A personal examination of meat, masculinity, and morality
We live in a world where real men eat meat. Studies show that across continents and cultures, men eat substantially more meat than women. Men are ten times more likely to kill animals for sport, and in cultures that hunt for subsistence, men do almost all of the killing and most of the eating. Research has consistently shown that men are half as likely as women to go vegan or vegetarian — this should be no surprise to anyone, given how frequently men deride vegetarianism as effeminate and associated with homosexuality. Though the homophobia is disappointing, the mental image of a man consuming sausage to prove his heterosexuality is an amusing one.
Male meat consumption is, in part, driven by insecurity. Bias evaluations show that male vegans — significantly more so than female vegans — are viewed as socially threatening. Psychological research suggests that a primary reason men eat meat is that it makes them “feel like real men.” One recent study demonstrated that when men have low self-esteem surrounding their manhood, they are likely to increase their red meat consumption to compensate. Frozen steak for a bruised eye, cooked steak for a bruised ego. How manly.
Some men have taken this to extremes. The controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson, known for insisting that our culture’s “masculine spirit is under assault,” has gone so far as to adopt an all-beef diet. Yes, you read that right: The only thing Dr. Peterson eats is beef. It’s as if he is trying to compensate for our collective emasculation all on his own.
He does this to himself ostensibly for health reasons. Peterson insists that any deviation from beef devastates his body. For example, he claims that when he cheated on the diet with a sip of apple cider, he did not sleep at all for 25 days. If true, this would mean he inadvertently beat the world record for sleeplessness by two weeks. Despite explicit warnings from experts, others have followed suit, and the carnivore diet is suddenly quite stylish among so-called men’s rights activists.
In both behavior and opinion, meat is the elixir of the real man. It is at once a sign of manliness and a source of it. Abstaining from meat is despised as feminine, and eating nothing but meat is heroically masculine. Fruits and vegetables are for wimps; real men order steak, extra bloody.
Eating meat is bad for animals, the planet, and humanity — and, despite what they may think, it’s especially bad for the men themselves.
If we replace “meat” with any other food item, the absurdity of our circumstance becomes obvious. Imagine, for a moment, if men felt the same way about cantaloupes. Imagine if we lived in a world where men arbitrarily coveted cantaloupes as a source of masculine energy. Imagine if men prepared bowls of cantaloupe to comfort themselves whenever their manhood was questioned. Imagine if men who chose not to eat cantaloupes were viewed as feminine and meek, and men who consumed all-cantaloupe diets were admired as alpha males. We live at the same heights of insanity, we’re just too acclimated to notice our altitude.
This bizarre male obsession with meat might seem to be a harmless expression of fragility, but it has real consequences. Meat consumption is the number one cause of animal cruelty worldwide, and eating animals is a contributing factor to climate change, world hunger, antibiotics resistance, deforestation, worker exploitation, indigenous land theft, pollution, mass extinction, water usage, zoonotic diseases — I could go on. If cantaloupes were causing these problems, would they still be on the shelves?
Eating meat is bad for animals, the planet, and humanity — and, despite what they may think, it’s especially bad for the men themselves. Vegans and vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease, lower overall cancer rates, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower rates of hypertension, lower rates of type 2 diabetes, and a lower BMI than omnivores. Vegans overall are leaner than meat-eaters, and they live longer.
Does the patina of manliness that comes with refusing to be vegan justify the consequences?
If we look closer at the data, we see that the more meat you eat, the worse it gets. Research links increased red meat consumption with heart disease, diabetes, and increased total mortality. The United Nations has identified red meat as a probable carcinogen, and processed red meat as a definite one. Steaks are the new cigarettes — they make you look manly until you look sickly.
Ironically, meat isn’t even good for the traits we usually define as masculine. Testosterone levels — perhaps more than any other measurable, physical trait — are synonymous with masculinity in the popular imagination. This is understandable since testosterone is what causes males to develop deeper voices, facial hair, increased muscular strength, as well as higher sperm production and sex drive; if anything physical can be called “manly,” testosterone can. And yet, despite what one might expect, vegans have higher testosterone than meat-eaters: A large study published in the British Journal of Cancer showed that vegan men have 13% higher testosterone levels than omnivorous ones. From a hormonal perspective, vegan men are the manliest on earth.
Despite this evidence, Dr. Shawn Baker — a famous advocate of Jordan Peterson’s carnivore diet, who has made a career out of attacking vegans online — has proudly suggested that an all-meat diet may increase testosterone. And in the past, he has argued that the drop in American male testosterone levels since the 1970s is possibly caused by the corresponding reduction in red meat intake over that same interval.
He has since stopped making this argument, and it’s no mystery why. Baker recently took a blood test that showed his own testosterone levels had plummeted on an all-meat diet. It turns out, eating dead animals wasn’t the best thing for his manhood. He reacted in a blog post as follows:
I tested a early am testosterone back in January low and behold, it was shockingly low!! 227 ng/dL. This falls below the normal range of 270–1070. How can this be as you are a big strong, lean guy who supposedly has excellent sexual function (I checked and I do). So how is this possible?
The typos, pronoun shifts, and grammar mistakes are his, not mine. Baker found this result persuasive, but not in the way you would think — these results convinced him to take the unorthodox position that low testosterone can actually be a good thing. I suppose all evidence supports your argument if you start from your conclusion.
From a cultural perspective, people may view meat as an aid to virility; from a biological perspective, it is quite the opposite. Trying to increase one’s masculinity by consuming meat is like trying to gain weight by running marathons.
