Gabriel Rosenberg, “How Meat Changed Sex”
Gabriel Rosenberg

Gabriel Rosenberg is a professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. He is the author of the book, The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America (2015) and studies the intersections of gender, sexuality, animals and food production in the United States.

Rosenberg’s article that is the assigned reading for this module, “How Meat Changed Sex,” is an examination of bestiality laws, primarily in the United States. As we saw in this module, historically bestiality has often involved agricultural animals. For much of Western history, both bestial and homosexual acts were categorized as “sodomy” and considered unnatural and immoral because they could not be procreative. In the 20th century antiquated sodomy laws were abolished across the Western world to decriminalize homosexuality, and this had the inadvertent effect of legalizing bestiality in most jurisdictions. This came to light after sensational cases of bestiality could not be prosecuted – or could only be prosecuted as indecency – at which point many politicians moved to introduce new laws against bestiality, usually couched in terms of animal anti-cruelty laws. Other politicians, however, who had financial ties to animal agriculture, prevented such bestiality legislation from passing, worrying that they could result in farmers and veterinarians being prosecuted for what are standard practices on industrial farms. As Rosenberg shows, it was only when bestiality legislation exempted agricultural and veterinary practices that they were they passed into law. Farmers are largely exempt from animal cruelty laws in general, and they are now exempt from bestiality laws in particular. This has resulted in a situation in which sexual acts that would be considered bestiality if performed on a pet dog or even a pet goat are not considered bestiality if performed by a farmer or a veterinarian on a farmed cow or a farmed goat.

“Agricultural exemptions to bestiality laws demonstrate that the decisive difference between a bestialist and a farmer is about a difference in relation to capital, not in relation to animals.”

Gabriel Rosenberg, “How Meat Changed Sex”
Children at 4-H

Interestingly Rosenberg’s article discusses the ways that the children of farmers, like farmed animals, are considered exceptions to laws that are otherwise intended to protect the vulnerable. Just as farmed animals can be subjected to painful practices from which companion animals are protected under anti-cruelty laws, laws protecting children from being exploited for labour also exempt the agricultural industry. This means that the children of farmers can be made to perform remunerated agricultural labour. As Rosenberg observes, this farm work can include performing acts on farmed animals that would be considered bestiality and criminalized in non-agricultural settings, and so raises issues not only of animals’ ability to consent to sex but also children’s ability to consent to sex. Questions about animals’ and children’s abilities to consent to sex become intertwined when the agriculture industry is exempted from both child labour laws and animal cruelty laws, since children can be made to perform the bestial acts. According to the law, both children and animals are incapable of consenting to sex. What, then, do we make of the exemption of agricultural contexts when it comes to laws intended to protect both animals and children from exploitation and cruelty?

A boy pulling a cow at 4-H

At 27 pages of text before the notes, Rosenberg’s article is relatively long. Moreover, at times it is theoretically difficult. For the purposes of this course, you are not expected to grasp the arguments that he is making about philosophers such as Foucault, Agamben or Heidegger, and you can skim these sections. Don’t be daunted! The arguments in the article that we are focusing on for this course are those that concern the laws around bestiality and how these relate to ideas about animals’ and children’s abilities to consent.

Find the Rosenberg reading here.