BOOK REVIEW / Yearning's outer limits: 'Dearest Pet: On Bestiality' - Midas Dekkers: Verso, 18.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
CONSIDERING what we do routinely to our fellow creatures, incarcerating them, castrating them, filching their milk, slaughtering them and eating their flesh - practices deemed acceptable in nearly all human societies - and considering the additional bodily invasions visited upon them under the auspices of modern science, it is striking that there should be just one universal prohibition in our relations with them: the ban on sex. It is striking, too, that owners of individual domestic animals, whose love for them may well surpass the love of men, should concur with this prohibition.

Who, in fact, even in this age of compulsive transgression, has ever argued publicly for the right to have sex with a pet? In My Dog Tulip J R Ackerley owned up to what might be termed interspecific frottage, but the confession was not exactly a rallying cry for zoophile liberation. Today, perhaps, there's a bulletin board on the Internet or an 0898 number for heterogeneric lonely hearts. Nonetheless we are still waiting, as Midas Dekkers puts it, 'for the first man to tell Oprah Winfrey . . . about the wonderful night he had with his goat'.

The author's archness is catching. Yet Dearest Pet is a serious book. The fact that it is so hard to discuss the subject without facetiousness is a measure of the success of the prohibition. Even in the current atmosphere of doctrinaire tolerance, where all kinds of sexual practices have become widely accepted, the ridicule and opprobrium that attach to bestiality remain. Perhaps it is because the whole system of human exploitation of animals depends on a categorical differentiation between us and them, one that is radically threatened by the idea of human-animal coupling. If we were to countenance the play of sexual desire extending legitimately to other species, given our ideal of mutuality in sexual relations, meat-eaters would become like cannibals, stock-keeping would be tantamount to slave-trading.

Be that as it may, many people do have - or have had - sex with animals. According to the Kinsey reports (which are now, it should be remembered, half a century out of date) the figure is 8 per cent for American men and 3.5 per cent for women. And for men in rural areas of America - this is a bit hard to credit - the figure goes up to 50 per cent. (It happens, according to Kinsey, mainly in the spring.)

Most sex between humans and animals is by force, so we should not get sentimental about it. In classical mythology and contemporary pornography, that is to say, in the fantasy life of men, it is generally a male animal ravishing a human female, or, on occasion, human male: rampant centaurs, satyrs, bulls and donkeys, or gods in animal form. Zeus was especially fond of assuming creaturely guise for this purpose - an eagle for Ganymede, a bull for Europa, a swan for Leda. In real life it is generally the opposite: human males are the assailants. Dumb and dependent, animals are an easy target. Sex with them is sex with unequals - this is part of the attraction. Pets are love slaves, lapdogs; it is their desire for food, or

in the case of dogs, their pleasure in obedience, that makes them unresisting partners in the displaced lusts of men. (To be fair to the assailant, it is hard to see how an animal could unambiguously indicate assent, though some of the larger mammals have obvious ways of saying no.)

There is though a far deeper perversity in our relations with animals than the - infrequent - use of them as sexual objects; a practice that is not considered abnormal at all. That is the brutal and ubiquitous curtailment of their sexual relations with their own kind by means of castration and spaying. Let the farmer or pet-owner who is without sin cast the first stone.

Midas Dekkers is a biologist and his book reveals careful observation of animals, humans included. He draws our attention to the 'splendid velvety testicles of tigers' (not much danger of abuse there) and explains the meanings of gestures across species - the dog's kiss, he suggests, is a nudge for food while the cat's is part of a grooming ritual. Neither is a come-on.

Dekkers is not an apologist for sex with animals; rather he is amused by the hypocrisies attendant on their intimate subjugation to us, and intrigued - who is not? - by the outer limits of human yearning. Dearest Pet is about as good a book as you could expect on a subject that still carries the vague frisson of transgression, the dubious allure of something we cannot quite talk about properly.