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Home arrow Environment arrow Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals

Why Feminism?

Singer’s (2001) argument is that not all sex with animals causes pain and thus not all sex with animals is immoral; some bestial acts, because they bring pleasure to both nonhuman animals and humans, could even be seen as morally good. One of Singer’s primary examples is the dog who rubs his penis against a human’s leg at a party. Singer’s implication is that because the dog has apparently expressed sexual desire for a human in this way, it would be morally acceptable to have sex with the dog. Other utilitarians have expanded on Singer’s point by arguing that because most sexual consent between humans occurs nonverbally, it is sufficient to accept nonverbal cues on the part of nonhuman animals as indicative of sexual consent.2 It is possible that Singer is projecting his own (privileged, adult, male, white, human) subjectivity onto the dog in interpreting the party scenario: if Singer rubbed his penis against someone’s leg at a party, this would mean that he was up for sex when the guests leave, and so he assumes this is also true for the canine. Should we necessarily assume that what is true of Singer is true of a domesticated dog, however? Should we make a similar assumption about a child who behaved (in a way that adults interpret as) sexually at a party?

As Beirne (1997) does in his description of bestiality pornography, we should exercise caution when judging our ability to interpret animal behavior, especially when we have a vested interest in interpreting it in a particular way. As Beirne notes, passivity that looks to us like indifference (and hence consent) may mask suffering and be a coping strategy. Similarly, what looks like desire for sex to us may in fact be desire for attention or agitation on the part of a dog (or child). If we were to agree that humans can interpret when their companion animals (or children) are nonverbally consenting to sex based on their body language, we would be authorizing humans who have a strong investment in seeing consent to decide when consent has been expressed. Feminist scholarship on sexual harassment, sexual assault, and child abuse, however, has shown that men have a strong tendency to see sexual flirtation in the actions of women and children that the women and children never intend, and fail to register negative cues. Barbara Gutek’s (1992) study of sexual harassment, for instance, shows that men are prone to interpret virtually everything their female coworkers do as sexual and directed at them, much as child molesters arrogantly misinterpret the affection and intimacy of children as purposeful attempts to arouse (Alcoff 2000). Similarly, zoophiles are likely to misinterpret affectionate or restless behavior on the part of pets as sexual “come-ons,” and to interpret bred and trained docility as consent. Given the power dynamics between humans and the animals they own, and between adults and the children they raise, domesticated animals and children are particularly ill-equipped to extricate themselves from sexual relations with their owners and adults.

In her chapter, “In and Out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love” (1983), Marilyn Frye develops understandings of coercion, oppression, and arrogance that serve well to analyze the discourses of zoophiles. Frye argues that we have too simplistic a notion of sexual coercion when we think that an act “will not count ... as coerced unless the ... victim ... is literally physically overcome to the point where the rapist (or rapists) literally physically controls the movements of the victim’s limbs and the location and position of her body” (54). In fact, a being is coerced not only in situations where she cannot make any choices, but also in situations where the manipulations of another mean that she will almost certainly do as that person wants, since the only available alternatives are even less appealing. In most situations of coercion, one makes choices, yet ultimately acts in a way that one would not have in the absence of manipulation (56-57). While some forms of coercion involve violence, in situations where an oppressor wants to have an ongoing relationship with a victim, he will often manipulate her psychologically or transform her into the kind of individual he wishes her to be.

Importantly, Frye’s primary example of coercion in which the victim’s world and psyche are transformed is the domestication of animals. Frye describes numerous ways in which humans alter animals into means to their ends, including breeding them to have particular “tempers and capacities,” training animals “from a very young age to tolerate various bindings and harnesses,” “suppressing certain tendencies to twitch, shy, buck, stamp or flee,” and the use of conditioning “to habituate the animals to certain responses to certain human actions and noises” (1983, 58). As Frye writes, “In the end, by its [sic] ‘second’ nature, acquired through processes appropriately called ‘breaking’ and ‘training’ and by physical restraints placed on it [sic], such a beast can do very little which does not serve some human purpose” (59). Perhaps most crucial of the transformations that Frye describes are centuries of selective breeding. Dogs have been bred for traits that humans find desirable, including neotenization (the retention of juvenile characteristics in adults) and docility. These are the kinds of animals with whom zoophiles are having sex, and who (zoophiles say) consent to this sex and are in love with them. In fact, dogs have been so transformed to suit the purposes of humans that it is highly complex to speak of them consenting to anything their owners do.

