Psychological Abuse in Animal Advocacy
Casey Taft, PhD
Many within the animal advocacy community have heard stories of sexual abuse and violence, including instances of men in positions of power who manipulate and victimize (often younger) women, who constitute the vast majority of those participating in this movement.
What is talked about even less often within our community is psychological abuse. Psychological abuse is the most subtle and difficult to detect form of abuse, is reported as more damaging among abuse survivors relative to physical abuse (Follingstad, Rutledge, Berg, Hause, & Polek, 1990), and its harmful impacts go beyond psychological health (Taft, Murphy, King, Dedeyn, & Musser, 2005) to physical health as well (Coker et al., 2002). It is especially important to educate others about psychological abuse, because those who are experiencing it are often completely unaware.
Psychological abuse may come in different forms that can be distinguished based on the function that the behavior serves. For example, denigration behaviors include direct put-downs or other attempts used to lower the sense of self-worth of the other person. Another form of psychological abuse involves coercive and controlling behaviors. These are behaviors intended to dictate what the other person does, using manipulation and bullying, to limit the other person’s basic rights and freedoms and lead to dependence and social isolation. An even more subtle form of psychological abuse – but at least equally damaging – involves hostile withdrawal behaviors, intended to punish the other person or leave them feeling insecure in the relationship. Then there are dominance and intimidation behaviors that are intended to invoke fear and force compliance.
Unfortunately, psychological abuse is all too common among people in general, with approximately half of those in the United States reporting the experience of this form of abuse (Brieding, Chen, & Black, 2014). These behaviors can also be readily observed in the animal advocacy community.
Here are some examples of psychological abuse in animal advocacy, all of which I have observed or even experienced:
- Denigrating comments towards other advocates, such as calling them derogatory names or calling into question their mental health.
- Building false and exaggerated narratives about other advocates in an attempt to undermine them personally and professionally.
- Attempting to have other advocates disinvited from conferences and speaking events due to personal grievances with them.
- Manipulative attempts to have authors remove references to other advocates from publications for personal reasons, and so that others will not view these individuals as credible.
- Classic coercive controlling behaviors such as telling other advocates who they should and should not be associating or working with via constant communications.
- Inciting others to engage in bullying behavior towards certain advocates.
Imagine any relationship where someone tells the other who they can associate with, what they can say, and even what websites they can visit, and threatens to denigrate the other person or withdraw support if complete compliance is not achieved. We would rightly encourage someone experiencing this abuse to terminate the relationship, assert themselves, and set limits for appropriate behavior. Our relationships within the context of animal advocacy are no different. Nobody deserves to experience abuse – be it physical, sexual, or psychological – and we have an obligation to speak out against such injustice just as we speak out against injustice towards nonhuman animals. Moreover, we need to pay attention to others who are speaking out and support them.
Of course as animal advocates we will often have fundamental disagreements with others, and we may be tempted to lash out at them or exert control over them. We must learn to critique others’ viewpoints without manipulating, denigrating, or threatening them because not only are such behaviors abusive, but they also are counter-productive if we want them to understand and adopt our perspective. Yes, we need to speak the truth even when it’s hard for others to hear, but if we learn to do so assertively and not abusively, we will be much more effective and much less harmful.
As I’ve discussed in my book, animal advocates often have histories of experiencing trauma and abuse. For many of us, these trauma experiences make us particularly sensitive to injustice that nonhuman animals experience. It is damaging enough to be constantly exposed to the horrors of our collective animal use, and the indifference to this injustice that so many hold. When we perpetuate abuse towards each other, we are not only doing harm to human animals, but we’re also making it harder for these individuals to advocate for nonhuman animals. Our goal should be to end all unnecessary trauma and abuse, as that is the essence of veganism.
Breiding, M. J., Chen, J. & Black, M. C. (2014). Intimate partner violence in the United States – 2010. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_ipv_report_2013_v17_single_a.pdf.
Coker, A. L., Davis, K. E., Arias, I., Desai, S., Sanderson, M., Brandt, H. M., & Smith, P. H. (2002). Physical and mental health effects of intimate partner violence for men and women. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 23, 260–268.
Follingstad, D. R., Rutledge, L. L., Berg, B. J., Hause, E. S., & Polek, D. S. (1990). The role of emotional abuse in physically abusive relationships. Journal of Family Violence, 5, 107–120.
Taft, C. T., Murphy, C. M., King, L. A., Dedeyn, J. M., & Musser, P. H. (2005). Post-traumatic stress disorder symptomatology among partners of men in treatment for relationship abuse. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114, 259-268.
Casey is co-owner of Vegan Publishers and Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. He’s an internationally recognized researcher in the area of violence and abuse prevention, winning prestigious awards for his work from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has published over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific reports. He has authored the recently released Motivational Methods for Animal Advocacy: A Clinical Psychology Perspective, and has a book forthcoming on trauma-informed violence prevention, to be published by the American Psychological Association.