BIG IDEAS + LESSON FOR THE SEX WARS, CONSENT, AND ETHICAL SEX

Introduction

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.

The second part of the module will consider sex work from the time of the feminist sex wars to today.

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 fourth and final part of the module explores the topic of bestiality and the sexuality of self-described “zoophiles” or “zoos.” Zoophiles claim that the animals they have sex with consent to sex, enjoy it, and even love them, raising issues about whether nonhuman animals can consent and whether the dominant society cares about the consent of these animals, given widespread animal exploitation.

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

The Feminist Sex Wars

To start this section on the Feminist Sex Wars, let’s listen to two podcasts in which your instructor interviews former and current University of Alberta graduate students whose research relates to the Feminist Sex Wars: first, Gender and Social Justice program graduate Diana Pearson will speak on the topics of sex education, sex positivity, and the feminist sex wars in the U.S. context, and then Political Science PhD student Kyler Chittick will introduce the sex wars in the Canadian context.

“Diana Pearson on Sex Positivity and the Feminist Sex Wars” (17:20)
“Kyler Chittick on the Sex Wars in Canada” (22:02) – version with captions

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 some elements in the ordinance were accepted by the Supreme Court of Canada in their R v. Butler decision. Notoriously, while the Canadian 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.

The 1982 book, Against Sadomasochism, collected essays by anti-pornography or sex negative feminists who argued that BDSM practices were irreconcilable with feminism.

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.

Patrick Califia

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. At the same time, the idea that some women enjoy dominating and even inflicting pain on others ran counter to mainstream feminism’s own understandings of femininity in this time period. In particular, Califia is scornful of certain essentialist ecofeminists who saw women as a nurturing and healing force for the planet, in contrast with ecologically and sexually toxic masculinity.

Most ecofeminists see the linking of women with the environment and with maternal, nurturing characteristics as social constructs, however some ecofeminists in the 70s and 80s essentialized these connections and characteristics, and they are a primary target of Califia’s ire in “Feminism and Sadomasochism.”

As Califia observes, such feminists might also deny that BDSM can be consensual, arguing that even if its practitioners believe they are behaving voluntarily, their sexuality simply reflects patriarchal constructs that they have involuntarily internalized. Califia argues, however, that kink 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 he includes children’s liberation in his idea of sexual liberation. We will consider the topic of children’s sexuality in the next module.

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.

Sex work is often referred to as “the oldest profession” – an expression that functions fatalistically, suggesting that sex work has existed since the start of time and will thus always exist as an inevitable outcome of male sex right. Moreover, the stigma around sex work is often thought to be as inevitable as sex work itself. In fact, sex work is not the oldest profession and the prevalence of sex work in a society is highly variable, and perceptions of sex work have been very different across cultures and time periods.

Martha Nussbaum

Feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written an article on sex work in which she shows the historical and cultural contingency of the social stigma that attaches to various professions. The subtitle of her essay is “Taking Money for Bodily Services” and, as she observes, many professions, including teaching, entail such an exchange of embodied acts for money. Which exchanges of bodily services for money have been considered shameful or immoral has varied over time and space. As Nussbaum discusses, in antiquity taking money for either athletic performance or teaching was considered degrading to the noble pursuits of sport and learning. In contrast, today professional athletes may be exceptionally well-paid and exalted, and there is no perceived indecency in teaching as a salaried profession.

Edouard Manet, “Le Ballet Espagnol” (1862)

Also showing shifting ideas about respectable work, Nussbaum observes that in 19th-century Europe professions such as ballet dancing and opera singing were highly stigmatized, and closely associated with prostitution. Ballet performances in particular did not take place with the audience sitting in respectful silence, but were often rowdy environments, where women were considered to be putting themselves on display for male pleasure. Paintings of ballet dancers by 19th-century male impressionist artists such as Manet and Degas in fact represented disreputable women, and these poorly paid dancers often exchanged sexual services for money with male audience members after performances to make ends meet.

Edgar Degas, “Two Ballet Dancers” (1879)

A respectable, middle class woman could in fact not attend the ballet in this time period, as these were the Victorian equivalent of strip clubs. For this reason, female impressionist artists such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot did not paint this subject that was popular among their male contemporaries. In contrast, dancing in a professional ballet company is a highly respected and well paid career today. Nussbaum’s point is that which professions are stigmatized is socially constructed and culturally variable, and sex work has not always fallen into this category in the past, and thus need not be in this category in the future.

A sex worker being arrested

As Nussbaum also argues in her article, it is clear today that neither moralizing nor criminalizing has any impact on the prevalence of commercial sex in a country. What is effective at decreasing prostitution is having a strong welfare system, affordable housing, affordable childcare, affordable education, job training opportunities, and socialized health care. A sex worker with few options who cannot pay her rent, feed her children, or afford medication is not going to stop engaging in sex work just because it is criminalized. She is more likely to stop engaging in sex work if she is provided with affordable housing and childcare, and if education, job training opportunities, and health care are socialized. This is not to say that sex work is a bad thing or that no person with other options would choose it as a job, but for those who think that sex work is bad and that we should try to have less of it, Nussbaum argues that we need to talk less about sex and morality and more about jobs and housing.

