Is the last taboo dangerous - or just boring?

When it comes to taboos, straight talk about bestiality is right up there with supporting Israel Folau and voting for Donald Trump. Which must be why Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas has welcomed Joanna Bourke, a distinguished British historian, to its shindig on the weekend of September 17 and 18. She is the author of Loving Animals: On Bestiality, Zoophilia and Post-Human Love, distributed by the University of Chicago Press. Its blurb explains that “Bourke looks at the changing meanings of ‘bestiality’ and ‘zoophilia,’ assesses the psychiatric and sexual aspects, and she concludes by delineating an ethics of animal loving.”

To no one’s surprise, and no doubt to the delight of the organisers, the New South Wales Arts Minister, Ben Franklin, demanded that Bourke’s talk be cancelled. Since the NSW government is a major sponsor, his opinion ought to count for something. However, Simon Longstaff, the head of The Ethics Centre, which organises the Festival, blew him a raspberry and said that he would not bow to pressure. “To suggest that this was in some sense promoting sex with animals is like saying a historian who covers the history of cannibalism is promoting cannibalism,” he said. He told the Sydney Morning Herald that Bourke’s book presents only three ways of thinking about bestiality - dangerous, perverted or wrong-headed: “It takes a particular kind of mind to think that loving animals must involve sex with animals.”

Which prompts two questions.

First, if Bourke’s book is as platitudinous as Mr Longstaff suggests, what is the point of inviting her to a Festival of Dangerous Ideas? He would be selling tickets under false pretences.

Second, is Bourke really an advocate of sex with animals?

To quote someone who knows about fine distinctions in discussions about sexual matters, Bill Clinton, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Practically, she is not. Peter Singer is an advocate for euthanasia as a theoretical possibility, but he does not practice euthanasia. But theoretically, Bourke is an apologist for the higher bestiality. She states in her book: “interspecies relationships can be complex, rich and fulfilling. Love—that most intimate and vulnerable emotion—is itself a coup de foudre; it is ungovernable. By being ‘open to otherness’, we might finally find ourselves edging towards becoming true companion species.”

“Coup de foudre” is a highfalutin expression for love at first sight. It’s not the sort of expression that most people use about their Labradors.

So Mr Longstaff is mistaken. Bourke hedges her conclusions with the what-ifs, buts, and mights typical of queer theory. She is not proselytising for bestiality. But she lays a moral foundation for its possibility. Perhaps he closed Loving Animals before reaching page 146.

My real gripe, though, about the Festival of Dangerous Ideas is not the taboo subject of sex with animals. It is its poverty of imagination.

As a talking point, bestiality is no longer dangerous; it is merely titillating. The rest of the weekend program promises to be interesting, but it will not shock, threaten, frighten or disgust.

  • “Blowing the whistle on Facebook” – everyone’s least favourite social media platform -- that’s dangerous?
  • “Beyond The Gender Binary. There is so much more than male and female, and you’re only limited by your imagination.” In 2022, that’s dangerous?
  • “My Greatest Period Ever. Don’t just go with the flow – you can use the menstrual cycle to improve your life by harnessing the power of the period.” That’s dangerous? It’s just crass.

In any case, “dangerous” to whom? Not to those attending. They will be in a safe space, insulated from prickly scepticism about the pieties of wokedom. The audience will baa in concert and the speakers will be applauded and feted.

In a post-modern society, the truly transgressive topics are not how to dehumanise social life; but how to rehumanise it. Here are some truly taboo ideas:

  • Every child deserves to live in a family with her biological mother and father.
  • Homosexuality is unnatural and should be discouraged.
  • We need a voice for God in the Constitution.
  • Transgender medicine is child abuse.
  • Abortion is murder and abortionists should be jailed.
  • Queer theory leads straight to bestiality.

If the Festival of Dangerous Ideas ever dared to host such blasphemies, all hell would break loose. Twitter warriors would swarm like bees. The speakers would be cancelled. Sponsors would pull out.   

But of course they won’t; it’s too dangerous.


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