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.