Note: This post contains frank discussion of sexual topics. Some content may be of a graphic nature.
Certain sex toy vendors manufacture toys that are based on the penises of animals. While many of these toys are hand-sculpted, some horse-based and dog-based toys are marketed as “life-cast”, meaning they are directly cast from a mold taken of a live animal’s erect penis. Is this process ethical, and is it ethical for consumers to buy from these vendors?
1. The justification, and the objection
One vendor of “lifecast toys” describes the production process as follows:
The casting process takes approximately five minutes, and the animals are always happy to help! No animals are harmed in any way, physically or otherwise.
Their position is that, in the absence of any apparent harm to the animals or visible resistance from these animals, this process should be considered acceptable.
Others disagree, with one blogger writing:
For starters there is the whole thing of *how* they got the animals penis erect, most certainly they probably did not just wait around for it to happen you have to figure there may have been stimulation involving someone sexually touching them which is full stop animal sexual abuse. Secondly they have to put the cast on which may discomfort or confuse the animals.
In response to the supposed compliance or enjoyment by the animals, they add:
An animal may not fight against those things or may even enjoy it but that doesn’t mean they are not being sexually exploited for human gain. In the same way a child cannot consent to sexual acts even if they go along with it an animal cannot.
I’ve spoken with others who likewise contend that, because an animal is not capable of providing informed consent to sex, this sexual stimulation of an animal is therefore sexual abuse. As they see it, just as an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of sex does not mean they are capable of offering meaningful consent, the compliance of these animals with sexual stimulation likewise does not change the fact that they cannot consent to such an act.
The casting process would thus constitute a non-consensual sexual act, making it unethical.
2. Variables in the ethical equation
I do not find it necessary to address the premises, reasoning or conclusion of the argument that this is sexual abuse of an animal. As I see it, that syllogism is a valid (and important) one. So I will not be attempting to dispute any of the following points:
- Whether these animals suffer harm
- Whether pleasure translates to consent even when an entity lacks the capacity to provide consent
- Whether sexual abuse can be ethical
It is also not my intention to derive some concrete, absolute, airtight answer of whether the sex toy production process in question must be considered right or wrong. Instead, I’d prefer to examine situations similar to this process in order to provide a broader picture of how these issues are treated in society. There are a great many more questions that lend an important background to how we understand concepts like “harm”, “consent”, and “sexual abuse”. These words are not merely empty symbols – they have substance, and represent complex ideas. Questions pertaining to this complexity might include:
- In what situations, other than the production of molds for sex toys, do sexual interactions occur between humans and animals?
- How commonplace are these situations? Are they largely regarded as acceptable or unacceptable?
- Why do these sexual interactions occur – what motivates this? Are these motivations seen as justifying such acts?
- To what extent are people willing to accept the suffering of animals, and violations of animals’ consent, in exchange for their own pleasure and enjoyment?
In this way, I intend to offer a descriptive exploration of existing attitudes toward these questions, rather than a prescriptive and binding moral conclusion of whether it’s okay to stimulate animals sexually in order to sell or use replicas of their genitals as sex toys. I believe this may be more useful than a short, simple and inarguable syllogism. By equipping people with a wider array of information relevant to this question, we can provide them with a somewhat more expansive ethical equation into which they can input their own personal values. They can derive, not a singular right answer for everyone, but an individual answer which is more solidly rooted in a better understanding of the related issues.
3. Disregard for the consent of animals in non-sexual contexts
Livestock farms are businesses: they are motivated to maximize their production while minimizing the expenses they incur. Because this business involves using live animals as a source of meat, milk, eggs, or other products, and providing the resources necessary to ensure humane treatment may come at additional expense, optimizing for profitability can lead to compromising the welfare of these animals. Such compromises occur as a part of routine, widely accepted industrial farming practices. The commonplace treatment of animals by large-scale farming operations includes:
The lack of adequate space for broiler chickens. Broiler chickens – birds raised for their meat – are densely packed into production houses, with around 20,000 animals occupying a space roughly the size of a football field. Each bird therefore has only about as much space as a single sheet of paper. The birds unavoidably walk around in their own accumulated excrement, and the breakdown of this waste produces unsafe air levels of ammonia. The presence of these contaminants leads to irritation, lesions and ulcers on the birds’ legs and feet. Specialists within the industry have written:
[L]imiting the floor space gives poorer results on a bird basis, yet the question has always been and continues to be: What is the least amount of floor space necessary per bird to produce the greatest return on investment?
