This module explores a number of historical and contemporary ethical and political debates about sexuality within feminist and queer theory. It is divided into four parts.

First the module will introduce students to what have been called “The Feminist Sex Wars” – a number of divisive disagreements around sexual issues that took place between feminists in the 1970s and 80s. These “sex wars” were touched upon in the first module when we considered “sex negative” (or anti-pornography) and “sex positive” feminisms. The central issues in the sex wars were pornography and sex work, but other sexual issues were also hotly debated, such as gender roles in lesbian relations and BDSM.

Anti-pornography feminists during the period of the “feminist sex wars”

After that, the module will introduce you to the notion of affirmative consent. This is an understanding of consent for which feminists fought and which is now reflected in Canada’s sexual assault legislation.

Affirmative consent means that only “yes” means “yes”; consent cannot be implied by the absence of a “no.”

With this background on feminist debates and affirmative consent as a theoretical background, the third and fourth parts of the module will explore two controversial issues that have been debated by feminists and queer theorists: sex work and bestiality.

Artem K, “Sex Sells, Dog Barks” (2012)

The Feminist Sex Wars

Pornography was so central to the feminist sex wars that the feminists Gayle Rubin described as “sex negative” are often referred to as “anti-pornography feminists.” Although they are labeled this way based on their stance that pornography is exploitative of and degrading to women and should be censored, many of these feminists were also in favour of criminalizing aspects of sex work, and were often critical of butch-femme relationships, transgender, and BDSM.

Feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon

An important episode in the feminist sex wars was the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance. While previous, non-feminist anti-pornography legislation had treated pornography as an “obscenity,” or harmful to social mores, in 1983 American anti-pornography feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon proposed legislation against pornography on the basis that it violated women’s civil rights. On their view, many women who performed in pornography were coerced and violated, and women in general were harmed by the degrading ways in which pornography was said to construct women. According to Dworkin and MacKinnon, men who watched pornography would be encouraged to view women as mere sex objects who enjoy being raped and humiliated, or whose enjoyment doesn’t matter, and these men were likely to treat women accordingly. On this view, pornography could lead men to harm women, and women who had been so harmed would be able to sue pornographers and hold them accountable.

While Dworkin and MacKinnon’s legislation was passed in several American cities they were quickly struck down on the grounds that they violated the constitutional right to free speech. MacKinnon, a feminist lawyer, would write scathingly against the view that pornography was best understood as the “speech” of pornographers.

Andrea Dworkin

While Dworkin and MacKinnon’s ordinance was quickly struck down in the U.S. context, in 1992 the arguments in the ordinance were accepted by the Supreme Court of Canada. Notoriously, while the law did little to restrict the type of mainstream heterosexual pornography that concerned Dworkin and MacKinnon, it was used to censor a lesbian sex magazine, Bad Attitude, and the gay and lesbian bookstores in Canada that sold it.

Bad Attitude

What the Bad Attitude censorship case shines a light on is that while Dworkin and MacKinnon approached pornography as something consumed almost exclusively by heterosexual men, and assumed that women involved in making pornography were often being tortured and raped, in fact pornography can be and is produced and enjoyed by women.

Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn

As with their anti-pornography legislation, Dworkin and MacKinnon had more success legislating against sex work in the international context than at home. In 1990 they proposed an anti-prostitution law that would criminalize people who purchase and sell sex, with sellers of sex understood not as sex workers themselves but as traffickers, pimps and brothel owners. The proposed law did not criminalize sex workers as they were seen as the exploited victims of sellers and buyers rather than as agents. The law was first passed in Sweden in 1998, and became known as the “Swedish Model” or “Nordic Model.” It would later be passed in other countries including Norway, Iceland, Canada, Ireland, France, and Israel.

Although the feminist intention behind the law was to punish people who exploit sex workers while refraining from criminalizing the sex workers themselves, it not only denies women’s agency in sex work but makes the lives of sex workers considerably more difficult and dangerous. For these reasons it has been opposed by sex worker advocacy organizations. The topic of the “Nordic Model” and how it harms sex workers will be seen further below in the section on sex work.

