Why bestiality and animal orgasm matter to our moral universe

Don Kulick. Anthropologist. Distinguished University Professor, Uppsala University


Pan having sex with a goat, statue from Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum, 1752. Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC

In the natural sciences such as evolutionary biology, physical anthropology and neurology, there are intense debates about the status of animal orgasm and how it changed and evolved into human orgasm. These debates all centre on female orgasm. The burning question is this: since women don’t have to experience orgasm in order to conceive, why do they have the capacity for orgasm?

There are a number of theories about this. One is the charmingly named “upsuck” hypothesis. This postulates that when females orgasm, they set off a sucking motion of the uterus that helps move the sperm along the reproductive tract. A competing theory is what biologist Elizabeth Lloyd has named the “fantastic bonus” account. Lloyd’s argument is that women have orgasms for the same reason that men have nipples; that is to say, they have them as a by-product of shared tissues during early embryonic development.

A final hypothesis currently being debated is that women have orgasms because early hominids lost oestrus – that is, our ancestors lost the characteristic of being in heat. This loss has made it necessary to evolutionarily construct another motivation for females to engage in intercourse, and that motivation was orgasm, which then became selected as adaptive.

All these speculations about the evolution of female orgasm suggest that at some point in prehistory, primates evolved the capacity to experience sexual pleasure – they began, in other words, to orgasm.

Hold on a minute, I thought when I read those debates about the evolution of human orgasm. Do animals orgasm? How can one possibly tell? Does it matter? For whom?

Lady and the Tramp, (Walt Disney) one of the most famous anthropocentric image of animal love. Cozinhando Fantasias/Flickr, CC BY

It turns out that there are innumerable representations of animal erotics in contemporary Western culture. These frequently take the cuddly form of romance and dating – Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp chastely enjoying a plate of spaghetti together, or sentimental depictions of heterosexual coupling among mommy penguins and daddy penguins. Animal pleasure is also sometimes depicted more sexually, as in Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat comics (Crumb 2012).

In addition to these kinds of representations, animal erotics is regularly featured in nature films, where animal mating practices are often highlighted as an entertaining or violent spectacle. Mating practices are typically narrated in a way that invites viewers to identify with the male of the species. In order to successfully mate, a male is often presented as having to overcome a challenge: he must battle other males, or he must seduce picky females with gifts, extravagant plumage, impressive antlers, agile dance steps, and so on.

This gendered framing is a recurring feature of nature programme narratives: think of depictions of black widow spiders and female praying mantises devouring their mates (who are often referred to with the empathy-inducing adjective “hapless”, which means unlucky and unfortunate). Think of the gigantic slug-like sea lions having to engage in savage battles with one another before they can access a teeming and de-individualized “harem”; think of the deep sea angler fish, where the tiny male attaches himself to the gigantic female and becomes absorbed into her body as an appendage. Nature film narratives that depict animal sexual behaviour all tend to be gently structured so that much more attention is paid to the sexual travails of the males than to anything a female does or wants.

The attention devoted to the sexual release of male animals in nature films is mirrored in theriogenology, which is the science of animal reproduction. Theriogenology is an entire scientia sexualis for animals. It is a voluminous literature that focuses on artificial insemination and is published in journals with names like Veterinary Clinics of North America Equine Practice. It discusses what it calls “libido” in animals (male animals, at any rate), and it gives detailed instructions on how to stimulate male animals to ejaculation, instructions like this:

While applying firm pressure, the shaft and glans are gently manipulated in a rhythmic fashion until the horse responds with pelvic thrusting. As the horse thrusts forward, the hands follow the thrusting motion. Steady pressure is maintained on the shaft. Simultaneously, the glans is rhythmically massaged with rotation motion, with the thumb massaging the firm protuberance of the corpus cavernosum penis into the glans penis. During initial training of a stallion, the position of the hands as well as the rhythm and strength of the pressure applied on the shaft and glans are varied depending on the response of the stallion, with the goal of inducing deep pelvic thrusts and engorgement of the glans characteristic of normal copulatory response. (Crump & Crump 1989: 342)

Like the nature films that focus on how males overcome challenges to mate with females, the literature on artificial insemination is also fascinating from the perspective of gender, because, again, great detail is lavished on male animals. The literature carefully instructs us, for example, that the correct temperature of the warm wet cloths one should use to manually stimulate the glans penis of a stallion should be about 45° C. In contrast, there is nothing on how one might stimulate a mare before artificially inseminating her. So a stallion, a boar, a camel or any other male animal is provided with a range of what the literature calls “breeding stimuli” – these include proximity to female animals in oestrus, who are actually referred to as “teasers”. But it seems that all female animals who are inseminated get in the way of stimulus is a catheter, a syringe and a squirt.

