Not in Their Name: Understanding Consent and Creating a Better Animal Rights Movement By Dealing With Abuse

Nobody exists to serve someone else.


Jerry Lee and Amanda

Very few humans understand consent when it comes to other animals. Every single animal we exploit for our food, clothing, entertainment, and research struggles for freedom. Every single one of them fights for their life until their very last breath. We hear their screams and we see their suffering, but we abuse them anyway.

Those of us who decide not to be okay with institutional nonhuman exploitation become vegans and animal rights activists. However, judging by the way animal rights activists behave around nonhumans, it is obvious to me that we don't understand consent when it comes to members of other species either.

My friend Christina Vassalitos explained nonhuman consent quite beautifully in a Facebook post (reproduced with a few formatting edits):

It is harassment and inappropriate to cross paths with a non-human animal in the street and demand their attention-- "Tsk tsk come here you cute squirrely," "Come here cute pupp," while extending our hand and approaching them as they freeze up. I was doing this 2 weeks ago to a squirrel. And it clicked with me that the squirrel just stood there totally paralysed; they were scared. It brought me back to many instances and moments of being either stalked/catcalled or stared at creepishly and approached by dudes. It is terrifying because you don't know what the person will do next. Unless animals come towards us to say hello, we should respect their distance, and it isn't because they appear cute to us that we should make them feel afraid. Even if we know we don't want to hurt them they are still uncomfortable and that is what matters. And being cute isn't asking for it. EVER. Consent matters no matter how informed or misinformed an individual is about our intentions.

Yes, nonhuman consent matters, not just in cases of extreme exploitation, but in our everyday interactions as well. Here are some of the ways in which animal rights activists violate nonhuman consent:

  1. Making changes to homes shared by humans and nonhumans without consideration of their effects on the nonhuman residents.
  2. Forcing nonhumans to travel unnecessarily, attend risky protests, and walk long distances in the name of activism.
  3. Interrupting their activities and demanding that they give us attention in spite of them clearly expressing their discomfort.
  4. Forcing our "affection" on unwilling nonhumans.
  5. Startling and scaring nonhuman strangers by confronting them and expressing a desire to befriend them.

Although such violations may seem trivial to an average speciesist, there is absolutely no excuse for animal rights activists to engage in such behavior. Over the course of the last few years of trying to better myself as an ally to nonhumans and be respectful of their right to their bodies, the behavior of my fellow human AR activists has disappointed me over and over. This refusal to acknowledge the concept of nonhuman consent beyond a disdain for pain and death baffled me... until I learned about how the movement deals with sexual assault, that is.

On July 23, I received an email from the leader of a "grassroots" animal rights organization informing me that I can no longer work with them. The reason cited was a breach of their "values and trust." The real reason was that I spoke against sexual abuse in the organization. A rapist was asked to go through a remediation process that allowed him to be part of the network. He was taken on speaking tours by the head of the organization and was invited to live on the headquarters of the network. The survivor, meanwhile, was encouraged to not speak about her experience publicly and her perspective was ignored. I spoke out in support of her at a public meeting held by the organization.

I, along with a few others, was asked to leave the network. We were not made to sit through a remediation process before being forced out. Many others quit in solidarity. Trying to hold the leadership of the organization accountable for abuse of power is apparently a far greater crime than rape itself.  The aforementioned "values" included the protection of sexual abusers and "trust" included the unspoken faith that we men have in each other to protect our kind from accountability.

This was not the first time I had heard of a large animal rights organization covering up sexual abuse and protecting abusers, nor was it the last. The stories I have heard discreetly whispered at conferences or affectingly conveyed by women to groups of close friends run into dozens. The animal rights movement has a problem and we need to deal with it now.

A simple examination of the issue tell us what the problem is; it's men (cue #NotAllMen). Male animal rights activists are, like it or not, men.  We are not immune from having our perspectives affected by and our actions contributing to patriarchy. Not only are we men, we are men in positions of power in a world of women. Yes, most of the humans in the nonhuman rights movement are women. And yet, the prominent faces of the movement, whether its the Aspeys, Yourofskys, Bernards, or Franciones, are almost entirely men. Take the Animal Rights Hall of Fame; only 11 out of the 35 inductees are women. That's impressively low. We are occupying too much space.

The reason so many men successfully manage to get away with widespread abuse is that they have found a safe space in the nonhuman rights movement. Certain men are made out to be heroes of the movement and are seen as indispensable. And when such men turn out to be abusers, we refuse to believe it because we simply do not want to see our heroes fall. Like many members of the organization that kicked me out proclaimed in as many words, it's for the animals.

Just because we are part of the movement for the rights of nonhuman animals does not mean that we need to throw women under the bus.  In fact, this recognition of ourselves as mere allies to nonhumans should provide additional incentive for us to create a stronger movement by protecting women from abuse. Nobody should be forced to leave the movement because of fear and humiliation. Abusers should not be allowed to use nonhumans as protection for their despicable actions. This shit should not be allowed to continue, especially not in the name of nonhuman animals.

Species Revolution recognizes the importance of consent in both humans and nonhumans. We will commit to creating resources to educate our community about avoiding the violation of nonhuman consent. We will strive to make our spaces safe for nonhuman animals.

Species Revolution stands firmly against sexual abuse in all its forms. We are dedicated to creating safe spaces for women. We will seek expert advice and build legislation that will allow us to treat sexual misconduct with the harshness it deserves. We will do the best we can to provide the help and resources survivors need. We will silence no story and protect no perpetrator.

We will help construct a better movement for everyone because no one is free until all are free.

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  1. I came across a piece written by Pattrice Jones of Vine Sanctuary after I wrote this article. If I had seen it earlier, I probably would have devoted time to promoting it instead of writing this. It is a very important read. Pay special attention to the "What You Can Do" section as it contains some very significant information.
  2. Carol J. Adams is someone I look up to and someone who, for me, has acted as a valuable source of insight regarding the intersections of feminism and nonhuman rights. The following are some of the blogs from her website. I encourage everyone to check them out.
  3. My partner Amanda explains here how her experience as a survivor has helped her understand the nonhuman perspective, further proving that perpetuating a culture of violence against women within the nonhuman rights movement will encourage the violation of nonhuman bodies (and vice versa). To end with her words, "I dream of a world where all hurting people- human and nonhuman- are viewed with compassion and a desire to alleviate their suffering."

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