Coyote is an acronym for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics and it was a sex workers advocacy group that was active in the late 1970s in cities such as San Francisco and Atlanta

Another contentious topic in the feminist sex wars was BDSM. Anti-pornography feminists saw representations of BDSM as similar to degrading portrayals of women in pornography: it was thought to reinforce the sexual objectification and social subordination of women, and to eroticize women’s pain and humiliation. In the late 70s and 80s, anti-pornography feminists picketed strip clubs where BDSM acts were performed by women on one another. A number of prominent Black feminists, such as Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, criticized BDSM as racist as well as sexist, eroticizing tools such as whips and chains that had brutalized Black people during centuries of slavery. On their view, practitioners of BDSM who role play master-slave relations insensitively trivialize the experiences of Black people. On the other side, pro-BDSM feminism was championed most vocally by queer feminists.

Sandra Bartky’s Femininity and Domination

In “Feminine Masochism and the Politics of Personal Transformation,” a chapter in her 1990 book, Femininity and Domination, feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky describes female masochism as the internalization by women of their oppression. According to Bartky, women’s sexual and social subordination to men is eroticized in the dominant, patriarchal society, and these representations shape female sexuality as much as male sexuality. Part of the feminist project, for Bartky, is for women to resist the ways in which they have incorporated sexist representations and to engage in personal growth and transformation. Bartky recognizes that sexuality is not easy to change, and it may be as hard for someone who experiences masochistic desires to overcome their masochism as it is for a person to change their sexual orientation, and yet, for Bartky, it is counter to feminism for women to give in to their desires to be dominated or humiliated. Throughout her chapter, Bartky depicts the dominant partners in BDSM as men and the submissive partners as women. In actuality, of course, things are more complicated: often BDSM involves men being submissive to women or to other men, and women exploring their desires to dominate men or other women.

Pat Califia’s Public Sex

“Is there a single controversial sexual issue that the women’s movement has not reacted to with a conservative, feminine horror of the outrageous and the rebellious? A movement that started out by saying that biology is not destiny is now trashing transsexuals and celebrating women’s ‘natural’ connection to the earth and living things. A movement that spawned children’s liberation is now trashing boy-lovers and supporting the passage of draconian sex laws that assign heavier sentences for having sex with a minor than you’d get for armed robbery. A movement that developed an analysis of housework as unpaid labor and acknowledged that women usually trade sex for what they want because that’s all they’ve got is now joining the vice squad to get prostitutes off the street. A movement whose early literature was often called obscene and was banned from circulation is now campaigning to get rid of pornography. The only sex perverts this movement supports are lesbian mothers, and I suspect that’s because of the current propaganda about women comprising the nurturing, healing force that will save the world from destructive male energy.

Lesbianism is being desexualized as fast as movement dykes can apply the whitewash.”

Pat Califia, “Feminism and Sadomasochism”

Patrick Califia is a transman who, prior to transitioning, wrote a number of books on lesbian eroticism and BDSM. In a 1980 article, “Feminism and Sadomasochism,” which can be found online and in his collection Public Sex, Califia describes attempting to do what Bartky prescribes. Despite having had desires involving dominance, submission, punishment and pain since the age of two, he attempted to overcome these desires through feminist consciousness raising, abstinence, and therapy. The result was a lot of shame, guilt, and sexual frustration but no change in his sexual desires. Finally, in the late 70s, he decided to stop ignoring his sexual fantasies and began engaging in BDSM as a top. In 1978, he co-founded Samois, a lesbian feminist BDSM collective based in San Francisco. Samois would publish Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M. Consequently, Califia describes, he experienced ostracization within the larger lesbian feminist community, losing a lover and friends.


