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.

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.

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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.