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What if Eating Meat Was Considered Sexist?

Would that change our habits?

It was hardly the publishing event of the year, but in late October Bloomsbury Press released the 25th anniversary edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegitarian Critical Theory by Carol Adams. Followers of food culture—our culinary literati—probably don’t know much about this hidden gem of a book. They should.

Popular books aiming to inspire food reform too often eschew hard reality for boutique fantasy. In so doing, they become little more than celebratory good reads that you hand off to your heirloom-seed-loving locavore friend for her birthday. But Adams, a member of the Animal Rights Hall of Fame, has zero interest in writing feel-good books. She goes for the conceptual jugular and, as such, provides a model for the kind of analysis contemporary food writing desperately needs—writing about food with guts and rigor that isn’t at all about food per se.

Adams’ argument in The Sexual Politics of Meat is as elegant as it is disturbing. Our culinary obsession with eating meat, she claims, is necessarily linked with the patriarchal exploitation of the female body. Vegetarianism and feminism are, in short, inextricably linked. Adams’ analysis pivots on the linguistics-inspired idea of an “absent referent.” The animal that’s raised and slaughtered and killed—and then processed, packaged, and prepared—is the absent referent that’s obscured by the cut of beef on the plate. “Behind every meal of meat,” she writes, “is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes.” An obvious observation, perhaps, but that’s kind of the point. The whole process is hidden in plain sight.

The violence perpetrated against animals is awfully close to the violence perpetrated against women, and may derive from the same patriarchal impulse.

A convergence of interests demands that it stay this way; that the referent remains absent. Ranchers, factory farmers, corn growers, restauranteurs, and even local farmers promote the plausibility of absence—and for good reason. What mentally stable consumer wants to contemplate a sentient being while swallowing its leg? This convergence also helps explain the rise of ag-gag laws, legislation that criminalizes any attempt to reveal animal abuse from within the farm, an act that threatens to rescue the referent from absence in a particularly graphic and condemnatory way.

But—and here’s where the sexism enters—some promoters of meat are guided by an even more troubling question: Why promote meat merely as a slab of disembodied deliciousness when you can, having successfully removed the referent from the pleasure equation, replace it with the image of a woman’s sexualized body? If this sounds like academic mumbo-jumbo theorizing, well, welcome to the famous Sexual Politics of Meat slideshow, which Adams delivers regularly on college campuses across the country. Catch some highlights here, here, and here before proceeding.

Like most elegant findings, this connection, once pointed out, starts to become evident everywhere. The fact that such despairingly sexist associations have been penetrating the recesses of an obviously numbed consumer mindset for so long, without so much as a peep of protest, is unsettling to the extreme. But the reality is hard to deny—we’ve been looking at mainstream advertisements that pull stunts such as equate a woman eating a beef sandwich with a woman giving oral sex to a man without having so much as batted an eyelash of judgment (or worse, praising it as bold advertising). Reading Adams’ book does what precious few books about food do: It makes even the most cognizant among us feel a twinge of shame for not noticing, and reacting, sooner, and with due outrage.

The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. (Photo: Bloomsbury)

The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. (Photo: Bloomsbury)

This kind of awareness has consequences. If we start to seriously ponder the implications of what Adams is arguing here—that the violence perpetrated against animals is awfully close to the violence perpetrated against women, and may derive from the same patriarchal impulse—we must also account for the cultural messages conveyed when we celebrate carnivorous indulgence (which the culinary literati do all the time). Likewise, and counter-intuitively, animal rights advocates fall under the same spotlight of judgment. Those organizations that sexualize female bodies to further the cause of animals—hello PETA—should re-consider the irony of using one form of exploitation to combat another.

Although Adams has been making her case for a quarter century, her work has yet to find resonance in the world of serious food writing. I blame this omission on the thinking foodies’ selective agenda. This band of reformers is perfectly comfortable linking the meat industry to environmental degradation. But when it comes to incorporating a book such as The Sexual Politics of Meat into the canon, it balks. Why might this be? Perhaps because it’s easy to rationalize a little ecological transgression here and there, a grilled sausage on July 4, a burger at the ballgame—exceptions that “the environment” won’t notice. It’s easy to patch an exonerating label on the concern, taking refuge in such meaningless phrases as “sustainably raised.”

But misogyny is different. For enlightened consumers, there can be no exceptions or exonerating labels. If Adams is right, and I think she is, then eating meat might very well be an act that degrades women. Are meat eaters ready to tolerate a little bit of misogyny for the sake of tradition? Who among the ever-progressive foodie elite is ready to render that referent—a woman's equality—absent?