Here’s a question asked by an animal welfare supporter that absolutely floored me: “Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody?”
Erika Brunson, an 83-year-old board member of the Humane Society of the United States, posed that question to a reporter from The New York Times in a story published two weeks ago. “We’d have no CEOs and no executives of American companies if none of them had affairs,” she said.
First of all, to reply directly to the initial question: Me, that’s who. Somehow, I seem to have navigated an adult life and career without once sexually harassing a woman.
And second, seriously? Not every CEO has harassed someone, although to Ms. Brunson’s point, the most recent executive so accused (credibly) is the CEO of the organization on whose board she sits: Wayne Pacelle, disgraced ex-CEO of HSUS.
Brunson’s observation, according to an article on Pacific Standard magazine’s website, represents “a troubling paradox at the intersection of animal advocacy and sexual harassment.”
Animal activist groups, to be sure, portray themselves as bulwarks against exploitation, as defenders of animals (allegedly) abused by producers and meatpackers. Thus, as the article noted, there’s no small amount of irony in an organizational culture that projects as its principal values protection of the weak and powerless.
“Organizations such as HSUS, PETS, Mercy for Animals, Farm Sanctuary, Direct Action Everywhere — and dozens of others — aim to protect society’s most vulnerable beings from exploitation,” the article noted. “The depth of empathy required … would seem to be at odds with a swaggering bro-culture where women are systematically demeaned and intimidated.”
Even the most outspoken critics of animal agriculture have recognized the problem.
Carol Adams, author of “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” offered a recent blogpost noting that, “We are realizing that the progressive values that aim to prevent cruelty, suffering, and harassment of animals have in some ways failed to be truly applied to the treatment of women (and some men) in our workplaces.”
(By the way, the article also noted that Paul Shapiro, HSUS’s former vice president of policy who stepped aside in December, had also been accused of fostering a sexually intimidating workplace, once allegedly emerging naked from a bathroom in a hotel room he was sharing with a woman colleague — except for “strategically placed” boxer briefs.)
The article noted that Shapiro and Pacelle were largely responsible for many of the initiatives HSUS successfully pursued, such as California’s Prop 2 measure that set aggressive housing standards for veal calves, egg layers and pregnant sows. And while they can’t claim full credit, both were instrumental in leveraging McDonald’s and eventually other fast-food chains to source cage-free eggs.
That’s the central factor complicating the “intersection of animal advocacy and sexual harassment:” The leadership of the animal welfare industry is largely male, the very men accused of preying and abusing their female co-workers.
Of course, the only significant exception to that patriarchy is PETA’s founder Ingrid Newkirk, whose organization is best known for utilizing highly suggestive imagery of near-naked women in its anti-meat and anti-fur campaigns, ads that even the left-leaning Pacific Standard characterized as “brutally objectifying women, thereby undermining whatever gender justice might be achieved through charismatic female leadership.”
Obviously, inappropriate behavior is rampant in many business sectors besides animal activism. However, the difference is that those other industries aren’t preaching to the rest of us about morality and ethics.
Hollywood has long acknowledged that, far from being some sort of moral leader, its business is pushing the envelope of acceptability in terms of sex and violence for the (no longer) cheap thrills they provide the movie-going audience.
And corporate marketers explicitly step back from even pretending to set standards, in that their only goals are generating sales and ensuring profitability for their investors.
As the Pacific Standard article noted, “Women in the animal welfare world often feel so deeply about their cause that they make radical personal choices to reduce animal suffering. They go vegan; they don’t wear animal products; they avoid forms of entertainment that harm animals.”
And they could have added that women also shell out the bulk of the multi-millions that animal activist organizations rake in on an annual basis.
So in consideration of all that, until those groups clean up their own house and become better role models of the principles they insist we need to embody, they could do with a little less preaching and a lot more practicing what they preach.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.