PETA’s Response to Feminist Criticism Misses the Mark

hollypetaOne of our readers sent a letter to PETA voicing his concern about their sexist ad campaigns, and he got a pretty surprising response from PETA. David was kind enough to send this in.

Dear PETA,

PLEASE STOP all the sexist ads that degrade and demean women. Women are displayed 3/4 naked or more, ads with vile and suggestive catch phrases, again that include mostly nude women. The most recent ad refers to women as “beached whales. PETA is supposedly a progressive organization; so why then do so many of its billboards-ads and media campaigns depict women in sexist-degrading and offensive ways? you will get NO $$ from me until the sexism stops

Here’s PETA’s response to David.

Thank you for your letter sharing your thoughts about our ads and campaigns. We appreciate the opportunity to address your concerns.

First, please know that, as an organization staffed largely by feminist women, we would not do something that contributed to the serious problems that women face. We feel that there is nothing shameful or “wrong” about being naked or choosing to use one’s body, and we believe that women—and men—should have the choice to use their own bodies as political statements. This tactic has been used since at least the 11th century, when Lady Godiva rode naked on a horse to protest taxes on the poor. Far from being exploited, our “naked” demonstrators and billboard models choose to participate in our actions because they want to do something to make people stop and pay attention to animal abuse.

Take Traci Bingham, for example, who posed for our “All Animals Have the Same Parts” ad campaign. She is a deeply committed vegetarian who is known to millions for her television work, such as beating out a platoon of men to excel in an endurance test called Boot Camp. She chose to use her body to bring public attention to a serious animal issue. In this case, Ms. Bingham felt offended by the traditional “meat” posters that treat animals as “parts,” and she wanted to make the point that neither they nor women should be viewed as parts—we are all precious.

Consider that it is the societies that allow women to wear revealing clothing in which women have the most rights and the most power. Likewise, it is the societies that punish women for wearing revealing clothing in which women have the fewest rights and the least power—they are considered chattel who must do as they are told. Isn’t it dangerous to tell young women that their bodies and sexuality are shameful and must be hidden or repressed? Should women only be allowed to participate in activism if they promise not to show their bodies or use them to make social statements? If a person chooses to use her physicality to convey a message of his or her choosing, aren’t those who would censor him or her—even if their motives are well-intended—also somewhat guilty of disrespect and repression?

Although our use of “nudity” is attention-grabbing, we don’t rely on it for the majority of our outreach, nor do we use it gratuitously; it is intended to underscore our message, whether it is “I’d rather go naked than wear fur,” to emphasize the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, or to show the vulnerability of animals in laboratories or circuses. We would also like to note that we do not feature only women in our more provocative ads; please see the following examples:


Our purpose is to stop animal suffering, and we use all available opportunities to reach millions of people with powerful messages. The current situation is critical for billions of animals, and our goal is to make the public think about the issues. Sometimes this requires tactics—like naked marches and colorful ad campaigns—that some people find outrageous or even “rude,” but part of our job is to shake people up and even shock them in order to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and of course, action. After PETA publicized our 2007 “State of the Union Undress,” for example, we were rated the number one “mover” on Yahoo’s search engine, meaning that PETA received the greatest percentage increase of terms searched that day. We have found that people do pay more attention to our racier actions, and we consider the public’s attention to be extremely important.

Although we understand that some consider our projects that include nudity to be controversial, many express support for these tactics. However, PETA does make a point of having something for all tastes, from the most conservative to the most radical and from the most tasteless to the most refined, and this approach has proved amazingly successful—in the more than two decades since PETA was first founded, it has grown into the largest animal rights group in the world, with over 2 million members and supporters worldwide. For more information about PETA’s vital work for animals, please visit

We respect your right to disagree with our strategy but hope that you will continue to work for the animals in whatever way you feel comfortable (; they are counting on all of us.

Thank you for providing us with this opportunity to explain our position on this important topic and for all that you do to help animals.

The PETA Staff

First of all, kudos to David for sending PETA a letter.

Secondly, they may feature men in some of their ads, but this doesn’t erase the fact that they objectify women in their “I’d rather go naked,” ads. They specifically chose Playboy models and other women who fit a very patriarchal notion of beauty. They have historically sponsored events on college campuses, like tofu wrestling, to encourage people to go vegan. Who is going to be persuaded by scantily clad sorority girls wrestling in tofu? The intended audience here surely isn’t progressive men and women. This tactic appeals to frat boys. And let’s be honest, they’re just as likely to become vegan as Glen Beck is to be the Grand Marshal of a gay pride parade.

