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What Germany outlawing bestiality tells us about changing attitudes to sex

The change in law reflects the contemporary view of sex as something that can only properly be enjoyed on a basis of equality.

A Natural History Museum employee poses as she looks at a taxidermy exhibit
Nothing to see here. Photo: Getty

It's surprising to find that sex with animals is not currently illegal in Germany. Nor is this the result of some historic oversight: it used to be a crime, but the law was changed in 1969, at the same time as sex between adult men was decriminalised. Supposedly there are even "erotic zoos", which people "can visit to abuse animals ranging from llamas to goats." That's according to the Daily Mail, though. A possibly more reliable report quotes Madeleine Martin, an animal protection officer from Hesse, who refers to the existence of "animal brothels".

Martin, who voiced her concerns in February, claimed that the sexual abuse of animals was "increasing rapidly". She blamed the internet, as is traditional in such cases, and called for the government to re-introduce the ancient crime of bestiality. And indeed the German Parliament is now debating plans to make sex with animals punishable with a fine of up to €25,000. The same penalty would also apply to those "pimping out" their pets to zoophiles. 

But Germany's animal lovers aren't giving up without a fight. Michael Kiok, chairman of zoophile pressure group ZETA (just take a moment to register the fact that such an organisation actually exists) told Spiegel that sex with pets wasn't demeaning to the animals - "We see animals as partners and not as a means of gratification". He claimed that the real abuse took place in the farming industry, where for example it was seen as acceptable to ram electric rods into boars' rectums to make them ejaculate. 

Kiok's pet dog, Cassie, was unable to tell her side of the story.

Germany is certainly unusual, both in modern Europe and indeed historically, in not having a prohibition on human-animal sex. Until 2003 it was punishable by life imprisonment in Britain. The maximum sentence is now two years. There have been moves to tighten the law in several countries, including the Netherlands where bestiality was banned in 2008 amid concerns that the country had become "a magnet for perversities". It still remains legal in Denmark, however, at least for the time being. 

Historical and anthropological evidence suggests that inter-species sex is both widespread and widely condemned. The mere fact that legal prohibitions are so commonplace suggests that it has long been a problem: the law doesn't usually bother to condemn something that no one ever does. Alfred Kinsey's research in the 1940s found that it was generally rare in modern America (around eight per cent of men and five per cent of women admitted to using animals for pleasure), but that in agricultural communities it was much more common, for reasons that may seem obvious. There have been few societies that actively endorse the practice, although Edgar Gregersen records in his cross-cultural survey, Sexual Practices, that among the Ijo tribe of Nigeria, on coming of age "every boy had to copulate successfully with a specially selected sheep to the satisfaction of a circle of elders who witnessed his performance." This seems to be deliberately transgressive however, analagous to a fraternity hazing ritual, and thus may paradoxically underline the general prohibition on the practice. We're not told what criteria were used to select the unfortunate sheep.

The Bible, as is well known, takes a dim view of bestiality. Leviticus 20:15-16 provides the death penalty for a man or woman who engages in interspecies sex, and also for the animal involved. If this seems a little harsh on the beast, it also suggests that the real reason for the prohibition lay not in concern for their inability to consent, any more than the honour killing of a rape victim (also recommended in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy) is based on concern for her welfare. In the latter case, the intention is to preserve the status of woman as property and reproductive currency in a patriarchal society. In the case of animals, there may be two imperatives involved. First, the fact that human-animal sex is reproductively useless. Secondly, a need to preserve the theologically important distinction between human beings and other animals. 

Sex, after all, confronts us with our biological reality in a particularly stark form. Sex may be more creative and emotionally engaging for humans than it seems to be for other animals, among whom it often looks rather perfunctory, but it's basically the same thing, involving the same bits of anatomy in recognisably similar configurations. Does this explain the revulsion and, indeed, fear that the idea of bestiality provokes? As the Australian philosopher Peter Singer pointed out in a notorious essay about a decade ago, interspecies sex is one of the last taboos still maintained by modern Western society which no longer criminalises adultery and looks upon same-sex attraction as a normal and healthy part of human variation.  Why should sex with animals be any different?

There's an answer to this, of course. Claims by zoophiles that they engage in mutually satisfying relationships with their pets are nonsense because animals, like children and the victims of rape, cannot consent. Sex with animals is thus inherently abusive. But here the argument runs into difficulty, since it must be assumed that animals consent to sex with members of their own species, and indeed have non-verbal means of showing it. A more promising approach might be to side-step the issue of consent, or at least to concede the possibility that some animals might be experiencing pleasure during their intimate encounters with humans, but to see nevertheless that using other creatures for sex is an abuse of the power which humans have over their animal charges.

In this, laws prohibiting sex between humans and animals serve a modern purpose. Rather than being rooted in ancient prejudices about human uniqueness, they reflect the contemporary view of sex as something that can only properly be enjoyed on a basis of equality.