You Sexy Animal, You
It's back. It's hot. It's bestiality.
We have at the moment one of those confluences that drive the cultural chit-chat agenda. One new book details a circus trainer's allegedly orgasmic relationship with her tiger. Another book surveys bestiality through the ages. Meanwhile, a famous ethicist kicks up a media fuss by asking us to rethink our aversion to livestock lust. This as moviegoers flock to "The Animal," a comedy about a man, his genes faultily engineered, who veers towards wild kingdom sex.
Which invites two perfectly natural questions. 1) Yeah, sex with animals. What's up with that? And 2) Is nothing sacred? Why is it that so much of our public discourse is ruled by frenzied bouts of taboo grappling, and what good, if any, comes of it?
Let's start with the first. The news about bestiality, as it turns out, is pretty old, having lurked in the human imagination at least since the Bronze Age, when someone in Sweden made a rock drawing of a man copulating with a four-legged something. Imagery of people getting it on with the hooved or the tentacled adorns a 2500-year-old Greek vase, a seventeenth century Indian miniature, an eighteenth century European engraving, a nineteenth century Japanese drawing. Bear, one of the great Canadian novels, is Marion Engels' tale of a gentlewoman who prefers bruins.
It's hard to get a bead on how many people actually follow through these days. Dr. Alfred Kinsey asked Americans in the 1940s. Eight percent of males and 3.5 percent of females reported interspecies congress, as did half of men living in rural areas, according to Kinsey's widely cited, but disputed, data. As to partners of choice, Kinsey found that women tended towards pleasuring dogs with hand jobs or having the dogs pleasure them by licking. Austrian court records of the last century reveal that rural men prosecuted for bestiality were far more likely to have had intercourse with a cow than with whatever else was available in the barnyard.
This all by way of Dearest Pet: On Bestiality by Dutch author Midas Dekkers, which was published last year to quiet notice -- until Peter Singer got a hold of it. Singer holds a prestigious chair in bioethics at Princeton University, for which he was championed by Princeton President Harold Shapiro, who chairs a U.S. Presidential Commission mulling the rights and wrongs of everything from fetal-tissue research to human cloning. He's a noted animal liberationist, and he has drawn huge fire for concluding that in some cases infanticide and euthanasia are justifiable. So his enemies were paying attention when he took up "the love that dare not bark its name," as some wags have termed it.
Singer gave them plenty of ammo. His review for the erotic on-line magazine Nerve started off by noting that other historical sexual taboos, from sex without procreation to homosexuality to masturbation and sodomy are no longer viewed widely as perversions in this society. He goes on to say that bestiality is not only no new thing, in certain circumstances it's no big thing either. His view springs from an Aristotelian view of the world that sees humans as smartest of all animals, but nevertheless part of the continuum of nature. Plato, by contrast, worked hard to prove that humans, by virtue of consciousness and conscience, are separate from nature -- a view reflected in the Judeo-Christian teachings that only humans possess a soul and are made in the image of God.
Galloping further down the trail of Aristotle than even the Greek sage dared go, Singer does identify certain sex with animals as clearly out of bounds. The bizarre practice of copulating with a chicken and then lopping the bird's head off to enhance the sensations, for example, "is cruelty, clear and simple."
Singer forges on. "But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty. Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the legs of a visitor and vigorously rubbing its penis against them?" He also tells a story of a male orangutan who, displaying an erection, seemed to initiate sex with a frightened woman at the Leakey Camp in Borneo, but did not consummate the act.
While Singer never goes so far as to endorse sex with animals, he concludes by reminding that we are all "great apes," which therefore "does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural ... but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings."
Well, that set the chattering classes to chattering. Some of the reaction was righteously dismissive. Conservatives at the Wall Street Journal weighed in with an editorial titled "Animal Crackers" that deemed Singer beyond the pale of morality, unfit to advise the nation on bioethics. A San Francisco Chronicle columnist huffed: "You could say Singer's take on animal rights is: You can have sex with them, but don't eat them."
In other publications and on the Web, however, a nuanced discussion formed around what heretofore had been considered the most clear-cut and obvious of no-nos. Fascinatingly, the animal rights movement that considered Singer a hallowed leader split over his bestiality stance. Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) backed Singer. Of bestiality, she said: "If it isn't exploitation and abuse, it may not be wrong."
But those animal rights voices who attacked Singer, and there were many, did so by doubting whether it's ever possible for an animal to freely consent to sex with a human. Suddenly the debate had moved from whether bestiality diminished the human being, to whether it exploited the beast. A writer for Slate wondered "how an animal can go about giving consent because, well, you know, animals can't talk."
