Man and Beast

» March 5th, 2013

Early last month Germany banned the practice of bestiality—an act classically defined as penetrative sex with a non-human animal. Of course, the first reaction most rational people had to this news was “you mean it was ever legal in the first place?!” Not only was it ever legal (since 1969) in Germany but it remains very much so in Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden.

The driving force behind this legality, and the most vocal opposition to the German decision to ban bestiality, was an interest group called ZETA—Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Information. Given the geographic distance between P and Z on the standard North American keyboard, ZETA, one might note, is not likely to be confused with PETA, which holds no stock in the act of bestiality.

In the wake of the German ruling, ZETA fought back. A representative said, ”It is unthinkable that any sexual act with an animal is punished without proof that the animal has come to any harm.” Needless to say, this kind of comment conveniently overlooks the fact that a non-human animal typically lacks the ability to provide an essential prerequisite for human sexual intercourse to be legal: consent. As the ZETA rep kept talking, though, it became clear that overlooking consent was a small element of a much more sinister problem. This person added, “We see animals as partners and not as a means of gratification. We don’t force them to do anything. Animals are much easier to understand than women.” This ZETA rep, again needless to say, was a man. The importance of this designation will be evident in the last paragraph.

A topic of such moral and sexual magnitude scrambles the mind and, I’m going to guess, I’ll lose about 100 subscribers with what follows. On the one hand it’s ridiculously simple—bestiality is wrong—end of column. But, on the other, it can and should be easily tossed into confusion. I’m not going to support bestiality in what follows, but I am going to drop my preconceptions and think aloud on this one in order to highlight a paradox and, however cursorily, register my opposition to bestiality on different grounds than you might expect.

Questions that arise: How does such exploitation meld with the human’s view of the animal he was buggering? Does this rather dramatic crossing of the species barrier inspire greater love and respect for animals? Or is it the opposite—that is, that demented people copulate with animals as a very sick pretext to eating them?  And which is worse, really, screwing or eating an animal? What if the ZETA people truly love the animals with whom they copulate? Should these emotions be dismissed and criminalized? As a heterosexual male, I do not understand romantic/intimate love for another man, but so what. I support gay marriage and believe in the moral equivalence of homo and heterosexual love (interestingly, the 1969 legality of bestiality was the same year homosexuality was given legal protection).

By what measure, other than speciesism, do I exclude non-humans from this acceptance? This last question, of course, assumes that there might be a way for an animal to consent to sex with a human—which might be possible, as animal ethologists always remind us how animals tell us what they want. Or maybe not. Either way, to deny the power of consent is to accept some level of human paternalism or selective speciesism. 

It’s worth noting that this anti-bestiality act was passed under a pre-existing welfare statute, thereby highlighting the reality that you can’t bugger and animal but you can slaughter her. Could this inconsistent legal right to exploitation have the unintended consequence of increasing awareness about the complexity of the human-animal relationship?  That is, if a cohort of humans were legally authorized to express genuine sexual and romantic intimacy with animals, might more people question the ethics of eating them? Do we have any proof that animals might enjoy the act? Maybe not those in, I swear it, “erotic zoos” or “animal brothels,” but perhaps those out on the free range?  All unlikely, of course. But I’m just trying out a few different positions here.

A historical take on bestiality yields some interesting stuff.  In colonial America, especially Puritan New England, bestiality was seriously bad news for human and non-human alike. Death. The hidden significance of applying a legally mandated sentence to both human and animal for a shared sexual act was the paradoxical inclusion of supposedly “alien” species in the same legal framework applied to humans. The law said “you and the goat” are fundamentally different. The sex act said, “well, your honor, not that different.”

