it's back. it's hot. it's bestiality. One new book details a circus trainer's allegedly orgasmic relationship with her tiger. Another book surveys bestiality through the ages. Meanwhile, a famous ethicist kicks up a media fuss by asking us to rethink our aversion to lust for livestock. This as moviegoers flock to The Animal, a comedy about a man with faultily engineered genes who veers toward wild-kingdom sex.
Which invites two perfectly natural questions. 1. Yeah, sex with animals, what's up with that? And 2. Is nothing sacred? Why is it that so much of our public discourse is ruled by frenzied bouts of grappling with taboos, and what good, if any, comes of it?
Let's start with the first. The news about bestiality, as it turns out, is pretty old, having lurked in the human imagination at least since the Bronze Age, when someone in Sweden made a rock drawing of a man copulating with a four-legged something.
Alfred Kinsey found in the 1940s that 8 per cent of males and 3.5 per cent of females reported interspecies congress, as did half of men living in rural areas, according to Kinsey's widely cited but disputed data.
As to partners of choice, Kinsey found that women tended toward pleasuring dogs with hand jobs or having the dogs pleasure them by licking. Austrian court records of the last century reveal that rural men prosecuted for bestiality were far more likely to have had intercourse with a cow than with whatever else was available.
This is all by way of introduction to Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, by Dutch author Midas Dekkers, which was published last year to little notice -- until Peter Singer got hold of it. Singer holds a prestigious chair in bioethics at Princeton University, for which he was championed by Princeton president Harold Shapiro, who chairs a U.S. presidential commission mulling the rights and wrongs of everything from fetal tissue research to human cloning.
Singer is a noted animal liberationist, and he has drawn huge fire for concluding that in some cases infanticide and euthanasia are justifiable. So his enemies were paying attention when he took up "the love that dare not bark its name," as some wags have termed it.
Singer's review of Dearest Pet for the erotic online magazine Nerve started off by noting that other historical sexual taboos, from sex without procreation to homosexuality, are no longer widely viewed as perversions. He goes on to say that bestiality is not only no new thing, but in certain circumstances it's no big thing either. His view springs from an Aristotelian view of the world that sees humans as the smartest of all animals but nevertheless part of the continuum of nature.
Singer identifies certain kinds of sex with animals as clearly out of bounds. The bizarre practice of copulating with a chicken and then lopping the bird's head off to enhance the sensations, for example, "is cruelty, clear and simple."
Singer forges on. "But sex with animals does not always involve cruelty. Who has not been at a social occasion disrupted by the household dog gripping the leg of a visitor and vigorously rubbing its penis against it?"
He also tells the story of a male orangutan who, displaying an erection, seemed to initiate sex with a frightened woman at the Leakey Camp in Borneo but did not consummate the act.
While Singer never goes so far as to endorse sex with animals, he concludes his review by reminding the reader that we are all "great apes," which therefore "does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings."
Fascinatingly, the animal rights movement that considered Singer a hallowed leader split over his bestiality stance.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), backed Singer. Of bestiality, she said: "If it isn't exploitation and abuse, it may not be wrong."
But those animal rights voices who attacked Singer, and there were many, did so by doubting whether it's ever possible for an animal to freely consent to sex with a human. Suddenly, the debate had moved from whether bestiality diminishes the human being to whether it exploits the beast.
A writer for Slate wondered "how an animal can consent, because, well, you know, animals can't talk."
The public discussion continued to morph into a nuanced examination of what constitutes "consent," as well as the overall power relations that surround any sexual act.
Wade through all this, and you arrive richly prepared for The Final Confession Of Mabel Stark, by Robert Hough. The Toronto writer researched and wrote a book about the life of Stark, a famous American circus performer of the 1920s who apparently engaged in regular sexual relations with her tiger Rajah. She even did it in public, wearing white to hide evidence of the tiger's ejaculation.
When Stark and Rajah went through their mating ritual under the big top, the public mistook it for the drama of a circus trainer under bloody attack.
Circus life is weirdly sensationalistic, nomadic and claustrophobic for people, and it goes without saying that a performing tiger's life is one of cages, whips, sexual deprivation and nothing reminiscent of the Bengal jungle. Whatever use Mabel and Rajah made of each other, it happened within the very sort of skewed power relations noted by Singer's critics. Evidence: not every lion or tiger found Mabel to be the cat's meow. She suffered a dozen serious maulings during her career.
Which brings us to an answer of sorts for question number two: is no taboo sacred enough to be left off the agenda of a fevered media?