Twenty Years of “The Sexual Politics of Meat:” An Interview With Carol J. Adams
The unquestioned vegan bible, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, celebrates twenty years in print this year with the release of an updated anniversary edition. At the same time, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management released research detailing the continued link between meat-eating and gender role stereotypes, i.e., real men still don‘t eat quiche. David Gal, professor of marketing, and graduate student James Wilkie asked men and women to choose between foods that were deemed “masculine,” such as meat and hearty portions, and “feminine” foods, e.g., vegetables and fish. Men chose the masculine foods more often, especially given more time to choose and when masculinity was threatened. In an age that The Atlantic has dubbed “the end of men,” the message of The Sexual Politics of Meat is needed more than ever. In this two part interview, author Carol J. Adams reflects upon the book’s life and it’s interweaving with her own in the vegan community.
The feminist-vegetarian critical theory (referred to in the subtitle) of The Sexual Politics of Meat is comprised of three main points:
1) A link exists between meat eating and notions of masculinity and virility in the Western world. Meat eating societies enhance male identification food choice; creating and recreating an experience of male bonding in various male-identified locations, such as steak houses, fraternities, strip clubs, or (domesticated) at a barbecue. Within this sexual politics, vegetables represent passivity, and so vegetarianism is construed as acceptable for women and anyone associated with women.
2) Animals are the absent referents in the consumption of meat. The concept of “absent referent” originates with linguistics, indicating language that refers to something not present. Behind every meal of “meat” is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the “meat” takes. Without animals there would be no meat eating, yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed, and relabeled, as food. Animals in name, and body, are made absent as animals for meat to exist. Cultural linguistic custom entails calling meat from cows “beef,” not “cow,” hence removing the animal of the cow from our minds. The function of the absent referent is to allow for the moral abandonment of a being –while also emptying violence from the language.
3) Violence against animals cannot be understood without a feminist analysis, because this violence is embedded within patriarchal culture. The process of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption connects women and animals in a patriarchal culture, as each becomes overlapping absent referents. This cycle of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption links butchering with both the representation and reality of sexual violence in Western cultures. To highlight the experience of subjugation of female animals, The Sexual Politics of Meat coined the term “feminized protein,” (plant protein produced through the abuse of the reproductive cycle of female animals, i.e., dairy and eggs).
Dunnewold: What has surprised you the most about the process of writing The Sexual Politics of Meat?
Adams: I had the original idea for The Sexual Politics of Meat in October 1974, but the book was not published until 1990. When I initially talked about the underlying link between a patriarchal society and meat-eating, there were a few people who got it. But the majority of people laughed. It wasn’t just that as a writer I led a solitary life; I led a lonely life. I almost exiled myself, to western New York, and became an activist. Those years as an activist in the women’s movement, in particular working with victims of domestic violence and resettled migrant workers, taught me how to have a voice—and why.
During that time, the idea of a connection between meat eating and a patriarchal world would simply not let go of me. My task was to figure out what to say and how to say it. I had to learn how to be a writer. After years of incubating the idea, figuring out how to say it, and battling self-doubt, it was a major surprise that when the book was published, suddenly, I was not just a writer. I was an author. And I’d had no idea what it was like to be an author.
Dunnewold: How do you see the difference?
Adams: An author is a public person. An author has readers. I had a relationship with people I’d never met. People I’d imagined reading The Sexual Politics of Meat suddenly truly existed in the flesh. There were other people who got it!
During those years of “exile”, I was figuring out how to argue with the predominant culture in a way that could be heard. Not until ’87 did I realize how angry I was. I had to get rid of this anger, or no one would want to read it. Who wants to read a complaint? I needed a beguiling way to invite the reader in. In a book about consumption, I can’t force feed the reader. I had to trust the reader; I had to make my words work. As an author I discovered that I really did have readers, and it was right to trust them.
Early on, I was uncomfortable when people said, “I love your book.” I wanted to give them something in return, so I would say “tell me about you.” It probably took me fifteen years of being an author to learn simply to say “thank you.” “Thank you for having the openness to trust my words.”
Right away after the book was published, I began to get letters, now emails and Facebook posts, saying, “your book changed my life.” The experience of meeting my readers has overwhelmed me, though I am surprised by the degree to which people react to the book, such as the young man at Harvard who whispered “I can’t believe I’m sitting so close to her” or religious studies graduate students moved to tears to meet me. I perceive myself as just another human being. I’m honored that others trust my words. I try to eliminate the space that this idolization creates between my readers and me. That’s not the kind of author I want to be.
