Perhaps only subconsciously, violence against women and girls has been linked to violence against animals in my mind since childhood. Growing up, I remember hearing, “Animals belong to mankind,” almost as often as hearing, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” I’ve never been hunting, but I passed my hunter safety course the same year that my fundamentalist Christian church hosted its first “rape prevention” class for pre-teen and teenage girls. This is the story of how being vegan, for me, is as much about ending a lineage of abuse against—and ownership of—human female bodies as it is about fighting animal cruelty.
“It must not have been that bad then,” my mom said between sips of coffee. I’d just finished telling her that, although I’d long since fallen out of love with him, I would always care about my physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive ex.
I remember wanting to yell at her—to tell her that she couldn’t have been more wrong, that it absolutely had been “that bad,” and that you can love someone whether they deserve it or not. But I was both unable and unwilling to express any of this or get into the details of my past abuse, so I focused on the lofty oak in my front yard and took another sip of coffee.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which generations of women in my family must have internalized the concept that some forms of sexual violence against women and girls—like sexual assault by a partner versus by a stranger—aren’t “that bad.”
Lately, I can’t stop thinking about my great great grandmother’s story. A man married her when she was 10 years old and made her a mother by the time she was 12. She reportedly died during childbirth in her late twenties. I don’t remember anyone in my family ever describing that man as abusive. I do remember hearing, “But apparently he was good to her,” and “It was a different time.” As if it could ever be possible to “be good” to the child you impregnated.
“’It must not have been that bad then,’ my mom said between sips of coffee.”
I remember the stories my aunts told me about my great grandfather. How he pinched their breasts and butts when they were growing up, and how my grandmother evidently responded to their protests with, “Oh, don’t mind that dirty old man.” I’ve often wondered how many times he groped them, whether he groped my grandmother as well, and whether their stories were part of the reason I didn’t tell anyone when a relative started groping me during hugs at age 15.
“There’s this very interesting book called The Sexual Contract which argues that, not only was there a social contract, but that most Western cultures also had a sort of de facto sexual contract that what happened in the home was private,” Carol Adams tells me.
Adams is a feminist-vegan advocate, an activist, an independent scholar, and the author of numerous books including the groundbreaking Sexual Politics of Meat. “Until the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, marital rape wasn’t illegal,” she says. “There wasn’t a concept of marital rape. So the idea that one could be raped by one’s partner … it was something that feminists had to name.” She’s at home in Dallas, walking with dogs who sound elated to be outside. I’m at home in Long Beach, watching my cats sleep nearby. “Our culture’s always sacrificed women and children.”
I tell her my family is fundamentalist Christian and lives in rural Missouri. “The context is there—your family wasn’t out of the norm,” she says, and I know she’s right.
“What your family passed down was the norm until a few decades ago. And for many, many households, it remains that because of … a conservative, patriarchal family that’s reinforced by certain trends in evangelical and conservative Christian religion.” Adams tells me how some evangelical pastors have routinely advised women that it’s worse to break up a marriage and report battery than to go home and suffer, and give the man forgiveness.
These days, when I refuse to eat animals, the responses I hear remind me of that conversation with my mom. Most meat eaters are quick to minimize the suffering that makes eating animals possible, saying things like, “I only eat free-range eggs.” “Free-range” hens still have part of their beaks seared off, are crammed into sheds, and will never play in a pasture.
“These days, when I refuse to eat animals, the responses I hear remind me of that conversation with my mom.”
Since becoming vegan, the connection between animal cruelty and violence against women and girls has grown so strong for me that it’s virtually impossible to avoid. When I see a photo of Trump biting into a piece of meat, I immediately think of the 22 brave women who have publicly accused him of sexual assault and harassment—and then I think of the millions of Americans, many of them white women, who voted for him anyway, because grabbing someone by the pussy is, evidently, “not that bad.”
Whenever I see a father being abusive to his dog, even if he’s just yelling, I’m instantly fearful for the well-being of his daughters. Whenever I meet a man who loves hunting, I’m reminded that an American woman is fatally shot by her partner every 16 hours. Whenever I think about chickens, I remember the time my abusive ex told me about a video he’d watched where a man was shown sexually assaulting a chicken—and then bragging about it, apparently excusing his behavior by claiming that the bird “liked it.” And whenever I hear people defending their meat eating by saying that they only buy “organic” or “grass-fed,” I simultaneously hear: “It must not have been that bad then.”