"Bestiality is wrong for the same reason pedophilia is wrong," argued the president of Friends of Animals, whose name is Priscilla Feral. (Really, it is).
The public discussion continued to morph into a nuanced examination of not only what constitutes "consent," but also the overall power relations that surround any sexual act. Farmers who gratify themselves with their livestock are the same as jailers raping their innocent captives, went the logic.
Even when Singer cited the aroused orangutan and leg-humping pet pooch as examples of animals inviting sex with humans, he failed to take into account that "the animals in question are in a form of human imposed captivity," wrote Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, which advocates for farm fowl. "What," she asked, "is a sexually mature male dog deprived of a normal sex life with a member of his own species supposed to do with his sex drive?"
"Even if animals can desire to have sexual contact with humans, that does not mean that they are 'consenting' to that contact any more than does a child who can have sexual desires (or who even initiates sexual contact) can be said to consent to sex," added Gary Francione, who cosigned the Declaration of Rights for Great Apes with Singer, but now disavows him.
Wade through all this, and you arrive richly prepared for The Final Confession of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough. The Toronto-based writer researched and wrote a novel about the life of Stark, a famous American circus performer of the 1920s who apparently engaged in regular sexual relations with her tiger Rajah. She did it in public even, wearing white to hide evidence of the tiger's ejaculation. When Stark and Rajah went through their mating ritual under the big top, the public mistook it for the drama of a circus trainer under bloodthirsty attack.
"It was a hell of an act," Hough told the Ottawa Citizen. "You've seen cats mating? It's really violent looking. It really must have looked like this cat was killing her, or about to. So, it was thrilling."
Hough's take on the tiger and the lady is that they were made for each other. "If you can get beyond the taboo, why not? Tigers are sexy animals," he avers. And Mabel was pretty nutty. She was a loner who escaped a psych ward to join the circus, and went through six husbands.
After all the discussion around Singer's review, however, you can't help but see that the behaviour shared by tiger and the lady was only "natural" because of the unnaturalness of their existences. Circus life is weirdly sensationalistic, nomadic, and claustrophobic for people, and it goes without saying that a performing tiger's life is one of cages, whips, sexual deprivation and nothing reminiscent of Bengal jungles. Whatever use Mabel and Rajah made of each other, it happened within the very sort of skewed power relations noted by Singer's critics. Evidence: Not every lion or tiger found Mabel to be the cat's meow. She suffered a dozen serious maulings during her career.
Which brings us to an answer of sorts for Question Number Two: Is no taboo sacred enough to be left off the agenda of a fevered media? Thankfully, no. Whenever a taboo is taken out of storage and given a good thwacking in the bright sunlight, that doesn't mean society will be weakened in its moral resolve. We may refine and evolve our morality over time, more and more of us deciding, for example, that the taboo against homosexuality denies basic human rights to fellow citizens, and so no longer merits social stigma.
But other taboos that condemn exploitation of the vulnerable -- those against pedophilia, for example -- are not about to collapse under the weight of thoughtful, thorough scrutiny. Rather, reasoned arguments, when joined to heartfelt disgust, will only strengthen such taboos.
Here is a key, and added benefit, though. As the bestiality conversation has revealed, what begins as a debate over one taboo can yield insights into all kinds of seemingly unrelated territory -- the issue of how to measure sexual consent, for example, or which ancient Greek world view might best inform bioethical debate. Taboo grappling is a serendipitous business. As I read Karen Davis's lament for the denied sex drive of the domesticated cocker spaniel, for example, I found myself musing about Kinsey's findings that up to half of rural American men in the 1940s reported fornication with fauna. I began to think of the men as captive animals, too, separated from willing women by vast spaces and religious strictures against pre-marital sex. It put a lie to nostalgia for better, agrarian, times.
Look, at the end of the day, who's really likely to be persuaded to take up with the neighbor's cockatoo? Permit me to offer one test, a barroom joke:
Two tourists are wandering the Australian countryside when they come across a sheep with its hind legs in a farmer's rubber boots.
"Shearing?" the tourists ask.
"Naaa. Get your own," answers the farmer.
If you think that's funny, even after all this high-minded back and forth about bestiality, then the age-old relationship between taboos and humour remains intact -- as Rob Schneider is proving with his starring role as "The Animal" in multiplexes across the continent.
A point of taboo-violating jokes is to create comradery by distancing the joke-teller and you his listener from the act he assumes you'll find bizarrely repulsive, too. This is why anti-gay jokes don't go over in my circle; there can be no such assumption. But, bestiality is still ripe for a good guffaw, judging from the people I've been trying that joke on lately.
I take this to mean civilization, and its pets, are safe for now.
David Beers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.