What an incredible gift readers give me, in letting my ideas influence how they live. When given this gift of trust in me as an author, I don’t want to betray that trust by accepting any hierarchy or authority. I try to knock it down, to equalize, to accept this gift of a relationship with them. I only knew the book from the inside out, but my readers gave me a perspective on my work from the outside in.
Just two weeks after the book appeared, a reader sent me an image illustrating the theory. Since then, I’ve received hundreds of images. In the first edition, there were only two images demonstrating the interconnection of oppression of women and the other animals. Now, I’ve received T-shirts, advertisements, menus, matchbooks—with sexist and speciest phrases, examples of the premise of the book. This ephemera surrounds us all the time, and deadens us to how we look at women or domesticated animals. With the publication of the book, the ephemera stopped being ephemera and became examples. People around the world responded, sending images from Romania, from Canada, from Australia. I simply had never anticipated this response.
I thought, after publication of the book, that I would be done engaging with this idea. I thought I had said everything I had to say. But my readers showed me that I wasn’t done. The images they sent raised questions: “Why are all the pigs in ads white? What’s going on racially? What about class distinctions?” The person who lived in my house before me had subscribed to pornography, and a pornographic flyer arrived in the mail one day. There was a picture of a woman on all fours, presenting her buttocks, and she is looking over her shoulder. The very next day, I received a picture in the mail of a billboard in Atlanta, “Hamtastic” showing an advertisement for pigmeat. The pig was positioned just like the woman in that pornography. That image is still widely used in the South. I realized that positioning animals in this way was an encoded way of talking to pornography users. I call that the “come hither/rear entry” pose; the animal is saying “I want to be consumed,” as if to be eaten is meeting the pig’s needs. It was from readers’ responses to the book, and the images they sent me, images like “Hamtastic,” that The Sexual Politics of Meat Slideshow was born. Prior to 1996, I simply talked about the interconnections when addressing audiences. Then a reader suggested that I put the images I had used in my books (Neither Man nor Beast had appeared in 1994) into a slide show, illustrating and expanding upon the theory in the books.
Then, with the creation of the slide show, my theory evolved, and I wrote The Pornography of Meat. The slide show is continually evolving, as I collect images, and track new trends (with the same old themes, sadly), and I’ve now shown it on more than 120 campuses and around the world.
I think of a quote from Jane Goodall about her dedication to her work. She said she was paying back, in part, the debt owed to the chimpanzee. After all these years, I realize that I will never be done engaging with issues around animals. My debt to animals–how they’ve gone before me, how they’ve saved me, how they live (and so many suffer) now–that debt is always ongoing. But the difference is I’m not alone any more.
Dunnewold: What is the point from the book that has been most misunderstood?
Adams: There are two key points. When the book first was released, I was often asked, especially by TV hosts in Texas, “Are you saying that if I eat a hamburger I’ll beat my wife?” As if A leads directly to B, cause and effect. What I am saying is that in a patriarchal world women are animalized and animals are sexualized. It is interconnected; it permeates our viewpoint; it’s a systemic problem. We can’t have one–or stop one, without stopping the other. I know from working with battered women that animals often are injured as part of the control a batterer exercises. It’s about control, which might get expressed by demanding meat to eat, within that couple and within our culture. But I never claimed, and don’t believe, that eating a hamburger causes one to beat his wife. I do believe that someone who believes he needs to eat hamburger, who has to restore a sense of his manhood by eating male-identified foods, tells us a great deal about our culture’s teachings about men and virility. And I also believe that if a batterer kills an animal, the woman is in danger and should seek help.
The second misconception is that it’s okay for women to just eat vegetables and still cook meat for their partners. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every woman who has said “I’d be a vegetarian if I didn’t have to cook meat for my husband.” In terms of food preparation, women are taught to deny their own desires; they are taught that they must meet their husbands’ desires. Women need to know they can be equipped to honor their own desires and educate the men in their lives to change. I loved the story one reader related, a young woman in Michigan. She fell in love with a young man from the Southwest. He wanted to marry her. She asked him to read The Sexual Politics of Meat before she would accept his proposal. She wanted him to understand her worldview. He read the book and became a vegan. He moved to Michigan and they had a vegan wedding. I loved that the book was a tool for that kind of creative negotiation.
This is part one in a two part interview with Carol J. Adams.
Click on the following links to purchase Carol J. Adams’s books:
Reprinted with permission from Conducive Chronicle
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