TWO things that you can find a lot of in Portland, Ore., are vegans and strip clubs. Johnny Diablo decided to open a business to combine both. At his Casa Diablo Gentlemen’s Club, soy protein replaces beef in the tacos and chimichangas; the dancers wear pleather, not leather. Many are vegans or vegetarians themselves.
But Portland is also home to a lot of young feminists, and some are not happy with Mr. Diablo’s venture. Since he opened the strip club last month, their complaints have been “all over the Internet,” he said. “One of them came in here once. I could tell she had an attitude right when she came in. She was all hostile.”
Mr. Diablo isn’t concerned with the “feminazis,” as he calls them. As a vegan himself, he says he hasn’t worn or eaten animal products in 24 years and is worried about cruelty to animals. “My sole purpose in this universe is to save every possible creature from pain and suffering,” he said.
Casa Diablo is just the latest example of selling veganism with a “Girls Gone Wild” aesthetic to draw the ire of vegans who complain that such tactics may get people to pay attention to animal cruelty, but for the wrong reasons. In Los Angeles, some frown at the scantily clad Vegan Vixens — a kind of animal-loving Pussycat Dolls — who perform songs like “Real Men Don’t Hunt” at fund-raisers for animal welfare groups.
And many vegans who want to publicize cruelty within the fur industry are nonetheless dismayed by the new “Ink, Not Mink” advertising campaign from peta2, the youth arm of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It features members of the Internet-based pinup group the Suicide Girls, sporting little more than tattoos and body piercings.
This isn’t the first time animal rights activists have been accused of sexism. Many vegans have long criticized PETA for using naked celebrities in its advertising campaigns and for staging stunts like naked protests.
Isa Chandra Moskowitz, a cookbook author, is among those who believe such images twist the vegan message. “As a feminist, I’m not keen on the idea of using women’s bodies to sell veganism, and I’m not into the idea of using veganism to sell women’s bodies,” she said.
Ms. Moskowitz is the host of an online forum, Post Punk Kitchen (www.www.theppk.com), some of whose members are debating Mr. Diablo’s vegan strip club. (Last week Mr. Diablo put the club up for sale, although not because of the criticism, he said. He may have overestimated the appeal of stripping to vegans, or of vegan cuisine to striptease fans; an earlier vegan restaurant he ran was poorly received.)
The issue of sexism in vegan circles is “extremely polarizing,” said Bob Torres, an author of “Vegan Freak,” a guide to living a vegan lifestyle, which generally means avoiding the use of animals for food, clothing or other purposes. Mr. Torres, like many vegans, disavows the “essential idea at the heart of some animal rights activism that any means justifies the ends,” he said. Certain activists, he added, care only about “animal suffering and ignore the suffering of humans,” a category into which he would put women who are exploited.
According to a 2006 Harris poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, which publishes The Vegetarian Journal, only about 2.3 percent of the adult population of the United States is vegetarian. At most, half of those are practicing vegans. But the vegan philosophy has achieved a prominence greater than those small numbers would indicate. There are many celebrity acolytes, including Natalie Portman, who recently introduced a line of nonleather shoes. The best-selling diet book “Skinny Bitch” and a follow-up cookbook, “Skinny Bitch in the Kitch,” promote veganism. Both have been accused of sexist undertones.
People adopt a diet free of animal products for a variety of reasons. They may believe it is healthier or more environmentally friendly. They may support animal rights. In addition, veganism is often part of a larger progressive agenda, which makes many particularly sensitive to sexism charges.
Carol J. Adams, the author of “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” a bible of the vegan community, said that women’s rights and the rights of animals have often been aligned. She traces the relationship to the 1890s. “A lot of feminist suffragists also became vegetarian,” said Ms. Adams, who gave up meat in 1974 while living in a feminist community in Cambridge, Mass. She noted that Susan B. Anthony attended a dinner at which the toast was for “Total Abstinence, Women’s Rights and Vegetarianism.” (An unrepentant omnivore, Ms. Anthony had a predilection for porterhouse steak.)
Ms. Adams added that feminists were early adopters of vegetarianism. “Back in the ’70s, lots of women were saying, ‘I don’t want to be a piece of meat. I’m not going to eat a piece of meat,’ ” she said.
Vegans who use sexuality to promote the cause say it is a good way to convert carnivores — in particular, men. Sky Valencia, the founder of the Vegan Vixens, said her group targets “the people who buy Playboy and Maxim and watch talk shows like Jerry Springer. Those are the people we want to educate because they don’t know anything about the environment or animal rights issues or health.”
The Vixens have a cookbook in the works and will appear on a new television show, “30 Days” with Morgan Spurlock, in an episode about a hunter who has to live with a group of PETA activists for a month. Ms. Valencia said that she has taken a lot of flak from “the stricter women vegans — they are sometimes a little tough on using sex appeal to sell an idea, but sex appeal is everywhere.”
And, she said, men have told her that it works. “We’ve gotten a lot of men eating vegetarian, if not vegan.”
In a culture where hamburgers and steak are considered emblems of masculinity, this may be no small feat. Most men have never even tried vegetarian food, Mr. Diablo of Portland said. “It’s as if it’s going to threaten their manhood.” He said that introducing veganism to them at a strip club makes the notion more, well, palatable, even if the formula didn’t seem to work as well as he had hoped.
Elaine Vigneault, 32, a vegan and former women’s studies major who lives in New York, doesn’t have a problem with a vegan strip club or a recent PETA protest in London in which a pregnant woman got into a cage in her underwear to draw attention to the treatment of pregnant pigs. “I think it’s really important that when reviewing and analyzing images of women, we take into account their perspective of what they’re trying to say,” Ms. Vigneault said.
Rory Freedman, an author of the “Skinny Bitch” books, which promote veganism in the guise of a diet, said women who are taking part in demonstrations and stripping off their clothes “are choosing to do so of their own free will.” The issues they are exposing, she said, “are the torture of animals that don’t have free will.”
Contributors to the popular feminist blog Feministing have criticized the emphasis of the “Skinny Bitch” books on weight loss, noting that some women with eating disorders use vegan diets to restrict their food intake. Ms. Freedman isn’t buying that critique. “It’s not politically correct to suggest women should be thin,” she said. “But it is healthier.”
Missy Suicide, a founder of the Suicide Girls, a Web site whose hundreds of alt-girl models post erotic pictures of themselves, has been a vegetarian since she was 6. She views her group’s participation in peta2’s “Ink, Not Mink” anti-fur campaign as both pro-animal and pro-woman. “We’re redefining beauty,” she said. “These aren’t the types of girls you’d see in most mainstream media as being beautiful.”
“Sexuality is what society will turn its head for more than anything else,” said Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, who added that the recent advertisements were just one of the group’s strategies. “We try to reach everybody in different ways.” She noted that the group has also shown naked men in ads.
Plus, she said, using female sexuality to draw attention to veganism is just one of many issues being discussed in the outspoken vegan community. “It’s not civil war,” she said. “It’s just a difference of opinion and people talk things out.”