As of next January, it will be illegal in Sweden to have sex with a nonhuman animal. Offenders may get up to two years in prison and/or a heavy fine.
In Europe, bestiality is banned in the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, the U.K. and, as of last year, Germany, after stories surfaced about “erotic zoos” populated with llamas and goats. But up to now, it’s been legal in Sweden, at least as long as the offender can prove that the “partner” was not seriously harmed. Now, with the new law, according to the Minister for Rural Affairs, “there should be no doubt that bestiality is unacceptable.”
In the United States, state laws are as varied as they are in Europe, and bestiality is at least technically legal (though sometimes prosecuted under cruelty laws) in 13 states.
What exactly makes it a crime, punishable by potentially many years in prison, to have sex with a goat, a sheep or a cow, while, for example, it’s perfectly OK to kill that same animal and eat her?
In 2011, Congress repealed an archaic military ban that held that a person engaging in “unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same sex or opposite sex or with an animal is guilty of sodomy.” This caused something of an uproar with people who thought that Congress was legitimizing bestiality. But the military quickly responded that bestiality was covered under other military rules.
There have been some horrible cases of dog rape, like the case of Janey, a pit bull. But when you take these out of the mix, there’s a very real question that has yet to be satisfactorily answered: What exactly is the objection to bestiality?
For those of us who believe, across the board, that violence toward all animals is wrong, the answer is straightforward: bestiality is just another form of abuse.
But what exactly makes it a crime, punishable by potentially many years in prison, to have sex with a goat, a sheep or a cow, while, for example, it’s perfectly OK to kill that same animal and eat her? Or, indeed, to be entertained by her in any number of other ways?
Philosopher and animal rights advocate Peter Singer raised a lot of hackles when, in 2001, he wrote about the social taboo of zoosexuality in an article, Heavy Petting. After describing the particularly unpleasant practice of that involves decapitating hens while having sex with them, he poses the question:
But is it worse for the hen than living for a year or more crowded with four or five other hens in barren wire cage so small that they can never stretch their wings, and then being stuffed into crates to be taken to the slaughterhouse, strung upside down on a conveyor belt and killed? If not, then it is no worse than what egg producers do to their hens all the time.
Not surprisingly, Singer was promptly taken to task for apparently advocating bestiality. But that’s not what he was doing at all; he was simply pointing out a massive inconsistency in our moral values.
So, again, why is it OK to kill and eat animals, but morally and legally heinous to have sex with them?
Once you ask the question, the answer suggests itself: Having sex with a nonhuman animal exposes our own animal nature. And we humans don’t like seeing ourselves as animals. So we set up all kinds of taboos and religious practices to keep ourselves separate from and “above” all the other animals.
We set up all kinds of taboos and religious practices to keep ourselves separate from and “above” all the other animals.
These taboos have set out to limit our animal nature by telling us, for example, that sex should only be for the purposes of procreation, as well as that certain animals should be considered “unclean” and not eaten at all, and that others should be killed in a certain way (as in kosher and halal practice) to make them acceptable as food. This helps to give us cover for doing all the things that betray us as being animals ourselves, and it helps prop up the notion that we are “spiritual beings” who are inhabiting physical bodies simply as some kind of rite of passage that, if successfully navigated, will lead to a non-physical existence in a higher realm.
Bestiality is wrong because it’s abusive and it’s exploitation. But it’s only one form of abuse, and by no means the worst. If I were a sheep and I got to make up a list of things that I’d prefer humans would stop doing to me and my kind, being killed and eaten would be at the top of the list. And if I were a chimpanzee, being held in a laboratory or circus my entire life would probably be at the top of the list. And being abused in other ways, as in bestiality, would almost certainly be some way lower down.
But then again, most laws that prosecute humans who have sex with other animals aren’t about protecting the animals from us humans; they’re about protecting us humans from other animals.