"Is my dog gay?" Well, how could you even tell?

Jane Fae ponders the lessons a gay dog from Tennessee can teach us all about human sexuality.

Phew! The world breathed a sigh of collective relief last week, as the Tennessee pooch, under sentence of death after its owner decided it might be gay, found a new home.

The tension may have been short-lived: it took little more than a couple of hours between the story breaking on the interweb and a kind soul coming forward to rescue the condemned canine. Still, it set me thinking. A dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do: can it make any sort of sense to accuse him – or indeed, any animal – of being gay just because he gets a little frisky with another same-gendered mutt?

What, after all, is “gayness”? Is it as simple as who you shag? Who you are attracted to? Or something infinitely more sublime?

I have a friend who identifies as lesbian. Likes women, sleeps with women, has recently ended a long-term relationship with ditto. Definitely “one of them”. Except for the occasional lapse: the one-nighters where – she is shameless in owning this – she has gone out with the express intent of finding a man for carnal purposes. Still, she reckoned, that didn’t make her straight. Or even bi.

I didn’t get that at all – until I did. I, too, identify as lesbian: can count on the fingers of one hand the men I’ve fancied: all three, very girlish boys.

Girlish boys – and boyish girls. I still drool over images of a leather-jacketed Judith Butler speaking her mind politically. Obviously I am turned on by post-structuralist philosophy! And a certain type of woman.

But there are those moments – usually late night ones – when the body plays funny tricks. When it twitches and gaps and, unbidden, my thoughts turn toward the darker side. More precisely, towards the fantasy of a jolly good rogering, even if – my friends think I joke on this: I don’t – my good-natured, attentive rogerer wears a paper bag on his head, and leaves politely, wordlessly, at the end.

“Tell us about it, Jane!”

“I've never...never...”

Not for nothing is my favourite Rocky Horror persona the virginal Janet “slut” Weiss. Toucha-toucha-toucha-touch me: I want to be dirty!

I’d also quite like to curl in the arms of that ultimate father-figure, Valjean. Physical attraction? No: just comfort.

If its difficult to pin down us human apes with a simple label, how much more so to categorise animal attraction? Does it even make sense to talk of gay and straight animals? Apparently some humans think it does: for instance, the lady who attempted to foist her own heteronormative values on her dog and our’s, the other day, with excited cries of “stop that! Its dirty”.

Presumably, rather than seeing two dogs engaged in some pretty banal doggy bonding, she felt duty bound to intervene to prevent an outbreak of bestial tonguing. The shame!

Though this starts to turn the argument full circle – and not necessarily in any direction that offers solace to your average homophobe. Whisper it low, but: I’m also a fan of evolutionary psychology – at least as study. I know that’s considered anathema in some quarters: but then, unlike some (reactionary) journalists, I actually studied the subject, the techniques. I’m well aware of its limits and would certainly hesitate to make broad generalisations about what is “right” for humans based on some spurious interpretation of “natural laws”.

Except. I can be mischievous, too. Standing back and observing human society: assuming, as some folks have, that alpha-male led polygamy is somehow the natural order of things; one ends up with a most uncomfortable conclusion (for some). For in such a society, not only would gayness be “natural” for the vast majority of males: it would be virtually de rigueur.

Oh, my! That, perhaps, highlights the difficulties of trying to write human experience over onto the animal world – and vice-versa. Sometimes, two dogs, licking each others’ nether regions are just that – and no more. Neither example for us humans – nor creatures acting in any way unnaturally.

Though, at the end of this sorry tale, I can’t help wanting to find the heartless b*d who set this story off in the first place. “Do you believe in God?”, I’d ask.

“And if you do, how do you know that a 'gay dog' deserves to be killed for no other reason than that it is true to its nature - and not a sign from God that you got it wrong.

That in this 'mixed up, muddled up, shook up world', gayness is as natural a state of being as any other?”

A dog takes part in a rally celebrating equal marriage in Mexico City. Photograph: Getty Images

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA