United Poultry Concerns April 22, 2001
Bestiality: Animal Liberation or Human License?

"Heavy Petting," by Peter Singer, www.Nerve.com, March 12, 2001. Dearest Pet: On Bestiality by Midas Dekkers. 2000. London and New York: Verso. First published 1994.

By Karen Davis, PhD

In March, Princeton philosophy professor Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation (1975, 1990), published a startling book review essay, "Heavy Petting," in the online sex magazine Nerve. Singer's essay was prompted by Dutch writer Midas Dekkers' controversial book Dearest Pet: On Bestiality. Dearest Pet takes us on a journey of human sexual interest in and use of nonhuman animals as documented in art, literature, court records, personal confessions, veterinary files, and popular culture through history up to the present. Dekkers forces us to look at some old things in a new way. He says, for instance, that since the God of the Christians, like Zeus of the Olympians, once descended in the form of a bird to know a woman-the story of Leda and the Swan and the story of the Virgin Mary being visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove--Christianity "is founded on bestiality" (9). Of the perennial sexual abuse of farmed animals, Dekkers says that girls "have less opportunity than boys, if only because almost all animals are of their own sex: cows, ewes, sows, chickens, nanny-goats" (137), and that "Since animal abuse has been institutionalized in our society in the food industry, it cannot be difficult for sadism to find satisfaction" (147). Dekkers does not argue that human imposed sex with farmed animals per se is sadism; however, any sex with small animals such as chickens and rabbits, he says, "automatically involves sadism" (146). In addition to sexual abuse of small animals, Dekkers documents severe internal injuries that have been diagnosed in cows and calves as a result of their being raped by men using everything from their own bodies to pitchforks (126). He documents men getting revenge on female farmed animals who refuse their advances, showing another aspect of the link between nonconsensual sex and human violence. He cites a French farmer "who thought that many of his chickens and turkeys were dying in suspicious circumstances" (126). He persuades us that such circumstances may not be uncommon.

Even while noting that the sex life of domestic animals is "completely organized by human beings" (178), raising the question of whether the consent of a domestic animal is ever possible under any circumstances, desire notwithstanding, Dekkers says that "as long as none of those involved suffers pain, no form of sex should be seen as pathological, bad or mad" (148).

In his essay, Peter Singer is almost as equivocal as Dekkers is, though both seem to agree that whatever may or may not be wrong with it, the central issue in any sexual encounter between humans and other creatures is whether it involves cruelty, meaning coercion and/or infliction of physical pain and bodily harm, regardless of who the perpetrator is. Singer's suggestion that interspecies sex, whether initiated by humans or nonhumans, could conceivably be moral and mutually satisfying, raised a furor among many animal advocates. Some insisted that Singer should be exiled from the modern movement of which he is the "father"; others demanded that he step down as head of The Great Ape Project. While philosophy professor, Tom Regan, of North Carolina State University and the author of The Case for Animal Rights (1983), argued in the Raleigh News & Observer (April 3) that the morality of bodily contact cannot be reduced to issues of pain and pleasure alone, as Singer's utilitarian ethics might imply, the two main grievances advanced by animal advocates on the Internet were that Singer in publishing his shameless essay discredits our movement in the eyes of the public, and that nonhuman animals are not in a position to give informed consent either by virtue of other species' presumed inherent intellectual inferiority to humans or by virtue of the built-in constraints of captivity: the limited options, inability to escape, physical coercion, and psychological pressure that captivity imposes on a captive individual. I argued the latter in a letter published in The Village Voice, April 10, p. 6. Not only is it the height of arrogance to reduce the rest of creation to the level of planetary idiocy and human childhood; it's absurd. Adult nonhuman animals, from gorillas to guinea fowl, negotiate complex environments every day. They form adult relationships with their peers. They raise and teach their young. They socialize, provide nurturing, and groom themselves and each other (in birds it's called preening). As functional adults, nonhuman animals perform a multiplicity of cognitive acts, including practical decision-making, that are not exhibited by human children or the mentally impaired. Fair pleading demands that we stop "defending" other animals from ourselves by calling them "dumb."

Just as Peter Singer predicted in "Dearest Pet," the primary mainstream objection to bestiality, and to his essay, if the The New Republic and National Review Online are representative, is that sex between humans and nonhumans, regardless of the circumstances in which it occurs including rape, is "an offence to our status and dignity as human beings (5)." For Kathryn Lopez of National Review Online the red flag is any suggestion that "humans ain't nothing special" ("Peter Singer Strikes Again," March 8). She seemed more threatened by the prospect of shared speciality and by Singer's use of four-letter words than by what he had to say about what hens are put through by the egg industry-the institutionalized assault they endure so nonvegetarians can eat their eggs--and about the sexual assaults some hens have been forced to undergo from an animal whose hands are as big as a hen's entire body. Likewise Peter Berkowitz of the The New Republic (March 8) complained that for Singer, it appeared that "the only consideration we need bear in mind in using animals to satisfy our sexual desire is whether we are causing cruelty," as if to say that cruelty (or at least cruelty to animals, like animals themselves in his view) amounts to little more than a pesky footnote in the ethical account of humanity. Berkowitz seemed far more aggrieved by the idea that other creatures have a dignity that links us to them than by the cruelty we impose on them without a shred of compassion or restraint, which is exactly how hens are treated by the egg industry in the case that Singer cited to show how deeply woven into the fabric of human life human obscenity really is.

Most people who "raise" animals and who eat them and the products of their bodies, including their young, do so with no more remorse towards their victims than the acknowledged hen rapist feels towards his victim. This connection makes bestiality a core moral issue. From animal agriculture to zoos, the core of our relationship with the animals we use is our invasion of their sexual privacy and our physical manipulation of their sex, reproductive, and family lives. Historically, animal agriculture has facilitated bestiality, not simply because of the proximity of farmed animals, but because controlling other creatures' bodies invites this extension of a license that has already been taken. Humans engage in oral intercourse with unconsenting nonhuman animals every time they put a piece of an animal's body inside their mouth. Partly as a result of such eating, people over 50 with enough money in Western culture will soon be, if they aren't already, walking around with half their internal organs having been taken by force from creatures they think it demeaning of our species to have sex with. Instead of trivializing the case for animal rights or seeking to degrade humans, as some have asserted, Peter Singer's essay on bestiality helps to make the banality of what is truly bad as clear as the fact that parents who know that by feeding their children animal products they are setting them up for preventable health risks and medical bills are practicing child abuse.

The taboo that needs to be shattered is not the prohibition against bestiality, but against caring about nonhuman animals in a respectful, nonpatronizing, and unapologetic way, and against starting one's kids off the right way at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, no matter how much this causes people to talk.

Related links: United Poultry Concerns. April 22, 2001

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(Bestiality: Animal Liberation or Human License? By Karen Davis, PhD)