Shag the Dog

How you look at things.
April 5 2001 3:00 AM

Shag the Dog

Years ago, advocates of sexual abstinence came up with a clever motto to instill chastity in youngsters. "Pet your dog, not your date," they preached. They may live to regret those words. The love that dare not bark its name is now a front-page topic, raised at White House news conferences and in state legislatures, thanks largely to philosopher Peter Singer. In an essay titled " Heavy Petting," Singer asks: What's wrong with fondling Fido? The essay, coupled with two scandals involving sex with dogs—one confirmed in Maine and the other alleged by investigators in California—has elicited cries of outrage and disgust. But the outcry has been largely thoughtless. It's easy to say that becoming more than friendly with man's best friend is wrong. What's hard is backing up that statement with a principle, and reconciling that principle with your beliefs about meat-eating, sexual orientation, or, in Singer's case, pedophilia.

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Singer's essay tackles a series of objections to doggie-style intimacy. The first is that it's unnatural. If nature had wanted you to mate with your pet, the argument goes, you'd be able to procreate together. Singer points out, however, that we've come to tolerate other non-procreative practices, such as contraception, masturbation, oral gratification, and homosexuality. But isn't sex with animals a uniquely radical affront to tradition? Nope. Dog-bites-man is the oldest story around. Singer cites literary and anthropological evidence that humans throughout history have been attracted to animals—swans, horses, dogs, satyrs, calves—and some have acted on that attraction. OK, but aren't these acts cruel and harmful? Not necessarily, says Singer. "Sex with animals does not always involve cruelty."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

So why the taboo? According to Singer, it's because we think we're intrinsically and categorically superior to other species. This is the dogma that Singer really wants to penetrate. "We are animals," he writes. "This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural, whatever those much-misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings."

Conservative editorialists have doggedly denounced and ridiculed Singer's argument. None of them, however, has explained what's wrong with it. The answer matters, because the principle that makes sex with animals immoral—whatever that principle is—must apply to other issues as well. The Weekly Standard, for instance, faults Singer's nonchalant reaction to an incident in which a lusty, "powerful" orangutan seized a woman "like a drunken frat boy." Is the Standard saying that this incident amounts to a kind of sexual harassment? Is Singer a cad for tolerating it? Then why does the Standard publish articles brushing aside "hypersensitivity to 'harassment' and 'date rape' "?

Or take the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Journal derides Singer for condoning puppy love while his animal rights buddies demand "intolerable paperwork" from researchers who use animals in lab experiments. But if we want rules about what's done to animals by their owners, why not make rules about what's done to them in labs? The same logic applies to mockery of Singer's vegetarianism. "You could say Singer's take on animal rights is: You can have sex with them, but don't eat them," jokes conservative columnist Debra Saunders. That's funny. But you could just as easily ask those of us who eat meat why, if it's wrong to rape animals, it's OK to kill them.

Liberals have a different problem. Most of them want to say that sex with your dog is wrong, but sex with a human of your own gender isn't. The trouble is, Singer explicitly connects the two practices (both are non-procreative), and people who advocate sex with animals—"zoophiles," as they prefer to be called—borrow the language of gay liberation. "I'm the first out-of-the-closet 'zoo' to be attacked because of my sexual orientation," Philip Buble, a zoophile, told the Bangor Daily News four months ago. Buble says the "relationship" between man and beast "can develop to be a sexual one." Testifying before a Maine legislative committee a week ago, Buble accused proponents of a ban on animal sexual abuse of trying "to force morality on a minority. It will be a disservice to zoo couples and would keep zoo couples from coming out of the closet and drive us deeper underground." Commenting on Dearest Pet, the book that inspired Singer's essay, other zoophiles articulate an "alternative sexual lifestyle" defined by "loving relationships with their animal lovers."

Then there's the case of the killer dogs in San Francisco. Last week, Marjorie Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel, were collared on manslaughter charges because two dogs in their care mauled to death their neighbor, Diane Whipple. Knoller and Noel, who are lawyers, claim they were taking care of the dogs on behalf of Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, a client whom they have adopted as their son while he serves a life sentence for attempted murder. According to a prison guard's affidavit, documents found in Schneider's possession include a photo of a male dog's genitals, "numerous photos of Knoller posing nude with fighting dog drawings," and a letter from the couple that discusses "sexual activity between Noel, Knoller and the dog" that subsequently killed Whipple. When the first vague report of the photos surfaced, Noel told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I'm not going to confirm it or deny it," adding, "There used to be a time when guy-on-guy or woman-on-woman relationships were looked at as unnatural acts. What concern is it to anybody if there is or isn't a personal relationship?"