Third, I guess PETA hasn’t read Carol Adams’ book The Sexual Politics of Meat, where she nicely lays out the theoretical justification for a feminist ethic that includes veganism. Adams argues that the consumption of animals is inherently tied to the consumption of the female body. When the animal is objectified and deemed as “other,” it allows us to minimize the psychological impact of eating the animal. Adams points out that magazines like Hustler often depict women in animalistic poses, and that the magazine actually used to be a catalogue for the meat packing industry. Read the book, PETA. The connection between animal liberation and the women’s equality is pretty linked.

Finally, I’m all for smut. I’m not anti-nekkid. But there’s a big difference between smut for smut’s sake, and the anti-fur campaigns. When I watch porn, it’s because I want to get off. When I look at a PETA ad, I should be thinking about animals and compassion. These are the reasons that people should go vegetarian – because it’s the compassionate, right thing to do. Not because a Playboy model told me to do it.

As for the fat shaming campaign, PETA can eat me. I’m fat and fabulous, and I’m not about to be shamed by somebody because they think it’s going to motivate me to change my diet. I’m already as close to vegan as you can get, and I’m still fat. Nothing beats a vegan cupcake and a scoop of Soy Delicious ice cream (which I am going to have to abandon now that I have a soy allergy).

Thanks for sharing your letter with us, David. I’d love to hear what everybody else thinks about PETA’s weak sauce defense of sexism.


  1. Excellent post Serena! I presented a paper at WSCA about this a few years ago. I really like PETA, but this campaign bothers me. The weirdest part is that they dress up women like animals in order to humanize the animals. However, they make the women ‘sexy’ so it makes the animal image as completely un-relatable. In the process, women are objectified.

    What are your thoughts on more men being in the ads? Does that make it ok because everyone is equally objectified? hmmmm

  2. It strikes me that the POINT of these ads is to reach mainstream society, not a large group of radical leftists.

    If offending all of you is necessary to reach a larger “frat boy” audience then I would suggest it is money well spent.

    Definitions of feminism are varied due to the diverse strands that collectively make up the feminist quilt; which makes the interpretation that the ads are “sexist” both suspicious and perhaps spurious.

    FYI: America and western liberal democracies have the highest rates of female advancement on the planet. Therefore, at some point the “critique” of this add becomes either: (a) empirically denied by the success of women in the country(s) where it is running, or (b) irrelevant because sex in advertising is unrelated to larger questions of womyn’s place in society.

  3. David, thanks so much for sharing. PETA’s response is extremely disheartening. Exploiting “choice” as an excuse for degrading women’s bodies is regressive for both women’s rights and animal rights. No person deserves to be utilized as a tool of humiliation, which is exactly what their recent ad’s have done.

  4. I also kind of want to know who they had actually write the letter because parts (if not all) are just terribly written.

    “Consider that it is the societies that allow women to wear revealing clothing in which women have the most rights and the most power. Likewise, it is the societies that punish women for wearing revealing clothing in which women have the fewest rights and the least power”

    This makes little to no sense and isn’t even backed up by a source. I see what they are trying to prove, but I’m a little too smart to take this as the best way they could have said it.

    Here’s my theory: PETA employs frat boy bros as their creative talent. It only makes sense.

    Also just a side pet peeve: Why is Vegetarian/veganism the only way to ethically treat animals? I know plenty of meat eaters (and I try to be like them when I can) that will only solicit meat products that have been treated and slaughtered humanely. It is becoming easier and easier to find grass fed beef (I can buy it at my campus cafeteria!) and cage free chicken products. Besides Serena’s argument from “The Sexual Politics of Meat” (I will have to read that now) I don’t see why PETA cannot also campaign for responsible meat eating.

  5. grrr!!

    “it is the societies that punish women for wearing revealing clothing in which women have the fewest rights and the least power—they are considered chattel who must do as they are told”

    really? so thats it – burqua’s or Tits & Ass? Those are my only choices eh PETA? Modern (yay boobies everywhere!!) or backwards (hide it under a bushel, yo!!). dumb.

    yeah, totally, there is nothing wrong with nudity. but the kinds of nudity – (the glossy mass-marketed pouty lipped playboy kind) they seem to prefer commodifies ‘woman’ just as much as Omaha steaks does to Ms. Moo Cow.