In “Feminism and Sadomasochism,” Califia explores feminist arguments about consent in relation to BDSM. For anti-pornography feminists, he notes, the fact that BDSM is consensual makes it all the more horrifying, as the idea that some women enjoy submission and pain would seem to reinforce misogynist patriarchal beliefs about women, while the idea that some women enjoy dominating and inflicting pain on others ran counter to feminist’s own understandings of femininity. As he observes, such feminists might deny that BDSM can in fact be consensual, arguing that even if its practitioners believe they are behaving voluntarily, their sexuality simply reflects patriarchal constructs and damage. Califia argues, however, that kinkiness is not part of the patriarchal system but part of the revolution, and, much like Gayle Rubin, he decries the moral puritanism of anti-pornography feminism. Like Rubin in “Thinking Sex,” in “Feminism and Sadomasochism” Califia defends man-boy lovers and sex with minors in the same breathe as he defends pornography, sex work, and BDSM – a comparison that few sex positive feminists would make today. Califia, however, sees children’s sexuality as repressed, censored and denied much as kinky sexualities have been, and includes he children’s liberation in his idea of sexual liberation. We will consider the topic of children’s sexuality in the next module.

Affirmative Consent

Only yes means yes is the mantra of affirmative consent law

Affirmative consent is the legal consent standard in Canada. In R v. Ewanchuk (1999) the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that there was no defense of “implied consent.” This is key to understanding some of the crucial aspects of affirmative consent. As the name indicates, affirmative consent goes beyond the phrase “no means no” and replaces it with the mantra “only yes means yes.” What that means is that in order for a sexual encounter to be consensual, there must be voluntary and positive evidence of agreement determined from the perspective of the complainant. The following video is a good springboard for a discussion of affirmative consent.

Tea Consent

Tea Consent (2:50)

In the tea video we see many of the central tenets of affirmative consent at work through the analogy of offering someone a cup of tea. If someone says “I’m not really sure” about tea (sex) then you should not push them, guilt them, or get annoyed – that is coercion. The Tea Consent video does a great job of emphasizing the importance of ongoing consent. Just because someone says “yes” to tea, or sex, doesn’t mean they are in a perpetual state of consent. People can change their mind any time during a sexual encounter or at any point in a relationship, whether it is on the drive home or in the middle of sex. 

Asexuality and consent

A great example of affirmative consent at work can be seen in the Elizabeth post, “How to Have Sex With An Asexual Person.” The author clearly outlines the way that seduction is a violent framework for asexual people, since it invalidates their identity. The article is clever in that it is aimed at an audience who may be interested in having sex with an asexual person, but the lesson in the post is that the framework that should be used is the one used for everyone: affirmative consent. Attempting to seduce an asexual person is violent because asexual people experience little to no sexual attraction, and are not interested in having sex. While theoretically they can have sex, and of course they can consent to sex, going into an encounter with an asexual person wanting sex basically says to them: your identity does not matter to me. Elizabeth goes through a series of steps that are useful for those thinking about carefully and ethically pursuing a sexual relationship with someone who identifies as asexual, however, these steps are a useful guide for anyone wanting tips on how to have ethical sex.

A dog watching pornography

When it comes to ethical sex, affirmative consent is just the beginning; issues of communication, satisfaction, power and pleasure may also be explicitly addressed. Drawing on what we have seen so far in this module about feminist debates around sexuality and affirmative consent, this next section delves into two challenging topics related to sexual ethics with which feminist and queer theory scholars have grappled respectively: sex work and bestiality.

Sex Work

Sex work involves the exchange of erotic or sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation such as money or goods, either regularly or occasionally. Sex work only refers to voluntary sexual transactions between consenting adults who are of the legal age and mental capacity to consent and must take place without any methods of coercion. Thus, the term does not refer to human trafficking and other coerced or nonconsensual sexual transactions such as child prostitution. The word “work” in the term “sex work” recognizes that sex work is work and emphasizes the labor and economic implications. However, there is a lack of understanding about sex work and the laws surrounding it, which helps perpetuate myths and stereotypes and this leads to stigma, discrimination, and violence against sex workers. Furthermore, the criminalization of sex work compromises sex workers’ health and safety and makes it difficult for sex workers to report rights violations, especially by the police, because they are vulnerable to incarceration, further abuse, and retribution.

