[Updated with link to Prof. Hayes's new paper.]
The man-bites-dog story of Germany legalizing then banning bestiality raises the question of the constitutionality of such laws in the U.S. Most states criminalize zoophilia, and in many places the bans have been enacted quite recently. Moreover, the laws are from time to time enforced.
The 14th Amendment has been interpreted to recognize a broad and very valuable liberty interest in sexual autonomy. Constitutional doctrine regards private sexual choices as vastly more important than other kinds of choices, and thus presumptively protected. Homosexual conduct is just a hot-button particular instance of the general principle. Constitutional protection of heterosexual conduct comes from the same source. Thus if laws against premarital heterosexual sex (with or without contraceptives), sodomy, etc. are unconstitutional – and I think it clear that courts would find them to be – this must be justified by some special protection for sexual choice.
Bestiality is private sexual conduct and thus prima facie requires a very good justification to regulate. Given that bestiality taboos existed long before animal rights movements, one can assume their legalization or delegalization is largely based on the old taboos or stereotypes, perhaps in the sheep’s clothing of animal rights. (Similarly in the VMI case, the Court refused to let the state “update” the rationale for an old practice to something that might sound more in line with current thinking.) But insisting that bestiality bans simply regulate animal welfare is insufficient. Those regulations do not typically intrude on protected interests.
Bestiality bans regulate human sexual expression. And in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, sex is special. The government can also regulate, even ban, consumer products, but not when they are condoms, because that is also a regulation of sexuality. Cock fighting can be banned not because the animal suffers, but because the government needs little excuse to ban any commercial activity. Sexual activity is different.
Similarly, while government can regulate animal cruelty, the Supreme Court recently struck down a law targeting “crush films” involving weird sexualized animal torture because the statute was not precisely tailored, and could sweep in some cases where animals did not in fact suffer. Blanket bestiality bans are not narrowly tailored. Thus many European countries make zoophilia legal, but punishable under existing animal welfare laws when cruelty can be shown – but it cannot be presumed.
Constitutional protection of sexual conduct is mostly valuable for conduct that is widely perceived as deviant – when it is someone else’s ox getting gored. Otherwise it is itself merely a tool for reaffirming current mores. With bestiality, one assumes that most folks have have no dog in the fight – and that is what makes it interesting to seriously consider the constitutional issues.
The closest analogy would not be gay sex, or straight sex, but rather other kinds of autonomous sexual activity like sex toys. There are still sex toy bans in some states, including some newly enacted ones. But they’ve been getting struck down since Lawrence by courts (including the Fifth Circuit) that read Lawrence as standing for general sexual libertarianism.
One could argue that ick factor aside, bestiality should if anything be more protected than the dominant social paradigm of 2-person sex. Once there are two people involved, it is a social issue, not purely “private.” Thus such laws can be justified by some purported negative social consequences: uncared for kids with heterosexual fornication; unmarried poor men for polygamy; mutation for incest. By these standards, bestiality (or any other kind of one-person sexual activity) is the most innocuous, as it involves only a person and his property. Spill-over effects on other humans are minimal.
The New York Times several years ago had a very sympathetic piece on Washington state men who have sex with horses, which strongly suggested, based on graphic evidence, that the horses were not unwilling, and that the men seemed reasonable people for whom the activity was meaningful. The bans may well be based on (not yet outmoded) stereotypes and biases.
After the sex toy cases, why not go whole hog and extend the protection of idiosyncratic autoerotic conduct to zoophilia? Indeed, Antonio Hayes, a Fellow at Cornell Law School, has a fascinating paper just posted on SSRN critically examining the various rationales for bestiality laws and finding them wanting. He stresses that animals do not necessarily find such practices painful, and may even enjoy them. As a political matter, I’m not bullish on the success of this argument. And I know this post will really get the animal rights folks’ goat, as the sex toy analogy assumes that animals are more like things than like people.