The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

I just finished reading The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams. This book explains how both women and animals are both objectified, dissected and consumed by society.

The Sexual Politics of Meat was groundbreaking in its day, and remains so. Many of the philosophical concepts expressed in the book, such as “the absent referent” are important parts of feminist theory that are also critical to a holistic understanding of animal exploitation.

My history with The Sexual Politics of Meat

I first came across The Sexual Politics of Meat during my undergraduate studies. I was writing a paper on “Ethics of Care” feminism at the time. Ethics of Care is its own branch of feminist studies based off the idea that the female gender is more caring and less rational. This is portrayed as a good thing,  because it challenges traditional male patriarchy.

I wasn’t much of a fan of the “ethics of care” idea, mostly because I don’t think I’m any more caring than most men. I tend more towards a rational view of everything, and I don’t think that’s sexist or gendered. But I’m sure there are plenty of people who disagree!

Sex and Meat

Since I finally got around to reading The Sexual Politics of Meat, I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to sex and sexualized violence and how they relate to meat consumption. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s surprisingly prevalent.

There is definitely a strong association between meat consumption and virility. It’s odd that such a thing persists into the 21st century, but it does.

I’ve noticed, for example, that nearly every food truck in my town has menu items that allude to the sexual nature of meat consumption (like the “big beautiful breasts”-of chicken- I saw advertised on a downtown food truck this weekend).


It’s almost impossible to ignore the way we objectify women and animals.

We’re used to recognizing animals almost exclusively for the function they perform. But we do this with women, too.

I don’t know if any of you have seen the TV show “Suits”, but it really is incredible how the show reduces the secretaries to intelligent, sexy, clothes hangers. It’s really quite terrifying. No matter their intelligence, they’re sexy, above all else. Their intellectual and interpersonal gifts are a mere after thought (in stark contrast to the show’s male characters).

Even though one of the secretaries, Donna, has been doing her job for decades, she only receives a decent wage thanks to the kindness of her boss, Harvey, who supplements her wages without her knowledge. Without his “generosity”, her performance would not be rewarded, so she is unwittingly “beholden” to him for the comfortable life she leads. This is in spite of the fact that she works the same hours he does and puts in the same intellectual effort. Society simply rewards their work differently.


Okay, this happens literally with animals, less so with women (one would hope). In the same way that a person might look at a woman and merely see sexualized body parts, they might also look at a pig and see pork chops.

This can happen to any person, whether they are male or female, and to any member of the animal kingdom. But it’s also deeply disrespectful and a sign of our inability to see others as living, breathing creatures with their own (legitimate) lives and needs.


The final part of this cycle is consumption, in which we consume the “object” of desire. Again, this happens quite literally, in the case of animals, and a bit less literally with women. Of course, when one considers the prevalence of rape culture, it becomes easier to conclude that our society consumes women in a very real, very destructive way.

The Absent Referent

My favourite concept in the book is the “absent referent”. This notion is as valuable for feminists as for animal rights activists. The absent referent is the being who is “absent” from our lives, yet present. For example, when you eat a steak, there’s an absent referent (the cow), that is ignored, but whose spectre remains. We ignore this, of course, but if you scratch the surface, he or she is still there.

Despite the individual’s transformation into an inanimate object (meat), it is both present and not present.

It’s a strange contradiction. Meat is no longer a living, breathing, creature.  It’s rendered invisible. But it’s also a reminder of the animal that was once there.

Dairy, of course, is in my opinion the ultimate example of this. In a bizarre commodification of the maternal, the breast milk of forcibly impregnated cows is given to us as a sign of health and parental love. Through powerful marketing symbolism, we divorce milk from the tortured creatures from factory farms that produce it. Instead, it’s presented as a friendly, bucolic beverage. The cow, the veal that died so that you could drink its mother’s milk – all are absent. They’re replaced with pastoral images and a comforting feeling – the ultimate absent referent.


There are so many great concepts in this book. 25 years on, The Sexual Politics of Meat remains a great resource for anyone interested in feminism and animal rights. I hope you’ll take the time to check it out!

2 Responses to “The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

  • What of persons like myself who are not able to go vegan.
    My body was eating itself and putting my organs in distress my doctor stated, and that the work load and times that are necessary to re-energise is imposable to follow if I want to keep my job. Thus far I have been able to reduce my intake, and follow my bodies needs by the intensity of my working day and the work-load demanded of me, but to say that there is ‘no excuse’ is wrong.
    Your presentation validates that I must be an oddity. And that following the nutritional guild is pointless.

    • Hi Mitchell! Thanks so much for commenting. First of all, your health comes first, and I am very sorry that you were so ill on a vegan diet. I’m not a doctor (as you probably gathered!) and I do not presume to give medical advice.

      It’s unusual to have difficulties with a well-planned vegan diet, but it can happen. If my own health faltered on a vegan diet, I’d seek a second opinion, but I’m sure there are situations where eating animal foods is necessary (this is one reason why I support lab-grown meat – I think it’s important to have a viable alternative for people who don’t want to hurt animals, but might require animal products).

      Fortunately, my family has been very healthy on a vegan diet. But our diet is by no means extreme – your description makes it sound as if you weren’t getting enough calories. Is it possible you were experimenting with a raw diet or something similar? We eat a very well-rounded diet with lots of bread, rice, pasta, beans, tofu, and fruits and vegetables. I’m always a bit concerned when people suddenly go vegan that they may not be eating a complete diet and missing out on some important nutrients.

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