My Boyfriend's A Meat Eater

Can vegetarians mate with meat-eaters?

Men who can't say no. Women who can. And what will the children eat?

First published in Vegetarian Living magazine

Why are there so many more veggie women than men? Is a relationship with a meat-eater viable, and can you turn him into a vegetarian as well as turning him on? Alex Bourke investigates.

Most of the mail received at the Vegetarian Society is from women and girls – why? Sean McElherron, former Youth Education Manger, puts it down largely to cultural programming. “In general, girls are more compassionate than boys. In our culture, it’s not seen as macho to be compassionate towards animals.” But a man who dares to follow his conscience may be quietly stronger than one who runs with the pack.

Psychologist Dr Kay Sheehan from Denver, Colorado, says, “Women are usually more aware of their emotions, including compassion. Many men are emotionally blocked.”

So can you explain vegetarianism to your man and convert him? Peter Cox, author of Why You Don’t Need Meat, asserted in a talk at the Living Without Cruelty exhibition in London: “I’ve never met an intelligent person who, when presented with the arguments, didn’t become a vegetarian.”

But Dr Sheehan disagrees. She gives lectures and workshops around the world on power struggle resolution and control issues, and had a workshop on the psychology of animal abusers at the 1993 Vegan Festival in Spain. According to Dr Sheehan, there are enormous social pressures on men to eat meat – from advertising, colleagues, friends and those who cook for them.

“Men feel helpless in that, because they tend not to cook, they eat what’s there. Women are more able to experiment, as they generally control the kitchen. Men don’t make the effort to seek out something different and don’t know what to suggest. In fact, many men are pretty dependent.”

The hunky guy with the surfboard in the Meat and Livestock Commission’s Meat to Live ads goes right to the core of men’s insecurity about their masculinity, in the same way that cigarette ads imply that women smokers are rather more independent and sexy. And it’s hardly surprising that men may feel vegetarianism to be more of a women’s issue when you look at the promotional blurb published by the Commission. In it’s widely distributed leaflet Meat the Facts, in the section entitled But what about vegetarianism?, there is no reference to male vegetarians – only women. This zero status is not likely to encourage would-be male veggies.

The pressure to be a ‘normal’, ‘real’ man continues at work and play. “Men rag each other a lot more than women do,” says Dr Sheehan. “That’s how they keep each other in line.” Vegetarian Chrissie from London, married to a meat-eater, says, “My sporting husband doesn’t like to be different. He just likes to be the norm.”

To be a vegetarian at the office and in the locker room, a man must already have good social skills and the respect of his mates. “If a person has the respect of his peers,” says Dr Sheehan, “then it doesn’t really matter what he does. It’s like a gay or a lesbian coming out, having already gained the respect of the group.”

Karen, who works for a charity, says, “I went out with a meat-eater for three years. It was horrible. I thought, ‘I’m a nice person, why am I doing this?’ I didn’t like to go to restaurants. I even used to buy him meat. Now I’m shocked at all the things I used to do. It wasn’t good for me.”

Her new boyfriend John is a vegetarian who has recently become a vegan, and Karen thinks he’s wonderful. “If a man isn’t vegetarian or vegan, his whole outlook on life tends to be different, which causes problems in a big way,” she says. Ginny, a teacher, hasn’t gone out with non-veggies for years. She reckons that: “The longer you’re vegetarian, the more intolerant you become.”

Social work nurse Ulla Troeng of the Swedish Vegan Society points out that the situation is exacerbated for vegan women who would rather date the ultra-rare vegan male than an ovo-lacto-vegetarian. Vegan Lesley remembers, “My first boyfriend gave up fishing and eventually went vegetarian. But he reverted to meat-eating after we split up. If you can’t tolerate being with a meat-eater, it’s best to look for people who share your view. If they’ll only change for you, it’s really for the wrong reasons.” Lesley is now happily married to Paul, a vegan, and they have two beautiful vegan children.

Natasha finds there are fundamental problems when trying to hit it off with a meat-eater. She couldn’t help laughing when a recent date got a chicken bone stuck in his teeth. “How can you feel close to someone who eats several animals a year? No matter how much you like the person, it creates a chasm.” Now she realises she doesn’t have to date a meat-eater who may possess other redeeming features, and mixes with people who share her beliefs.”

