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Only You Can Stop Men who Hurt Women from also Harming Animals

I’ve been wrestling with what to do with 17 years worth of stories of sexual harassment and assault within the animal and vegan advocacy movements, most of which were told to me in confidence but which cumulatively put me in possession of information that ought to be public, at least within our movements. I think I’ve figured out a way to say what needs to be said that is actionable without compromising anyone’s privacy or expectations of confidentiality, so here goes:

WHAT WE KNOW

1. Sexual harassment and assault are at least as common within vegan and animal advocacy as within other realms of human endeavor, and possibly more so.

If nothing else, the recent deluge of public disclosures demonstrates that sexual harassment and assault are so endemic in the wider culture that we must presume such abuses to be prevalent in any field of endeavor that has not made an explicit effort to prevent them. The vegan and animal rights movements have made no such effort. So, we must presume that sexual harassment and assault within animal and vegan advocacy is at least as prevalent as they are in any other realm… and that is very prevalent.

The late Marti Kheel often argued that sexual harassment and assault are even more prevalent within our movement than elsewhere. I used to disagree with her, having known of plenty of violations in other movements in which I’ve participated, but lately I have been coming around to her point of view. I can think of a number of characteristics of vegan and animal rights organizations and events that might make sexual harassment or assault even more prevalent than the norm, and maybe you can too.

As a visible feminist in the movement, I am someone to whom survivors of sexual assault or harassment sometimes come for empathy or advice. I have literally lost count of the number of activists who have disclosed to me some injury done to them by a man in the movement. In addition to such direct disclosures, I have also heard from friends of survivors looking for advice about how to help their friend and from other feminists who have invited me, with the permission of the survivor, to help brainstorm solutions in specific situations.

I haven’t always been told the names of the men, but those I know I have never forgotten. Some seem to be one-time offenders, but others — including several very prominent men in the movement — are serial perpetrators who get away with it again and again either because they use threats of lawsuits or of physical violence to gain the silence of survivors or because their victims have been convinced (or have convinced themselves) to stay silent “for the animals” or for any of the other reasons women choose not to subject themselves to public scrutiny of what might have been one of the most humiliating experiences of their lives.

These are men whose names you know. They work for organizations to which you have donated. If you’ve even attended a national animal rights conference, you’ve applauded for more than one of them.

2. These violations span the spectrum of violence against women.

Here are the kinds of violations that women have told me have been done to them within the context of their work for animal liberation and/or veganism:

A. Workplace sexual harassment at non-profits, including propositions from supervisors, “handsy” male supervisors, being tricked into viewing pornography, and being directed to dress in a sexually provocative and stereotypically feminine manner while leafleting or otherwise interacting with the public.

B. Sexual harassment within grassroots organizations, including persistent unwanted advances from male group members, stalking, and threats of murder by rejected suitors.

C. Harassment and assaults perpetrated by strangers encountered at movement events, including unwanted sexual remarks, persistent unwanted advances, curses or threats following the rejection of advances, and groping.

D. Violence perpetrated by male partners who were or had been coworkers or fellow organization members, including sexual assault, battering, stalking, and threats of murder.

3. These violations hurt survivors and impair their ability to work for animals.

Like survivors in other realms, women who have encountered “routine” sexual harassment at vegan or animal rights workplaces or events experience a range of reactions, including feelings of humiliation, rage, confusion, frustration, and helplessness. None of these, needless to say, makes their work on behalf of animals easier.

Imagine that you are attending the national animal rights conference on behalf of your organization or simply to become a more skilled activist. In the crowded exhibit hall, a man brushing past you grabs your buttocks and squeezes. Will you be able to continue to browse the exhibits, learning along the way, or will your nervous system now be so flooded with adrenaline that you are shaking? Will you be able to concentrate at all that day, or will your mind keep replaying the incident as you ask yourself how you should have responded and whether you should do something now?

Imagine that you are working late with your boss at a major animal-oriented nonprofit, scrambling to finish an important project with a hard deadline. He propositions you crudely. Insulted, you reject him curtly. He lets it drop and returns to the task at hand but now your heart is racing and you cannot concentrate. As the night wears on you worry that you will lose your job because you said no. Will you be able to sleep that night? Will you be your usual competent self the next morning? Will you even want to continue working there anymore?