The close confinement of egg-laying hens. In the United States, 95% of egg-laying hens are kept in small cages for most of their lives. Five to ten birds are placed in a cage about the size of a large file drawer, without room to extend their wings fully or engage in normal behaviors such as nest-building, perching at night, or foraging for food. Due to the enclosed space, the hens have no room to exercise, resulting in bone weakness.
The close quarters can also lead to cannibalism, something which farms attempt to mitigate by “de-beaking” the hens. Up to two-thirds of a bird’s beak is removed without anesthesia, often using a hot blade that causes painful damage to this nerve-rich area.
The long-term caging of pregnant pigs. Breeding sows are commonly isolated during their pregnancy to prevent fighting between sows, which could cause injury or death. 60-70% of breeding sows in the United States are kept in individual gestation crates that are about two feet wide and seven feet long. These cages are only slightly larger than the pig, leaving sows unable to turn around, lie on their sides, or walk more than a step forward or backward. Slats in the floor allow waste to fall through, and living above a pit of urine and excrement results in respiratory disease from exposure to high levels of ammonia.
Sows are confined to these cages for the duration of their pregnancy – about 4 months. They typically birth at least two litters per year, and are immediately re-impregnated after their piglets are weaned. Most of a sow’s life will be spent nearly immobilized in a crate. Pig gestation crates are now banned in the European Union, and nine US states have enacted similar bans. In defense of this practice, National Pork Producers Council spokesperson Dave Warner stated:
So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around. … The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that’s at an all-time high.
Suppose we grant that a horse or dog cannot consent to being sexually stimulated or having a mold taken of their genitals. In comparison, it also seems unlikely that a pig or chicken could consent to being locked in a small crate for months, having a part of their beak cut off without anesthesia, or suffering foot ulcers from constantly walking around in their own waste.
Yet these practices are nevertheless carried out as cost-saving measures. Treating animals this way is seen as less expensive than providing larger facilities and allowing for the possible loss of some sows, piglets and hens that would come with giving them greater space to move around. Farmers benefit from these practices because they can manufacture a greater quantity of their product at a reduced cost. Consumers benefit from being able to purchase pork, chicken or eggs at a lower price.
Many people give little thought to this inhumane treatment of the animals that produce their food, or if they do, they ultimately find this to be an acceptable tradeoff. And they reaffirm this acceptance in their everyday food choices, far more frequently than anyone purchases specialty animal dildos.
4. Violations of the sexual consent of animals for breeding purposes
Domesticated animals are the subject of selective breeding to optimize for whichever traits may be desired. People decide to retain and emphasize certain traits of these animals, while getting rid of unwanted ones. This is done by choosing animals that express a given pattern of traits, and forcing them to reproduce. The practices surrounding such breeding efforts can involve close contact with the animals’ reproductive organs. Specifically:
Breeding soundness exams, semen collection and artificial insemination of cattle. Cattle may be bred with the aim of producing higher quality beef or greater quantities of milk. As one rancher described a particularly valuable bull named Revelation:
… Revelation’s progeny were showing beef marbling scores that were off the charts, along with breathtaking rib-eye areas. Producing a bull whose offspring have even one of these super stats is like hitting the lottery. But two? A near miracle.
A breeding soundness exam is often conducted to ensure that a bull will be a worthwhile purchase and that it will be able to produce offspring:
Bulls that do not settle their share of cows early in the breeding season contribute to reproductive inefficiency. … Bulls are selected for their genetic potential to improve the cow herd. It is economically important that all bulls are fertile.
