We ain't nuthin' but mammals: beastiality, morality, and the law

By Anonymous

Zoophilia, or sexual relations between humans and animals, tends to be treated with utmost disgust. Those who engage in it are seen as transgressive, even dangerous. Anti-gay politicians such as Rick Santorum position bestiality as the vile bottom of a “slippery slope” down which society will slide if gay marriage is legalized. But how much of the bestiality taboo is actually innate, and how much of it is an archaic remnant of religious moralizing?

sexcolumn
sexcolumn

Some people distinguish between bestiality, the rape or sexual abuse of animals, and zoophilia, the formation of an emotional and sexual “love” connection with animals. Dogs and horses are the most common species involved. The famed Kinsey Reports, and similar surveys conducted by other researchers, suggest that between 4 and 9 percent of men and between 1 and 4 percent of women have had sexual interactions with animals. Kinsey claimed rates were as high as 50 percent in populations living on or near farms.

Sex with animals has been banned for centuries in many countries. In sixteenth-century England it was punishable by death. It has been illegal in the U.S. since 1778, considered an “unnatural” sex act that falls under the umbrella label of sodomy. Most anti-sodomy laws were struck down by Lawrence v. Texas (2003), but many states have passed specific statutes banning zoophilia or continue to indict zoophiles under animal cruelty laws.

In any case, bestiality and zoophilia were not widely considered pervasive or serious societal problems until the infamous Enumclaw, Wash. horse sex incident. In July 2005, a man died after engaging in filmed anal sex with a stallion, which resulted in a perforated colon. The ensuing investigation revealed that the farm was a popular attraction for people who wanted to engage in sex with animals. In 2006, the state of Washington made bestiality a felony.

It’s no wonder the bill was “an almost comically law easy to pass,” as “The Stranger” reporter Charles Mudede put it. Bestiality is “a practice that has no political support.”

The 2004 British documentary “Animal Passions” provides a non-judgmental look at zoosexual relationships in rural America, and shows just how marginalized zoophiles are. I sat, mouth agape, as men (and one woman) explained the depth of their sexual and emotional love for their respective animal partners. One man even arranged a marriage ceremony for himself and his pony.

Obviously, certain forms of zoophilia contain the potential for bodily harm, whether for the human or the animal. But these laws beg the question: is bestiality cruel to animals? Or is it just codified Victorian prudishness? If it isn’t cruel to animals—and if we accept the Supreme Court’s logic in Lawrence v. Texas that moral disapproval alone is insufficient grounds to prohibit private acts—aren’t anti-bestiality laws unconstitutional?

Anthropologists long thought the incest taboo was one of the few truly universal traits in human societies. As such it was often defended as being natural or innate, and therefore “correct.” Of course these days we know there are many exceptions to this theory, but from an evolutionary psychology standpoint (all the rage these days) it is tempting to simply declare that greater genetic variation is better for the species and incest is therefore wrong.

But is that declaration only tempting because it appeals to an existing moral ickyness we have attached to incest? If an incestuous couple does not procreate, or if they find out they are related (through a sperm donor, for instance) after already producing healthy offspring, experts are often left scratching their heads when they try to explain why the situation is unethical. Both Emily Yoffe, “Dear Prudence” advice columnist at Slate Magazine, and Dan Savage, sex and relationship advice columnist for “The Stranger,” have given their blessing to numerous consenting adults in happy, long-term incestuous relationships (so long as their relationships did not begin with any kind of abuse).

Clearly, arguments against bestiality wholly grounded in the idea that these actions are “unnatural” do not hold water. Furthermore, if we accept Kinsey’s figures of up to 50 percent, the practice is not even uncommon. But is it rape?

Sex without consent is rape. Consent between humans should be voluntary, enthusiastic, active, and informed. Consent to an action requires some knowledge about what the action involves. I don’t think animals have the self-awareness required to give consent. And certainly many cases of sex with animals do involve coercion.

But if animals can never, under any circumstances, engage in consensual sex with humans, then who’s to say that animals can consent to sex with other animals? If animals are inherently incapable of consent, then it would seem to follow that animal-on-animal sex is always rape. And certainly, then, more coercive forms of animal-on-animal sex, such as animal husbandry, is also cruel to animals.

The zoophilia question highlights some bizarre contradictions in our cultural norms concerning sex and animals. Almost all humans, when confronted with the right gruesome PETA video, seem to have an inherent aversion to animal cruelty. But we value the lives of certain animals—namely, those into whom we read more human traits such as emotion and intelligence—more than others, which is why I know so many people who will refuse a hamburger while wearing leather jackets and Uggs.

How do we quantify the harm we cause? How do we—can we at all—make a comparison between a raccoon dog’s life, sacrificed for a bit of fur trim, and an undocumented worker’s life, exploited for a box of strawberries?

Is the prohibition of zoophilia actually harmful to the well-meaning people who claim to love their animals, depriving them of loving relationships that they say make life worth living? Or is it only condemned because Big Agro doesn’t directly benefit from this particular form of animal mistreatment?

I don’t mean to suggest that we all become Jain monks, brushing our paths with special brooms to avoid hurting even the tiniest insects. But I do think personal ethics form the foundation for self-actualization and empowerment. We ought to take a closer look at where these cultural norms come from.