Like survivors in other realms, women who have survived sexual assault or other forms of intimate partner violence within the vegan and animal advocacy movements experience a range of reactions including PTSD, suicidal depression, difficulty trusting people, and profound lack of confidence in themselves. All of these, it shouldn’t be necessary for me to say, inhibit their ability to be effective advocates for animals.

I will not ask you to imagine these scenarios. Instead, I will tell you that I have heard from at least a dozen survivors who have felt compelled to leave organizations or even leave town to get away from men in the movement who were stalking them or whose past violence made it impossible to continue to work with them. Again: You would recognize the names of many of these organizations and of many of these men. In some instances, the survivors have joined new groups while avoiding national events at which they might encounter the perpetrator. In many instances, women have dropped out of the movement altogether.

I am stressing the impact of these all-too-common incidents on the work of the survivor not in order to discount the impact on her herself — those harms are real and really worth our empathy — but because women in the movement are too often told that they must refrain from reporting or complaining about such behavior “for the animals.” The implicit assumption here is that whatever work the perpetrator may be doing “for the animals” is far more important than whatever work the survivor may be doing. The idea here is that she must stumble on in silence, despite her impaired ability to do the work, in order to preserve his self-evidently more valuable ability to do the work. If push comes to shove, she must go so that he can stay. We must reject that notion, not only because it is both inaccurate and unfair but also because it leads to a situation wherein men who aggress women have more say-so in the movement than do the women who are doing the bulk of the work in the movement.

4. These violations hurt nonhuman animals not only by weakening organizations and driving talented activists out of the movement but also by elevating the ideas and tactics of men whose own behavior demonstrates callous disregard for suffering and lack of respect for female animals.

For all of my heartfelt empathy with survivors, I must admit that the element of this situation that causes me the most grief is the knowledge that men who have violated women are right now charting the course of the animal rights movement.

This seems to me self-evidently problematic, but I know that other people imagine “personal” behavior to be irrelevant to a man’s ideas or leadership abilities, so let me spell out just a few of the problems I see:

  • Sexual harassment, assault, and other forms of violence against women are evidence of a profound lack of empathy for others. In my view, the aims of the animal liberation movement must be rooted in empathy with animals and, because it is more or less impossible to change something you cannot understand, our strategies and tactics must be founded in some degree of empathy with the people whose behavior we hope to change.
  • Virtually every form of animal exploitation depends upon forced reproduction. I personally do not trust men who have violated women to adequately respect or ably represent the interests of hens, sows, cows, mares, and other female animals who are sexually violated at farms, zoos, vivisection labs, and other sites.
  • Every form of animal exploitation depends upon the presumption that humans may do whatever they like to the bodies of nonhuman animals without regard for the wishes of those animals. This is not very different from the presumption that men may do what they like to the bodies of women without regard for the wishes of those women. Therefore, I do not trust men who have violated women to adequately respect or ably represent the interests of any nonhuman animals.
  • Effective leadership requires listening. The most effective organizations are those in which cooperative problem-solving, creative brainstorming, and other forms of collective cognition are operative. Men who commit sexual harassment and assault are men who don’t listen to women. At minimum, this means that they may discount, or even literally not hear, good ideas (or warnings about bad ideas) from women on their teams. At worst, women at the workplaces or grassroots organizations such men control or dominate may be interrupted, belittled, mocked, ignored, and/or talked over until they give up altogether. In this way, the animals for whom we purport to advocate miss out on vital ideas and energy while the aims and tactics of animal advocacy become more and more skewed toward the often callous and manipulative ideas of men who are callous and manipulative.
  •  Many people see the promotion of respect and compassion as important components of vegan and animal advocacy. I do not believe that men who have neither respect nor compassion for women are capable of figuring out how to promote compassion and respect in others.