Such exams include close study of the bull’s genitals and other organs:
The internal organs can be examined by rectal palpation while the bull is restrained. The vesicular glands, ampullae, and prostate should also be examined for evidence of inflammation, adhesions, or fibrosis. Furthermore, the spermatic cord, scrotum, testicles, and epididymides need to be examined for evidence of abscesses, injury, frost bite damage, or tumors. …
The penis and sheath should be examined for any sores, lacerations, abscesses, scar tissue, hair rings, warts, or adhesions.
A central component of the exam is acquiring a semen sample from the bull in order to evaluate its fertility. This requires that the bull be stimulated to arousal and ejaculation. Semen can be collected by way of an artificial vagina, “a hard tubular casing with a rubber inner liner filled with warm water to stimulate the bull’s penis via temperature and pressure”. However, a sample is “most often collected via electroejaculation”. Electroejaculation is conducted as follows:
The electroejaculator consists of a rectal probe that has a series of linear banded electrodes connected to a variable current and voltage source. The bull is restrained in a chute, the rectum is emptied, and the entire lubricated probe is inserted rectally with the electrodes oriented ventrally. A hand-operated rheostat permits intermittent pulses of current to be given as the voltage is gradually increased. The response varies considerably, but it is common to use 2- to 4-sec pulses repeated at 5- to 7-sec intervals. After a variable number of such stimulations, erection and protrusion of the penis may be seen, followed by a flow of seminal fluid, or the bull may ejaculate into the sheath without protruding the penis.
Electroejaculation is known to be uncomfortable or painful for bulls:
…electroejaculation is associated with an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, and the strength of the muscular contractions induced by electroejaculation suggests that the bull experiences pain and distress. Compared to controls, bulls subjected to this procedure vocalize more frequently, which is considered an indicator of stress and pain.
However, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association maintains that electroejaculation of bulls is an acceptable practice.
The process of using bull semen to inseminate cows is similarly invasive. One rancher was praised for his skill in this area:
“He has a gift with his hands to know how to feel into a cow that most people don’t have,” Donnell says. George will feel the reproductive tract with one arm, then with the other hand, guide the syringe through the cervical rings (the tricky part) and deposit the semen at the opening of the cervix. It takes maybe 60 seconds per cow, and every cow on the ranch, 1,300 in all, is bred that way, as many as 400 in a single day.
Breeding soundness exams and semen collection of stallions. As with cattle, horses have been domesticated into various specialized breeds which serve different purposes. Desired traits can include their endurance, strength, speed, skill at working with livestock, or performance at racing and show jumping.
Stallions are prized for their ability to produce a high number of quality offspring, offering a better value to horse breeders. A very fertile and healthy stallion can be a good investment, while a stallion with poor fertility may be of little use. For this reason, they are subject to comprehensive breeding soundness exams similar to those of bulls:
Veterinarians should also evaluate the stallion’s reproductive anatomy during a breeding soundness examination. Threlfall explained that the penis must be able to retract fully, and there should be no abnormal swellings or enlargements of the genitalia. All aspects of the reproductive tract–including the penis, scrotum, and testicles–should be palpated for abnormalities, he added.
Stallions may exhibit resistance to such examinations:
…especially during this portion of the exam, it’s important to stay safe as some stallions will bite, kick, or strike when their reproductive tract is palpated. Twitch or tranquilize the horse if necessary to maintain safety.
Semen collection from stallions can also involve the use of an artificial vagina. Workers apply the artificial vagina (AV) in this manner:
The stallion’s penis should be deflected into the AV, not grasped, because some stallions take offense to being grasped. The AV should be held firmly for the stallion to thrust against and should be at the same angle as the mare’s vagina. As the stallion ejaculates, the AV should be lowered to allow the semen to run into the collection bottle.
Applying an artificial vagina can be a complicated task involving multiple workers to ensure (their own) safety:
All the handlers should be on left side and everyone is advised to pull to the left if there is a problem. The entire collection has to be a choreographed effort by everyone involved in order to get a sample and keep everyone safe. Approach the mare at an angle and allow the stallion to mount the mare. Let the stallion thrust and guide or allow the stallion to insert his penis into the AV. Gently touch the ventral penis and feel the urethra for the ejaculatory pulses. Others can watch for the flagging of the tail that indicates ejaculation.
