PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Anyone but Women

PETA’s at it again, pissing people off with their latest “Boyfriend Went Vegan” ad campaign. BWVAKTBOOM (Boyfriend Went Vegan and Knocked the Bottom Out of Me) presents the supposed sexual side-effects of a vegan diet as a mock syndrome women may suffer from. The featured video depicts a half-dressed woman in a neck brace returning to her apartment with vegetables in hand as her boyfriend patches a hole in the wall–presumably where her head hit it during sex. It is but one part of the PETA-offshoot website parodying domestic violence awareness campaigns with the subheads “people’s stories,” “playing it safe,” “this is your support system” and “we can help.”

Intentionally slated as a Valentine’s Day tie-in on PETA’s website, the video also launched hot on the heels of the Chris Brown-performing-at-the-Grammys brouhaha, causing much discussion in activist communities. Said PETA’s associate director of campaigns, Lindsay Rajt,

We saw Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to highlight one of the best-kept secrets of a vegan diet. Many men report having more energy and stamina after switching to a plant-based diet. Consuming less cholestoral and saturated animal fat promotes freer blood flow to all of the major organs. Many people don’t know this.

PETA’s use of nudity and sexuality has long been criticized as being exploitative of women, but many feminists say the new campaign crosses a line by trivializing domestic and sexual violence, further injuring an already-fragile demographic. Stephen Montagna, a violence prevention communications coordinator with the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault and a vegetarian of 15 years, was appalled:

[It’s] bad enough that we have a culture which frequently does not believe survivors of sexual and domestic violence, often insisting that it was just ‘rough sex’; now, PETA has taken the very heart of this argument and served it to us as the tongue-in-cheek ‘punch-line’ (literally) of its new ad campaign.

Kit-Bacon Gressitt, a feminist writer and activist, agrees:

The ad egregiously normalized intimate partner violence, which is demonstrated by the use of violence as the ad’s story line and by the characters’ ready acceptance of the woman’s abuse; in particular, the male character’s inanely sheepish delivery, asking if the female is feeling better, which suggests the typical repentant ‘it’ll never happen again’ phase of the cycle of violence.

In response to the criticism, Rajt encourages people to watch the video in its entirety. “They can see the woman is still smiling after having fun, adventurous sex with her boyfriend.”

The neck brace? “It’s a humorous spot,” Rajt insists. “The ad is hyperbole. We’re trying to paint a picture of what the result of vigorous sex might look like. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but some people are choosing to fixate on certain things.” Rajt said she posted it to her own Facebook wall, asking, “Can we all agree to have a sense of humor?”

Sacchi Patel, a social worker and co-founder of Masculinity U, is not laughing. He created a petition to “tell PETA violence against women is never okay.” As a vegetarian of four years, he says he’d been considering a PETA membership recently but is glad he didn’t purchase it in light of this new campaign:

PETA failed to recognize who may be suffering by their approach. Women are seen victimized by domestic and sexual violence, yet are portrayed as consensual partners ‘asking for’ violence. The reality of relationship violence and the serious consequences that go along with it shows us that it is not something to joke about. PETA has clearly missed the mark here and needs to terminate this program.

Marianne Radley, a sexual assault victim advocate, does not see the causes of animal welfare and ending violence against women as mutually exclusive:

I wish that we didn’t have to promote one cause at the expense of another (because even though sexual assault and healthy relationships may not be at the forefront of PETA’s radar, it is at the forefront of many others who view this ad as a huge set back). We must remember that the treatment of one being reflects the treatment of another, and we’re all connected.

Inga Muscio, author of Cunt: A Declaration of Independence and Rose: Love in Violent Times sees PETA’s “by any means necessary” approach as a part of a larger trend of “shock” marketing:

PETA is trying to appeal to the cynical irony young people have collectively embraced in order to survive in this brutal culture. I understand why PETA creates videos of animals being mistreated, and I understand why they made this ad as well. I do not hold PETA to a different standard than Mountain Dew or the Komen Foundation.

To stop the endemic exploitation of shock and violence, Muscio says, “our entire culture must go through a painful reckoning.”

Considering the campaign never aired via prime-time media but launched from a nonprofit’s website into viral video status, advertising agencies must admire the reach, if not the ire it inspired. While PETA president and founder Ingrid Newkirk fully admits PETA leaders to be “press sluts,” meaning that articles and blog posts like this very one play right into their pleathered hands, their modus operandi begs the question—what does “cruelty-free” truly mean?

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Shawna Kenney is the author of Imposters and the award-winning memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix. She is also the co-editor of Robot Hearts: True and Twisted Tales of Seeking Love in the Digital Age. Her work has appeared in Juxtapoz, Transworld Skateboarding, VegNews, the Florida Review, Alternative Press and, among other outlets.