This is a literature screaming out for feminist analysis.

Stallion erection, the manual stimulation of their penises and ejaculation lead us inexorably to a third context, besides nature films and theriogenological literature, where animal sexual pleasure is represented. That context, of course, is pornography.

Before I began conducting the research on this topic, I – like, I imagine, most people – had never seen a bestiality porn film. I had done research on and taught university courses on pornography, however, and I had read most of the scholarly literature written on the topic. I knew, therefore, that pornography, like any other representational genre, is structured according to particular conventions.

My curiosity in thinking about animal porn was to understand the conventions by which animal pleasure would be depicted. Would the standard conventions apply, I wondered? Would the sexual pleasure of a male dog or horse be represented by what in the pornography industry is called a “money shot” – that is, a shot of a penis ejaculating (this is the standard way to end a scene in pornographic films)? Would there be a money shot in animal porn, I wondered? Would the sexual act between a human and an animal be filmed with cross-cutting shots between the coitus and shots of the animal’s panting face, or perhaps its wagging tail? How in the world would female animal sexual pleasure be portrayed?

In looking for answers to those questions, I discovered two things. The first is that popular representations of bestiality focus on men and animals. Think of all the stories of human–animal sex that circulate, such as the urban myth that achieved widespread popularity in the 1980s, involving Richard Gere and his gerbil (which the actor was rumoured to have inserted, in a condom, up his rectum), or the sequence in Woody Allen’s 1972 film Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask, which tells the story of a doctor, played by Gene Wilder, who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy. Stories about lonely shepherds and their sheep are another example of this same phenomenon (the well-known 1977 Italian film Padre Padrone), as is the entire plot of Edward Albee’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, which is about a man having a sexual affair with a goat.

Stories and rumours like these may reflect the empirical fact that more men than women seem to have sex with animals, at least if one believes Alfred Kinsey, who asked 20,000 Americans how often they had sex with animals. Kinsey concluded that 8% of American men and 3.5% of American women had at some point in their lives had sexual experiences with animals.

But aside from possibly reflecting a social fact, popular understandings of bestiality as a male affair are also an example of a meaningful social process. By focusing attention on men and animals as funny (Woody Allen) or dramatic (Edward Albee, Padre Padrone), a cultural space is cleared that can then be filled by much more transgressive images of women and animals as erotic.

Because in contrast to how bestiality is most often talked about, when it is portrayed in paintings and illustrations, what gets depicted is women having sex with animals. Think, for example, of the images of “Leda and the Swan” or “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”, the famous Japanese shunga woodblock-printed design which depicts a woman rapturously receiving cunnilingus from an octopus.

It turns out that contrary to the widespread popular belief that bestiality porn is all about men having sex with animals, in fact, what bestiality porn overwhelmingly depicts is women having sex with animals.

Hokusai, Fisherman’s dream (Tako to ama,), 1814, modified. Wikimedia

Animal porn began to be commercially produced in the early 1970s. Most of the early films were produced in Denmark as part of the era of sexual liberation – the idea that liberated sexuality would include all kinds of couplings: between women, between men, between young and old, able-bodied and disabled, humans and animals.

At some point in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the production of animal porn shifted to Brazil, where the bulk of commercially distributed animal porn is made today, and also to Eastern Europe. There are differences between the pornography produced in these two regions with regard to how degrading they are to the women who appear in the movies – the Eastern European variety being much more obviously abusive than the Brazilian films.

One of the features that characterizes Brazilian animal porn – in contrast to the Eastern European films – for example, is that the women who appear in the films tend to be very vocal. They speak to the animals like they would speak to a male sex partner, telling the animals that they are gostoso (beautiful and sexy) and that they have a pica gostosa (sexy cock). The women also vocalize pleasure. They do so in predictably stereotypical ways, of course, but they do go through the motions to convey the impression that they are having orgasms. Sometimes in the middle of a scene with a goat or a dog, one can notice them rolling their eyes or smiling to themselves or the cameraman with a look that indicates they think the actions they are performing are more ridiculous than they are degrading.

