Monday, April 9, 2007

Naked PETA

Remember PETA's State of the Union Undress that I discussed here in January? Well, the stripping spokeswoman is frequent nude protester Sarah Harley, and Dean Abbott has an interview with her. The interview mostly discusses nudity rather than animal rights, and doesn't really deal with the issue of sexism. I completely disagree with Abbott's reasons for objecting to the video, which seem to be shrouded in spiritual objections to nudity and sex outside marriage and desacralizing the body, especially when you read his original objecting post. But the interview itself makes an interesting follow-up.

As I said in my original post, my objection to PETA-style nude protests is not really that there are naked people in them. I think PETA's campaigns are problematic for two reasons.

First, I think this sort of thing makes people take PETA's message (which, as an ethical vegan, I agree with) less seriously. As with violence, I think that superficial attention-grabbing tends to be counter-productive, with few exceptions.

Second, they don't merely use nudity to get attention. If they did, there wouldn't need to be catcalling men, or references to "hot chicks" being an American tradition, or frequent zooms into body parts. How many people (let's be honest here, mostly men) watched the Undress video and even listened to what Harley had to say? How many just turned it off when the images of animal cruelty began? I'd honestly be interested to see statistics on how many visitors to the Undress page clicked through to PETA's main site. I'm guessing here, but I bet that the video was watched far more times as porn than watched resulting in anyone educating themselves on animal rights issues.

But as with porn, I don't believe that the problem is with the people doing the work. I don't think that Harley was exploited or coerced into making the video. In fact, I rather admire her dedication to the cause. The problem lies with the role these sorts of actions play in society. If we lived in an egalitarian society, in which women weren't often viewed and used as sexualized objects, I would honestly have little objection. But we don't live in that society, and using sexualized images of women to sell something (even something I believe in) continues to perpetuate the idea that women are nothing more than things to be ogled.

I have to admit a certain amount of mixed feelings about that sort of conclusion. I know, logically, that it is accurate. But, I also don't think that banishing sex and nudity from the public sphere is any sort of solution. We're in a catch-22 with the objectification of women; a catch-22 women know all too well from the double-standard of modesty and sexual femininity that society demands they maintain. I think nakedness and sex are positive, women are as validly sexual as men, and I'd love a world in which people could be nude or do sexy things in public and it would be considered good fun. At the same time, until that world exists, doing those things is tainted by the misogyny of capitalism, religion, and historically patriarchal society. And so we have to maintain a balance between promoting a healthy, positive outlook on sex and the body without promoting commodification of it, especially of women. I just don't think that PETA maintains that balance in their actions.

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