Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Witnessing Against Violence: 25 Years After The Sexual Politics of Meat

An hourlong teleconference with

Carol J. Adams

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Carol J. Adams for our March 2016 WATERtalk. Carol is a feminist-vegan advocate, activist, independent scholar, and author of numerous books, including her pathbreaking The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, now in a Bloomsbury Revelations edition celebrating its 25th anniversary. Carol has been thinking about theological, religious, and spiritual issues having to do with our relationships with other animals for many years. She is currently working on a Christian ethics of care for animals. In the fall of 2016The Carol J. Adams Reader: Essays and Conversations: 1995-2015 will be published by Bloomsbury. Visit her website at for more about her work and to read her blog.

To me, it’s 25 years after The Sexual Politics of Meat, but more than 40 years since I began to think about these ideas. That’s rather startling – I didn’t know I had been an adult for that long! But something that remains so clear to me is that from the moment I came upon my dead pony’s body after he had been killed in a hunting accident, my consciousness shifted. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, I quote feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky: “Feminists don’t see different things than other people, they see the same thing differently.” When I went to eat a hamburger that night, I saw it differently – not as food, but as someone’s dead body. My path changed at that point.

It swerved again when I became a primary caregiver of three elderly people in 2002. It was consistent with the idea that we live in a community of care, that we are not autonomous individuals. We learned how to walk, how to talk, in community. This kind of ethics that I have tried to articulate, of care and community, grounds my work; and the knowledge that there are things we do everyday that violate community and would be easy to change – decisions about who we’re eating – is a core part of how I move through the world – this holding intention, care, and anger.

When you begin to witness against violence, you have to deal with several complex feelings. First is anger. We see a problem, we’re trying to change things, and often the world doesn’t change. Another feeling is traumatic memory, based on trauma studies and the work of feminist historians. Early women historians of the 19th century operated with a traumatic memory of events and were writing out of that. Those of us who are working against violence have this sense that there is violence that needs to be stopped, we become those witnesses and we bear within ourselves this complex of emotions.

When I was writing The Sexual Politics of Meat, I had to step back and realize that nobody was going to read it if I was just angry throughout the whole book. I had to find a way to talk about this everyday violence without being so angry. How do you witness against violence in a way that invites people into a conversation, especially when they are complicit in the violence? Those who are vegans or vegetarians will know that often we go into a room and find a certain degree of anger or hostility. That is because until we enter a room, people there are just eaters, not meat-eaters. Our actions have defined the culture now, and the dominant culture doesn’t want to think of itself in this way. How do you speak about things that culture doesn’t want talked about?

I drew upon feminist literary criticism as much as feminist philosophy. I drew upon my activism in the 1970s and 1980s against violence. I looked at the radical work of feminism in the early 70s. If they hadn’t started to name violence then, interpersonal violence, bodily violence, we wouldn’t have sexual harassment laws, marital rape laws, and ways to respond to domestic violence. One way for me to talk about violence was the methodology by which feminists named violence. I was talking not only about violence against other animals, but also how I perceived that intersected with violence against non-dominant people, especially women.

I came across a literary term called the absent referent. Animals become absent referents in three ways:

  1. They’re literally absent – they die; they’re killed.
  2. We rename them. We don’t talk about eating a lamb’s leg. We talk about eating a leg of lamb; the lamb loses possession of her own body. We rename a dead cow to hamburger. All of these forms of violence normalize and naturalize meat eating and dairy.
  3. We use them as metaphors, to describe our own experience but not to empathetically engage with their experience.

After I came across the idea of the absent referent, I realized it described what happens to animals, and also to women. Like animals, women are objectified, fragmented, and visually rather than literally consumed.. Women and animals are caught in this structure of the absent referent. One oppression is intensified by association with the other. Women are objectified by being animalized – shown on all fours, for example. Animals aren’t just objectified by not recognizing them as individuals who wish to continue to live, but having imposed on them the dominant culture’s notions of sexualized women. In this interaction, we have one form of violence that is used to normalize a different violence. When women are called “meat,” it’s not just that women are objectified, but the acceptance of animals as meat is the ground from which that objectification is built. When female animals are shown as wanting to be pregnant, giving one more sow, all the language about female animals draws upon pornographic language that assumes that not just women, but female animals “want” it.

