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The sexual and ethical ambiguity of the beloved bivalve



Late December always makes me hungry for the briny bodies of oysters. But there's a snag: I'm vegan. Veganism carries many unwarranted associations: extremism, intractability and fussiness. Unwarranted, I say, because these oversimplify the nuances of veganism. For some, the diet is an ethical, animal-rights or environmental stance. For others, being vegan is a choice for better health, a cultural custom or even an indicator of chicness.

I prefer to think of veganism as a line in the sand that demonstrates a desire to pay attention to my impact on the planet, however difficult such an ambition is.

I'm aware that my physical health and the chemotherapies and medication that keep me alive are built through the suffering and labor of animals. Our actions—tilling organic vegetable fields, walking through a forest, driving a car—all can harm the lives of many creatures.

Reducing the suffering of animals is a founding tenet of animal rights. So, perhaps not surprisingly, oysters mark a peculiar place in vegan politics and animal-rights discourse. Christopher Cox, a self-identified vegan, wrote an essay about "[w]hy even strict vegans should feel comfortable eating oysters by the boatload." He writes, "Biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants."

Cox explains this correlation, "Since oysters don't have a central nervous system, they're unlikely to experience pain in a way resembling ours—unlike a pig or a herring or even a lobster."

He reminds the reader that animal-rights ethicist Peter Singer also has long questioned the suffering of oysters. But in Animal Liberation (1975), Singer offers the idea that since evidence suggests oysters feel no pain, they can't suffer. And since current thought is that plants don't suffer or feel pain, then animals that also don't feel pain should be ethical foodstuffs.

I'm dubious about all this reasoning. How do we know plants don't suffer? What exactly constitutes suffering? And why are invertebrates—snails, corals, worms, oysters—often banished to "the fringe" of animal-rights concerns? How is a chicken's suffering more important than the mosquito's, the flea's or the tapeworm's?

These positions liberate some people from the problem of killing while defining others as unethical with regard to animal suffering. Maybe because I have been living with illness, in and out of hospitals, medicated beyond belief, I am less interested in finding a pure position from which to assess the failings of others. Unavoidably and unfortunately, I, too, am in the filth and ambiguity of it all.

Oysters themselves reflect this ambiguity. After the oyster's larval stage, he stays a he for a year. Then some longing surges through him, and he is a she, and spews for months. She will remain she, unless she feels compelled to become a he.

Oysters on average change sex up to four times a year. He is a she, then a he, but soon will be a she again—a queer little creature.

I feel some solidarity with this little he/ she, this sexually fluid being. Sarah Waters' 1999 novel Tipping the Velvet (later a TV series) tells the story of Nancy, an oyster shucker who discovers the pleasure of being a man. Nancy is oysterish and capricious, reveling in the fluidities and ambiguities of sex. Like Nancy, the oyster's inbetweenness—which is only uncanny because of our boringly simple human ideals about sex difference—offers me room to understand my own sexual fluidity.

Transsexuality is just one way of being human. While I am trans and the oyster is not, both our sexes are permanently under revision, because life itself is an engine of change and differences.

So, here I am, a vegan transsexual (that sounds like the start of a joke) at the fishmongers. And there they are: osseous and oysterous (not an actual adjective, but isn't it perfect?). I pick one up to feel its heft, and lean in to sniff. Truth be told, I've been swotting up vintage recipes: Oysters Rockefeller, oyster ketchup and oyster stew. But in all honesty, I prefer them raw and alive as they slide down my Champagned throat. Beastly, I know. But there it is. Oyster-gulping vegan? A morally bogus ethicist?

Perhaps because it's December, the end of the year, I'm reflecting on my failings, my poor health, my triumphs and pleasures. Although December is amped with hopes for goodwill and kindness, it is also a time of reflection. Unavoidably, our past leaves impressions on our present like an abrasion or grit of sand.

December marks a cut in time, a divide between years and another step forward. Perhaps, then, December is a time of pearls. For oysters, irritants are usually the remnants of parasites—"worm coffins"—covered in a pearl sack to protect the soft mantle.

Pearly December is a teacher: We are who we are becoming. Our contradictions and volatilities, those little wounds in the self, are conditions of possibility. So, instead of resolving to clean up my act in the New Year, I'm going to sit with the pearls in my life, those incongruities and discomforts that actually bring luster and surprise.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Vegans and oysters."

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