We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In an episode of Isabella Rossellini‘s new animal sex series, “Seduce Me,” Rossellini acts out a scene of “forced copulation” between ducks (fair warning: video depiction of anthropomorphized duck rape ahoy). While costumed as a female duck, Rossellini exclaims, “Ouch! Ouch! One of them is raping me! I don’t care.” The line prompts sex educator Emily Nagoski to pose the question: “Is there such a thing as duck ‘rape’? Or is rape a strictly human concept?” Are animals capable of consenting to sex? And if so, why can’t we have sex with them?
Forced copulation is a regular feature of sexual activity among ducks. In the phenomenon known as “rape flight,” several mallards will aggressively peck at a female duck until she submits to sex (or dies). There’s reason to believe that female ducks very much do not enjoy this; the duck vagina has developed in a “rape-specific way” which allows female ducks to prevent pregnancy from this forced sexual contact. But can we compare this animal behavior to the human conception of rape? Nagoski argues that there’s no such thing as “duck rape” for the same reason that meat isn’t murder—-animals are incapable of consenting (or not consenting) to sex:
Rape has a deep moral, as well as legal, meaning. Rape is (briefly) penetration without consent. Can a duck give consent? Can an orangutan? You may say I’m an arrogant human, but as far as I’m concerned, NO, a duck can’t give consent. (If a duck could give consent, I’d feel like a terrible, cruel, and, what’s more, cannibalistic person when I ate one. Personally, I can’t eat something to which I apply the same moral standards as humans.)
It’s not so easy to avoid imposing human moral standards on orangutans and chimps; they’re so like us, they’re so close to human. But we must avoid it. It’s not appropriate to overlay moral meaning on animal behavior; chimps commit infanticide, but that’s just part of being a chimp. It’s not immoral or wrong, it’s just . . . chimpanzeedom. There’s something in us, some apparently innate tendency, to find lessons and moral standards in nature. This is, in part, the naturalistic fallacy—-the conclusion that if something is natural it must be right or good. Just as mistaken is the conclusion that something in natural is bad or wrong because it violates a human moral standard.
Nagoski’s point is well-taken. Human rape can’t be justified through the claim that it’s just “natural animal behavior,” and animal “rape” can’t be condemned through our human moral codes. But if animals are totally removed from the concept of consent—-and if that provides justification for humans killing and eating them—-then why can’t that same argument be used to justify humans fucking animals? Dan Savage turns the meat-is-murder argument on its head when discussing the moral argument against bestiality:
The standard bestiality-is-always-wrong argument—-one I’ve deployed for years—-is that animals can’t consent, so . . . you know . . . fucking animals is wrong. We are not, however, at all concerned with consent when we want to have an animal for dinner or skinning one for a pair of assless chaps. So our sudden concern with consent when it comes to human/animal sex—which most animals survive (and some humans do not)—seems a little convenient and a lot hypocritical. We would all be vegans in canvas shoes if we gave a shit about an animal’s consent. (And our chaps would all be made out of rubber.) And where does the consent argument go if the science shows that some animals are orientated towards humans?
The logical conclusion of this argument leads me one of two places: It’s either morally inexcusable to both eat and have sex with animals, or both activities are A-OK. Unfortunately, I’m really jonesing for a hamburger right now, but I’m not totally prepared to sign on to the idea of moral bestiality. Has anybody got a loophole for me?