In summary, the behavior of some men in the movement has led some women in the movement to be compromised in  their ability to do the work, or even to drop out altogether, while the remaining women often work within organizations where their ideas are not sufficiently heard. Over time, this has led some of the most perniciously problematic men to gain more and more power and influence. At present, men who have sexually harassed or otherwise violated women occupy leadership positions at several major organizations. Their disrespect for women undermines the efficacy of those organizations while their collective callousness inflects the strategies and tactics of the movement, to the detriment of the nonhuman animals for whom the movement purportedly exists.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

It might seem that there’s nothing to be done if I or Carol Adams or lauren Ornelas or any of the other well-known feminists in the movement can’t tell you the names of the men whose aggressions have been disclosed to us in confidence. But, in truth, there’s quite a lot you can do to undermine the culture of casual disrespect for and violence against women that has come to characterize the vegan and animal rights movements. Here are a few:

1. Quit adulating animal rights “heroes”

Right now, this minute, today, quit adulating any man in the vegan and animal advocacy movements. You may admire his work. You may like and agree with his ideas. You may be inspired by his personal story. But you must not adore, revere, or otherwise attribute heroic, romantic, or godlike attributes to him. To the contrary, you must make a conscious effort to use your critical thinking skills when assessing his ideas and suggestions, so as to counteract any tendency you might have to accord him your unthinking agreement.

How is this fair and why is it important? Decent activists who are doing good and important work do not need your adoration and may indeed be made uncomfortable by it. They like it when you think hard about what they say and push back against any weak points. It’s only the creeps for whom the admiration of others is like oxygen. You might be surprised by how many of them cannot tolerate even something as little as a woman not smiling at them. Deprive them of excessive praise and adoring eyes and they will go elsewhere for their fix.

If you’re worried about parity, then by all means quit adulating female activists too! Truly effective activism requires a modicum of modesty, and it wouldn’t hurt the struggle at all if all of the narcissists stopped roping animals into their ego-driven quests for admiration.

While we’re at it, could we maybe rethink the star-struck tenor of much of the animal rights movement? Yes, yes, I understand the utility of sometimes asking celebrities to use their platforms to advocate for animals or demonstrate the deliciousness of veganism. But this has somehow morphed into a kind of celebrity culture within the animal rights movement itself, in which “conferences” consist of movement “stars” pontificating to the masses rather than peers conferring with each other. Since more than a few of those “stars” are men known to have aggressed women, doing away with star system altogether would solve more than one problem.

2. Listen to the women who are doing the work.

But how will we know what to do if the stars don’t tell us? In every community, there are grassroots activists, mostly women, who have been advocating for animals and promoting veganism for years if not decades. Collectively, they know far more about what most urgently needs to be done, what has or hasn’t worked so far, and what untapped opportunities there might be for future action wherever it is you happen to be.

You may be one of those women. If so, we need you to find your voice. Right now. Sit down with a scratch pad and start jotting down the things you’ve learned from each of the animal rights or vegan projects in which you’ve participated. Going forward, make a practice of reflecting on lessons learned after every event and at every step in every campaign. Invite your comrades to do the same, and think about writing up anything you learn locally that might be useful for people in other places.

Listen to men who have been doing the work too, but learn the mental trick of counter-balancing tone. Without thinking about it, you might be inclined to take as true anything stated in a tone of certainty while looking skeptically upon anything said in a questioning tone. Instead, use extreme skepticism when evaluating statements made with great certainty and learn to see a questioning tone as a sign that the speaker is thinking critically and engaging in dialogue.

3. Reject speciesism.

Do you remember the movement drama over the question of “enriched” cages for hens in egg factories? If not, that’s OK, the details don’t matter. What matters is that the whole controversy arose when a group of men, more than one of whom I know to have harassed or otherwise violated women, decided that they knew better than anybody else what would be best for female birds kept captive so that their reproductive capabilities could be exploited. Predictably, the followers of another man, well known for his public contempt for feminists, took the exact opposite viewpoint. Lost in the shouting were the hens themselves, since none of the women with years of experience caring for hens at sanctuaries were consulted by either side on the question of what hens themselves might like us to do.

That unhappy episode leads us to the next thing you can do about sexism in the vegan and animal liberation movements: Reject speciesism. When we advocate for nonhuman animals without asking ourselves what they would like us to do, that’s speciesism as well as human hubris. One characteristic that I have noticed among almost all of the men who I know to be perpetrators of sexual harassment or assault is their own hubris.

