Class Privilege in Anti-Sex Worker, Anti-Homeless Activism

Jenna directed me to an important post by Johanna at Vegans of Color reminding us: "Don't Use Classism and Anti-Sex Worker Rhetoric to Protest Fur." Johanna's post provides a needed look at the anti-homeless and anti-sex worker rhetoric of a few nonhuman animal advocates.

In a post titled "Fur is for Beautiful Animals and Scary Hookers," "Vegan Shoe Lady" proudly quotes PETA's Ingrid Newkirk as saying, "Fur has lost all its cachet. It's yesterday. I see prostitutes in Atlantic City wearing fur." Shoe Lady goes on to suggest that nonhuman animal advocates refer to women wearing fur by saying, "She's probably a hooker. Tacky coat, lower-class manners – no one respectable presents themselves that way." She also suggest:

Or, say a fur-wearer is holding a coffee cup and standing outside. Wouldn't it be awfully embarrassing (for her) if several people plunked loose change into her cup, "innocently" mistaking her for a panhandler? (If she gets bitchy, ask her why she's dressed like a homeless person if she doesn't want people to think she actually is homeless.)

While Shoe Lady claims "certain PETA campaigns definitely leave a bad taste in my mouth," PETA's classist, anti-homeless campaigns must be an exception. PETA started playing on anti-homeless hate back in 1998 by giving fur coats covered in red paint to homeless women. PETA believes that homeless people are disgusting and that if people see homeless people wearing coats made from other animals' fur then they'll think fur is disgusting by association. We see the same logic in Shoe Lady's post.

While obviously viewing homeless people as "embarrassing" and generally objectionable, Shoe Lady nonetheless says:

Please treat actual homeless people with respect – they are human beings, and many of them have untreated mental illnesses. More than 80% of young homeless people are forced to leave home, often due to abuse. True compassion extends to disadvantaged people, too, so be nice.

Yet regardless of Shoe Lady's professed pity for those homeless people with an experience of mental illness and/or abuse, this doesn't in anyway change or excuse the clearly classist and anti-homeless nature of her post.

But I'm also left wondering, what about actual sex workers, are they not human beings worth respecting? Or, as Johanna observed:

True compassion extends to disadvantaged people but apparently not sex workers. Or people at the lower end of the class system. Why should we play into the prejudices of certain segments of the fur-wearing population? The post points out that wealthy fur-wearers probably don't care about environmental or animal rights issues, which I imagine is true. But I refuse to believe that perpetuating stereotypes, prejudice, & shame is the way forward either.

Not only does this rhetoric play into and perpetuate the oppression of sex worker and people experiencing homelessness, but it also makes the existence of nonhuman animal advocates who are sex workers and/or homeless unthinkable. Yet, people who are sex workers and/or homeless and oppose the oppression of nonhuman animals and are vegans most certainly do exist.

And Shoe Lady's class bias is not limited to her anti-homeless comments. In fact, she set explicitly upper-class guidelines for activists, advising us to be "well-dressed," "well-mannered," and use an "upper-class accent" when advocating for other animals. All this reinforces how unthinkable it is that poor people can be nonhuman animal advocates. In fact, being a poor, homeless, and/or sex worker advocate for nonhuman animals is portrayed as an impossibility. And if all this still weren't enough to establish the presumed inherent moral and social superiority of the wealthy elite, Shoe Lady insists:

Ironically, many of the really upper-class people that modern-day fur-wearers seek to emulate rarely, if ever, wear real fur anymore. At a certain level, flaunting money is irredeemably vulgar, and what screams "I'm rich, spoiled, and proud of it" more loudly than a fur coat? Fur is for tasteless nouveaux riches. Truly rich people go for tasteful understatement (case in point: when she was young, Jackie O. wore a cloth coat when mink coats were all the rage, although she certainly could have afforded fur even then).

We're to assume that those with hereditary wealth are a truly superior group of people of a higher moral quality. Both sex work and homelessness are framed as the antitheses to upper-class values and of what is good and worthy in society. As such, Newkirk's and Shoe Lady's rhetoric has virtually nothing to do with veganism nor nonhuman animal advocacy, and everything to do with shoring up the social status and sexual mores of the middle and upper classes. In fact, in this context, the exploitation of other animals by the fur trade is framed as a problem to the extent that it threatens to degrade the integrity of the superior classes. Thus, the take home message is don't wear fur because you might be mistaken for someone who is a prostitute, homeless, and/or otherwise of a lower class and unworthy of basic respect. This is certainly different from a message that opposes the oppression and exploitation of other animals.

Re: Class Privilege in Anti-Sex Worker, Anti-Homeless Activism

Yikes. This kind of classism has been sticking out at me a lot more recently. I read "The Vegan Shoe Lady's" post, and this stuck out at me, too: "Everyone loves to write off a 'freak' or 'extremist', but no one likes being shamed or snickered at by someone they assume is in the majority." I remember getting this advice frequently at Vegan Outreach, and it always felt uncomfortable to me.

I'm visiting my parents for winter break now, and my relatives keep talking about "those kinds of people" or something, and it's upsetting to me. It's difficult to do anything about it, too, because they tend to ignore me based on my being younger.. Thanks for this post.

Re: Class Privilege in Anti-Sex Worker, Anti-Homeless Activism

I see a lit of classism in activists too. At the last fur protest I went to a man was heckling us. He was probably mentally ill and he was Arican American. Some of the protesters started yelling at him to gi back uptown and smoke crack. This really horrified me as it was so blatantly racist and classist. I really regret not calling them on it.

Re: Class Privilege in Anti-Sex Worker, Anti-Homeless Activism

I believe that Peta is not claiming that the truly rich are morally superior, but that they are trying through these tactics to break the association of fur with wealth and good taste. Indeed, wearing fur has been a class status marker for some time, and that's why many people continue to chose to wear it. I think it is important to change the status of fur as a symbolic marker of wealth and good taste. I think Peta has the right idea, but maybe has not got the rhetoric quite right. How might we shift this association without reference to class given that that is exactly what is at stake?