexual autonomy is sexual violence of a different nature, and it deserves to be recognized on its own. For example, animal companions (most frequently dogs and cats) are forcibly sterilized. This robs these individuals of their sexual identities and the range of their sexual expression. And if you think forced sterilization against other animals doesn’t impact our attitudes toward other humans, it happens to vulnerable humans all the time. See the prison industrial complex, the forced sterilization against Native women in the United States, and more.
Sexual violence manifests in more than just penetrative rape.
When we consider the sheer scope and breadth of sexual violence that we commit against other species on this planet, rape only constitutes one part of a truly terrifying system. In the United States alone, virtually all male pig babies are routinely castrated without anesthesia. However, we don’t discuss that an act of genital mutilation, which we should. And lest we forget, anal electrocution is a common method of executing animals on fur farms.
Now throughout all this talk of rape, readers might have noticed that I haven’t once used a single trigger warning. And this might be the most contentious part of this post. But here goes…
The common usage of emotional triggers in online spaces is unsupported by the data.
After witnessing a particularly tense online exchange in which a person argued against using the word kidnapping to describe animal victims because they had themselves been kidnapped (and human victims of kidnapping are an oppressed minority, I assume), I decided that I wanted to look more into emotional triggers. After all, this person’s potential to be triggered shut any further discussion down.
Full disclosure: I am a two-time victim of rape and I am diagnosed with both clinical depression and social anxiety disorder. I know what my emotional triggers are, and I know how to manage them. This is obviously not true for everyone, but these are my experiences. That said, when I looked for scholarly sources about emotional triggers, I came up with very few accessible resources.
Undeterred, I consulted with two vegan psychiatrists who specialize in various types of trauma. One white and male, the other black and female—both of them doctors, and both with more than 10 years experience. On condition of anonymity (come on y’all, everybody don’t want their professional name associated with an obscure blog that has some distinctively liberal views on vegan activism), both separately agreed that avoiding emotional triggers is the absolute worst thing you can do for your recovery and that triggers are often overused and misrepresented by laypersons. At best, there is no consensus within the community. As such, I choose not to employ them and unintentionally enable anyone who abuses them.
Of course, when all is said and done…
None of this should imply that rape against other animals does NOT occur.
Nonconsensual sexual contact with other animals is not only real but pervasive. At the time of this writing, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the current definition of bestiality only included penetrative acts and a VICE article about an orangutan who was shaved and used as a sex slave has enjoyed a disturbingly long life on social media. So rape against other species unequivocally happens. I just think that it is applied too liberally and should be discussed in a much broader context that recognizes sexual violence is foundational to industrial animal agriculture. And focusing on only one aspect of it is like cleaning up a stain on the carpet when the house is on fire. Regardless of whether it’s for profit or sexual gratification, it needs to be abolished.