In witnessing against this violence, I had to figure out not just what to say but how to say it. People began to send me images that confirmed my claims after the book came out. These attitudes, even if we challenge them, find new ways to reappear. The attitudes that have equated women with meat might now be more humorous or ironic, “just a joke” trying to say we “look we don’t have to be taken it seriously.” When we push against this attitude, it moves to another levels trying to insulate it from to our critique. Another response: no matter what we do to say gender binary isn’t necessary, this attitudes rears its head and conflates masculinity and meat eating. One response I’ve found is the idea that men have to renew their “man-card” by eating meat every day. I don’t have to renew my library card that often. Why is maleness so unstable it has to be renewed so often?

I would encourage all who see images that are participating in the sexual politics of meat to let me know. I continue to update the book and resources.

Witnessing against violence became not just something I did as an activist or in divinity school, but something I had to theorize in a way that invited others to join me.


Q: I wanted to ask about what might be called absolutism and relativism – I’m thinking about a friend who ran a small-scale diary farm and also ate her cows. She makes a big distinction between taking care of animals in an appropriate way and the hugely violent industrialized agricultural. Could you respond to that? I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we, on one hand, try to step out of that violent culture, but on the other hand, don’t want to put a kind of purist response on ourselves.

CJA: I think I’d be careful about suggesting that we’re on this continuum of the factory farm to the “locavore” to the vegan and also from “impure” to “pure.” If our goal is to lessen our impact on the earth and the harm we do, what kinds of questions can we be asking? I’d ask of that local farmer, “Why do we need milk?” One of the things I’ve found at organic farms is that when the cows on the dairy farm get ill, their lifespans are cut even shorter because they can’t be given antibiotics. That cow is still seen by its utilitarian value.

How do we participate in everyday violence? In any dairy industry, the cow must be separated from the calf. All dairy milk exists because it is not going to a calf. Jo-Anne McArthur photographed at a small-scale farm, and you can look at her images of how the veal calves were treated online at I personally don’t want culpability for that.

And I know that there’s an easy solution – I can drink plant milk. When we create this linear continuum, we make it seem as though our options are decreasing towards purism. But if we put the vegan ethics of care in the center of a concentric circle, we can make our decisions that way.

Small farms make the decision to separate the cow from the calf at a very early age, too, just like industrial farms. Further, there isn’t enough land space for everybody to get their food from small farms. I met farmers operating small farms in upstate New York and they argued that their cows only have one bad day. A bad day isn’t the day you die – it’s the day you break a leg, and injure yourself, or lose your job. A cow doesn’t have just one bad day; they have many, the day they are made pregnant when they are still lactating, the day their calf was taken from them, the day a friend disappeared. Cows could live to be 20 but they die at 4 because they’ve had so many bad days.

Our protein needs can be met by a vegan diet, and the average vegan, like the average meat and dairy consumer, actually eats too much protein. I would put the right to self-care in the middle of my concentric circle, but I wouldn’t accept any nutritional claim that this has to be met through meat or dairy milk.

Q: Could you talk about perceived or actual racism or classism you’ve seen in the vegan or vegetarian community?

CJA: First, I want to talk about the perceived racism and classism in the dominant culture. I don’t want to fault veganism for failing to step outside the dominant culture as much as it should, and I don’t want to pretend veganism is just one thing. We live in a culture that imposes attitudes towards race and class that are also animalized. The analysis I do about women and animals is important to be done around race – particularly the way black men were animalized, called beasts, which I discuss in The Pornography of Meat.

Working class people are also animalized in the U.S., and as part of that classic mind-body dualism they’re looked at as only bodies, not minds. This pervasive notion has created a hierarchy where the characteristics we value are associated with white men. Look at the difference between the ways Donald Trump’s anger is responded to versus the way Hillary Clinton is seen as shouting. These reactions are part of the dominant structure that places the white man’s actions as definitive and defining.

Veganism is one of the responses we make to the injustices of this world, but we have to questions our own privilege – our white privilege, male privilege – as we vegans ask people to look at our human privilege. One problem we end up with, when people feel uncomfortable about veganism, is that become defensive and look for something that deflects attention from them back to the vegan so they might ask “what about food deserts?” Vegans did not create food deserts and are trying to work against it in many ways. Food deserts deprive those without wealth of the kinds of foods that they want to be eating, which is often more plant-based foods.. There’s always work for us to do, within and without.

Q: Thank you – this is very profound and haunting, and I need time to think, but thank you.