I could go on and on about the linkages between sexism and speciesism and the ways that male supremacy and human supremacy (not to mention white supremacy) are linked. I could even talk, and you should read someday if you haven’t yet, about the ways that the very notion of “human” has both maleness and whiteness built in. But for now, let me just give a simple tip for deflating the egos, and undermining the pernicious influence, of the human males who have anointed themselves the leaders of the movement for the liberation of nonhuman animals: Always ask “what would the animals who might be affected by this want us to do? How do we know? What information do we need to make an informed guess?” Ask this of yourself when thinking about the things you are planning to do or say. Ask this of your comrades when they propose campaigns or particular tactics. Ask this when assessing the claims of movement leaders. Stand up at the mic during Q&A and ask this of speakers at conferences. Ask and keep asking until you have helped to co-create a movement culture founded in sincere solidarity with nonhuman animals rather than in hubristic human heroism.

4. Reject tactics that objectify or demean women.

Reject the idea that we must use sex to sell veganism. If somebody tells you that’s the only way, look at them gape-jawed with incredulity at their lack of imagination. We are asking people to completely re-imagine their diets and other central aspects of their lives. Surely, we can exercise as much creativity in our rhetoric and imagery as we do with our mock meat and cupcakes.

Reject the notion that only people who conform to gender stereotypes can be effective leafleters or otherwise interact with the public. Sincerity rather than conformity is the key to engaging strangers in potentially life-changing conversations.

Seriously question whether tactics that involve confronting people in public are the best use of your organization’s time and energy. If you do decide that confronting fur wearers or grocery shoppers is the best way to achieve your aims, institute a strict “one strike and you’re out” policy for any boy or man who uses animal rights as his excuse to scream at and humiliate women in public. Don’t wait until you are back in private. Intervene in any misogyny immediately. Even if your plan is to picket silently, have a contingency plan in place for what you will do if a boy or man in your group begins venting his rage at women while shaking an animal rights placard.

Look with great skepticism at any claimed method of assessing activist efficacy that just happens to favor the  quantifiable tactics preferred by many males while disparaging relational or care-based approaches preferred by many women, as this may be simply a disguised method of denigrating women and their contributions to the movement while channeling funds to organizations controlled by men.

5. Ask questions.

If you encounter a man who has bounced from organization to organization and from town to town, whether or not you are aware of the trail of accusations he always leaves behind, wonder about that. If he loudly professes his own feminism but feminists in the movement become silent and expressionless at the mention of his name, wonder why that might be. If he is always seen with a group of younger and conventionally attractive women in tow, wonder why that is. If he keeps starting organizations that attract such women, rather than working with men and women his own age, wonder about that. If he actively seeks to discredit and defund organizations led by women, wonder about that. If he claims that the persistent rumors of his transgressions are due to jealousy because he is such an extraordinarily effective altruist, roll your eyes at that.

If an organization that was founded by and/or is predominantly staffed by women hires a man as an executive director or any group hires a man to lead a department full of women, ask that the hiring committee explain exactly which qualifications elevated him over all of the women who might have been hired for the job. Be mindful that the movement primarily consists of women and that, therefore, the pool of applicants can also presume to have primarily consisted of women. Make sure that there WAS a hiring committee and a pool of applicants, rather than a job offer extended from one man to another. If you are or have been a donor or volunteer for that organization, don’t be shy about demanding answers from the Board of Directors or even asking the man himself to tell you what he thinks the sources of his superiority might be and how he intends to respect the women now expected to defer to him.

I am not suggesting, by the way, that such a hiring decision is never valid. I am suggesting that, given the proportion of women to men doing animals rights and vegan work, men are currently over-represented in leadership positions. This disparity is best explained by unexamined biases in our hiring practices. We need to hold organizations accountable even when it means asking uncomfortable questions. If a hire is valid, it will be possible to explain why a particular person was chosen for a particular position. If a man truly is equipped to lead any organization or team, he will be able to explain exactly how he will promote gender equity in the workplace.