But for some women it’s not that easy. Santoshni, a Sri Lankan vegan, can’t bring herself to go out with a non-vegan. Her community admires her compliance with the ethic of compassion, but she doesn’t know a single male vegan within it.

So is it possible to live with a meat-eater? Ulla Troeng comments that although vegetarian men very rarely cook meat for their girlfriends or wives, women are often expected to cook it for their partners and children.

However, Chrissie, a personal assistant, isn’t prepared to serve up meat for her carnivorous husband. “Dave is very considerate because he knows how much meat offends me, so he doesn’t eat it at home. I think he knows that if he did, I’d leave him! If he’s just eaten meat I don’t feel as close to him. Eating out, we tend to go to a veggie place, or somewhere I can get a good meatless meal.” But she’s worried about having kids and Dave doesn’t want to discuss how they’d bring them up…. (Chrissie and Dave later broke up.)

“Family reaction when you become vegetarian is especially negative from parents,” says Ulla Troeng. “In the longer term they may come to accept it – and even become vegetarian themselves. But when you have a child the criticism can return. Or the (meat-eating) husband might not want the child to eat vegetarian food. This often ends in separation.” Ginny, who has two children, points out that there can also be problems with grandparents over presents such as leather shoes.

Despite the fact that surveys such as Realeat reveal that there are are more male veggies than ever before (especially in Scotland), it can still be difficult to track them down! Where is a woman likely to find a meat-free man, other than through a vegetarian dating agency? It’s important to network and go to meetings so as not to feel isolated. Ginny, for example, meets men through vegan friends and green events.

Of course, the preference for a vegetarian love is a two-way thing: veggie men are delighted to meet veggie women. Dan, a tall, vegan professional say, “As a vegetarian I used to date meat-eating women. It was difficult. When you’re kissing, it’s not a nice thought what might be stuck between her teeth. I’m definitely more attracted to vegetarians.”

“People think that because someone’s a vegetarian, they’ll share lots of other beliefs,” comments Dr Sheehan. “Be aware that this isn’t necessarily true. For example, a person who calls himself an environmentalist could be a big meat-eater or even a hunter.” (Like certain members of the British Royal Family.)

Some vegetarian men seem to be gormless, deep-green beardies. And some animal rights activists – perhaps because of their general isolation – are loners and socially clumsy. They can think globally about campaigns without being aware of the effect they’re having on the person in front of them

Says Suzanne from London, “The fact that they’re vegan shows they’re able to think about something and come up with the right answers. I assume they’ve thought about a lot of other liberty and equality issues, and am disappointed when they haven’t.”

Or there could be other crucial differences in outlook. “Just because you’re a vegan woman, they assume you’re looking for a partner,” Suzanne continues. “They want to whisk you away to their caravan to grow vegetables, have loads of children and lose all your friends.”

Kerry, another teacher, has also discovered that sound views on animal welfare, the environment and health do not guarantee sound views on other subject. “I find that many vegan men are quite sexist,” she says. Ginny’s objections to vegan men she has dated include lack of social skills and emotional underdevelopment.

Dr Sheehan explains: “For some people, there’s more to vegetarianism than diet. If you share a common philosophy then, as your partner becomes more aware, he may change. Many people focus on animal rights. You need to think about why you are a vegetarian, and look for a similar outlook in a man.”

Rebecca, a writer, tells the tale of her partner Gordon. When they started dating she realised that beneath Gordon’s confrontational exterior was a caring, sensitive man. “I saw in him what he didn’t,” she says. Influenced by her example, after three years Gordon became a vegetarian, then a vegan. It also gave him something new to argue about!

Many people, not just men, think that what they do isn’t going to make a difference. But if everyone had that attitude, we’d still be living in caves. Social change occurs through individual change. “So,” concludes Dr Sheehan, “if you believe your man is blocked and has buried sensitivity, he may be worth spending more time with. Most vegetarian men were once meat-eaters. If they changed, so can other men.”

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