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Why animal orgasm matters to our moral universe

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

This article has been co-published with the blog of the academic peer-reviewed journal Terrain in which it appeared first in long format under the title “Coming like an animal”.

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 abolishedmore 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.

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

But do animals orgasm? How can one possibly tell? Does it matter? For whom?

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 pornography 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)? How in the world would female animal sexual pleasure be portrayed?

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.

To come to this point, let’s first go back to our anthropocentric representations of animal sexualities.

Animal erotica

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.

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

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.

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.

Animal mating is often reduced to male sexuality and an entertainment for humans.

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.

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. 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.

Of men and animals

During my research I discovered two things: popular expression of bestiality is about men and animals. But erotics are about women and animals.

The first is somehow “funny”. 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.

Gene Wilder and the ‘sheep’ scene in Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask, 1972.

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.

These understandings underline another space, a cultural one filled by much more transgressive images of women and animals as erotic.

Degrading women, dominating beasts

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 that depicts a woman rapturously receiving cunnilingus from an octopus.

It turns out that women having sex with animals is also the overwhelming theme of animal pornography.

Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (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.

While there is no doubt that these films are degrading for women, 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.

Showing abuse and coercion

While all kinds of animals appear from our familiar barnyard friends, chickens and goats, to much more exotic specimens like anacondas or eels, the overwhelmingly most common animals to appear in these films, not surprisingly perhaps, are dogs and horses.

Horses can be either smaller varieties or large adult stallions. Dogs are mid-sized to large, Doberman pinschers 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.

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.

Why does it matter ?

To come back to the first questions I raise: “Does it matter?” One might well scoff at the question, and respond that a phenomenon like animal pornography deserves condemnation, not philosophical or ethical speculation.

I agree that bestiality pornography merits vigorous condemnation. But I also think it would be a mistake to simply leave it at that. Because to leave the matter there would discourage us from thinking about animal erotics and animal orgasm in connection with a significant and growing strain of humanistic and philosophical writing on interspecies relations.

Scholar Donna Haraway about interspecies relationships.

The very last place I ever imagined one might find representations of animal sexual pleasure was in academic work by respected scholars, such as this:

“Ms. Cayenne Pepper continues to colonize all my cells… I bet if you checked our DNA you’d find some potent transfections between us… Surely her darter tongue kisses have been irresistible. Her red merle Australian shepherd’s quick and lithe tongue has swabbed the tissues of my tonsils… we have had forbidden conversation, we have had oral intercourse… we are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand.”

That is not an extract from a zoophile blog; it is American professor Donna Haraway writing about her Australian shepherd dog in her book Companion Species Manifesto.

And then there is none less than Jacques Derrida, who in his 2002 book-length essay The Animal That Therefore I Am, famously stands naked in front of his cat and tells us:

“The cat observes me frontally naked, face to face, and if I am naked faced with the cat’s eyes looking at me from head to toe, just to see, not hesitating to concentrate its vision – in order to see, with a view to seeing – in the direction of my sex. To see, without going to see, without touching yet, and without biting, although that threat remains on its lips or on the tip of the tongue. Something happens there that shouldn’t take place.”

It turns out that Donna Haraway having oral intercourse with her dog and Jacques Derrida musing on the relationship between his naked sex and the eyes, lips and tongue of his pussy are symptoms of an unprecedented scholarly interest in animals and the species boundary.

The need to turn our attention to animals

The fact that so many scholars have turned their attention to animals and that surprisingly many of them are even writing in fleshy erotic prose about animals means something.

The perhaps unexpected relevance of animal orgasm to this discussion is that as the recent wave of bestiality laws shows so clearly, contemplating cross-species sexuality appears to have the power to evoke in people precisely the ghastliness of exploitation and the compassion towards animals that is repressed, misunderstood or denied when the subject of contemplation is the killing of animals.

Academics are doing vital work criticizing the intolerable scale of the institutionalized suffering that humans inflict on animals, and in arguing that animals share a moral universe with humans.

What an exploration of how animal orgasm and animal erotics are perceived, imagined, theorized and practised can contribute to that work is that it can tell us something about the shape of that moral universe, and its limits.

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