Canadian sex workers rights demonstration

In this section of the module, we consider the legal ramifications for sex work to be considered illegal by watching a VICE documentary on those who consensually engage in sex work, and how the politicians behind Bill C-36, also known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), fail to give proper consideration to the willing participants of Canada’s sex industry. While technically still legal to sell sexual services under the new law, PCEPA criminalizes many related aspects of sex work. Introduced in 2013, Bill C-36 made it illegal for sex workers to advertise through a third party and criminalized the discussion of transactions between prostitutes and their clients. By doing so, it has become harder for women to vet potential clients in order to ensure cleanliness and personal safety. You can find the documentary, “The New Era of Canadian Sex Work,” here.


For most of human history, sex between human and nonhuman animals has been approached as a moral and legal problem. As with other deviant behaviors, we have, however, recently seen a shift from conceptualizing this act as a sin or a crime to seeing it as a medical condition. That is, the sexual sciences have lately invented the concepts of zoophilia, zooerastia, zoosex and bestiality, and—as has happened with other medicalized human kinds—these categories have not only been cause for stigmatization but have also been taken up by the individuals so stigmatized as an identity position whose rights need to be defended.

A male peasant with a wheelbarrow of hay

Historical accounts indicate that bestiality was long a crime perpetrated by lonely or opportunistic men on farms, and most frequently involved coitus with female agricultural animals. From Jonas Liliequist’s “Peasants against Nature,” we learn that those executed in early modern Sweden for bestiality were mostly adolescent boys and young men. In most cases these men were punished with floggings, church penalties, and public labour, however in some cases they were executed along with the animals whom they had had sex with; these animals were most often cows, mares, sows, ewes, and female dogs. Liliequist’s study shows that so pervasive were sexual assaults on cows in particular that milking was primarily done by girls and women as a preventative measure. Attempts were made to prohibit boys from herding cattle, with a Royal Ordinance passed in 1686 prescribing that this work should be done by girls or women. Liliequist notes that trial records indicate suspicion of men who went anywhere near a cowshed or a pasture and milking cows was a highly gendered task deemed appropriate only for females. So gendered was milking cows that to insult a man by calling him a “cowmilker” was a punishable offense.

A peasant woman milking a cow

John M. Murrin’s historical study, “Things Fearful to Name,” also indicates that bestiality was an overwhelmingly male crime and women were virtually never put on trial for bestiality in either Europe or North America in the early modern period. Although women thus appear rarely as the accused in bestiality trial records, they are disproportionately present as accusers and witnesses, knowingly giving testimony that leads to the deaths of men, including their husbands. For example, he describes,

“the case of William Potter, one of the original founders of New Haven Colony, a member of John Davenport’s church… and a family man. A ‘weake infirme man,’ he was about sixty years old and had recently been exempted from the military watch because of his poor health. But his ailments did not impede his unusual sex life. In 1662, his teen-aged son saw him buggering one of their sows and went to get his mother, who confirmed what father was doing. In what was clearly a lethal decision that they both understood, mother and son informed a magistrate. Confronted with two witnesses, Potter confessed. He admitted to a lifelong fondness for this activity beginning in England at about age ten. His wife had caught him some years earlier copulating with his bitch. He had persuaded her not to tell the authorities and had even hanged the dog, apparently in a fit of remorse. This time he was, of course, condemned to die. In what remains the most awkward moment in any early American court record that I have read, Potter led his wife through his flocks, pointing out to her every animal that had been a sexual partner. On the day of his execution, a cow, two heifers, three sheep, and two sows all died with him.”

