|A PETA protester attracts attention to|
KFC's inhumane treatment of chickens
by dressing down in winter weather
Of course, the nude protest itself is not a recent invention. Legend has it that nearly a millennium ago, Lady Godiva rode a horse—au natural—through the streets of Coventry, England to successfully protest an oppressive tax issued by her husband, the Earl of Mercia. Yet, despite the passage of centuries, public displays of undress still arouse passionate arguments both for and against their ethicality and propriety.
The most conspicuous contemporary champion of nude protest is probably People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). I recently spoke with the Manager of PETA’s Campaigns Division, Lindsay Rajt, about this contentious but seductive subject.
|Lindsay Rajt, Manager of PETA's|
Campaigs Division, dons a lettuce bikini
AR: Why does PETA use nudity as an advocacy tactic?
LR: It’s a utilitarian decision. For all of PETA’s buzz and brand recognition, we’re a non-profit organization that goes up against extremely wealthy industries that invest vast amounts of money in advertising and public relations. On our comparatively tiny budget, we have to rely on getting free publicity through media coverage of our campaigns and demonstrations, and doing audacious and controversial things achieves that aim.
How nude do PETA activists actually get?
It depends on where the demonstration is being held, because each city has its own ordinances describing, often in explicit detail, what body parts you can and cannot legally expose, and we’re careful to comply with local laws. While we can get away with thongs and pasties in most places, some do allow women to go topless. There’s also this new product we’ve just started using called a shibue that’s basically a thong without straps: it just sort of adheres to the skin. Topless with a shibue is probably about as naked as we’re going to get in public. Regarding media campaigns, our “nudest” one is our online “State of the Union Undress” video, in which a female model does a strip-tease act that culminates in full frontal nudity.
How do you measure the effectiveness of nude protests and campaigns?
Our top priority is reaching as many people as possible. For street demos, that probably amounts to several hundred people in the course of an hour, and thousands more if the event is covered by the media. We systematically analyze which demos get the most attention in the full spectrum of print and broadcast media, and how our message is conveyed. With online initiatives, we’re able to track how many people watched a video or clicked a page and whether they stayed to explore other parts of our site. What we’ve found is that people really do stick around after the eye-catching video just as people on the street will linger and have a conversation once they’ve come over to check out our colorful protests.
When did PETA first start doing nude activism?
PETA was founded in 1980, but we only did our first “naked” campaign in 1989 when we produced a benefit poster with the Go-Go’s that they sold at concerts. It was a photo of the band members standing nude behind a banner reading “We’d rather go naked than wear fur.” These sold so well that we thought, “We really need to do more of this,” and organized our first naked demo in 1991. It was at an Oscar de la Renta fashion show, and included a mostly-nude man and woman handcuffed to a “We’d rather go naked than wear fur” banner strung across the runway. When The New York Times published a photo of the protest on their front page, we knew we’d found a powerful way to make headlines for animals.
Two decades later, does nudity still have the same kind of impact in today’s oversaturated multimedia marketplace?
|PETA activists protest fur at Toronto Fashion Week, 2010|
Do nude demos and campaigns effectively influence people’s attitudes about animals?
|Actor/comedian David Cross shows his|
“funny bone” in a humorous PETA ad
The John-and-Yoko connection is interesting because they were friends with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman at that time, and many of PETA’s tactics seem to bear the Yippies’ distinctive “street theater” influence.
Like the Yippies, PETA recognizes the power of engaging people with humor. Nudity and comedy are a potent combination because while nudity has an initial attention-grabbing advantage, amusement can sustain that attention. Plus, people feel more comfortable approaching and talking with activists when they can share in the joke.
PETA also uses nudity to shock people into awareness, as in the “meat tray” demos. What’s the typical reaction to such “horror” protests?
|One of PETA's macabre “meat tray” demos|
Does PETA also use nudity to show people that vegans are fit, healthy and sexy?
|Owain Yeoman, co-star of The Mentalist,|
strikes a pose for PETA's veg campaign
PETA persuades many celebrities to strip, mostly for media campaigns. How much does celebrity involvement enhance the message’s impact?
People who admire particular celebrities want to learn everything about them, and when famous people speak out about a cause, their fans listen. So many people have told me over the years, “I went vegetarian because I heard that so-and-so is veg.”
Switching gears, how do you respond to charges that PETA’s use of nudity for animal advocacy exploits women?
|PETA appropriates the misogynistic image made iconic|
by the cover of Carol J. Adams' landmark feminist
critique of carnivorism, The Sexual Politics of Meat
Critics might counter that men still have power over women in most societies, and objectifying females therefore perpetuates sexual victimization of women and girls.
I know from personal experience that such concerns are well-intentioned. I used to volunteer at a battered women’s shelter and have family members who’ve been in domestic violence situations, so I take this issue very seriously. So does PETA, and we would never do anything that we thought could degrade or endanger women or girls.
What about those who say nude protests are simply lewd?
In this day and age, that just seems prudish. I mean, go to any beach and you’ll see people revealing more skin than most PETA activists. These types of criticisms just take different forms in different time periods, whether they’re directed at PETA or society at large. Only a few decades ago, women were told it was disgraceful to show their knees in public or wear their hair down to their shoulders because it was too suggestive. Priggish complaints about nude social justice campaigns will soon seem just as laughable as admonitions about bare knees and flowing hairstyles do today.
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- Too Sexy For Your Meat: One man's view on the politics of vegan sexuality