A farmhand in Marion County – known as Central Florida’s horse country – is on trial for having sex with a donkey. So far, the man has turned down a plea deal that would have included a year’s probation, a $200 fine, HIV and STD testing, a psychosexual evaluation, and a ban on being near children or other animals.
At around the same time this man was arrested, a few weeks ago, a museum in Lubbock, Texas, bought two mules, killed them, had them stuffed, and, as we noted, put them on display in an exhibition from which the museum will make money.
Which is worse?
Don’t get me wrong. The farmhand in Florida is doubtless creepy and sick, and could use some serious psychiatric help. And from an ethical point of view, it’s just another case of exploitation and abuse. But since there was apparently no evidence of pain or suffering, we can’t help but ask what this man did that’s so much worse than what was done to the mules in Texas.
Or, indeed, to the billions of other animals we torture and abuse in countless different ways on a daily basis?
The philosopher Peter Singer managed to upset a lot of people when he proposed, in a 2001 article, Heavy Petting, that zoosexual activity is not necessarily abusive and should not be automatically illegal. If such activities result in harm to the animal, he said, they should remain illegal, but he argued that “sex with animals does not always involve cruelty.”
Other animal rights ethicists don’t see it that way, and I’d agree with Tom Regan, who writes in Animal Rights, Human Wrongs that Singer’s utilitarian philosophy leads him to take a number of wrong positions and that it cannot be right to have sex with an unconsenting animal of any kind.
Singer has frequently debated the issue and here he is in a discussion on Australian TV:
Coming at it simply from the point of view of the victims, I’d have to say that I’d rather be at the mercy of the farmhand in Florida than at the mercy of those museum board members.
When asked about his views on The Colbert Report (December 2006), Singer told Colbert that while sex between species is not normal or natural, it does not transgress our status as human beings. After all, he explained, we human beings are animals, too. Specifically, “we are great apes.”
And that probably takes us to the heart of what this whole issue is really about. It’s not really about abuse of animals; it’s about upholding our status as human beings.
Killing two mules and putting them on display in a museum demonstrates our superiority over other animals. So does killing them and eating them, putting them in zoos and circuses, and conducting medical experiments on them.
But having sex with other animals – more specifically, being able to have sex with other animals – demonstrates that we, too, are animals.
And to reveal one’s own animal nature in this way is to transgress a sacred, but desperately fragile, human belief system.