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A steamy calamari: trans-species eroticism and disgust

Imagine a naked, beautiful person of your preferred gender. Now imagine that they sensously fondle a sausage. They gently caress it, they lick it, they eventually insert it somewhere…

While no doubt some of my readers have been turned off at this point, I think few would argue that depicting this scene is significantly more immoral than depicting the scene sans sausage. While one might have various concerns with pornography, self stimulation or the waste of food, most modern people would regard the scene as harmless "food play". In fact, sexual and erotic uses of food are widespread and at least in their milder forms regarded as pretty tame fetishes.

What about pictures of playing around with a calamari? Well, at least the UK legal system appears to find them objectionable. A man was accused of possessing "extreme porn images", including images of humans and animals having sex, and the news media focused on a particular image involving a dead cephalopod (it is not entirely certain whether it was a squid or an
octopus). Leaving aside the legal issue of what constitutes obscenity, what about the ethical issue? Is there really anything wrong with having sex with a dead cephalopod? Or having pictures of the act?

I would guess the most common moral arguments against zoophilia are that it is disgusting (invoking the "wisdom of repugnance") and against the natural order. But the former is culturally variable, and the latter is a form of the naturalistic fallacy and refuted by the existence of various trans-species sexual relations in nature. Human dignity arguments appear to have similar problems with cultural relativism and scepticism towards the often religious motivations. A stronger and clearer moral argument that both consequentialists and deontologists might agree on is to prevent animal suffering (or humans being harmed). Clearly there are moral problems with zoosadistic acts, and even in consensual intercourse there might be problems with the level of informed consent of the animal partner (although the consent issue is somewhat complex). There are also concerns that certain activities could make the human more likely to engage in violence upon other humans (although cause and effect might be hard to distinguish here).

In the case of intercourse with dead cephalopods the strongest argument, the harm argument, seems to break down. The cephalopod is already dead and cannot be harmed further (I assume it was not killed specifically for the sex or picture). In addition cephalopods are very unlikely to have a concern for their posthumous state, so they would not even be harmed if they knew what would happen to their bodies. Squids do not appear to have a higher-order desire for privacy or modesty. Zoonoses are unlikely to spread from invertebrates to humans. The only harm might be the nebulous possibility that the act would have bad psychological effects on the human or on viewers of the picture (for example, by viewing animals more as mere objects), but to my knowledge there is not much evidence for this. It might be grounds for moral concern, but hardly moral condemnation.

Disgust, dignity and natural order arguments still remain and no doubt motivate many to condemn the act, but as moral reasons go they appear somewhat arbitrary. Where is the distinguishing line between erotic uses of vegetables, sausages, pieces of meat or squids?  I have no doubt some (or perhaps many) conservative people would regard food play as morally problematic for these reasons. But to be consistent they should then argue that erotic uses of (say) cucumbers should be proscribed *as strongly* as squids: trans-kingdom sex is an even greater upset of any natural order (lets ignore the flowers and bees) and would seem to be an even greater challenge to human dignity – and maybe even the dignity of plants! If use of a dead animal for sexual gratification is disturbing, what about *parts* of dead animals (meat), cross-species assemblages (sushi) or totally unrecognizable products (sausages)? To a large degree the dignity and natural order arguments seem to be driven by disgust reactions ("that is not supposed to go there!") that we have come to recognize as being of little value when judging other sexual practices such as homosexuality.

Disgust is often deeply influenced by framing effects (sushi becomes unappealing by calling it cold, foreign raw fish) and cultural practices (consider your own nation's favorite scare-the-tourists dish). This makes it an unreliable guide for moral truth or edibility: in general it errs on the side of caution. This is effective for avoiding bad food and to keep to local social practices, but it is problematic as a guide for punishing other people in a multicultural world.

If we allow appealing still lifes of meat or pictures of people pleasing themselves with sausages, then it seems hard to argue that it is immoral to have pictures of sex with dead cephalopods. We might be concerned about the mental state of people who enjoy them and the wellfare of living animals. But better to err on the side of caution rather than allow disgust to dictate our actions.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. “against the natural order” or “unnatural” are terms that point to unproductive sex (except for sex between male and female when one is sterile). I suspect the cultural taboo against such sex is rooted in the need for tribes to expand in order to be secure. The Jewish Bible (Old Testament) prohibits sex practices where sperm is discharged outside a woman’s body. It doesn’t prohibit female homosexuality (although, with a little work, you can produce such a prohibition) which, after all, did not then prevent the female from being imposed upon for use by a male.

    Strangely, marriage between a human and, e.g, a goat, is mentioned by some nuts in the USA in support of a prohibition on same-sex marriages. Maybe not so strangely …

  2. Having sex with food is unethical as there are people who are starving and need that food for nutrients. Too insert your penis into a watermelon is just wastefull.

  3. Dennis: While I think taboos against nonprocreational sex support the yuck/unnatural cluster of objections, they are probably not the core. If one believes that human-animal matings can actually produce viable offspring (as apparently many old cultures did), then the taboo loses its role. Instead maybe a taboo/rule against creating monsters might take its place, but that again seems to rely on the yuck/unnatural clister.

    Max: Yes, if there are better uses for food than sex, then clearly one should use it for that. However, not all food could be sent to needy (e.g. the watermelon is unlikely to survive the transport and anyway has minimal nutritional value) and sometimes wasting food might be good for the needy (say, if rich westerners buy exotic fruits to have sex with from poor countries, then both would likely be better off).

  4. Dennis:
    Spilling your seed outside a womans body is perfectly fine, unless your name is Onan and God is demanding you to fuck your brothers widow to produce a son that will be magically altered to be the son of your dead brother.

    Also: Would that be the same state that has laws against sex with porcupines? (Clearly a crime where legal punishment is the deterrance).

  5. Kinderklein:

    I think, as you do, that the sin of Onan was to refuse to continue the procreative use of his brother’s widow. The act of spilling seed (often into tissue) is now condemned as unnatural and, at least in one branch of Christianity, is a mortal sin (a very confusing concept, mortal sin, given predestination or grace). The religious adherents of “natural law” who discuss sex in terms of natural and unnatural strike me as nothing more than natalists in robes.


    “Yuck” is a cultural concept. There are foods and customs that are “yucky” in another, or at least “acquired tastes”. There is music that is beautiful in China but not so beautiful to Western ears just getting used to atonality and tone rows. All cultures seem to have an incest taboo and most (maybe all) a taboo on homosexuality among males. Both ideas actually disgust most people in those cultures (I suspect even most heterosexual libertarians have a certain strong distaste for even the idea of homosexual sex between males). The incest taboo seems to have a kind of warranting function — this girl is a virgin, or at least is one as far as the family can keep her such. Today, it also has a bunch of social functions having to do with role confusion and oppression. But the taboo about (male) homosexuality, along with all other taboos of sex substitutes (fondling sausages, diddling squid, etc.) strikes me as really pro natalist.

    By the way, Why only male homosexuality? Female homosexuality is the stuff of ménages a trois and many scenes in porn movies. Notice how absent scenes of male homosexuality are from all but specialized porn movies, and how the average male and female doesn’t think of thresomes in which two of the participants are male. I think that is partly because females were and still to some extent still are viewed as sex objects for men, a concept that seems quite consistent with natalism.

  6. Why is it okay to eat animals but not have sex with them?

    It is a similar issue for those who eat meat but condemn bestiality or, even more problematically, relatively trivial forms of animal ‘abuse’

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