There are so many more questions you could ask in so many situations! Some people, inaccurately, complain that feminists want everybody to “unquestioningly” believe every report of sexual harassment, assault, or other violence against women. But what we want is more questions: Most of the most explosive news reports on this topic we’ve seen in recent weeks have come about because reporters have begun doggedly asking questions of powerful men rather than allowing the claims of women to languish in the shadows of rumor and whispered warnings. We want more questions!

6. Embrace an Ethics of Care

What I want is for everybody to care enough — about women and about animals — to want to make our workplaces and activist organizations safe places. If you sincerely want that, and you have empathy for survivors along with a rudimentary understanding of the prevalence of violence against women, then you will listen to any report of sexual harassment or assault with an open heart. You will know, sadly, that it is probably true. Most women who speak up about such things are telling the truth, and most men who deny them are either lying or profoundly confused about what consent might be. That is the factual baseline from which any assessment of any claim must proceed.

Still, you will be aware of the slim chance of a false claim. Because you do care and would not want to be party to an injustice, you will be alert to any evidence that this particular report of an all-too-common occurrence might be untrue. If you are in some kind of decision-making capacity, you might also be looking for corroborations of the kinds we have seen in the news lately: She told her friend about it right after it happened. He texted her a vaguely worded apology the next day. Other women make similar claims about him.

You also should be wondering: What does she want now? What would justice look like to her? You might be surprised by the answer, so be sure to ask it out loud.

At the same time, I hope you will also be asking — as I have been asking myself incessantly lately — “What is my responsibility here?” If one survivor of a rapist says that she forgives him or simply doesn’t want any trouble, but you now feel uncomfortable with the degree to which his celebrity gives him access to other vulnerable young women, what should you do? There are no easy answers to such questions.

That’s why I hope that, apart from the specifics of any particular incident or perpetrator, we all will ask “What is my responsibility here?” Now you know what I know: Sexual harassment and assault, as well as other forms of violence against women, are rife within vegan and animal advocacy, and men who have perpetrated such abuses now exercise an out-sized influence within the movement. Even more than we need to hold individual men accountable, we need to change the culture of the movement.

These are just some of my ideas for doing so. My beloved comrades lauren Ornelas and Carol Adams have written their own blog posts on this subject, and I hope you will consider their ideas too.  To paraphrase Angela Davis, social change happens when regular people become collectively aware of their power to shape the cultures in which they participate. So, most of all, I hope that you will become more aware of your own power, as a participant in vegan and/or animal advocacy, to make the structure of those movements more consistent with their stated aims.

16 comments to Only You Can Stop Men who Hurt Women from also Harming Animals

  • Karen Snook
    Just thank you! I have known some of these men, and have been infuriated when other men give these predators a pass because they have not been tried in a court of law.

    I believe women. When they are brave enough to out a predator, I support them.

    I’m so very tired of those narcissistic icons that so many idolize based on some fabricated image. People are so desperate for heroes and happy endings that they refuse to scratch the surface of the pretty stories and the pretty image. People don’t want to know the truth. They want images, idols, and fantasies, but that sort of brain-dead follower type thinking will not help save the planet or other sentient beings who need us to stand up, think, learn, and do the right thing. We are so easily sold a pretty story and no due diligence is done to ensure that the pretty story is reality. More often than not, the prettier the story, the more likely it is a lie.

