Is Being Vegan Sexist?

02/10/2014 15:23 BST | Updated 02/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Many vegans associate the exploitation of animals raised and fed purely to produce meat, with more familiar "human" prejudices such as racism and sexism. It was Peter Singer who wrote perhaps the landmark text in this regard, Animal Liberation, in which he questioned the assumption that humans should possess certain inalienable rights while animals can be confined and slaughtered, skinned, cooked and served up on a dinner plate without a moment's pause.

Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.

[Animal Liberation, 1975]

The association of eating meat with sexism in particular has been discussed at great length over the last forty years. Meat is, after all, the province of man: man the hunter, man the killer, man the objectifier of sentient bodies... It was Henry VIII who was perhaps the definitive "man's man" in this regard, marrying six wives while at the same time consuming enough meat to become an obese "man-mountain" with a waist circumference of 54 inches, as well as a set of disease conditions probably including gout and diabetes.

I am man, hear me roar...

Oh, yes, I'm a guy!

I'll admit I've been fed quiche!

Wave tofu bye-bye!

Now it's for Whopper beef I reach.

I will eat this meat...

[Burger King TV ad, 2007]


And if the consumption of meat is a clearly gendered act, an article published on Care2 -- "the world's largest community for good" -- even claimed that "To be a Feminist is to be a Vegan", owing to the fact that it is typically mothering animals which are most abused by animal agriculture:

... it's impossible to truly be a feminist while consuming dairy (or any animal products), as the entire animal industry is built on the exploitation of the female reproductive system. This must be recognized as a feminist issue because it is analogous to the feminist movement's struggle for women to have control of their own bodies.

Animals of both sexes suffer under institutionalized exploitation. However, the female of the species often experiences more prolonged abuse, including an ongoing cycle of forceful artificial insemination (mechanical or manual rape), physical abuse of her mammary glands, and invariably being separated from her young; all of these are emotionally brutal experiences for the female members of any species.

[Care2, 2012]

Veganism and gender

Given the legitimate, if slightly awkward, connection between feminism and veganism set out in these terms, it may surprise you that, although surveys consistently report more vegetarians being women rather than men, according to a Harris Poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, slightly more vegans in the US are men rather than women.

And it may surprise you further that, far from being compassionate vegan-feminists championing the basic rights of animals while condemning the crass exploitation of the female reproductive system... many of these men ascribe to a quite different formula -- such as that set out, for instance, by Ironman triathlete John Joseph in his wildly popular "How-To Guide for Dudes Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass, and Take Names", titled Meat Is For Pussies.

According to Joseph, as well as other Ironman, Ultraman, "Super-man" athletes such as Brendan Brazier and Rich Roll, meat is objectionable not because of any primarily ethical or emotional reasons, but because it is an unhealthy option which gets in the way of being a ripped, virile man... "one day, meat and processed foods will turn you into a feeble pussy." Meat prevents a man from Finding Ultra, to reference the title of Rich Roll's own book; Roll who is also host of the successful Rich Roll Podcast (and looks good without a shirt on).

Today, I'm vegan and a successful ultra-endurance athlete. I'm not telling you this to brag but to remind you that it's never too late to change the course of your life.... I've also clocked two top finishes at the Ultraman World Championships, one of the most gruelling endurance races on the planet.... And, fellas, vegan men are less likely to suffer from impotence...

[Huffington Post, 2013]


There are now even vegan bodybuilding competitions -- such as at Vegfest London last weekend, where the above t-shirt design was on sale along with others featuring the Playboy bunny -- and vegan bodybuilders with stage-names like Torre "ThaVeganDread" Washington. And though it may seem strange that "vegan" could be viewed as an intimidating adjective in this context, according to Pomona College professor Kyla Wazana Tompkins, "one particular group of radical food thinkers [have] advocated a kind of manliness based on vegetarianism" for more than a hundred years.

According to Tompkins, "the act of eating... performs a kind of vulnerability to the world," revealing a fundamental dependence on that which exists outside the body. And it is in this sense that veganism can be masculinised: real men don't eat meat because real men don't need to eat meat. Real men are self-sufficient, in total control of their bodies; they don't need to eat other animals in order to survive.

Of course by no means are all men turning vegan simply to prove that they are real men, and former heavyweight boxing world-champion David Haye for instance has expressed sincere concerns over the practices of intensive livestock farming.

"I watched a TV documentary about how animals are farmed, killed and prepared for us to eat," he explains, shaking his head. "I saw all those cows and pigs and realised I couldn't be a part of it any more. It was horrible."

[The Independent, 2014]

But this fails to negate the fact that veganism is being justified and branded in clearly gendered, even sexist ways -- which is extremely ironic given its popularity among feminist groups.

Moving forward?

Emma Watson recently won much well-deserved applause for her speech at the United Nations in support of the HeForShe campaign, in which she called for men to help dismantle many of the sexist prejudices of modern society. She said that feminism was not about "us" and "them"; "men" versus "women": that gender comprised not a binary but a spectrum, which should allow men to be less afraid of being compassionate at the same time that it allowed women equal right to be authoritative or strong.

We don't often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don't have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won't feel compelled to be submissive. If men don't have to control, women won't have to be controlled.

[Emma Watson, 2014]

And it is in this sense that veganism can provide a uniquely powerful framework -- for reconsidering not just animal-human inequalities, but gender inequalities too... By focusing on commonalities across species and gender lines, on the acceptability of compassion for animals as a legitimate emotion for both women and men, vegans may be able to constructively contribute not just to issues of animal welfare, but also to the HeForShe campaign set out so humbly by Emma Watson last week.