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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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.