For Frye, the domestication of animals is a striking instance of oppression, and, much like Gayle Rubin’s use of the term “domestication” to describe the sex/gender system (1975, 158), it serves as a simple case through which we can consider analogous, intra-human forms of oppression such as the physical and psychological “breaking” of sex slaves by pimps. Of such slaves, Frye writes, “Like any animal, the other is not in the nature of things ready-made to suit anyone’s interests but its own” (1983, 59). Thus, as occurs in the domestication of animals, those humans must be transformed, and this transformation “must extend beneath the victim’s skin”: “In particular, the manipulations which adapt the exploited to a niche in another’s economy must accomplish a great reduction of the victim’s intolerance of coercion” (60). We see this kind of coercion in the case of zoophiles’ relationships with animals; these animals have been transformed not only into docile bodies, but also into beings who are emotionally and psychologically bound to the humans who manipulate them.

In “Animal Friendship as a Way of Life” (2016), Dinesh Wadiwel takes up feminist analyses of sexual consent to discuss the case of zoophilia, acknowledging, as Singer does not, that zoophilia takes place within relations that are always already saturated by power. Particularly relevant is Wadiwel’s discussion of how dog training practices complicate the possibility of meaningful consent on the part of canines. Wadiwel cites puppy training guides to demonstrate that puppies standardly undergo disciplining that renders them desensitized and docile to human touch; they learn to submit to touching that displeases them, such as manipulation of their teeth and feet. Since such training may be necessary for a domesticated dog’s health (to trim nails, clean teeth, and make vet visits manageable), it is not objectionable in itself; it is, however, objectionable to take advantage of such an animal’s docility to have sexual relations with him. Given the complexities of imagining what sexual consent could look like within contexts of domestication, and in the context of human-canine relations in particular, Wadiwel is critical of Singer’s use of dogs as an example of a case in which humans and nonhuman animals can have mutually pleasurable and consensual sexual relations. As Wadiwel notes, “Beyond an awareness of threshold practices that might be identified as ‘cruel,’ there is little in Singer’s essay to illustrate an awareness of how the social and political context of our relationships with animals might frame how we understand the possibility of human/animal sexuality” (292).

According to Beirne (1997), we should reject the view that zoophilia is a paraphilia because—much like many other activities that psychiatrists have tended to pathologize, such as intrahuman rape and purchasing sex—the sexual assault of nonhuman animals is a widespread or, in the Durkheimian sense, “normal” male activity. Indeed, in their account of observing a meeting of zoophiles, sociologists Williams and Weinberg describe being struck by how normal the men were (2003, 525). The zoophiles demonstrated to the male sociologists how they have sex with the animals present and “laughingly related” the animals’ sexual “reputations,” and yet Williams and Weinberg write that “at no time did we see any ill treatment of an animal” (525). Far from the men fitting the “cultural conception that zoophiles were sick or dangerous,” Williams and Weinberg note that “the gathering was strikingly reminiscent of a fraternity get-together” (525)—fraternities being very “normal” spaces of masculinity that are also, of course, notorious for sexual violence. Following feminist critical animal theorist Carol Adams (1995), Beirne argues that “sexism and speciesism operate not in opposition to each other but in tandem. Animal sexual assault is the product of a masculinity that sees women, animals, and nature as objects that can be controlled, manipulated, and exploited” (1997, 117). In conclusion, we might thus say that zoophilia—and human- canine sexual relations in particular—is not so much a sexual orientation (as “zoos” claim) or a symptom of a mental disorder (as psychiatrists claim), as it is part of what feminists have called a rape culture.

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