How we define humans and other animals, and the importance of that dividing line, is crucial to understanding bestiality as a transgression of the natural order. So often this dividing line is one that demarcates a hierarchy, with humans at the top.
Even in religions where animals are valued more than in Christianity, humans tend to be on top. Hindus believe in reincarnation and believe that animals and humans both have souls. Humans can be reborn as an animal and vice versa but humans are considered “to be the apex of what life should be” (DeMello) and hence are superior. Buddhists also have the idea of karma, and consider that humans and animals both have potential to reach enlightenment but again being reborn as an animal is seen as negative.
Human exceptionalism is the belief that humans are unique in the animal world but it is not the only way to approach the world. The human animal divide is “neither universally found nor universally agreed upon” (DeMello). It is a social construction, dependent upon time and place.
For example, in some Native American traditions, humans, animals and plants are created together. In this context, humans are part of the natural world, not apart. A number of creation myths have animal creators giving birth to humans and animals and this clearly influences how we see, and treat, animals. Notably, some animals were seen as superior to humans and there wasn’t a concept of animals as private property.
The divide between, and differential values of, human and animal likely arose with the domestication of animals. For hunter gatherer societies, the collection of plants and hunting of animals involves an intimate interaction with nature. On the other hand, a society that’s based around producing food involves control of, and intervention with, nature. We can’t domesticate animals for our own use unless we create some sort of a divide. The rise of agriculture meant a new concept of animals and humans, one where humans transcend and control. Animals no longer exist in the same world as humans, they belong to nature which humans have been able to ‘overcome’.
The rise of Christianity also influenced this divide. There is a concept called the great chain of being which divides beings into physical and spiritual, those who have souls or not. Within this hierarchy, humans are uniquely placed in that they are physical and spiritual, we are the only beings with souls and hence are closer to god than animals are. The great chain of being set out the natural order of things and if it is broken, there would be disastrous consequences, all that is secure would falter.
“God had created an orderly nature with clear boundaries between humans and beasts. Satan, and the buggerers who served him, were challenging the boundaries and threatening to reduce everything to confusion.”
– John Murrin
As an aside, not all humans are equal within the chain, some are less human – women, children, lower classes – and in many cases were treated as animals.
At particular points in history, such as when nature seemed to be getting too close to man, it wasn’t enough to construct this divide, it had to be proven and one way was to dominate animals. This meant that owning and controlling animals was a part of what it meant to be humans. This is reinforced because to own and control animals, you need to divide yourself from them:
“by drawing a sharp dividing line between human and non human, a vast gap is created between subject (the free acting human agent) and object (the passive acted-upon thing)… we perceive ourselves as belonging to a totally different order: the realm of culture, while all other beings and inanimate things are only nature.”
– Barbara Noske
Within this mindset, humans having sex with animals tested the boundaries between humans and animals and gods. It could lead to half man half beast creatures which would be placeless in the chain. It would also reduce man to the level of animal and generally lead to chaos and confusion.
Knowing this helps us to understand the almost instinctive, strong reactions that bestiality invokes. Sex with animals degrades humans, and humanity, and undermines the “crucial understanding that human beings are unique, special, and of the highest moral worth in the known universe… [it] is an affront to humankind’s inestimable importance and intrinsic moral worth” (Wesley J Smith)
Today we find the divide used, and reinforced, in how we talk about animals, turning them into objects by labelling them ‘breeding stock’, ‘meat’ and so on:
“when we are determined to do violence to an animal, we must first turn the victim into a despicable “thing” that deserves such treatment”
Interestingly, this may make it easier for people to carry out acts of bestiality, seeing the animal as an object or a possession rather than a living creature with a soul.
We cannot understand behaviours and attitudes outside of the culture in which they exist and this is so true of bestiality.