John Murrin, “Things Fearful to Name”
An early modern farm

Both Liliequist and Murrin suggest that the reason for the taboo on bestiality has historically been the concern to shore up the boundary between human and animal. As Liliequist notes, trial interrogations created an analogy between bestiality and cannibalism in which nonhuman animals were understood as those we can eat but not have sex with, while humans are those we can have sex with but not eat. Those who confuse the categories in one way—by having sex with animals—raised the possibility of confusing the categories in the other way—of eating humans. As Liliequist notes, considerable anxiety existed around eating the flesh or milk of animals who might have been used sexually by humans, as this entailed eating flesh and milk that had been humanized. In this case, the relationship between bestiality and cannibalism became literal. Peasants who relied materially on each of their animals nevertheless slaughtered and did not eat those who had been defiled by bestiality, and the corpses of the slaughtered animals were burned rather than buried to ensure that desperately hungry people would not dig them up to consume their flesh.

Murillo Bartolome Esteban, “Two peasant boys”

What emerges from historical studies is thus that bestiality was an overwhelmingly male crime and one policed by women, frequently associated with adolescence and sexual deprivation, and particularly prevalent in agricultural contexts. Although in some cases bestiality continued into married life, for the most part it was associated with a “boy’s culture” and unmarried or sexually frustrated men in an era that condemned extramarital sex. Boys and men were understood to turn to nonhuman animals because of sexual deprivation rather than as an expression of their innate sexuality. Bestiality was problematic because, like cannibalism, it crossed and undermined species boundaries, and not because it violated the nonhuman animal. Indeed, there seems to have been no inclination to see nonhuman animals as victims in these cases, and these domesticated animals were executed and considered contaminated and thus inedible.

Havelock Ellis

Early sexologists such as Havelock Ellis believed that peasants were more likely to have sex with nonhuman animals than city dwellers due not only to closer proximity to animals on a day-to-day basis but also due to the fact that they were less “cultured” or “civilized” than city-dwellers. Ellis writes that

“For the peasant, whose sensibilities are uncultivated and who makes but the most elementary demands from a woman, the difference between an animal and a human being in this respect scarcely seems to be very great.”

Havelock Ellis, cited in Liliequist, 1991, 411

“Bestiality… is… the sexual perversion of dull, insensitive, and unfastidious persons. It flourishes among primitive peoples and among peasants.”

Havelock Ellis, cited in Cassidy, 2009, 98

In contrast, twentieth- and twenty-first-century psychiatrists and sexologists are less likely to see bestiality as the result of access to animals and deprivation of human mates. Rather bestiality is increasingly viewed as an innate sexual preference, a sexual orientation and a paraphilia or mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association considers zoophilia to be a paraphilic disorder. In some cases sexologists, psychologists and sociologists are also considerably more sympathetic to these subjects than was Havelock Ellis.

Canadian psychology professors Christopher Earls and Martin Lalumière sympathetically describe the case of a zophile with two “mare wives”

In a 2009 study, for instance, University of Montreal psychologist professor Christopher Earls and University of Ottawa psychology professor Martin Lalumière have made an effort to counter stereotypes of men who have sex with animals as uneducated and uncultured. They have sympathetically described the case of an educated, articulate, sports car-driving, and professional zoophile, who owns a small farm outside of a major city where he keeps his two “mare-wives.” Part of Earls and Lalumière’s sympathy for this zoophile is that they see his sexuality as an unchosen sexual orientation. They argue that zoophilia begins “very early in life” and is “discovered” rather than “chosen.” The zoophile in their case study provides a classic “coming out” narrative: he struggled to have sex with female humans despite his orientation toward mares. He married, had children and tried to be a “normal” husband for years before divorcing his wife and accepting that he could only be with equines. Earls and Lalumière at no point consider the welfare of this man’s “mares-wives,” focusing exclusively on their “husband.”

Hani Miletski’s Understanding Bestiality and Zoophilia

Sex therapist Hani Miletski is also sympathetic to zoophiles and, like Earls and Lalumière, she describes zoophilia as an unchosen sexual identity—indeed she has authored an article titled “Is zoophilia a sexual orientation? A study” (2005), in which she answers her question in the affirmative. She describes zoophiles having sex with nonhuman animals as being “true to themselves.”

