Peter Singer has a nasty way of pushing everything to the extreme. His arguments on abortion try to induce the reader to believe that unless you think all contraception is immoral, you should support abortion up to the time of birth and then infanticide for 30 days afterwards, just for good measure.
But Princeton's favorite ethicist has gotten tired of defending killing disabled babies and has now started defending something completely different: bestiality.
Yes. In his essay "Heavy Petting," published at nerve.com, Singer reviews Midas Dekkers' "Dearest Pet," a treatise on the long and storied history of humanity's not-so-platonic interactions with animals. Singer also throws in a few ideas of his own and tries to frame the debate in the same set of extremes. If you're not willing to disapprove of all non-procreative sex, then you should reconsider the taboo on bestiality. After all, since sex doesn't have to result in babies, and since we all know from reading various Singer texts that we're not so different from animals, it's not an offense to our dignity as human beings to have a little fun with the family pet now and then.
Dekkers' book, Singer says, contains many illustrations of bestiality, which he describes using words I'm not allowed to use in the 'Prince.' One noteworthy illustration is "an eighteenth century European engraving of an ecstatic nun coupling with a donkey, while other nuns look on, smiling."
How much of this is fantasy, asks Singer. Perhaps not much: he cites those oh-so-famous Kinsey sexual statistics to claim that bestiality is far more common than we think. Remember Kinsey? He's the one who claimed 10 percent of people were homosexual, based on his survey of a prison population. The figures for bestiality are similarly large: eight percent of males and 3.5 percent of females stated that they had, at some time, had a sexual encounter with an animal. "Among men living in rural areas, the figure shot up to 50 percent," Singer writes. A quick survey of my male friends from rural states ("No") reveals this number, too, to be a bit inflated.
Having "established" that bestiality isn't rare, Singer says that although the Judeo-Christian tradition maintains a gulf between men and animals, this may be just a Western construction. "We copulate, as they do," Singer insists. "They have penises and vaginas, as we do, and the fact that the vagina of a calf can be sexually satisfying to a man shows how similar these organs are." The vehemence with which people react to bestiality "suggests that there is another powerful force at work: our desire to differentiate ourselves, erotically and in every other way, from animals."
Anyone who has read Peter Singer's other works knows that once the debate is framed this way, the die has been cast. In Singer's world, we're not that different from animals: animal experiments are only okay if we'd also do them on disabled humans. And dogs and pigs are more sentient, and therefore more valuable, than infants or the demented old.
So Singer praises a contemporary of Freud's, Otto Soyka, for a book which argued against the prohibition of various "unnatural" sexual acts, because they limited the "inexhaustible variety of human sexual desire." Bestiality, Soyka wrote, should only be illegal because it can be cruel to animals.
On this point, Singer is willing to concede. Can an animal really consent? (Is the cow "asking for it?") Some men have tried intercourse with hens, which tends to be fatal to the hen. This is cruelty. "But is it worse for the hen than living for a year or more crowded with four or five other hens in a barren wire cage so small that they can never stretch their wings . . . ?" Has the proponent of animal rights backed himself into a corner? "But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty," Singer then rationalizes. He mentions the oft-observed lascivious attention of a dog to visiting guests. "The host usually discourages such activities, but in private not everyone objects to being used by her or his dog in this way, and occasionally mutually satisfying activities may develop."
He also relates the story of a woman who was nearly violated by a large male orangutan. To the observer, who'd lived with apes most of her life, "The potential violence of the orangutan's come-on may have been disturbing, but the fact that it was an orangutan making the advances was not." After all, we're just great apes ourselves. What's so bad about having sex with our furrier cousins?
Why on earth would Singer write this? While pedophilia is starting to look chic some places (mainstream books of gay fiction have featured such stories), the bestiality taboo has yet to fall.
But Singer is trying to push the envelope. In his world of extremes, if bestiality can be pushed into philosophical discourse, then the debate over whether Boy Scouts should have gay scout leaders or over San Francisco's new sex-change policy for municipal employees starts to seem quaint. If he busies mainstream Americans with trying to put out brushfires like this one on our left fringe, then the long, slow burn in the center of the culture war becomes less relevant. It becomes almost . . . normal. And that's what radicals like Singer want.
(Laura Vanderkam is a Wilson School major from Granger, Ind. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)