This inclusion, in turn, reiterated Cotton Mather’s dictum that, as Colleen Glenney Boggs cites it, “We are all of us compounded of those two things, the Man and the Beast.” Castaway in a New England wilderness, the prevailing fear—obsession, really—was that humans’ inner beast would be let loose and civilized Puritans would devolve into savage Natives. There was no dichotomy between civility and nature and the slope from one to the other was slippery. Bestiality was evidence that such a declension could happen in the thrill of any moment, and as quickly as a tomahawk to the head.

Interspecies sex was also evidence that the species barrier, for all intents and purposes, was, well, fluid. Dangerously so. It is the avoidance of this reality, in my opinion, that recently led Germany to ban bestiality, rather than the animal welfare justification, which I think is totally bogus because, last I checked, you can still make sausage in Germany. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe we should reserve our genitalia for consenting members of our of own species, but the erotic zoo advocates who would beg to differ are, in serially and sexually violating animals, also highlighting the evolutionary continuum that we prefer to ignore when we slaughter animals. They might also be doing so with more love than we’re comfortable acknowledging.

The gender implications of bestiality are mind-blowing and, to a large extent, are the primary grounds upon which I condemn this act. Given that penetrative power is generally limited to men, the species-bending implications of bestiality locate far too much cultural and social power in the human penis.* Plus, I cannot shake the memory that Mather, the Puritan minister quoted above, had a weird love for bees and ants. These species, as he saw them, were orderly and self-sustaining and should left alone, he argued, to offer humans a model of how to live organized and hierarchical lives. It was only the animals that could be physiologically fucked, he implied, that were fair game for brutal domestication or extermination. Not an ideology conducive to the lives of Puritan women in the seventeenth-century. Or the twenty-first for that matter.

tomorrow: Big Bald Mike 

*I’m fairly certain this is the most bizarre sentence I’ve written to date.

NOTE: I added the emboldened sentence after several comments came in.


20 Responses to Man and Beast

  1. Linda Norris says:

    Very interesting. I mean VERY interesting. I started typing with the hope that a really intellectual response would just come to me but….. nope I can’t think of anything to say about this one. I was one of those people who thought it was already illegal so I will need to read this a couple of times…

  2. Edana says:

    Aside from the complete weirdness and creepiness of bestiality (sorry, but there you have it), it places waaaay too much power in the hands (penis?) of humans and doesn’t give enough allowance for consent. Animals are just too vulnerable — even if humans argued that an animal “wanted” it (i.e. a dog in heat). In a similar vein, we all know young kids like to play “doctor”; that doesn’t mean adults take them up on it.

    • James says:

      I agree. But, to further highlight the complexity of this topic, note the paternalism in your final analogy. So, am I to assume that animals are my children, subject to my domestication?

  3. Rebecca Stucki says:

    I don’t know why this concept is so tough for people (mainly men) to understand, but rape is rape is rape. Unless the animal (human or otherwise) is actively consenting (i.e., does not have to be coerced, restrained, drugged, intimidated or otherwise overpowered), the act of penetration into a bodily orifice for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification or for the purpose of insemination without consent is rape, and should never be legal.

  4. Lori says:

    Mamma mia! James, you are treading in dangerous territory here. (And also happened to use the first picture that really disturbed me.)

    Welcome! You have now entered the slippery slope when comparing homosexual love to human/animal “love.” (I wouldn’t call sex with animals “love” anymore than I would call what a rapist does to a woman or child love, btw. I don’t believe for a second that ZETA members love animals.)

    I also don’t believe this is an issue of human paternalism equals animals are property. We know that domesticated animals rely on us. To deny this, is to deny reality. We have an obligation to them. That doesn’t necessarily put them in child status. It puts them in a dependent one, which they clearly, are and will continue to be. And because of that, we have a special ethical imperative to protect them (and yes, that includes not killing them for meat or otherwise.)

    The real issue is anyone who is being exploited (including raped) needs to be looked out for and protected whether it be women, men, children, the mentally ill, the elderly or animals. If protecting animals from rape (and let’s be clear, a man penetrating an animal with his penis is rape) means being paternalistic, I’ll accept that. We can be protective of, say, young women without young women losing there legal or moral status. So too with animals. I see the outlawing of bestiality as a step towards ending all exploitation, not the opposite.