Rebecca Cassidy is a Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, The University of London

In “Zoosex and Other Relationships with Animals,” Rebecca Cassidy provides a history of the culture of sex between humans and other animals in the past three decades in the Western world. As Cassidy summarizes,

“Zoosexuality, a sexual orientation towards animals, is one of a number of identities that emerged on the Internet during the 1980s and 1990s, alongside distinct but related groups of furries, plushies and therians (weres). The anonymity of the Web created a space in which people who enjoyed sexual relationships with animals could discuss their activities unencumbered by the anxiety of discovery. By the mid-1990s, one could marry one’s animal partner at the First Church of Zoophilia, receive practical instructions on how to have sex with a wide variety of species of animals, and conduct a discussion as to the pros and cons of “coming out” as a zoo. Humananimal sex was no longer confined to the psychological literature where it had been treated as a paraphilia, practiced by voiceless social inadequates. Zoos introduced themselves, tentatively at first, on blogs… and began to create a distinctive sexual identity and to form an international community.”

Rebecca Cassidy
Social media post by a “zoosexual”
Zoosexuals often claim to be animal activists and to defend animals against abuse

As Cassidy observes, the view of zoosex as a sexual orientation is widespread in the “zoo” community itself, whose members see themselves following in the path of the Gay Liberation movement. Many “zoos” “came out” in the 1980s and 1990s, had “coming out parties,” and “zoocons” (gatherings of zoophiles) were organized and advertised. Sociologists Colin Williams and Martin Weinberg describe attending a zoocon as part of their research. They were introduced to the dogs and horses who were the sexual partners of the men at this meeting. The men joked about the sexual reputations of various animals and provided information on how they had sex with them, and yet Williams and Weinberg write that there was “no ill treatment of an animal.” Far from the men fitting the stereotypes of being “sick and dangerous,” Williams and Weinberg observe that “the gathering was strikingly reminiscent of a fraternity get-together.” Of course, fraternities, as “normal” spaces of masculinity, are also notorious for hazing and sexual violence.

A university fraternity

Despite such sympathy for zoophiles on the part of an increasing number of psychologists, sex therapists and sociologists, Cassidy notes that Zoo Liberation failed as a sexual liberation movement:

“During the 1950s, when zoosex was considered as a paraphilia, zoos could be treated for their affliction, tolerated and even pitied. The new community of zoos that emerged on the Web in the 1980s and 1990s sought not treatment, but acceptance, and even recognition. This ambition reclassified zoosexuals as deviants, rather than victims or patients, and zoosex as an antisocial act that invited punishment, not therapy. The result has been extensive laws against bestiality.”

Rebecca Cassidy
Zoophiles protesting against a bestiality ban in Germany. Historically bestiality was criminalized along with other kinds of “unnatural sex” such as “sodomy.” When LGBTQ rights campaigns resulted in the repealing of these laws, bestiality was also decriminalized in many countries.

Outside of academia, the response to self-described zoosexuals has not been increased acceptance over time, but sustained outrage and disgust. Talk show episodes featuring “zoos” were pulled from the air based on audience responses to trailers, and bestiality, which had not so long before been decriminalized along with homosexuality when antiquated sodomy laws were repealed, was recriminalized in many jurisdictions.

Zoophiles demonstrating for their “rights” as a purported sexual minority

The increased visibility of self-described zoophiles in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in bestiality becoming an animal activist issue, with bestiality reconceptualized as a form of animal abuse. Bestiality is frequently compared to child abuse by animal activists and in the media, with nonhuman animals described as “innocent” and lacking the cognitive capacities to consent to sex with a human. Unlike in the historical records, nonhuman animals are now frequently viewed as victims of sexual assault in cases of bestiality. Despite the comparisons of bestiality to child abuse and the outrage it invokes, another common response to zoos has been amusement and contempt. As a result of this recriminalizing and ridiculing, zoophiles are now less present on the internet than in the 1980s and 1990s, having retreated into a disappointed secrecy.