However, collection can also be accomplished by “manual stimulation”, and the training of stallions to accept this stimulation:
You can attempt manual massage of the erect penis with moist towels while the stallion is standing or while he is mounting. Experimentally it took about 1 1/2 training sessions to train stallions to do this.
Semen collection and artificial insemination of dogs. Over 150 distinct breeds of domesticated dogs are recognized by the American Kennel Club. While some of these breeds serve working roles – such as assisting disabled people, herding livestock, retrieving prey for hunters, tracking scents, or subduing criminals – many dogs are no more than companions for most people.
To ensure conformance to a given breed standard, people select which individual dogs are bred together. As with cattle and horses, semen collection is part of a typical breeding soundness exam, and artificial insemination using collected semen can allow for vastly more instances of impregnation than a single male dog would be capable of without assistance. The collection process is similar to that of bulls and stallions:
Canine semen is collected using digital pressure and massage. … Collecting semen from dogs is not difficult, but like many things, is much easier after you’ve done it a time or two. The basic process is conducted in the following series of steps:
- Grasp the prepuce and pull/push it back to expose the tip of the penis.
- Slide the collection cone over the protruding penis and slide it over the penis, pushing the prepuce back over of the bulbis glandis …
- Lock your fingers in a ring around the penis, essentially holding the bulbis glandis inside your fist.
- Apply pressure with forward and backward movement; in most cases, the male will begin to thrust back and forth.
- Watch for semen to flow in the collection tube. Most dogs stop thrusting as they begin to ejaculate.
Transcervical insemination is one of the less invasive methods of artificially inseminating dogs:
The transcervical insemination (TCI) is performed with the bitch in a standing position. No sedation nor anesthesia is required. A fiber optic cystourethoscope is used vaginally to visualize the opening to the cervix. A flexible catheter is maneuvered through the cervix into the uterus. …The semen is gently pushed through the catheter from a syringe.
A more invasive method involves surgery:
A surgical insemination is a minor surgical procedure that allows the surgeon to inject the semen directly into the uterus. … A bitch’s greatest chance of conception is by having a surgical semen implant. …
A 2-3 inch incision is made on the abdomen through the skin and underlying muscle. The uterus is isolated and evaluated. The semen, whether fresh collected, fresh chilled or frozen, is inseminated though a small hypodermic needle into the uterus. The veterinary surgeon can see and feel the uterus fill as the semen is deposited.
The procedures involved in the breeding of these animals are, at times, essentially identical to the stimulation of horses and dogs performed in the course of producing a mold of their genitals. In many cases, the breeding-related practices go far beyond that and are substantially more invasive. Yet these practices are well-established and accepted among breeders, simply for the purpose of avoiding any expenses or inefficiencies that would come with having less-than-optimal animals among their breeding population.
The general attitude appears to be one of regarding animals as little more than objects, from which semen can be extracted and into which it can be deposited at will, by whatever means people find to be most effective. So it should come as no surprise that, in the drive to obtain desired traits with great efficiency, the consent of these animals is treated as broadly irrelevant.
5. Human needs: Animal exploitation as a norm
This widespread inhumane treatment and disregard for the consent of animals is done in the service of certain human needs. People may need animal products for food, draft animals for working purposes, or dogs for detecting explosives or other roles. But the extent to which these needs justify certain treatment of animals is, of course, debatable. Ardent advocates of animal rights might contend that nothing justifies forcing animals into any working roles. Vegetarians or vegans may feel it’s not acceptable to use animals as a food source at all. Even people who do consume animal products may choose to avoid food sourced from crated pigs or chickens.