High testosterone isn’t the only masculine benefit of veganism. As you’ve likely seen on social media, rather flashy experiments in the recent Game Changers documentary demonstrated that a plant-based diet allows men to have significantly longer, harder erections; animal products had the opposite effect. A more scientific (albeit less entertaining) randomized controlled trial showed that reducing cholesterol and saturated fat intake — nutrients omnipresent in animal products, and virtually absent from a plant-based diet — can help cure erectile dysfunction. If men like Baker actually have the “excellent sexual function” they boast about on the internet, they do so despite their diet, not because of it.
Unless you want to include obesity, early death, low testosterone, and impotence in your definition of masculinity, excluding meat is far more manly than choking it down. From a cultural perspective, people may view meat as an aid to virility; from a biological perspective, it is quite the opposite. Trying to increase one’s masculinity by consuming meat is like trying to gain weight by running marathons.
Itwould be better for animals, the planet, humanity, and men themselves if they stopped intertwining their masculinity with meat. And as we’ve shown, it would also be far more consistent with the available data for men to attach their masculinity to fruits and vegetables instead.
Many individuals in the vegan movement recognize this and are attempting to associate veganism with masculinity to make the practice more palatable for males. Entire blogs have popped up dedicated solely to this project, and vegans have written books with titles like Meat is for Pussies. Most famously, the Game Changers documentary worked hard to leverage conventional ideas about masculinity in favor of the vegan cause, displaying veganism as a lifestyle of physical strength, aggression, power, and virility. In all of these projects, the message is clear: Real men go vegan.
This persuasion through emasculation fails to address the deeper problem: That men care more about their masculinity than their morality. We should not ask or care what is masculine; we should only ask what is moral.
Though these projects may serve the greater good, and while I understand the impulse behind them, I can’t help but feel that this persuasion through emasculation fails to address the deeper problem: That men care more about their masculinity than their morality. We should not ask or care what is masculine; we should only ask what is moral. Meat consumption fuels a chain of cruelty and violence, and it exacerbates a nightmarish laundry list of environmental and humanitarian issues. We cannot afford to tolerate trivial questions of masculinity in conversations of such importance.
Perhaps, some vegans might argue, the importance of the issue is what justifies the appeal to masculinity in the first place. After all, if veganism is indeed so morally superior, should we not use every tool at our disposal to help spread it? Inasmuch as the appeal is effective, I agree. But we cannot honestly pretend there is no trade-off here: By appealing to a man’s masculinity, instead of his morality, we validate him putting his priorities in that order.
In my own life, I have never prioritized masculinity, and it has allowed me to avoid much of the attendant nonsense. This attitude came about only through coincidences of birth, as my parents didn’t care much about enforcing traditional gender roles. I remember going to school wearing my older sister’s Uggs and my mom’s knock-off Peuterey jacket, and my parents never suggested I dress differently. I’m a little embarrassed by such fashion choices now, but certainly not because they were feminine.
I normally might have been bullied into conformity by my peers in middle school, but my luck continued: I hit a growth spurt in seventh and eighth grade that turned me into a 6-foot-tall 14-year-old. I soon became a local boxing champion, winning the New England middleweight belt for my age group. In the eyes of adolescents, physical dominance makes you manly by default, and so growing up, I was free to do whatever I wanted.
We should all want this same freedom for every man. In our social interactions, we should stop policing the behavior of young men to conform with some arbitrary masculine ideal.
I used this social freedom to dye my hair pink, perform in plays and musicals, wear drag at events, and get my ear pierced without asking or caring which was the “gay side.” These are the sorts of frivolous liberties that come with not caring, for which many young men are too riddled with anxiety.
Perhaps most importantly, though, I have always felt free to do the right thing even when it wasn’t the manly thing. I’ve been able to diffuse most confrontations without escalating to violence — though violence is almost always seen as masculine, it is rarely morally justified. When my fiancée took a job making over three times as much money as me, I celebrated her success. (Most men feel anxious when their wives succeed professionally. Frankly, we should view this as a widespread form of insanity.) And, of course, I’ve felt free to go vegan, even if it means some people will call me a “soy boy.” Caring about animals may not be the manliest thing in the world, but I couldn’t care less if it were.
We should give men space to grow up, and learn to find more important things to worry about than the gender implications of a food item.
We should all want this same freedom for every man. In our social interactions, we should stop policing the behavior of young men to conform with some arbitrary masculine ideal. We should test our young men against moral standards rather than masculine ones — and, in cases where ethics are irrelevant, we should let men be as masculine or as feminine as they would like to be. We should permit men to dress how they please, and teach men to be proud of their wives’ careers instead of jealous of them. We should give men space to grow up, and learn to find more important things to worry about than the gender implications of a food item. We should want these things not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the humans and other animals with whom they share the world.
The Venn diagram of what is masculine and what is moral is not a perfect circle. Sometimes, stereotypically masculine characteristics such as bravery and aggressiveness will be necessary to do the right thing; other times, stereotypically feminine traits such as gentleness and empathy will be far more facultative to a better world. One should be open to whatever the best course of action is, regardless of where it falls on this imagined spectrum.
Our goal as humans should not be to merely align our behavioral decisions with the stereotypes of whatever sex or gender we happen to be. Instead, we should seek to behave in a way that reduces meaningless misery and brings joy to ourselves and the lives of others.Tenderly
A friendly + radical vegan magazine dedicated to living well with kindness towards animals, care for the planet, and justice for all.