While zoosexuality has thus not seen an increased acceptance as a sexual orientation that the public will tolerate and even embrace, the view that it is a sexual orientation, as argued in the sociological and clinical literature, has taken root. Zoosexuality as a sexual orientation is perceived to be far closer to pedophilia than to homosexuality, however, or to be a socially unacceptable and criminalized sexual preference rather than one that can be a source of pride and liberation. Indeed, virtually the only organization to openly support the zoo community’s pleas for social acceptance has been NAMBLA – the North American Man/Boy Love Association. This support is surely self-interested, however, as NAMBLA’s goal of abolishing age of consent laws is similar to the view of zoos that domesticated animals can and do consent to sex with humans.

Utilitarian philosopher and animal ethicist Peter Singer is often said to have launched the Animal Liberation Movement with the publication of his 1975 book, Animal Liberation. Singer is notorious both for his ableism and for his remarks on bestiality.

Although, as mentioned above, the primary response of animal activists to bestiality has been to see it as a form of animal abuse or interspecies sexual assault, the man who is often credited with being the “father” of the Animal Liberation Movement, Peter Singer, has notoriously taken a more ambivalent stance. In a short, non-academic article titled “Heavy Petting,” Singer agrees with other animal activists that in the many cases bestiality entails the abuse of nonhuman animals and even cruelty and death, and should be condemned, however he maintains that there are some cases in which sex between nonhuman animals and humans could be consensual. He cites cases where sex is even initiated by the nonhuman animal, such as nonhuman primates who sexually assault female primatologists and dogs who rub their penises against humans’ legs. Singer argues that among adult humans consent is most often communicated through non-verbal cues, and it is possible for nonhuman animals to similarly communicate consent.

A dog rubbing against a human’s leg

Most importantly, however, Singer argues that when most people express outrage and disgust over bestiality and claim that it is because the animals cannot consent, in fact consent is not really what is at issue. After all, these same humans most likely eat animals, and drink their milk and eggs, which those animals don’t consent to. They most likely wear animal skins as shoes and belts, which animals also don’t consent to. These same humans most likely buy products that have been tested on animals, which animals do not consent to. If we think that the humans who object to bestiality because the animals don’t consent are only concerned with sexual consent, it should give pause that these same humans likely spay and neuter their pets without there consent, which, Singer suggests, may violate their sexual autonomy as much as having sex with them would do. So if, judging by our actions, we do not care at all about animals’ consent, why are we disgusted and enraged by bestiality? Singer’s answer is that people’s affective response to bestiality is due primarily to speciesism: we see nonhuman animals as beneath us and thus not worthy sexual partners for humans. Sex with animals, on this view, degrades humans and is thus disgusting.

A definition of speciesism

Speciesism is a word that was coined to refer to discrimination against nonhuman animals and the oppression that this discrimination results in. It refers to the view that one species of animal, humans, is superior to every other species of animal. While this is the main way in which the word speciesism functions, it is also used to describe the way that some species of nonhuman animals are treated better than other species, as when people adore dogs and cats even while eating pigs and wearing cows. Or, to take another example of this second use of specieism, we can think of laws to protect animals from cruelty that are only applied to pets and explicitly exclude farmed animals and animals in laboratories.

Another use of speciesism

Singer’s objective in writing this article was most likely not so much to defend bestiality as it was to draw attention to people’s speciesism and hypocrisy, and to argue that if we are really concerned about not doing things to animals without their consent we should start by not eating them. This is not how “Heavy Petting” was received, however, and both the general public and the animal activist community was scandalized by what was read as Singer’s defense of bestiality. While even partially defending bestiality thus remains beyond the pale in almost all circles, it has oddly become quite common among queer theorists. The lecture for this module critically presents some queer theory arguments about bestiality.


Discuss the reading on meat and sex here

Conclude with a discussion of why criminalization is not the answer

Credit Simone for some sections of the module and my chapter on animals for that section