    And finally, one quote that stuck out for me in particular was from the ZETA man, “Animals are much easier to understand than women.”

    What a species we are!

    • James says:

      Thanks. The only “comparison” I made between homosexual and animal/human love was to suggest their commonality as non-normative heterosexual love. Your analysis, I would note, compared the vulnerability of domesticated animals with the vulnerability of young women, a comparison that suggests their commonality is their status as non-male paternalists. I agree this is dangerous territory, but I see no reason to avoid it because of that reason. Do you want to read a safe blog?

      • Lori says:

        Not complaining. Just pointing out.

        When I used young women as an example, it could very well have been any women or men. (Men are often raped, usually by other men.) Not to say that there has never been a case of a female raping a male or another female, but the norm in most cases is a male penetrating another with his penis or an object or forcing oral copulation. So I suppose we could be talking about females who force animals to do something, but that would be much harder to do, i.e., force an animal to take an action rather than tolerate something as a passive. The one thing that is easiest to do is to stick a peg in a hole. Not only that, it seems to be men who have the need to do it, and again, we are not talking about love here, but something violent and abusive.

        I’m not sure what you mean by “their commonality is their status as non-female paternalists.” Wouldn’t a young woman be a female? Did you mean their status as being protected by non-female paternalists? And if that is what you meant, I say no. The vulnerable, the downtrodden and/or a victim, can be protected by female and males alike, both in a paternalistic or maternalistic manner or neither. What about in a legal manner? A violent manner? A philosophical level? Does protection, or more importantly, does condemnation, necessarily invoke paternalism? When we women go out into the streets to protest violence against women and lobby for stricter laws, are we saying that women are less than equal beings that need to have the protection of daddy? No. But we are saying, they need protections.

        The commonality of animals and a human rape victim (any age or sex will do), as it turns out, can be quite close. Determining consent doesn’t seem to be an easy one for humans either.

        • ingrid says:

          I like your analysis, Lori. And James … I will never forgive you for indirectly sending me to the pages of Hani Miletski on this rainy afternoon :) — “Understanding Bestiality and Zoophilia”(

          What’s disturbing to me in this particular study (well, I admit quite a lot of things), is the assessment participants make on page 129: “Only six men (8%) and none of the women believed the sexual encounter was a “ negative” experience for the animal.” But then on pages 153 and 154, 48 percent of the same male participants admit to forcing sex on the nonhuman animals. A few out-of-context quotes from that section:

          –“ I’ ve turned over sheep on to their backs, but if they struggle too much I let them go.”
          –“Training an animal such as a sheep or goat which has never had sex with a human before, sometimes involves physical restraint until you override their instinctive urges to escape from sex out of heat/season or with a partner of a different species.”
          – Only with chickens could I call it force. I had to give chase. Mammals, no such instances have occurred.”
          – I have picked up give-away dogs and raped them and killed them.”
          – “Forced?Orrestrained?”

          The study involves an admittedly small sample of people, but there are patterns of sexual and behavioral confusion in the respondents comments that suggest an impossibility to make objective or rational decisions (and, of course, it can be argued that engaging these behaviors at all defies rationality).

          Even if I were to entertain the points you present about consent and speciesism, I just don’t see how we can presume clear, fully-informed consent when the animal cannot verbalize his or her feelings. Obviously, the fact that other species cannot speak our language has been used culturally and historically to prove an animal’s diminished cognizance. But taking the opposite stance — saying that we are asserting superiority or engaging speciesism by denying the power of consent — is, to me, equally speciesist. Either position is implying that we have the superior faculties to discern for them, what they cannot explicitly communicate. With an act that involves forcible entry, as it were, a presumption of consent by the other (even if it could be argued in some cases that consent appears to exist) is not true parity.