  6. freewomyn says:

    @ PC – Frat boys are about as likely to stop eating meat as the Republicans are to vote for health care reform. Progressives need to stop pandering to the conservatives – there’s no way they’re going to get the votes. Again, I’m going to turn to Carol Adams. Eating meat is a sign of masculinity in American culture. Men who don’t eat meat are often called “pussies” or “sissies.” Women often say that they would be vegetarians if their husbands didn’t expect them to cook meat. And when men “cook,” it’s usually in the form of them standing over a grill charring some form of meat. Manly man meals are meat and potatoes. Vegetables are seen as less virile, and therefore “women’s food.” Pandering to the manly man crowd by showing them some T&A isn’t going to change their eating habits, it’s just going to ensure that they get some wood.

  7. freewomyn says:

    @ Lyndsey – the fact that some guys are willing to strip to say that fur is bad doesn’t change the fact that women are being objectified in the ads. Women can be chauvinist pigs, just as much as men can. That doesn’t mean that sexism doesn’t need to be eradicated.

  8. freewomyn says:

    @ Amber – I think that you would enjoy Adams’ book. Her argument about the connection between reproductive freedom is sound. In order for cows to produce milk, they have to be in a sate of maternity. If we say that women should have control of when and if they have babies, then that same logic needs to be extended to other sentient beings. However, the cows that are on dairy farms (whether they live in a cage or they roam the fields) are in a constant state of forced maternity in order to produce milk. It doesn’t matter if the milk is “more humane” (i.e. hormone free, grass fed cows), it’s still theoretically unjustifiable from a vegan ethic because of the issue of choice.

  9. Mrs. Mastro says:

    If you ask 20 feminists what they think of this campaign, you’ll likely get 22 answers, so it is probably a waste of time to offer a definitive viewpoint–to say yes or no. The issues at stake, like feminists themselves, are too diverse for that.

    So, rather than rehash the personal autonomy vs. the overall good of women argument, I’ll throw out a couple of specific points.

    1) As to the letter–it really pisses me off that the author thinks it is OK to perpetuate the idea that we (naked 1st world western women) are free and those “other” (Muslim, head-scarf wearing, 3rd world) women are not.

    2) Whether or not I agree with the campaign (I don’t, but I do believe those who choose to participate in it have the right to do so), how effective will it be in the long-run?

    I agree with PC that the intended audience isn’t radical leftists–most of us are already on board–but, for some reason, I can’t see it changing minds either.

    I can, however, picture the Holly Madison ad (above) blown up, hanging on the wall of my husband’s team room, looking down as he and his Marine Corps. team chow down on double-cheeseburgers and joke about wacking off to Ms. Madison later.

  10. Here’s the sad thing: it’s practically the same letter they have been sending for more than 10 years! It’s a canned response because they don’t want actually to engage around this issue. Objectified women work for them and they aren’t going to stop. On why this is so dangerous, not just for women but for the animals PETA supposedly wants to free, please see my recent blog
    The oppression of female animals interacts with and reinforces women’s oppression. The abuse of female reproductivity is key to animals’ oppression and makes the female someone to be used and discarded. Perhaps this is what PETA has learned from animal oppressors; they did not learn this from feminists.

  11. freewomyn says:

    @ Carol Adams – YEAH! How exciting. Aside from Randall Terry (boo), I think you’re the biggest person we’ve had comment on the site.

    @ Mrs. Mastro – Yeah, I agree about the diversity of feminist opinions here. One thing that I meant to say in the post is that PETA claims that feminists are on board with their campaign. But if they are reading Twitter and the blogosphere, feminists are up in arms about this. The pretty unified response from all of the feminist folks on Twitter seems to be a big middle finger to PETA.

  12. No, I do not think that the “radical leftists” are “all on board.” No way do I think that. I surround myself by the most “radically left” people at my university, feminists, Women’s & Gender Studies majors, anthropologists, anti-sweatshop, people who study migration, etc….. and I only know two-three people on the entire campus other than myself who even try to be vegan. They rest are not on board at all, and I think the radical leftists will possibly be even more distracted from the issue of animal justice/rights than anyone else because they’re the ones most likely to care.

  13. Courtenay W says:

    I don’t support PETA because I’m a pet owner, and I’d like to stay a pet owner. But it’s nice to have yet one more reason not to support them. And I really should pick up that book and read it. :)

  14. The thing that bugs me the most about PETA’s reply is that they don’t even acknowledge their most repugnant ad that talks about choosing vegetarianism/veganism as a weight-control mechanism, one that is targeted specifically at womyn, they can say all they want that they don’t play to female insecurity, but that doesn’t make it true. Also, there are plenty of ways for them to engage in provocative but tasteful messages, I don’t know why they have to make their “naked” ads similar to Playboy covers, there are plenty of ways to showcase nudity without being pornographic, and with a near-equivalent level of impact.

