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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No, identity politics is not to blame for the failures of the left

This is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality.

In these troubled times, it's good to know that moderate conservatives, anxious liberals and even your neighbourhood Trotskyist uncle can come together against the common enemy: students. Prissy, stuck-up students, with their trigger warnings and political correctness and highfalutin ideas about racial justice. It must be their fault. Forget the gurning neo-fascists goose-stepping into power across the globe, it's the students who are the real enemy. If they hadn't been so hung-up on identity politics, we wouldn't be staring into this abyss. You know I'm right.

That was me being sarcastic. The reason I need to point that out is that on or around 9 November 2016, the age of irony gave way to a new one of deadpan sincerity. It happened at some point between the election of an orange billionaire tycoon to the White House and authorities condemning Native American protesters at Standing Rock under the outgoing administration. So, unfortunately, I must be clear: no, I don't think that “identity politics” is the greatest threat to western civilisation. Some people, however, really do, and are at pains to point out that this geopolitical disaster could have been avoided if we had all been less precious about gay rights and women's rights and black lives and concentrated on the issues that matter to real people. Real people meaning, of course, people who aren't female, or queer, or brown, or from another country. You know, the people who really matter.

In the wake of successive victories for the venal far-right, commentators from all sides of the self-satisfied, chin-stroking debate school are blaming “identity politics” for the disaster on our doorsteps. What they seem to mean by this is “politics that matter to people who aren't white men in rural towns”. I have always thought of that simply as politics, but according to Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Times, I was mistaken. Diversity, Lilla writes, is:

“A splendid principle of moral pedagogy  but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

This is an idea that has remarkable staying power across a fractious and divided left: the idea that issues of race, gender and sexuality are at best a distraction from class politics, and at worst a bourgeois tendency that will be destroyed after the revolution. The logic is that by focusing on issues of social justice, the political class has abandoned “real” working people to economic hardship.

This notion is horribly wrong, and the worst thing is that it's wrong in the right direction, a train of thought that stays safely on track right until it slams into the hoardings next to the station. The political class has indeed rolled over and let kamikaze capitalism wreck the lives of working people around the world. Identity politics, however, has little to do with that cowardice. That the two are now yoked together in the popular imagination is something the left must answer for.

All politics are identity politics, but some identities are more politicised than others. The notion that the politics of identity and belonging have been allowed to overwhelm seemingly intractable issues of class, power and poverty is, in fact, entirely correct  but this is not a problem for the traditional left. It is a problem for the traditional right, which has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy for centuries, pitting white workers against black and brown workers, men against women, native-born citizens against foreigners in a hierarchy of victimhood that diverts energy and anger away from the vested interests bankrolling the entire scheme.

As journalist Michelle Garcia noted, responding to Lilla in the New York Times:

 “The attack on political correctness fits within the brand of identity politics Donald Trump exploited during his campaign. Mr Trump's victory relied on fusing a culture of racism and sexism with economic anxieties and the backlash against neoliberalism.”

It's a shell-game. A con. It did not start with Donald Trump, but the real-estate mogul and social media tantrum-artist has taken it to its logical conclusion. The president-elect and his fellow travellers and sugar daddies have committed political fraud against the entire western world. They have compounded it – as all good fraudsters do – by making us believe that it was our fault for being so naive in the first place.

It is, to some extent, reassuring to believe that it’s all our fault. If it’s all our fault for being too politically-correct, too committed to “diversity”  if it were liberals and leftists who messed up by listening to these whining hippies with their patchouli-scented ideals of fairness and tolerance and police not shooting young black men dead for no reason  we might have to face the much scarier notion that what’s happening is, in fact, beyond our control. Instead, those who should know better are encouraging the most vulnerable to throw themselves under the bus for the greater good. This is not just offensive. It is also stupid.

The truth is that social justice and economic justice are not mutually exclusive. Those who would sacrifice one for the other will end up with neither, which is of course what the unscrupulous narcissists manspreading at the gates of power are counting on. The mainstream political left has, for generations, been unable to answer the core economic issues that  shocking, I know, but hear me out  affect the lives of all human beings, of every race, gender and background. For generations, in the face of late capitalist hegemony, all it could realistically achieve was to tweak the system incrementally, making things a little fairer for individual groups, without challenging the structural inequalities that created the injustice in the first place. This must change, and soon. Not just because of “fine moral principles”. Trying to fix economic policy without tackling structural inequality is not just morally misguided  it is intellectually bankrupt.

Race, gender and identity are not side issues in the current crisis. On the contrary. Capitalism has always divided its labour supply along lines of race and gender, ensuring that in times of unrest, we don't start burning our looms  far safer for us to set fire to one other. All politics are identity politics, and this is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality. This is when we double down. The fight against the corporate neo-fascism funnelling out of every television set is not a fight that can be won if liberals, leftists and social justice campaigners turn on one another. It is a fight that we will win together, or not at all.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.