Not much separates the human from the non-human animal. And humans have never been comfortable with this obvious familiarity, hence the strongly enforced distinction between species. The great taboo of bestiality blurs this separation and fractures the boundaries. No surprise then that the recent allegations of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s student initiation ceremony involving a sex act with a dead pig has set the British media ablaze.
The allegations are disclosed in Lord Michael Ashcroft’s new unauthorised biography Call Me Dave. The Daily Mail – which is serializing the book – called the initiation event into the Piers Gaveston Oxford dining society “obscene”, ‘sordid” “outrageous” and “debauched”.
I found the news coverage fascinating because in my doctoral research, I explored the human animal hybrid in science fiction and the question of what makes us human and not animal is an ongoing philosophical concern. Sexual exploits with animals (whether confirmed or denied, real or imagined in Cameron’s case) touch very deeply on our anxieties of what it means to be human. When it comes to bestiality, as I explored in a chapter “loving the hybrid” in my PhD and subsequent conference paper and book chapter (in “Forces of the Erotic: Past and Present Transgressions, Transformations and Bliss”) cultural concerns about species identity should not be overlooked.
The notion of species purity is one that has been strongly enforced by religion. Despite Darwinian notions of evolution, much of our culture operates on the assumption that humans are qualitatively different from other animals. This is what makes advances in biotechnology so challenging for many people. As we absorb the animal into us, via pig insulin or, as with former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a bovine heart valve, where do we draw the line at ‘us’ and ‘them’?
Donna Haraway’s more recent works, The Companion Species Manifesto (2003) and When Species Meet (2008) focus on human relationships with companion animals and the expansion of ideas from “A Cyborg Manifesto”. With current biotechnological experiments to create hybrids, we are confronted with the vexed question of how far interventions into the human genome can be carried out without changing a human into a different species.
Yet in spite of the fact that our relationship with animals even in this era of intense factory farming has, ironically, never been so intimate as a result of biotechnology, concern about the future of the animal is conflicted, with the majority of people making emotional decisions on which animals they feel should be eaten, protected, experimented on or kept as pets.
I would argue that the fate of transgenic animals whose organs are currently being used in xeno transplantation does not rate so highly in public consciousness because, like the animals we are eat, they are seen as sacrificial, as a means to benefit humankind. But it is one thing to sacrifice a pig and walk around with its insulin or transgenic organs. It is another matter to have sex with a pig, or even engage in an initiation rite in which your genitals are placed in a pig’s mouth. And so we come to the media coverage surrounding David Cameron and the pig’s head.
The Guardian was hard pressed to get excited enough to even find an adjective to describe further revelations that Cameron joined friend James Delingpole at his room at Christ Church College, Oxford and “smoked cannabis occasionally while listening to Supertramp as part of a group called the Flam club.”
No, the inference seems to be, a little dope dabbling is a fairly accepted, if not mandatory part of undergraduate life, even for someone who is now Prime Minister. Not so acts with a dead pig involving ‘privates’.
While there are allegations that Ashcroft dished the dirt because he was passed over for a significant government job, the fallout has gone beyond simple embarrassment and humiliation for the PM and entered into the realm of animal rights abuse.
According to NME, Morrisey, a highly regarded UK musician, has issued a joint statement that he claims is also sent on behalf of animal rights group PETA.
The statement reads, “No, boys won’t be boys – not when it’s sexual perversion and also involves a vulnerable victim of slaughter, a feeling being who lost his or her life and then was used for a prank…A prime minister is supposed to protect the most vulnerable.”
Indeed, one of the problems with bestiality is the issue of consent. Can an animal ever consent to an act of intercourse with a human? There is the issue of power imbalance, for a start.
Any encounter where one party can be legally skinned, made into a handbag and also eaten is not on an equal footing in the bedroom. But if one partner is dead, then the issue of consent surely need not apply.
Other taboos, such as necrophilia step in. But the fact that the pig was dead when Cameron allegedly stuck ‘a private part of his anatomy’ in the pig’s mouth doesn’t seem to be the issue. The uproar about this allegation surrounds the taboo of bestiality, not necrophilia. By demanding that human beings do not engage with animals in sexual acts, the act of prohibition defines the differences between the species.
Humans have long had a great fascination for sexual activity between creatures of different species. In his 2001 paperHeavy Petting philosopher Peter Singer argues that instances of sex across the species barrier are so frequent “it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” No mention of the animal’s dignity.
We live in an era when many former sexual taboos, such as inter-racial sex and same sex relationships are far more visible and socially acceptable in the Western world. Sado-masochism and bondage have left the hushed back rooms of sex shops and hit the bestseller lists, through works such as E.L James’ Fifty Shades Of Gray.
Bestiality, however, is still not a topic that is openly discussed or deemed appropriate for even mainstream erotic fiction. Much less a politician’s dirty laundry.
The reaction on Twitter to the pig’s head allegations reveals one overwhelming fact – people find the idea of sex acts with a pig hilarious. According to The Conversation, one reason why #piggate played so well on Twitter is that making jokes about David Cameron and pigs allows us to turn the tables on the privileged and powerful.
However, while this may be the case, the humor is revealing in that it mostly speaks to our use of the pig as a product of consumption, or one that is in someway ‘unclean’. The Tweets may joke that we can no longer really trust where our bacon comes from, but none mention just how smart pigs are. A paper published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Comparative Psychology reveals that pigs have been found to be mentally and socially similar to dogs and chimpanzees.
In an age of biotechnology and genetic manipulation, the possibilities for the merging of the human and the animal can now occur at a molecular level. From pig cell insulin to transgenic animal organ transplants and chimerical eggs that are almost human, the boundary between the human and the animal is becoming increasingly blurred.
Historically, human society has evolved in close proximity with animals, and it is therefore not surprising that our myths, folklore and fiction have embraced the animal and our relationship with it. Fantastic beasts intertwining the human and animal are part of the history of the human imagination, in spite of the strongly enforced distinction between human and animal.
In the 21st century, however, the primary socially acceptable literary outlet for this taboo is in “fantasy bestiality”, featuring mythical beasts such as dragons and satyrs. Paranormal genres allow readers to indulge in bestial sexual fantasies that are unspeakable within the wider community. These manifestations of bestiality do not entail a wider acceptance of these practices. According to Susan Squier “xenogenic desire” between species in literature can give expression to desire while simultaneously deauthorising it as ‘only fiction’.
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