Calf and Other Loves

Wendy Doniger

  • Dearest Pet: On Bestiality by Midas Dekkers, translated by Paul Vincent
    Verso, 208 pp, £18.95, June 1994, ISBN 0 86091 462 3

Animal lovers who read this book – and no one else will, or should, read it – will not be able to put it down, but they will come away from it feeling vaguely uncomfortable. The subject itself would tend to make the book one long dirty joke; but the issues it raises are deadly serious, touching the tender spots of racism, sexism, sexual abuse and, indeed, the nature of sexual otherness.

First of all, Dearest Pet is full of fascinating information about the things that animals have meant to people. In this aspect the book is thoughtful and erudite, drawing skilfully on a vast array of historical and scientific literature. Dekkers was trained as a biologist but writes like a journalist, in a breezy style that is for the most part charming, occasionally annoying, and as the book progresses, troubling. The writing is so vivid and personal that it encourages us to imagine ourselves the perpetrators of acts that are usually described in more distanced or, at the other pole, more offensively obscene terms. And since some of these acts are at the same time bound to strike us as genuinely perverse, a subtle tension develops. This reaches its climax in the final chapter, when we discover that Dekkers, too, is troubled by bestiality; that he sees erotic implications in some of the most apparently innocent human-animal contacts; and that he regards people who prefer animals to people as morally flawed.

The basic paradox is framed in terms of natural science. Dekkers argues that every sexual act is bestial in the sense that it turns on otherness, that ‘every sexual encounter is a breaking of bounds, an intrusion into an alien realm, every sexual encounter retains a whiff of bestiality. What use is the other person if they are not different? You find true satisfaction only when you let yourself go.’ And he sees bestiality in places unexpectedly close to home, even when we talk about ‘the birds and the bees’ since bees and flowers represent ‘an extreme case of cross-species sexual intercourse. Here the plants obtain satisfaction with the help of animals. In your garden, on your balcony.’ But then he points out the elaborate measures nature has taken to prevent one species from fertilising another, measures which allow you to mate only with your own species. If a male toad ‘sees something moving, there are three possibilities: if it is larger than I am, I run away from it, if it is smaller, I eat it, and if it is the same size, I mate with it. If the creature with which it is mating does not protest, then it is probably the right species and the right sex.’ We all know men like that toad, and not every frog turns into a prince when you kiss him.

Even when humans transgress the boundaries of their species to find sexual partners, they still adhere to this basic principle that like attracts like. Those humans who prefer animals prefer ones that have human features:

Dogs, cats and rabbits are mirrors in which we love ourselves, and if the mirror is enough of a caricature – not ridiculous, but touching – it may even happen that we prefer the animal to the human being. The fact is that in some respects some animals are even more human than human beings themselves. No human being has such an entreating expression as a basset hound, no human being is as loyal as his dog.

Then, however, Dekkers reminds us of the counter-principle, that opposites attract, for human beings seldom commit bestiality with their closest relatives, the primates, generally preferring more distantly related predators, such as dogs, and cloven-hoofed animals, such as goats, cows and donkeys. In other words, there is a biological and emotional tension in sexual selection between the desire for the same (which would preserve the species but lead ultimately to incest and unhealthy inbreeding) and the desire for the different – which would introduce healthy new genes but ultimately endanger the integrity of the species.

From this scientific paradox, a moral paradox arises, or rather a moral switchback, that first lulls us into a permissive relativism and then slaps our hand as we reach out for the forbidden fruit. Dekkers argues, on the one hand, that bestiality is common and natural, and on the other, that it is perverse and immoral. First he tells us how to do it, in terms that would appal the moral majority, and then he says that it is nasty and literally inhuman, in terms that might have been borrowed from that majority. Dekkers begins by arguing that actual bestiality has been, and remains, a lot more common than most of us think. He explains how it took place in the past. In the cavalry, for instance, ‘with such an intimate bond between horse and rider’, and with women scarce and horses freely available, it naturally occurred to some officers that there was more than one useful way to mount a horse – or, one may suppose, for those who were ‘straight’, a mare. Frederick the Great’s judgment on a cavalryman who had abused a mare was more practical than moralistic: ‘The fellow is a swine and belongs in the infantry.’ This, however, merely displaced the problem, for though there were no horses in the infantry, ‘no goat was safe. If need be the armies took their own with them.’ There seems to be some sort of Dumézilian class distinction operating here: horses for the upper classes, goats for the masses. Dekkers goes on to tell us how bestiality occurs nowadays, noting that ‘Alfred Kinsey (a professor of veterinary studies!) asked twenty thousand Americans about their sexual experiences with animals. Not whether, but how often they had had them. That removed the worst scruples and prompted more than 5 per cent of those interviewed to confess.’ This part of the book is often hilarious, a more elegant and intellectually viable version of all those jokes about insatiable women and their gorillas, or farm boys who do things with their sheep/cows/chickens – a genre immortalised by Gene Wilder in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex.

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