          • Lori says:

            Yes, Ingrid, when you said, “Either position is implying that we have the superior faculties to discern for them, what they cannot explicitly communicate” you are right on the money! We cannot ever be sure of consent with non-verbal beings and should always err on the side of protection.

  5. Carolle says:

    This subject is truly something to ponder. What a comparison of humans, animals, sex, and for some, love. Thank you for writing a challenging (for morals, for laws -state, federal and international-, and for the common sense) and thank you for having the courage to write about it. Of course the issue is not so black and white: sex vs death (or is it?), but it is truly something to ponder.

  6. franz says:

    In reaction to the comments and your responses to them: in your blog posting you did not even use the word rape, though you often used love. Yes, this is difficult.

    • Lori says:

      Yes, Franz. Good point. I think that many of us are just assuming that intercourse by a man with a female animal most likely doesn’t include love and mostly likely, doesn’t include consent. If men often find it hard to realize if human women, with language skills and all, are consenting, I can’t imagine that we can assume a consent by a non-human animal who lacks, at least verbal, language.

  7. Nadine says:

    A child cannot consent to sexual activity and the same most definitely applies to animals. Even if the animals are in heat or even if they demanded sexual contact, it is our moral imperative to refuse because as an adult or as a human in the relationship, we are in a position of power. This position of power allows us to demand certain behaviours of children or of animals that we deem necessary to their well beings. For example, we train our dog companions to walk on a leash because their lives could be endangered by cars etc. if they were to run free range down the sidewalk. This power relationship is definitely paternalistic and definitely necessary. The limits of this relationship are well established with regards to adult/children relationships; however, it seems we are only beginning to really define and create a structure of this relationship between human/animals. I would argue that animals in our care are akin to children with a special need to be protected, respected and guided.
    While society’s view of children has dramatically altered over the centuries, the view of animals as food as overwhelmingly remained the same and this is where we see the disconnect between rape/murder.

    • Nadine says:

      I would add that I view paternalism in this sense as relating to control and authority to dictate a person or animal’s actions based on the need to ensure their safety. A parent or guardian takes on the role of protector and educator to their children, much like we as humans have to take on this role for animals in our care. Where it is especially tricky is how we deem “what’s best” for humans/animals, but in instances where no consent is given or can be given, it is very clear to me.

      • Lori says:

        Yes, additionally, we as a society also consistently (and legally), impose paternalistic laws and rules for the betterment of society and the betterment of the individual who, perhaps, lacks some common sense. We pass seat belt laws, helmet laws, drug laws, encourage non-smoking, post restrictions and signs against swimming, etc. all the time.

  8. Bea Elliott says:

    I agree that this ranks up there with some of the most disturbed and disturbing topics regarding our relationship with nonhumans. A lot has been made clearer for me through this post and the subsequent comments. You have a very wise following. ;)

    The only other points I can make that may be relevant is that I think it’s odd that so much significance is placed on the (deviant) physical relationship with nonhumans as opposed to the devotion some have for their animals that far, far surpasses what they had with their mates.

    Take for instance the woman who has been a widow for decades. She swears that never again would she marry or have “intimate” relations with another. Yet… Has no trouble becoming a “crazy cat-lady” sharing her home with every Tom there is. Seems to me that giving your body away is rather common – It’s the oldest profession and all. But your heart? Now that’s treasured stuff…

    And the other point is just an observation I’ve made many times in regards to man’s curiosity (obsession) with viewing mating rituals of other species. I imagine that next to the Sears & Robucks catalog most young boys once learned nearly everything about “sex” through documentaries showing lions, elk or zebras in the act… Maybe this carnal-beast-love is something that’s a carry over from our very repressed past?

    Where ever it came from I wish it would go away. I’m all for laws against it – No way can a nonhuman give consent…

  9. Some Name says:

    Interesting comments, especially the ones originating from those who insist that they have the “right” to kill their own offspring.

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