Last week, I happened upon the much-acclaimed TV series from the U.K. Dark Mirror – a kind of Twilight Zone for the 21st Century. In the first episode, a popular princess is kidnapped, and the Prime Minister gets a message saying that in order for her to be freed, he must go on live TV and be seen worldwide having sex with a pig.
The whole series is quite fun and thought-provoking in that it explores the effects on society of technologies that are just around the corner from where we are today, and with classic Twilight Zone-type consequences.
But what took my attention in this first episode were the reactions of all the characters to the prospect of this act of bestiality: the P.M.’s horror and embarrassment, the effect on his wife and their relationship, the awkwardness of his cabinet ministers, the crass reportage of the mass media, and the behavior of the rest of the general public as the news rolls out and they get ready to watch the main event.
It goes without question that for a person of great respect and authority to be seen having sex with a pig is the ultimate in humiliation. But why exactly is that so? And what does it tell us about ourselves – specifically in terms of our insistence, as humans, that “I am not an animal”?
In today’s world, bestiality isn’t just considered morally abhorrent; it’s illegal in all but a handful of countries. (In the United States, it’s still technically legal in 13 states.) What exactly makes it a crime to have sex with a goat, a sheep, a pig or a cow, while it remains perfectly OK to kill that same animal and eat her?
There have been some horrible cases of rape of domestic animals, 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, say, a goat, a sheep or a cow, while it remains perfectly OK to kill that same animal and eat her?
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 a particularly unpleasant practice 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 roundly taken to task for apparently “advocating” bestiality. But that’s not what he was doing at all; he was simply pointing out the massive inconsistency in our moral values.
So, again, why is it OK to keep pigs, cows and sheep in appalling conditions at factory farms, and then kill them and eat them, 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. 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. (Check out our series “I Am Not an Animal” for more about why this is and how it underlies the human condition.)
These taboos are designed to prevent our true animal nature from becoming too obvious. They prescribe, for example, that sex should be a private matter that’s about “making love”, and that it should be conducted in a limited way, according to certain rules, and in some religions only for the purposes of procreation.
Other taboos set out rules as to what species of animal we should eat, and how we should kill and eat them (as in kosher and halal practice) to make them acceptable as food.
The various taboos and rules bolster our need to believe that we are not just animals ourselves but are, rather, “spiritual beings” who are not part of the “lower”, earthly, mortal world.
Bestiality is wrong, period. But the reason it’s wrong is because it’s abuse and exploitation. And from the point of view of our fellow animals, it’s hardly at the top of the list of crimes we commit against them. If you or I were a sheep or a pig or a cow, and we were able to make up a list of things we’d like humans to stop doing to us, being killed and eaten would be at the top of the list, with bestiality some way further down amid dozens of other things humans do to make our lives intolerable.
In the TV show I watched, unsurprisingly, none of the characters expresses any concern for, or interest in, the pig. She exists for no other reason than as a prop to humiliate an important human being.
The fact is, most laws that prosecute humans for having sex with other animals aren’t about protecting the animals from us humans; they’re about protecting us humans from the other animals and from the knowledge that we’re one of them.
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P.S.: In a classic case of life imitating art, or vice-versa, it was recently reported in the British news that when the current prime minister, David Cameron, was a student at Oxford University, he took part in a fraternity ritual that involved a mock sex act with a dead pig.
P.P.S.: Pigs, incidentally, are among the most cognitively complex of nonhuman animals. A paper by Dr. Lori Marino and Christina M. Colvin presents the solid scientific evidence that pigs are not only highly intelligent but are emotionally and socially highly sophisticated animals. The full paper is available here.