The last thing liberals want is to see homosexuality equated with this kind of animal husbandry. While portraying Whipple and her lesbian partner as a loving couple, they dismiss the Noel-Knoller-Schneider-dog "family" as a twisted sham. But what makes one family real and the other fake? Is it monogamy? Fidelity? Commitment? Effort? A New Republic article suggests as much: "[A] fundamental reason for prohibiting sex with animals is the human desire to join sex [with love] and our recognition of the complexity of that joining, the care with which it must be nurtured and disciplined, the ease with which it is disrupted and led astray."

Strange as it may seem, however, it's hard to prove that Philip Buble doesn't nurture and discipline his love for the canine companion he calls "Lady Buble." He's a one-dog man. A month ago, when Buble's father was sentenced to jail for attacking him with a crowbar—in part out of disgust with Buble's "lifestyle"—Buble sent a formal request to the judge. "I'd like my significant other to attend by my side if possible as she was present in the house during the attack, though not an eyewitness to it, thank goodness," Buble wrote. "I've been informed your personal permission is needed given that my wife is not human." In his legislative testimony a week ago, Buble declared that he and Lady "live together as a married couple. In the eyes of God we are truly married."

Let's try another criterion. How about harm? Many animal rights activists say this is what's wrong with human-animal copulation, as opposed to gay sex. But that dog won't hunt, either. Singer points out that some sex acts between humans and animals "don't seem to do harm to animals." Is Buble harming the dog for whose emotional well-being he expressed such concern in his letter to the judge? Good luck proving it. In last week's testimony, Buble said zoophiles are born to care for animals. He denied that their physical interaction with their pets includes abuse. And he added that zoophiles do far less harm to animals than hunters, meat-eaters, and medical experiments do. It's hard to argue with that.

How about consent? Village Voice columnist Norah Vincent argues that homosexuality is permissible because "sexual acts between consenting adults should be beyond the prurient reach of the state." However,

When someone has sex with an animal, he foists himself on a creature that has the mental and emotional capacity of a child. Thus, it is no more capable than a child of giving meaningful consent. … [I]f you have had sex with someone who is constitutionally incapable of giving anything that might constitute meaningful consent, you have committed rape. At the very least you have taken advantage of a creature over which you exercise considerable power.

Now we're onto something. The evidence that consent is morally essential—and that animals don't really give it—comes from zoophiles themselves. Dearest Pet reportedly suggests that many artistic images of male animals penetrating women are fantasies projected by men. The usual scenario, according to more reliable records cited in the book, is a man penetrating an animal for his own satisfaction. Singer essentially concedes his vulnerability on the consent issue by ducking it. He defends one scenario in which a dog tries to mount a human visitor's leg, and another in which an orangutan grabs a female attendant. Each scenario presumes the animal's initiative. Likewise, Buble goes through a dog-and-pony show to persuade people that his pet consents to their putative marriage. His letter to the judge included, next to his signature, a paw print purporting to represent the signature of "Lady Buble." But in forging his partner's consent, Buble screwed the pooch. Readers of the letter recognized that the paw print had been drawn by hand, and a Daily News reader discerned another discrediting detail: "I also noticed in the picture of Buble and his Lady that the Ms. wears a choke collar. A willing participant indeed."

So one mystery is solved. If you want to say that contraception, sodomy, and homosexuality are OK but sex with animals isn't, you can stipulate (as Slate's "Chatterbox" does) that sex is permissible only if both parties consent to it. This still leaves you with the problem of explaining why it's OK to kill and eat animals. But two other mysteries remain. One is Singer's position on consent. Does he think sex without consent is immoral? What mental capacities are necessary to give consent? Do animals have those capacities? Who else has those capacities? This line of questioning converges with the other mystery. "One by one, the taboos have fallen," Singer writes in his review of Dearest Pet, building up to the subject of zoophilia. The book's publisher calls sex with animals "the last taboo." But it can't be the last taboo, because there's another subject on which Singer, while freely discussing the charms and merits of zoophilia, seems strangely muzzled. The telling issue—the dog that didn't bark—is pedophilia.

A philosopher's duty is to clarify his principles and defend their consistent application. Those who embrace the principle of consent, and who agree that an animal "is no more capable than a child of giving meaningful consent," have done both. They have stated their principle and applied it to sex with children. What about Singer? He has often compared the mental ability of higher animals to that of children. Does he think this level of comprehension is sufficient to give consent to sex? If the answer is no, isn't zoophilia wrong? If the answer is yes, isn't pedophilia OK? Dog paddling, an old dog's new tricks, dog-eat-dog, a three-dog night—that's kid stuff. You want to take on a real taboo, Professor Singer? Stand up and be a man.

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