Sex workers demonstrating for childcare, health care, a universal basic income and other rights

The word “work” in the term “sex work” recognizes that selling sexual services is a form of labour and emphasizes the implications of this for labour rights. Unfortunately, sex work and the laws surrounding it are not well understood, and this contributes to the perpetuation of stereotypes that lead 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

If you are interested in learning more about sex work legislation in Canada, and about sex workers’ perspectives, you are encouraged to watch the VICE documentary, “The New Era of Canadian Sex Work.” This documentary explores how the politicians behind Bill C-36, also known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), failed to give proper consideration to the workers who are consensually employed in Canada’s sex industry. While it is 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 sex workers and their clients. By doing so, it has become harder for women to vet potential clients in order to ensure health and personal safety.

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.

WATCH
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 pressure them, guilt-trip 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

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 consent, the final section of this module delves into a challenging topic related to sexual ethics with which feminist and queer theory scholars have grappled: bestiality.

Bestiality

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, and zoosexuality, 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 suggest 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 punished 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”
Animal trials – although it may seem strange that animals involved in bestiality were executed alongside the human perpetrators, and it certainly shows a lack of understanding of the animals as victims, historically nonhuman animals could be put on trial and punished by the state just like humans.
The execution of a pig

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.

Painting of an early modern farm

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 counter stereotypes of men who have sex with animals as uneducated and uncultured. They sympathetically describe 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
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.

Animal activism

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, however, 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 as the “father” of the Animal Liberation Movement, Peter Singer, has taken an infamously more ambivalent stance. In a short, non-academic article titled “Heavy Petting,” Singer agrees with other animal activists that in most cases bestiality entails the abuse of nonhuman animals, and sometimes even cruelty and death, and should be condemned. However, Singer maintains that there are some cases in which sex between nonhuman animals and humans could be consensual.

“At a conference on great apes a few years ago, I spoke to a woman who had visited Camp Leakey, a rehabilitation centre for captured orangutans in Borneo run by Biruté Galdikas, the world’s foremost authority on these great apes. At Camp Leakey, the orangutans are gradually acclimatised to the jungle, and as they get closer to complete independence, they are able to come and go as they please. While walking through the camp with Galdikas, my informant was suddenly seized by a large male orangutan, his intentions made obvious by his erect penis. Fighting off so powerful an animal was not an option, but Galdikas called to her companion not to be concerned, because the orangutan would not harm her, and adding, as further reassurance, that ‘they have a very small penis.’ As it happened, the orangutan lost interest before penetration took place, but the aspect of the story that struck me most forcefully was that in the eyes of someone who has lived much of her life with orangutans, to be seen by one of them as an object of sexual interest is not a cause for shock or horror. The potential violence of the orangutan’s come-on may have been disturbing, but the fact that it was an orangutan making the advances was not. That may be because Galdikas understands very well that we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes. This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural, whatever those misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our dignity as humans.”

Peter Singer, “Heavy Petting”
Canadian primatologist Dr. Biruté Galdikas and an orangutan

Singer describes 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, Singer argues that when most people express categorical 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 wear these animals’ skins as shoes and belts, and buy products that have been tested on animals, none of which animals consent to. In each of the above cases, the nonconsensual things we do to animals cause more harm to them than having sex with an animal would do in certain cases. If we think that the objection isn’t to doing non-consensual things to animals in general but only to performing non-consensual acts on animals, in fact this would mean objecting to many practices that are standard in animal agriculture, as is explained in the assigned reading for this module by Gabriel Rosenberg, “How Meat Changed Sex.”

“The term artificial insemination is clinical and detached. It conceals the wide range of visceral contacts between humans and animals necessary to effect reproduction. These include the harvest of semen using manual human stimulation, mechanical vaginas, mounts, and electrical prostrate stimulators; the insertion of human hands into cow rectums to ease the entry of the breeding gun into the bovine cervix; and the variety of practices associated with arousing sows during artificial insemination—breeding technicians spray boar pheromones, pound sows’ flanks, stroke utters, fist vaginas, and sit on the backs of sows—to ‘simulate’ the presence of boars during insemination… As ethnographers of animal breeding make clear, humans go to elaborate and contradictory lengths to disavow the practices described above as sex, although some workers explicitly recognize it as such….”

Gabriel Rosenberg, “How Meat Changed Sex”

So if, judging by our actions, we do not actually care at all about animals’ consent, including their sexual consent, why are we disgusted and enraged by bestiality – at least when it occurs outside the context of animal agriculture? Singer’s answer is that people’s affective response to bestiality is due 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.

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 speciesism, 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.

Singer’s objective in writing this article was most likely not so much to defend bestiality as it was to draw attention to our 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.

Video Lecture: Animals and Consent (40:15)