  15. This is always a difficult subject for me. I’m very much for PETA and their often over-the-top tactics, but do not like the ad campaigns that are being discussed. The one comment I want to make is that I can’t agree with Serena’s words about distinguishing “smut for smut’s sake, and the anti-fur campaigns.” You can’t distinguish the ultimate use of something (like watching porn or being compassionate about animals) from the means used to get to that position. Advertising often is part of bringing a person to an ultimate position. People are influenced by endorsements, whether the endorsement is given by a Playboy model, an actress, a basketball player, or an author. The issue here is the means by which the endorsement is given. I assume that you would not object if a famous actress or basketball player did an endorsement for PETA—even if they happened to be attractive—, as long as they were not unclothed, not in “suggestive” poses, and there was no “suggestive” wording. (BTW, the “beached whale” campaign is offensive for reasons different than the Holly Madison-type ads.)

  16. freewomyn says:

    @ Jeffrey & Mike – exactly. This e-mail is a total non-sequiter to the “beached whales” campaign. No justification for fat shaming.

  17. freewomyn says:

    @ Mike – I have no problem with celebrity endorsements. Paul McCartney & Alicia Silverstone are examples of celebrities who have done a lot to raise awareness about animal rights. But both of them managed to keep their clothes on while they were doing it.

  18. Serena, you rule!

    fat and fabulous 4 life :D

  19. Valerie says:

    I think the point here is nudity in PETA campaigns is not the type of nudity I would use to protest (being suggestive?), it’s a nudity that is directed to men, the type of men who jerk-off with playboy and hustler magazines, so I don’t understand the point, are they trying to make people conscious about animal liberation or are they just trying to get attention from guys who don’t know the difference between animal liberation and porn?

    There is a huge difference between nudity in porn magazines and nudity in activism, PETA just looks like sexual poses to me (I would like to emphasize the fact it’s sexual) that end up making girls look like objects! Comparing the fact that animals are used as “objects” to the fact women are used as “object” misses the point. As a girl who is vegetarian I believe I don’t suffer the same way a hen suffers, but we both deserve respect!

    I don’t think the woman who protested riding a horse naked centuries ago was trying to turn on men, she was protesting. Now, I do think those playboy girls in PETA ads act like sex machines that happen to not eat meat.

    I suggest using artists who are followed by “mainstream society” in ads, but not as objects, as humans who have convictions and can influence people to at least have a better treatment to animals. Playboy girls are not someone “mainstream society” follows, they are just humans who decided to get naked to turn on guys who are a part of “mainstream society”.

    I don’t know if my point is understandable, but hurray for David, it’s good to know someone did something about this issue. I don’t like PETA, they are doing a terrible job representing the animal liberation cause.

  20. It is just absoultely mind boggling how you all sit back and critcize but you do not do anything constructive about the serious issue of animal brutality. As far as I’m concerned the feminist “group” need to get a life !!!

    • freewomyn says:

      Don’t go throwing stones in glass houses, Nataschia. Many of us on this site are involved in animal rights issues. In fact, we’ve hosted events advocating the connection between feminism and veganism. So get your facts together before you start slinging poo.

  21. Hey Gals/Guys,

    I sent a similar note to PETA. That “response” is nothing but a form letter (they sent me the exact same one). PETA is so lazy and anti-intellectual that it can’t even write a unique response. And their stupid form letter misses the mark, all the way!


  22. Inspite of the ridiculousness of linking veganism to personal vanity…I MIGHT not have minded this sort of approach if the model was showing a toned, strong body instead of what resemble uber-round silicone Mcbreasts sewed onto the body of a prepubescent boy.

  23. Interesting. Growing up I saw many PETA naked ads. Did they ever once cause me to check their info out? Nope. But when I actually became interested in our food system I read all Petas literature, I watched the videos, I read their Go Veg and go vegan tips and that did it for me. 12 years later still veg. They really waste their time on the sex. It doesn’t sell their message effectively at all.


  1. [...] Playboy model (and past contestant on Dancing with the Stars), which is included in a post on Feminists for Choice.  (The blog also contains a letter to PETA and PETA’s very interesting [...]

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