One way or another, that ethical line is drawn in a certain place depending on a person’s values. And when it comes to the needs these animals serve, it can be unclear just how necessary some of these roles are. Sure, people require food, but does that mean people need to eat prime rather than choice cuts of beef? Horses may be the best method of transportation for certain purposes – but does anyone actually need a horse for dressage, a sport described as “horse ballet”? Sled dogs may be needed in some areas, but does a person ever really need a Chihuahua? What needs are some of these animals serving that are so crucial, it justifies disregarding their consent? And what makes the desire to own a replica of a dog’s erection for use as a sex toy any less legitimate than the desire to own a pug as a companion animal?
Many of the practices involved in keeping and breeding these animals would also fail the “child test”, badly. As others have argued, an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of a sexual act does not mean they are therefore capable of meaningful consent to this act. Suppose someone were to argue that a child is completely okay with being kept in a crate too small for them to turn around, or that a child actually enjoys having a device called an “artificial vagina” applied to them, and that therefore the child consents to this treatment. Such claims would be considered monstrous and appalling.
Yet most people who eat pork, drink milk, and own dogs do not seem to apply the “child test” as a standard of ethical acceptability. They are largely content to tolerate at least some of these practices in the course of the breeding and raising of animals. And if they do tolerate this, it seems unavoidably inconsistent and arbitrary to accept practices such as:
- Providing an individual chicken with no more living space than a sheet of paper
- Forcing chickens to walk around in piles of excrement and breathe ammonia-rich air
- Keeping a chicken in a cage so small that it cannot extend its wings
- Removing a portion of a chicken’s beak using a hot blade, without painkillers
- Keeping a pregnant pig in a cage so small that it cannot walk or turn around, for several months
- Restraining a bull to examine its reproductive organs by rectal palpation
- Inserting a rectal probe into a bull and repeatedly applying a painful electrical current until ejaculation occurs
- Inserting one’s entire arm into a cow in order to deposit semen onto its cervix
- Tranquilizing a stallion to prevent it from biting or kicking during a genital examination
- Guiding a stallion’s penis into an artificial vagina and holding the device in place until the stallion ejaculates
- Stimulating a stallion by massaging its penis with moist towels
- Placing a “collection cone” onto a dog’s penis
- Manually stimulating a dog’s penis to obtain its semen
- Introducing semen via a catheter inserted through a dog’s cervix and into its uterus, without sedation
- Partially removing a dog’s uterus from its body via surgery, and injecting semen into it
While rejecting practices such as:
- Stimulating a horse or dog to arousal in order to take a mold of its genitals
What sort of ethical standard would allow for the former practices while soundly rejecting the latter? In terms of potential harm to animals or violations of their consent, how would one go about isolating the act of creating animal-based sex toy molds as any more harmful or violative than the rest of these commonplace practices? What marks this case as unique?
I believe such a standard is best explained as the product of a sexual taboo. Harm and violation of animals is often uncritically accepted when it is in furtherance of:
- The fiscal enjoyment of farmers and breeders who reduce expenses and increase output by neglecting to provide humane facilities for their livestock and avoiding the purchase and upkeep of infertile animals
- The competitive enjoyment of farmers and breeders who are able to produce higher quality animal products
- The culinary enjoyment of consumers who now have access to “off the charts” marbled beef and “breathtaking” rib-eyes
- The sporting enjoyment of athletes (and spectators) who use horses for racing, show jumping, or dressage events
- The personal enjoyment of people who keep dogs for companionship
Yet this harm and violation is seen to reach a wholly unacceptable level when it occurs in the pursuit of:
- The sexual enjoyment of people who would like to use sex toys cast from a mold of a horse or dog penis
It seems that this sexual motive is seen as being more trivial, more frivolous, and less justifiable than these non-sexual motives. But an identical act, the stimulation of an animal’s genitals to arousal, takes place in both the sexual case and the breeding case. The harm to the animal, and disregard for its consent, is neither exacerbated nor diminished simply by the intentions of the person performing the act. If someone does not consider the argument from harm and lack of consent to be sufficient to condemn these selective breeding practices, then the argument also does not succeed in condemning the sex toy production process.
It may be the case that nobody truly needs such a dog toy. But if so, they do not need a toy dog, either.