Crouched beneath a stallion’s hot undercarriage, bearing the weight of a two-foot long sterile tube on my shoulder as the horse thrusts into it, I vocally encouraged him to ejaculate along with a team of human handlers dedicated to the business of equine sperm. “Come on, boy,” we all chirp, “don’t stop now!”
This particular kind of human-assisted animal sex is repeated all spring and summer long at equine breeding facilities across the globe. The proliferation of Artificial Insemination (AI) techniques and technologies over the past two decades has revolutionized the equine breeding shed, making it possible to produce offspring from two horses with no physical, or even geographical, proximity. As recently as fifteen years ago, performance horse breeders imported actual horses from Europe, Russia, or South America to improve the American strains of particular breeds. Now it is possible to breed American mares to international stallions without either party leaving home. New industries and technologies have been created to collect, package, freeze, and transport equine semen; state, federal, and international laws govern the movement of semen across political borders; and a whole branch of equine veterinary medicine concerned with reproduction—theriogenology—has swelled to accommodate the growing need for professionals to supervise encounters like the one I described above.
Making the modern breeding shed
Some years ago as a horsewoman working at breeding farms and then an equine veterinary technician, I participated in numerous such veterinary reproductive procedures. At the time, no one described the process of collecting semen and inseminating mares as sex work, but over time I’ve grown to see the work of the breeding shed as a site of cross-species sexual encounters in which the potential for profit—and the professionalization of the procedures involved—deflects uncomfortable slippages between “real” and “simulated” sex acts.
Artificial insemination techniques remove physical sexual encounters between animals by inserting an array of sexual prosthetic technologies—protective gloves, semen straws, microscopes, data charts, hormone injections, transport containers—into what can arguably described as a de-sexualized process. Well, at least, a de-sexed process. AI demands a clean laboratory, and carries all the connotations of polished stainless steel surfaces into its “sanitization” of animal sex. Mares’ reproductive cycles are measured, analyzed, and influenced; stallions’ reproductive schedules are set months or years in advance by mare owners who purchase semen; every tool, gloved hand, and genital surface is disinfected, lubricated, and medicalized. Tools and context become choreographed to make sense of artificial sex, as Charis Cussins might describe it.
The irony of such sanitized situations is that scientific advancements in equine reproduction have created some utterly bizarre working relationships among people and horses in the twenty-first century. At every turn, the very concept of scientific distance from sex is challenged by human assumptions about key animal sexual behaviors. The laboratory and the sex are hopelessly entwined. Consider my opening scene, a human animal-sex-worker holding a heavy tool called an artificial vagina (or AV), lined with a single-use sterile plastic sleeve designed to catch a very valuable “dose” of ejaculate. This worker must reach out with a gloved hand to thoroughly scrub a stallion’s erect penis with disinfectant, and then attempt to guide the clean penis and artificial vagina together (this is really quite difficult, given the weight of the AV, the attempts of the stallion to maintain his balance on two hind legs, and well, his thrusting), and then absorb the thrusts of the stallion with his or her own body. At every point of the breeding process, the precision of the laboratory collides with the nitty-gritty necessities of sex.
Even getting to this point requires some real gymnastic effort: stallion arousal is a fickle business. Breeding outfits I’ve worked for have repurposed gallon milk jugs to contain urine collected from mares in heat (very unscientifically collected, I may add, by reaching carefully around behind a urinating mare who has demonstrated physical signs of heat). I have dribbled such urine on the tail of a mare who is not herself in heat, but who the stallion appears to prefer visually, and paraded her within whiffing distance to facilitate erection. Stallions involved in AI must be trained to mount a “phantom,” or a stout horse-shaped stand meant to simulate mounting a mare, and stored milk-jug urine can be dribbled on this prosthetic as well to encourage the stallion to climb on. In this role, I have spent hours doing the direct work of turning on a horse, sustaining his attention, and receiving the brunt of sexual intercourse—but all through a choreography of technical, contextual, and linguistic prosthetics designed to swerve the meaning of this work away from sex work.
Multispecies sex work
The overlaps between human bodies, animal bodies, and sterile tools and processes are too many to list; the ones I’ve highlighted here are just some of the most common. But even this sketch of the strange world of human-assisted equine sex offers space to think through the kinds of work being performed behind the doors of the ever-expanding ubiquity of the equine breeding shed. In my scholarly work, I’ve analyzed cultural historical trends of agricultural animal breeding through an interdisciplinary science and technology studies lens. But recent trends in this scholarship have inspired me to return to the breeding shed from an academic perspective. Literature in animal studies connecting human and animal labor as entwined enterprises led me to think about the breeding shed as not just a veterinary space, but also as a site of multispecies sex work. In anthropology, Alex Blanchette’s forthcoming book chronicles human-assisted porcine reproduction in an ethnographic study of the industrial pork industry, situating similar concerns about technological transspecies sex acts in the context of multispecies labor. Sociologist Kendra Coulter’s analysis of multispecies workspaces involves “seeing that people and animals interact in spaces and relationships of work, that elements and beings from nature are shaped in mixed species spaces, that animal workers adapt to human demands and needs, and that animals shape multispecies worksites,” meaning that binaries between nature and labor, and human and animal, are necessarily permeable. She also works from a position that labor is not unilaterally exploitative for either humans or animals, and that collaboration between them offers a way of resolving exploitative conditions that do exist. And, perhaps most provocatively, Erica Fudge presents the notion of “care-filled” engagements between human and animal actors, especially in regard to agricultural and professional relationships between then. In her formulation, each participant is responsive to the other in real time, collaborating even in actions that are not necessarily pleasurable to animals, even in actions that lead to animals’ death.
These examples present me with new ways to interpret the breeding shed as encompassing multispecies sex work, and pushes me to reckon with the ubiquity of such technologically mediated animal sex work in the twenty-first century. Expanding global markets of animal semen are creating new forms of sexual life in the context of human-animal labor. Is there space within STS for considering the current and historical practices of humans assuming a portion of the sexual labor required to produce animals for profit? Is there also space for exploring the dimensions of animal collaboration, and even sexual pleasure, in this sex work? Does the growing body of literature on the topic of human sex work have a place in analyzing the breeding shed? As I return to my own experiences in the shed from a critical perspective, I think the answers to these questions are a resounding yes.
Alex Blanchette, Porkopolis: Standardized Life, American Animality, and the “Factory” Farm, forthcoming.
Kendra Coulter, Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Charis Cussins, “Ontological Choreography: Agency Through Objectification in Fertility Clinics,” Social Studies of Science 26.3 (August 1996): 575-610.
Erica Fudge, “Farmyard Choreographies in Early Modern England,” in Renaissance Posthumanism, Campana and Maisano eds. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.
Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore. Verso, 2014.
Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Harper Perennial, 2007.