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?

Join the Conversation

  • Sarah Dropek

    “Why does that disapproval dissipate when a “cause”, any cause, comes into the picture?”

    Maybe we should throw around consent as a concept along with the means to an end argument. COuld it be that disapproval dissipates when a cause is in the picture because we, as a viewing audience, see the women who participate in the photoshoots and ad campaigns as more consenting to the objectification.
    This would require a lot on the part of the audience conceptualizing the objectification so i may be being too charitable to them here, but maybe, in viewing we come to see the woman participating as knowingly objectifying herself because she understands it as a sad fact that that’s still the most efficient way to turn heads and get people to pay attention to the cause itself.
    I don’t know. I might just be trying to hard here. But would the woman be being used strictly as a means to an end if she was getting some sort of emotional benefit from her objectification in that she is helping a cause she believes in?
    Eek, this is confusing territory indeed. Love the post :)

    • Subhra B

      Thanks Sarah. Much appreciate your comment. Consent is indeed the most baffling part of this. So let me talk through a couple of points with you just to clear my own thinking on this.

      The first thing is that if perceived consent were the reason for dissipation of disapproval, then societies would not disapprove of adult pornography or strip clubs. Indeed, a lot of celebrities pose for Playboy for free. The consent is clearly there in each of these cases.

      Second, I hear you when you say that the willingness to be dehumanized may be associated with the emotional benefits of helping the cause – what economists call the “warm glow”. That might partly be the case. But if warm glow was alone the reason then there are many ways to contribute money, time and voice to a cause. There is a lot that a celebrity can do.

      Sometimes I wonder, and I may be completely off track on this one – but here’s a possibility. Movie stars and models get large returns from being perceived as objects of desire. Thus they get large dividends out of being objectified. Stripping for a cause gives them an excuse to go all out in courting the male gaze without being subject to the societal disapproval that comes with it. Just a conjecture.

      Thanks again for reading and engaging with me on the topic.

  • honeybee

    I always thought that objectification was really only possible if there was no consent. If you agree or even WANT to be looked at a sex object, can it still be objecification?

    I’ve always enjoyed, occasionally, dressing up really slutty/sexy to garner male attention from time to time. When I do this, I WANT random guys to check me out and find me attraction. Not only am I consenting but I am actively desiring this to happen to me. Am I still being objectified in this case?

    I don’t think I am, but even if I am, it certainly isn’t problematic since it was the desired outcome from a consensual and conscious choice on my part.

    • natasha

      When you dress sexy, do you want men to find you attractive, or do you want them to see you as an object? I don’t think attraction and sexual objectification are the same thing. You can find someone attractive, and still respect them as a human being. You can’t with objectification, objectification solely appreciates the external at the expense of the internal. A woman objectified is not being seen as a person, but a toy, to be used for another’s pleasure, and her mind, her feelings, her life are beside the point, they don’t matter. Objectification then becomes a part of rape culture, because it contributes to an entitlement of women’s bodies, and consent doesn’t matter, because she is not seen as a person.

      I doubt that wanting men to be attracted to you is you wanting all of this. Even if you do want that, I think it’s still objectification. But, either way, it’s important to point out that yours is a personal thing, rather than being seen on a national or international scale in the media, like the PETA ads.

      • honeybee

        No it’s not attraction it’s objectification. Because I’m married and don’t actually want to get with any of these strange men. I don’t even want to talk to them or know anything about them, and I’d prefer they didn’t know anything about me.

        Whether they consider me a person or an object TO ME depends on what type of person they are. When I checkout hot guys on the street or on tv or anywhere else, guys who I’ve never met and know nothing about, I still know they are a human being yet by many definitions I am objectifying them. B/c I’m only interested in their appearance and don’t care about anything else.

        So whether they see me as a person or an object is really up to them.

        Same as when they look at those PETA ads, they have a choice as to see the person as a human being or as an object. Just b/c it’s an add doesn’t automatically make it one or the other. It’s all based on the attitude of the viewer. Which is why I don’t think sexy pics are neccessarily objectification b/c it depends on the audience.

        • Subhra B

          “they have a choice as to see the person as a human being or as an object. … It’s all based on the attitude of the viewer. Which is why I don’t think sexy pics are neccessarily objectification b/c it depends on the audience.”

          I hear you honeybee. But let’s push this argument a little further. By extension, pornography is not objectification either, if the person viewing it feels interested in the woman as a human being. Or the man frequenting strip clubs could say that he always asks the women about their family – so it cannot be objectification. That cannot be right. I suspect the devil is in the nuances. Thanks for bringing this up.