The Bestiality Perplex

Chatterbox has been brooding all weekend about what his policy should be regarding bestiality. It hasn’t come up before, partly because Chatterbox doesn’t own any pets, and partly because he wasn’t aware that bestiality had become a political issue until he read an outraged March 30 editorial on the subject in the Wall Street Journal. As a matter of personal preference, Chatterbox would characterize himself as a heterosexual speciesist (and happily married man). But what are Chatterbox’s views concerning interspecies congress among others?

Perhaps we should back up a bit. The Journal’s ire was directed at an essay titled “Heavy Petting” by Peter Singer on the highbrow porn Webzine Nerve. Singer is, of course, the notorious bioethicist whose Princeton appointment three years ago caused a mild ruckus because of his hard-line views about animal rights. (It was Singer who coined the term “speciesist.”) In the Nerve essay, which is actually a review of a new book about bestiality called Dearest Pet, Singer argues that the taboo against bestiality should be dispensed with. The foundation for Singer’s argument is the Aristotelian view that man is part of nature, as opposed to the Platonic view that man exists apart from nature. (A chunk of Al Gore’s sophomoric eco-tome, Earth in the Balance , is dedicated to criticizing the Platonic worldview and embracing the Aristotelian one, a stance that Lynne Cheney attacked rather unfairly in her plodding anti-political-correctness jeremiad, Telling the Truth. Had Singer’s Nerve essay surfaced before the November election, Gore’s Aristotelianism might have tempted the Journal’s high-spirited partisans to declare Gore the animal fanciers’ fellow traveler. Though, as Chatterbox has written before, Gore toward the end of the campaign attempted a bold raid on the Platonist camp.)

In Singer’s philosophical construct, zoophilia is just another, slightly less conventional way for humans to assert fellowship with the rest of God’s creatures:

There are many ways in which we cannot help behaving just as animals do–or mammals, anyway–and sex is one of the most obvious ones. We copulate, as they do. They have penises and vaginas, as we do, and the fact that the vagina of a calf can be sexually satisfying to a man shows how similar these organs are. The taboo on sex with animals may, as I have already suggested, have originated as part of a broader rejection of non-reproductive sex. But the vehemence with which this prohibition continues to be held, its persistence while other non-reproductive sexual acts have become acceptable, suggests that there is another powerful force at work: our desire to differentiate ourselves, erotically and in every other way, from animals.

To Singer, then, you’re a bigot if you’ll accept a Great Dane into your home but draw the line at letting your sister marry one. As with other sexual taboos, Singer argues, the one against bestiality has been violated regularly down through the ages: 

[Dearest Pet author Midas] Dekkers, a Dutch biologist and popular naturalist, has assembled a substantial body of evidence to show that humans have often thought of “love for animals” in ways that go beyond a pat and a hug, or a proper concern for the welfare of members of other species. His book has a wide range of illustrations, going back to a Swedish rock drawing from the Bronze Age of a man [engaged in sexual congress with] a large quadruped of indeterminate species. There is a Greek vase from 520 BC showing a male figure having sex with a stag; a seventeenth-century Indian miniature of a deer mounting a woman; an eighteenth-century European engraving of an ecstatic nun coupling with a donkey, while other nuns look on, smiling; a nineteenth-century Persian painting of a soldier, also with a donkey; and, from the same period, a Japanese drawing of a woman enveloped by a giant octopus who appears to be. …
Oh, never mind about the octopus. Singer concedes that few of these art works likely depict events that actually occurred, but he adds that in the 1940s, 8 percent of males and 3.5 percent of females reported at least one interspecies tryst to Dr. Alfred Kinsey, and that among men living in rural areas, it was more like 50 percent. In fact, subsequent surveys have found much lower percentages, leading one to suspect that Kinsey was demonstrating a bias having something to do with his training as a zoologist. (Click here to read a debunking of various bestiality urban legends.)Singer is clearly right that any sexual taboo based on the idea that sex exists solely for reproduction doesn’t make much practical sense, even for the boring heterosexual mainstream, in this age of contraception. But Chatterbox can’t join Singer in concluding that the sexual revolution should give bestiality a free pass. Singer is so focused on trying to persuade his readers that people are no better than animals that he forgets to take into account the welfare of the animal. The Journal editorial describes Singer’s essay as arguing that “the only real issues are whether you get the animal’s consent–and you don’t kill it as part of your pleasure.” In fact, though Singer does denounce sexual practices that involve outright cruelty, he doesn’t really explain how an animal can go about giving consent because, well, you know, animals can’t talk. Sure, a dog humping your leg may be conveying a certain message, but without the kind of verbal confirmation required these days by every college freshman manual (“no means no”), how can you be certain? Moreover, it isn’t immediately obvious that even if an animal could tell you its intimate desires that this would constitute informed consent, any more than would a “yes” from a homo sapiens under the age of 18. But wait, you say. Who cares whether an animal gives its consent or is the moral equivalent of jailbait? It’s not a person; it’s just a dumb animal. Who cares what an animal thinks? But this, of course, is not only an invitation to all kinds of animal cruelty, but also a contradiction to Singer’s core belief that animals and humans should be valued the same. Singer’s tolerance for bestiality is therefore not only repulsive and weird. It’s also … speciesist!