The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams

by Emily Trunnell, PhD

 Photo: Emily Trunnell, PhD

Photo: Emily Trunnell, PhD

Scrolling through Instagram one day, as I’m often doing, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a quote that perfectly describes some of my experiences as an animal rights advocate. It was from Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat. In the passage Adams describes how, often, someone’s concerns for animals are met with the contentious argument that humans are suffering too, and the person who cares about animals should care about issues that affect humans first. To this Adams says, “I know that this question is actually a defensive response, an attempt to deflect from an issue with which the interrogator feels uncomfortable. It is an attempt to have a moral upper hand. Only meat eaters raise this issue. No homeless advocate who is a vegetarian, no battered-women’s advocate who is a vegetarian, would ever doubt that these issues can be approached in tandem.”

The Sexual Politics of Meat was first published in 1990 and has been opening the eyes of readers ever since. Adams, from a small town in New York along Lake Erie, studied at the University of Rochester where she majored in english and history. She went on to obtain her master of divinity at Yale Divinity School and has spent her life as an activist.

In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Adams digs deep into the history of feminism, vegetarianism and women’s literature to show, for the first time, how women have historically adopted vegetarianism as a rebellion from patriarchal society—even if they didn’t know that’s why they were doing it. “Vegetarianism spoke to women. They would not have adopted it, maintained it, proselytized for it if vegetarianism were not a positive influence on their lives. This is a historical fact that needs to be accepted and then responded to by scholars studying women’s lives and texts.”

A fair disclaimer: despite loving this book, it is not likely one you’ll breeze through, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it that way. The Sexual Politics of Meat is an academic work, one to sit and ponder, and one in which Adams seamlessly weaves the oppression of animals and women together. Spelled out so clearly, you’ll start to wonder how this interwoven history slipped by you. This is a common occurrence reading through the book. You’ll find a passage that strikes you and find yourself fascinated by it days later. 

I related to most of the ideas expressed in The Sexual Politics of Meat, but what I didn’t realize before reading the book is how the experiences of both vegetarians and feminists are so intimately parallel when dealing with society. Conversations with extended family around the dinner table can be a challenge for anyone, but vegetarians, in making something very obviously absent from their plates, are prone to being drawn into discussions where someone at the table actually feels hostile towards this type of social reform—an all too common occurrence around my dinner table at, say, Thanksgiving.

On this Adams says, “In this the pattern of discourse resembles that of dinnertime conversations about feminism in the early 1970s. Questions of definition often predominate. Whereas feminists were parlaying questions which trivialized feminism such as ‘Are you one of those bra burners?’ Vegetarians must define themselves against the trivializations of ‘Are you one of those health nuts?’ or ‘Are you one of those animal lovers?’ While feminists encountered the response that ‘men need liberation too,’ vegetarians are greeted by the postulate that ‘plants have lives, too.’”

Like many women of my generation, I consider myself a feminist in that I believe all sexes should be treated equally. I was raised by strong women and am thankful I grew up in an era that didn’t (strongly) object to my being a woman in an old white male-dominated field. But I’ve never personally been as motivated to champion for women’s rights as I have for the rights of animals. The revelation of The Sexual Politics of Meat is that you can’t truly be a feminist without being a vegetarian, or vice versa. The exploitation of female animals in animal agriculture is a feminist issue. The exploitation of women and fetishism of body parts reinforces “consumption” of flesh and is a vegetarian issue. Even if you’re not a vegetarian or a feminist, I hope you will pick up Adams’ book and start the conversation.