PETA, the greater good, and the dispensable woman

A couple of months back People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the animal rights group, announced its plan to launch a porn website that will also feature cruelty to animals. The connection between pornography and animal rights may seem far-fetched to some, but not to those aware of PETA’s campaign methods. It uses celebrity nudes and partial-nudes to promote awareness on vegetarianism and cruelty to animals. The celebrities who strip for PETA are usually women.

I am a vegetarian, having struggled for several years to give up meat before I could give it up. I gave in many times. Much as killing and cruelty bothered me, it was hard to give up meat when I loved its taste so much. A life event, together with the health benefits of vegetarianism was what made it stick for me ultimately. Naked women, with their perfect bodies strategically covered with vegetables did not figure into the equation at all – one way or another. But they did often make me wonder if women figure below animals in PETA’s hierarchy of life forms.

Even as I noticed the objectification of women in the campaigns, I also noticed that these apparently empowered women with voices and visibility did not mind being thus objectified. Many of them posed for free. Women who wouldn’t do it for the Playboy magazine did it for PETA. So while news of PETA’s new porn venture did not come as a complete surprise, it did require that I sort through my mixed feelings more systematically.

What is it that distinguishes PETA’s print ads from Playboy’s centerfolds? Apart from the difference in degrees of exposure, the primary difference between the two is that PETA does it for a cause (pun intended). To be fair though, PETA is not alone in objectifying women for a cause. Even a casual search online brings up numerous instances of celebrities and non-celebrities stripping for one cause or another. The beneficiaries of bareback celebrity support include campaigns for vegetarianism, cancer research and support, same-sex marriage, while non-celebrities have bared – usually to lesser degrees – for food banks and veterans.

The causes are doubtless charitable but they are promoted by objectifying women. Some campaigns seek to deliberately horrify or titilate, depending on your point of view. A case in point is the Women in Cages campaign for PETA which features women celebrities in the nude confined in dog cages. The photographs are uniformly degrading and occasionally violent by implication.

This brings up two primary questions. First, why is alright to objectify women to promote a good cause? Second, what does it say about a society that is more tolerant of PETA’s campaigns than the activities of the Playboy magazine? This is a society that through its censorship of media and strictures on availability of pornography, at least appears to disapprove of women being objectified. Why does that disapproval dissipate when a “cause”, any cause, comes into the picture? This speaks to the broader question of means versus ends.

The means versus ends debate derives its edge from situations, hypothetical or real, where a larger objective that is unquestionably good, can be achieved only by means that are partly or wholly unethical or immoral. The key is that the bigger objective cannot be achieved without the ethical compromises. The dilemma loses its edge in situations where the means (objectification of women) are neither necessary not sufficient for achieving the greater objective (ethical treatment of animals, replenishment of food banks). Then what makes objectification of women, acceptable when it is associated with a greater end that it may or may not contribute to? Consider the following hypothetical scenarios for perspective.

An advocacy group engages in public events of cruelty to animals to promote awareness of domestic violence. A group of well-meaning individuals decide to sell cigarettes in schools, colleges and country fairs to raise funds for famine-relief in Ethiopia. A tabloid publishes a series of scandalous falsehoods about some celebrities and donates the revenues to cancer research. In each case the end is noble and the means are generally not acceptable by themselves. Would we be more accepting of cruelty to animals, sale of cigarettes to youngsters and libel because they each contribute to a greater purpose? Likely not.

It may be tempting to close the case here with the verdict that we are a society of hypocrites who under their pretenses of civility really view women as commodities. To give into that temptation would shut the door on a more difficult and interesting question. Why are these apparently empowered women willing accessories to the systematic dehumanization of women? Why are they willing to be photographed in inhumanly degrading positions (inside dog cages, with marks of violence on them or labeled like meat) when they could well contribute to the cause of their choice in numerous other ways?

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