Melissa kindly mentions my new book here, and notes I've never discussed how PeTA objectifies women. She discusses the issue here. So what about it?
I've tried to mind, but the truth is I don't...or not a lot. But just to be clear: I also don't strongly object to other PeTA tactics that are ethically impure. For example, I can't work up much sweat over the way PeTA harrasses fur-wearers or sends undercover investigators into factory farms under false pretenses. That's not to say I am attracted to their celebrity skin campaigns or would get involved in their street theater (the Humane Society is more my style), but I don't object. (Where the undercover investigations are concerned I'll go much further--they're great.)
Should I object? I got to thinking about this more after having lunch with Carol Adams in November. She's well known for several books that characterize animal abuse and sexism as linked oppressions, including The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat. After talking to her, I was a bit more sensitized to the issue.
In fact, soon afterward I accidentally ran into some PeTA porn. I had bought a sweater and realized it contained angora rabbit fur when I got home. I decided to investigate how the rabbits are treated and then return the sweater if necessary. When I googled some relevant terms, I wound up at a PeTA site that showed a young woman cuddling a soft, cute rabbit against her naked breast. Plus there was information about rabbit fur farms. (I'd publish the photo, but I can't seem to find it again.)
My response was to feel misunderstood. I wanted to know about rabbits, not about the bunny-breast dyad, if you see what I mean. It was as if PeTA had heard of guys interested in the bunny-breast dyad, but not middle aged women (gulp) who worry about cruelty to rabbits. Why were they privileging the guys' perspective? It also seemed likely the breast in the picture would distract from the bunny. You come to the site with one part of the brain lit up, and suddenly there's a power surge somewhere else. Ahem.
I raised these question about invisibility, objectification, and distraction with my Animal Rights class, which happened to be dominated by women last semester, and did my best to get a feminist reaction out of them. To my surprise, only about a third of the class thought there was a problem with PeTA's use of skin in their campaigns, but two thirds didn't. People did seem to agree at least about the distraction point.
Is there really anything wrong with publicizing animal abuse by using women's (and less often men's) bodies? And why does PeTA do this, to begin with? I take it that attracting skin-seekers to the PeTA website is just one of the goals. Probably more important is the goal of making concern for animals seem glamorous and sexy. It's not just men who want to be involved in things that are glamorous and sexy, but women too. Men's magazines are full of skin, but so are women's magazines. (And so are good liberal websites like the Huffington Post.)
Is there a problem with women posing for pictures with rabbits pressed to their bare breasts? If they were forced into it, there would obviously be a big problem. If they choose to do so, that helps a great deal. Still, we can worry about the choice. I do have concerns about the impact it has on women to regard themselves as being valued more for their bodies than their brains. Then again, is that really the message? Many of my female students said "pshaw" (or something like that) when I threw that out as a possibility. And let's admit, Ingrid Newkirk is the biggest PeTA celebrity there is. And she isn't getting naked with rabbits.
The bottom line is that I like the results that PeTA achieves. We live in a society where unspeakable things are done to millions of animals, day in and day out. I see PeTA activists as being like a gang of tiny elves trying to influence a massive giant. To get the giant's attention, they throw little rocks, say wild things, and take off their clothes. And amazingly enough, it works! The pay off is animals saved from abuse, suffering reduced, a more informed population. Their ethical crimes are rather trivial, considering what they have been able to achieve.
But why commit any ethical crimes or misdemeanors? Carol Adams asked me--"do the ends justify the means?" Who would want to say that the ends always justify the means, that X is always justified, if X leads to a very good Y? Not me. However, I think it's true that an action can sometimes be inherently problematic, ethically speaking, and yet justifiable as a means to achieving a very great good. There are tons of examples.
Kant's famous case of the inquiring murderer: if a murderer comes to the door and asks if his wife is on the premises, do you lie? Of course you do, even if that's inherently problematic. It's worth the lie to save the woman's life. It's worth telling a lie for much less serious reasons too. In today's "Ethicist" column, Randy Cohen talks about someone who lost his insurance because he truthfully reported occasionally smoking pot on a health questionnaire. With hindsight we've got to say it would have been fine for him to lie.
The bigger the potential gain, the more that indiscretions can be justified. So I don't think PeTA should automatically be condemned if some of their tactics are ethically impure. What I do wonder about is which of their tactics are effective. How important are the sex ads? Could they be even more successful by adopting a tamer Humane Society style? I don't know for sure, but I'm not prepared to wave my magic wand and make them change their ways.
All that being said, I'm a consumer of animal abuse information--in fact, I'd call myself a pretty big buyer. So PeTA should care about my reactions. When I want to learn about rabbit abuse I just want to learn about rabbit abuse. I prefer the way the Humane Society (for example) sticks to the subject at hand. I personally don't want to be distracted or titillated.
As to the rabbit facts: I read (at a different website, though PeTA does have lots of information) that 90% of "angora rabbits" are housed in factory-farm style in China. It all sounded pretty revolting, so I returned the sweater.