Guest Essay: I went vegan because I survived rape.
Note: This piece contains disturbing content.
When I was eighteen and had spent no more than two weeks at college, I was raped. It took me a long time to process exactly what had happened to me, as this was before anti-assault safety programs were as prominent as they are today, and I was a reluctant pioneer, a guinea pig, for such programming. It was violent and brief, and I saw my rapist every day for years afterwards and even found myself having to review a paper of his in an English class. He passed me in the dining hall. He asked me come to his open-mic night a few days after he assaulted me, goodness knows why, and I struggled to answer his text message. I was tending to finger-shaped bruises on my clavicle, and even using the bathroom was painful. “Not tonight,” I finally answered. My hall-mates headed downtown without me and unaware of what had happened, and laughed over the lunch table the next day about a new song he had debuted about mentally unstable girls.
I find now, with staggering statistics being released about the prominence as disease that is rape on college campuses, I feel the same way as I do when reviewing the numbers behind animal slaughter: completely overwhelmed and almost desensitized to it, completely. Both are acts of great violence. Both are cultural norms that are defended by people, whether they intentionally defend these atrocities, or not.
My experience landed me in a tight-knit circle of feminist women who were smart and driven with their individual feminist passions of choice. A vegan naturally found her way into a group, as the intersections between feminism and veganism are so very obvious, and the discussion came up of rape and the consumption of animals. My stomach lurched. I was sickened by the statement, already a vegetarian and feeling as if I had done enough. In fact, I began consuming dairy out of spite for a brief moment as I was so very infuriated that my own experience was being downgraded to that of milk consumption. A young woman on my Tumblr feed lamented drinking “rape juice” at her own college, and I railed against it to my friends. No. No, this was not the same, no. I continued on my way. I scratched angrily at myself as a reflection of my rage against a vegan who had so flippantly described my experience.
I do an image search online of “dairy cow insemination.” I do another search for “rape rack.” I see a photo of young boys in cowboy hats, elbow deep in the vaginas of cows and standing in a row. They are smiling at the camera. Another photo shows an older man instructing a teenage girl in the “technique,” and she gives a thumbs up to her photographer, and I don’t have a proper word for what I am viewing yet, but the proper word exists.
I am seeing, remembering myself, bent over and held down over an unmade bed, too tired to keep fighting, and gazing out the window in front of me, trying to go elsewhere in my head. Somewhere in this big world I am staring out into, a farmer is forcing his arm inside of a cow and manipulating her sexual organs. Behind me, a man is forcing himself into me with the clinical repetition of the farmer. The sound coming out of me is something I will hear again when I view footage of the torture of animals. Neither the farmer nor the man behind me think that what they are doing is wrong, yet both in this moment are seizing the kind of power that they so desperately want.
For years afterwards, when a man tries to turn me around during sex, I will seize up. “Oh, I don’t like that very much,” I’ll tell him. I’ll force a laugh as I speak and make it my quirk.
Today, I cannot deny the parallels in my experience. Dairy farmer Julaine Treur said it herself, “Sex in animals does not involve emotion, but rather is a biological imperative to reproduce, not an act of love.” Animals are not seen as valid of protection, and there is great power to be gained in humans by exploiting their sexual functions for profit. Women too, are a conquest to be won. The act of human rape occurs as a means to maintain a hierarchy, and reach the pleasure of orgasm because of it. What makes dairy so sneaky and horrifying is that this industry too, relies on reaching pleasure via exploitation, but the pleasure only occurs once the consumer is eating the product. There are so many steps to the process that the parallel is lost on many non-vegans.
What are the common excuses for human rape in society? “I just couldn’t help it.” We just can’t help wanting dairy. “They didn’t say no.” Cows cannot consent. “They liked it.” Photos of happy cows lying in a grassy field, ready, excited even, to be milked. “Men are naturally like this.” It is natural for us to drink milk from a cow.
I can’t escape the rape, even with therapy and support groups, and public speaking engagements. I read second-wave feminists even though I don’t like them all that much, and the way they write about vaginas, and read The Vagina Monologues. In the same way a visible flesh wound causes a survivor to limp, it feels like a permanent injury between my legs. I am tired to thinking about it. I am tired, literally, all the time.
More and more, I find that my discovery of the truth about dairy ties closer to my tastebuds. Things that were once tasty and comforting seem to curdle in my mouth, as my head goes right back to the image of the line of men thrusting their arms into the cows. I am so, so weary of carrying so much weight on my back, and I go vegan overnight after an evening of wrestling with the transition in my head. Everything feels the smallest bit lighter. I vow to do as little harm as I can.
Months later, my aunt is scrubbing dishes with me, and it’s my first Thanksgiving as a vegan. “Did you eat the stuffing?” she asks. I nod, as I had quizzed my uncle on any meat products that might be in it as he prepared the meal. Her brow furrows and she turns towards me. “It had butter in it, you know.” I don’t look up, and I scrape caked grease from a pan. She says it’s no big deal, I’ll be okay, it was just butter. I don’t speak but try to nod agreeably, but inside, I seethe. I’m screaming.
The dairy industry relies 100% on female anatomy, biology, and birth. That’s all there is to it, there’s no way around it. Profit is made from the commodification not of femininity, but of female reproduction at its core. Milk is produced by impregnation, birth, and lactation. It is among the most abnormal, most twisted systems humans have ever implemented in our time on earth. There is nothing natural about this; it is as “natural” as the excuse that rape happens “just because it’s how men are.”
What will always bother me the most is how feminist communities that I once depended on, and at times, still must come back to for help, have turned their back on vegan women, rejecting us as their sisters. When PETA releases a sexualized ad, there are cries against the organization and shouts of “this is why I reject veganism!” but why don’t these same feminists give a damn about the women who have chosen veganism? Why, when stories are shared from vegan circles about sexism, do mainstream feminists turn away? And the most painful of all, the thing that shakes my core down and makes me fragile, is why does mainstream feminism not want to hear my story, and acknowledge how deeply connected the struggle is?
To be a feminist, a vegan, and a rape survivor is a complicated identity to juggle, as I feel that the communities behind those identities refuse to play fair with each other. When I watched a male vegan scream at a woman at a protest in New York that her ice cream was “rape custard,” and that she herself was a rapist, I flinched. I am sure that the woman threw veganism away as even the slightest option away that day. When I share my story with feminist friends and they become defensive as I carefully explain how sexual assault is a necessary idea within animal consumption, they outright dismiss me, squirm and ignore me, or grow angry.
It’s a strange headspace to float in.
I am on the phone with my stepmother, with whom I am very close. She’s asking me, for the first time in my many years as a vegan, why I am so hurt at even the mention of dairy, and I ease her into the conversation. She is silent, she doesn’t interrupt. When I finish, there’s a quiet between the phones, and I kick a can around behind my house in discomfort. A pause, and then, “will you tell me more? I think, that maybe I should know.”
I smile. It feels so, so good to be asked. I take a deep breath, and I begin.