The films made in Eastern Europe are a different story altogether. In all of those that I have seen, the women are obviously coerced or forced to participate. This is signalled through their resolute silence throughout the pornographic sequences, their lack of eye contact with the camera, the stiffness of their bodies, the look of distaste or apathy on their faces, and, not least, by the frequent presence both on-camera and off-camera of usually fully clothed men who control the animals with whom the women are interacting. The muffled voices of these men mutter commands often heard throughout the film. In several of the films I have seen, the women’s bodies are marked with large bruises. There can be no doubt that this kind of pornography is a profoundly disturbing manifestation of sexual abuse.

This issue of coercion and abuse leads me to the question of animals. What kinds animals feature in bestiality pornography? All kinds of animals appear, from our familiar barnyard friends, chickens and goats, to much more exotic specimens like anacondas or eels. One of the most famous animal porn films, a Brazilian film from the 1980s titled The Zoo, features sex between several women and a tapir.

The overwhelmingly most common animals to appear in these films, however, not surprisingly perhaps, are dogs and horses.

Horses can be either smaller varieties or large adult stallions. Dogs are mid-sized to large, Doberman pinchers or Dalmatians being among the most popular, presumably because their relative non-shagginess makes it easier to see their genital area. Great Danes appear rarely – contrary to popular belief – probably because the larger the animal, the more difficult it is to control.

This issue of control is a structuring feature in animal pornography. Animals do not tend to stay put when they are sexually aroused – they like to move around. But animal mobility is a problem when the goal is to shoot an extended sex scene, as pornographic conventions demand. For this reason, most animal porn contains two people in the scene, one of whom holds and controls the animal to make sure that it doesn’t wander off camera or bite or kick anyone, while the other performs some sexual act with the animal. Usually the two people in the scene are women, so much animal porn also has “lesbian” scenes, where the women will often have some form of quick, perfunctory sex with one another before one of them turns to the animal that the other woman firmly holds down.

All this means that while there are arguable differences in how abusive and degrading Brazilian and Eastern European pornography is to the women who appear in it, both genres are equally abusive and degrading to the animals that appear in them, and this is the point I want to stress about how pornography depicts animal erotic pleasure: it doesn’t.

With few exceptions, the animals in bestiality pornography are either restrained and/or drugged: dogs have their paws tied together and are sedated so that they lie for extended periods on their backs while women suck and squat on their penises; goats are roughly held by their beards and forced to bury their muzzles in a woman’s crotch; horses are chained to the ground so they don’t move or kick. For these reasons, it turns out that in bestiality pornography, there are no close-ups of wagging tails or panting tongues, and there are no money shots, because drugged and stressed animals clearly don’t orgasm.

So in watching over 40 hours of bestiality porn (which is 39 more hours than I would wish on even my worst enemy), I discovered that even though pornography is a representational genre deeply invested in portraying sexual pleasure, animal pornography is the last place in the world one would want to look for representations of animal sexual pleasure, or animal orgasm.

Bestiality has become a hot topic recently. During the last 10 years, anti-bestiality laws have been passed in many states in the United States, and also in a number of European countries, some of which, such as Sweden, reanimated medieval laws forbidding bestiality that had been abolished more than half a century ago. The consistent justification for this new wave of laws forbidding sexual contact with animals is that sex with animals is necessarily abusive, since animals cannot consent to sex with humans.

It is significant and telling that artificial insemination, which involves stimulating and, as we saw, sometimes manually manipulating male animals to ejaculation, and then forcibly inseminating female animals, is not considered by any of these new laws to be either sex, nor abuse.

And that no animal can (or does) consent to be slaughtered, euthanized or experimented on by humans seems to trouble the logic behind these new anti-bestiality laws surprisingly little.

This vast, but usually unremarked, discrepancy between public abhorrence at having sex with animals and public acceptance of slaughtering, euthanizing and experimenting on them suggests that thinking imaginatively about animal orgasm may help us to understand something important about how compassion for animals might be aroused.

What is it about sex and animals that evokes a sense of responsibility and obligation that is repressed, misunderstood or denied when the subject of contemplation is the killing of animals? How might the ghastliness of exploitation and the compassion towards animals that is raised when the subject is sex with animals also be roused when the subject is industrial slaughter, experimentation and euthanasia?



This article is co-published with our partner The Conversation. It is derived from a longer article published in the Terrain No. 67, “Jouir ?”, April 2017.

The Conversation

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