CJA: One of the things I’ve tried to do with putting the ethics of care in the center as we think about our relationship to the world and unquestioned violence is to argue that we need to let people think, to incubate. I don’t feel that arguing with meat eaters is the way to go – there are different ways to invite people in. We live with these ideas. Please feel free to email me from my website,, to follow up on something. All praise to incubation.

Q: You’re working on this Christian ethics of care for animals. There are religious groups that don’t eat “unclean meats” or are encouraged to be vegetarian or vegan. Have you heard from these groups that they’re on board with your analysis? Are people who are initially on board in terms of veganism taking the opportunity to extrapolate to the anti-sexist, anti-racist stuff?

CJA: When the book came out, I heard from a bookstore that vegans bought the hardback, and feminists waited for the paperback. This book provided a new framework where we could talk about animal rights as connected to other social justice activism. I would say of the people I hear from, it’s probably 2/3 of people reporting they became vegan, 1/3 of people reporting they became feminist.

A wonderful French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, coined the term carnophallogocentrism. Logocentrism is in there, and phallo, meaning the dominant subject for western culture is the meat-eating, male-identified person who emphasizes voice. There is a connection between that and the sexual politics of meat.

In another interview, Derrida talked about the idea of “eating well.” We’ll never be in a place where we’re completely eating well. If vegans think becoming a vegan is sufficient, then they’ve fallen in this trap of “eating well” and think they don’t have to consider anything else. The community is not just suffering because of meat eating, though it is suffering greatly if we think about the connection between meat and dairy eating and climate change. But we still have to be questing after what is just. Not ordaining women, racism, buying strawberries from places misusing farm workers, buying chocolate that isn’t fair trade, those actions are not just.

If caring is our response to community, then our next question becomes, “What is happening in that community?” “Who is affected by my choices?” One of the best things the Pope could do would be to say, “If I’m recognizing non-human animals and their potential for life and I want to eliminate the hierarchies of our culture, I should look a little closer to home.” It’s never either/or; it is always and. It’s a braided oppression. We have to unbraid it so we know what we’re up against, but not so much that we lose sight of all aspects of the oppression.

Q: About global trends, have you seen the movement growing? In my perception, people who are vegan communicate a sense of being chic. As developing countries look to meat eating as a sign of improvement, how do you see this movement heading?

CJA: As the U.S., as animal activism has had some success in trying to get legislation passed, agribusiness looks elsewhere. For instance, chickens can be shipped to China to be killed then shipped back to the US. Eventually, some factory farms may take their farms to less developed countries and colonize them to produce the meat. I would urge all to look at Brighter Green, started by Mia MacDonald. They are incredible at looking at the global implications and working to understand how different companies and countries are spreading meat eating. I think one reason veganism is presented as chic is because that’s what the media pays attention to. Come to my house, I am not chic; I am wearing a twenty-year old sweatshirt as we talk. There are a lot of vegans who are not chic, but not highlighted in the celebrity-feeding culture.

Q: Could we hear a little more about demographics of veganism and your thoughts about the next 10-20 years and how people can contribute to that?

CJA: The Vegetarian Resource Group in Baltimore has updated demographics.

I was just thinking about what I’d like to have you walk away with, and I’d say that people think change is hard, but not changing is harder. We just don’t know that yet.

It did take me a while from the moment I thought, “I’m eating a dead cow” to the moment I actually stopped eating dead cows. One thing that has changed is that there are so many new resources, new cookbooks. Vegan food is delicious and we can have a lot of fun preparing it and enjoying it. We are not just walking away from something; we are walking towards something, embracing something that is very important: a resistance to everyday violence.

There is some urgency here – the United Nations and other groups have said that we should get to a much more vegan world by 2050 or we’ll be living in a hothouse. Think about what you think you’ll be missing, then think of who you could include in your circle. Maybe the veal calf or the dairy cow? Hold these thoughts in in tension – wants versus needs, others versus self. Find this path that asserts that what we do individually makes a difference and that witnessing is something that starts with us but doesn’t stop there. We just have to take one step at a time. But let’s start there with that step

WATER thanks Carol J. Adams and wishes her every blessing in the year ahead. The next WATERtalk will be April 13, 2016, from 1 to 2 pm ET with Susan Thistlethwaite on the topic “Women’s Bodies as Battlefield.” Register here.