BOOK REVIEW / A new view on one man and his dog: 'Dearest Pet' - Midas Dekkers Tr. Paul Vincent: Verso, 18.95 pounds

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TALK about the spirit of the age. What are we to make of the Sussex man who, as reported by this newspaper, was recently convicted of bestiality after lending his camcorder to a friend? He forgot to erase sequences in which he was seen having sex with his neighbour's Staffordshire bull terrier, Ronnie, and found he'd framed himself. The question looms large: in this day and age, and with all the other options available, why?

Midas Dekkers would probably answer: 'Why not?' It's a cultural perennial, after all, as his graphic illustrations dating from the Bronze Age onwards confirm. In his mission to seduce the reader away from the idea that sex with other species is unnatural, he draws mischievously upon a series of arguments, from the

biological theory of speciation to the rhetoric of human sexual liberation, which were originally intended for quite different purposes. 'It is confusion,' the Book of Leviticus says of bestiality. Dekkers' purpose is not to clear it up, but to sow lots more.

As he points out, the taxonomic barriers between species are often unclear. Ironically, one of his examples, that of the lesser black- backed gull which merges into the herring gull, has also been used to support arguments that human varieties are so great as to be equivalent to different species. And the race question is at the core of all debates over the relationship between humans and other animals. Inter-

racial sex was once widely considered a form of inter- species sex. If we now consider that view preposterous, Dekkers seems to be asking, why do we retain the old- fashioned view of bestiality?

Similarly, he points out, bestiality was once legally categorised under the heading of sodomy, along with practices now extolled in women's magazines. Everything else has been accepted, so surely it's time to turn to the final sexual frontier.

The feeling that bestiality's time has come receives support from Dekkers' Dutch compatriots, who snapped up 30,000 hardback copies of his book. Dearest Pet is basically dirty-minded Desmond Morris, its pop theory blended with lashings of memorable

anecdote and an unfailing playfulness that continually defuses outrage. It's naughty, not wicked. And Dekkers has a weekly nature show on TV.

Actually, a harder edge might not have come amiss in places. Blurred boundaries scarcely serve as an answer to the question of why Camcorder Man took such a liberty with Ronnie. His act could be interpreted in terms of the urge to dominate; a cross between rape and wolfhunting. But although Dekkers is willing to dwell on the gruesome consequences of bestiality, he is less eager to dabble in the kind of theory that doesn't lend itself to whimsy.

The other dimension he avoids is the symbolic one. Dekkers drifts towards the implication that interspecific sex in art, myth or fantasy is an expression of natural erotic attractions. Bestial eroticism takes place within a human symbolic order, though. Nancy Friday said as much when, attempting to explain why so many of her correspondents revealed fantasies about dogs, she pointed out that the attraction of a dog is that it is never morally culpable. Under the surface, a canine fantasy may be essentially innocent.

On the other hand, you can't argue with Dekkers when he suggests that there may be erotic undertones to seemingly innocent relationships between human and beast. It is difficult to disagree when pictures of suggestive juxtapositions or actual couplings loom over almost every paragraph.