  • pattrice
    The late Marti Kheel used to say that it was unfair to predators to use that term to describe such men. She wasn’t joking.
  • Thank you for this thorough, honest, enlightening, and shocking editorial. It’s devastating to find out these abuses exist in such great numbers, but essential we address them now. Sharing.
  • Judy Bernstein
    Thank you for this post. I’m a member of a very small animal rights group in a small town in way upstate New York. Our group is happily egalitarian, perhaps at least in part because it’s so small. But we also easily share the power. I’ve never been involved in the big organizations, except marginally, but I have no doubt that harassment is the same there as everywhere else. I love your point about ending any adulation of high-visibility animal rights leaders.
  • Nita Ostroff
    Please, remember that men can be victims as well. A man who perceives himself to be an alpha male wants to maintain that position. Sexual harrassment is power and control far more often than it is anything else.
  • Miriam
    I am sending this around, it is so thoughtful and insightful and terribly important, expressed in a way that really gets to the heart of what is really going on. Thank you. This is the perspective that needs to be understood and shared widely, please lets do that for the sake of all impacted, and that is each and every one of us for different reasons.
  • Neva Davis
    Thank you for this, and for pointing out the role “hero worship” plays in allowing this to continue and protecting those who do harm. Some of the perpetrators have not bounced organization to organization but have been occupying prominent positions of power for years now. Some have been vocal in condemning other offenders, but not very active in changing their own attitudes and behavior. And as Nita said, it is not only women who are abused, even if they are in the majority. Likewise, it’s not always males who hurt the people working under them AND the animals entrusted to their care. No abusive behavior should be tolerated at all.
  • Penelope Low
    Thank you Patrice. I was waiting for this.
  • Barb Lomow
    Thank you for taking on this topic. Here’s just one example that highlights how self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ – who have increasingly been referred to as “Rock Stars” on more than a few organizations’ Facebook pages – are able to get away with ongoing rotten, narcissistic behavior: an August 2017 “Glass Door” review from an anonymous current employee in the HSUS Gaithersburg MD office states:

    “There is an old boys club here that allows sexual harrassment to go unchecked, and one VP was even promoted to get him out of the dept where 8 women came forward about sexual pressure. Unacceptable.”

    The accusations were obviously taken seriously enough that action against the perpetrator was finally taken, but why was he rewarded with a promotion instead of being fired?

  • pattrice
    Barb, I think I know the answer to that question.
  • Barb Lomow
    Unfortunately, pattrice, I think I know the answer, too. It has something to do with having friends in high places providing protection…
  • Great entry, thank you for putting this all together in an organized and accessible way.

    If any survivors/victims are reading this, please know we’re thinking of you and support you.

  • SF
    I really appreciate this, especially the thoughts on not attributing godlike qualities to male animal rights activists. Its’ so true: those who are worth listening to will not want to be adored, and will want critical feedback. Those who thrive on adoration and turn their nose and laugh at all other ideas and groups are narcissists. We don’t need ego-driven celebrity-esque leaders who want nothing more than to stand a podium or address crowds with a megaphone while the camera rolls, obsessed with their social media brand and image. We need a culture of critical thinking, of peer-to-peer idea generation. We need a culture of questioning those men who claim to know, with certainty, what’s best for animals, and promote their philosophies as though they were religious prophets with holy scripture. I really couldn’t agree more with everything you said here. Thank you for writing this.

    The comments about men bouncing from organization to organization / town to town are really quite chilling. And made me think… I really do think the radical left harbors sexual predators in such a particular way. We’re asked to think, “these men are compassionate, and are working to rid themselves of their own socialization!” and to overlook that in reality, many of these men are using their position to attract women who think they must be better than the men out in the rest of the world. We’re supposed to justify their histories of harassment because “they’re reformed now,” or because “they’re doing good.” We’re asked to avoid stirring up a commotion because there’s so few of us who care for animals, and we can’t afford to lose these men, no matter what they’ve done. We’re asked to reform them, to restore them.

    Yet it’s no coincidence that we value the abusive men for what good they supposedly bring to the movement more than the women’ they’re scaring away, and to the extent that restorative justice is taken, it only ever restores the men to their positions of power. The women who put forth accusations are rarely applauded for their bravery. No one wants to believe that the “compassionate vegan man” could really have committed the acts that he did indeed commit. You slap a “vegan” pin on him, and suddenly people think he must be a saint, so reformed and compassionate it no longer matters what he might have done, what he might be doing behind closed doors.

    You’d think, as animal rights activists, we’d know better than to just believe a nice sounding label without questioning further.

    Anyway, thank you for writing this. It’s so important.

  • Di Lamont
    Thank you.
  • Jessica
    Thanks, pattrice!

    These organizations should have sexual harassment prevention training (assuming, it’s seriously instituted, and not for show). Everyone would benefit: women, minorities, and the animals would benefit for reasons mentioned in other posts. Even offenders and the organizations would benefit, although they may not know it yet. They would not have to worry about their ruined reputations by allegations.

    If the perpetrators are who I suspect they are, I lost respect for them about 10 years ago when they sold out.

  • Zoe Masongsong
    Very clearly put. Thinking outside the box.

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