Don’t get me wrong; I applaud all efforts to reduce the suffering of farmed animals. Free-range eggs aren’t as bad as caged eggs, and some companies treat animals better than others. Animal welfare is a spectrum. But the reality is that factory-farming rules America. A survey by the Sentience Institute found that “75 percent of US adults say they usually buy animal products ‘from animals that are treated humanely,’ despite estimates suggesting fewer than 1 percent of US farmed animals live on non-factory farms.”
As the organization put it “This suggests a psychological refuge affect where people justify their animal product consumption by incorrectly assuming they are eating ethically-produced food.” We tell ourselves it’s not that bad, perhaps as a mechanism for coping with the grim reality.
“We tell ourselves it’s not that bad, perhaps as a mechanism for coping with the grim reality.”
And I get it. With so many causes competing for our attention, it’s easier to just accept what food companies tell us, rather than confront what happens to animals behind the closed doors. But just as easily, we can demand companies and governments do better by making more compassionate food choices ourselves. Because all violence—whether it’s fast and brutal or slow and subtle, whether it’s against women and girls or animals—really is “that bad.”
As writer and animal activist Dallas Rising explains in her essay “Happy Rape, Happy Meat,” there is no good way to hurt, forcibly dominate, or exploit someone else. As Rising says, “It doesn’t matter if the victim is human or not. It doesn’t matter if the violence occurred in the nineteenth century or the twentieth century … It’s all painful.”
And it’s all connected.
“Propaganda about meat-eating is everywhere, ubiquitous, and why? Because, as I argue in The Sexual Politics of Meat, meat represents male dominance,” says Adams. She points out that, historically, men have often used the idea of meat as “a right within the home” as an excuse for abusing women. As recently as 2014, a Brooklyn man reportedly killed his wife after she’d made him a vegetarian dinner when he’d asked for goat meat. “Every meat meal,” Adams says, “is recalling, symbolically, male dominance, so that participation is going to be there tacitly and covertly rather than necessarily overtly.”
Because the truth is, at least for me, factory farming is inherently misogynistic. The meat, dairy, and egg industries exist to profit off female reproductive systems. Starting at around 12 months of age, cows living at dairy factory farms are forcibly impregnated through artificial insemination—and then they’re impregnated again only two to three months after giving birth. This cycle continues until their production begins to wane, at which point the cows are sent to slaughter. Although their natural lifespan can be up to 20 years, cows raised at dairy factory farms become so exhausted that they’re often killed at only four or five years of age.
As someone who was quietly raped by her partner in a bed—who was pushed, pinned, and choked but never punched, kicked, or cut—I can’t participate in a system that enables consumers to absolve their guilt by ranking someone else’s suffering as worse. It’s a concept that I wish more feminists could embrace. Pain is pain.
“I can’t participate in a system that enables consumers to absolve their guilt by ranking someone else’s suffering as worse.”
I’m grateful that, in both my own family and many others, my generation of women seems to have reached a breaking point when it comes to accepting any level of violence against women and girls. The #MeToo movement challenged many of us to rethink our “not that bad” stories of sexual harassment and assault. And for those of us who were just babies when Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas, the Kavanaugh hearings made it painfully clear that allegedly violating young women isn’t considered “bad enough” to prevent a man of power from rising to our nation’s highest judicial tribunal. And that our vote matters now more than ever.
Still, I fear as long as we keep teaching our girls that some bodies deserve to experience violence while others don’t, and that killing animals is “not that bad” if you do it a certain way, we are setting them up to tolerate a base level of pain in their own lives.
Or, as Adams puts it: “Reclaiming the right to refuse to eat dead bodies and the products of female exploitation in eggs and milk is a form of feminist liberation. It’s a form of refusal that’s an affirmation—vegetarianism is a nonverbal way of refusing the patriarchy.”
For me, being vegan is as much about choosing not to be complicit in my own suffering as it is about fighting animal cruelty. I can’t go back in time and prevent my great great grandmother from becoming a child bride, I can’t retroactively protect my aunts from their grandfather, and I can’t undo the sexual violence that’s been inflicted on me.
But by rejecting the concept that certain acts of violence are acceptable, I can rest in the knowledge that my family’s genealogy of abuse against female bodies ends with me.