Out of context, many of our behaviors—if limited to the mere veneer of plain description—would raise many an eyebrow. The most innocent of things can sound tawdry and bizarre when certain facts and details are omitted. Here’s a perfect example: I accidentally bit my dog Gulliver’s tongue recently.
Now you may be asking yourself what I was doing with his tongue in my mouth to begin with. But I would submit that that is perhaps a better question for Gulliver, since he’s the one that violated my busily masticating maw by inserting that long, thin, delicatessen-slice muscle of his while I was simply enjoying a bite of a very banal bagel. Shocked by the feel of human teeth chomping down on his tongue, he yelped—then scampered off. Fortunately, Gulliver showed no signs of lasting trauma and I was saved from having to explain to the vet how it came to be that I bit off my dog’s tongue; but for days after the “incident” Gulliver kept his prized possession sealed behind the vault of his own clamped jaw. This gave my partner, Juan, and me at least a temporary reprieve from Gulliver’s normally overindulgent use of that particular organ on our faces. The story was strange enough for me to share with friends, and this particular tale of man-bites-dog unleashed the predictable onslaught of humorous bestiality innuendos. And that, ladies and gentleman, is where the real story begins.
These sarcastic remarks from my confidants reminded me of a rather peculiar email that I had received months earlier, written by an unusually erudite reader of Bering in Mind. This individual, who shall go unnamed unless he wishes to identify himself in the comments section, was a self-professed “zoophile” (Greek for “animal lover”) with a particular romantic affinity for horses, and he was hoping that I might devote one of my column pieces to this neglected, much-maligned topic of forbidden interspecies love. “The politics of acknowledging zoophilia as a ‘legitimate’ sexual orientation,” wrote this reader, “often mean that zoophiles are either ignored as a class or subject to what can only be described as the most vicious, sustained, and hateful attacks by mainstream society.”
I have my own viscerally based, unreasoned biases and—I confess—on first reading this email I promptly mentally filed it away in the untouchable “Eww…” category. But Gulliver’s tongue, combined with my sympathy for human underdogs, inspired me to go back and reread it, and I saw a rather intriguing scientific question lurking there. Is it really possible for an otherwise normal, healthy person to develop a genuine sexual preference for a nonhuman species?
Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun about bestiality as a behavior. Prehistoric depictions of bestiality have been found in Siberia, Italy, France, Fezzan and Sweden. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Hebrews and Romans allegedly partook in these sexual activities as well. But the act of having sex with an animal is one thing; actually preferring animals sexually to other human beings is a different matter entirely. After all, the fact that I could, in principle, have sex with a woman—if I were plied with enough alcohol and she were tomboyish enough to create a suitable gender-modifying illusion—doesn’t exactly make me a heterosexual. So it is with, say, a randy farm boy who finds himself one day with his phallus lodged curiously in a bucking goat, his eyes closed and his brain replaying scenes of that flirtatious cheerleader from chemistry class. The act alone wouldn’t make him a zoophile, per se. No more, at least, than Jason Biggs’s character in the movie American Pie (1999) should be considered a “piephile.”
For decades, the scientific study of human beings’ sexual relations with (other) animals has concentrated almost entirely on the overt act of bestiality, viewing such behavior as a surrogate for human-to-human sex. As a consequence of this scholarly approach, researchers have until very recently overlooked the possibility that some people might actually prefer to have a romantic affair with a horse (or dog, lamb, cow, sow, or some other choice species) than to become trapped into such unthinkable carnal relations with another person.
This emphasis on bestiality as a behavior rather than as a possible sexual orientation can probably be traced back to the seminal work of Alfred Kinsey. In his classic 1948 book with Wardell Pomeroy and Clyde Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (W. B. Saunders), Kinsey reported that 50 percent of the population of American “farm-bred males” claimed to have had sexual contact with various other species, usually ungulates. Many of these people, said Kinsey, were ashamed of their early sexual experimentation with animals (most of these puerile encounters took place when the boys were between ten and twelve years of age), and so he advised clinicians to assure these now grown males that it was all part of being raised in a rural environment where females were scarce and premarital relations strictly forbidden. “To a considerable extent,” wrote Kinsey, “contacts with animals are substitutes for heterosexual relations with human females.”
But the stereotypical portrait of the zoophile as a woman-deprived, down-on-the-farm, and poorly educated male is presently being challenged by some contemporary findings. The most fascinating of these, in my opinion, is a set of two case studies published by University of Montreal psychologist Christopher Earls and his colleague Martin Lalumière, of the University of Lethbridge. The first case study appeared in 2002 in the journal Sexual Abuse and documented the story of a low-IQ’ed, antisocial, fifty-four-year-old convict who had a strong sexual interest in horses. In fact, this was why he was in prison for the fourth time on related offenses; in the latest incident, he had cruelly killed a mare out of jealousy because he thought she’d been giving eyes to a certain stallion. (You thought you had issues.) The man’s self-reported sexual interest in mares was actually verified by a controlled, phallometric study. When hooked up to a penile plethysmograph and shown nude photos of all varieties and ages of humans, the man was decidedly flaccid. Nothing happening down there either when he looked at slides of cats, dogs, sheep, chickens, or cows. But he certainly wasn’t impotent, as the researchers clearly observed when the subject was shown images of horses.
This case and related anecdotal evidence reported by the authors (including a 1950’s study of a sixteen-year-old “imbecile” who sexually preferred rabbits to women) were important at the time because they suggested that zoophilia may be an extraordinarily rare—but real—type of minority sexual orientation. That is to say, for some people, having sex with their animal “lovers” may amount to more than just substituting human sex with the next best thing. Rather, for them, sex with nonhuman animals is the best thing.
On the heels of their 2002 study, Earls and Lalumière report having received a number of letters and emails from people who also self-identified as zoophiles (or “zoos” as many of these individuals refer to themselves on the Internet, which has served to connect them in unprecedented ways and to attract curious researchers like flies on a barnyard wall). And many of these respondents were vehement that they didn’t fit the mentally challenged, rural stereotype reflected by Kinsey’s analysis. Some were, in fact, highly educated professionals. In other recent surveys, the majority of zoophiles scoffed at the notion that they were abusive toward animals in any way—far from it, they said. Many even consider themselves to be animal welfare advocates in addition to zoophiles.
In an effort to disentangle myth from reality, then, Earls and Lalumière published a new case study in a 2009 issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior, focusing on the first-person account of a forty-seven-year-old, high-functioning (he earned his M.D. at age twenty-eight) and seemingly well-adjusted male who had had, by all appearances, a completely unremarkable suburban upbringing with loving parents and no memories of abuse or neglect. Nonetheless, from an early age, this man had struggled to come to grips with his own zoophiliac tendencies. Again, horses served as the primary erotic target.
As I grew into adolescence my sexual ideation was different from what it was supposed to be. I looked at horses the same as other boys looked at girls. I watched cowboy movies to catch glimpses of horses. I furtively looked at pictures of horses in the library. This was before the Internet and I felt totally isolated. I was a city boy. I had never seen a horse up close, never touched or smelled one. No one in my family had any contact with horses, but for me, they held a powerful, wonderful, and, yes even—well primarily—sexual attraction. I had no idea that there were others like me in the world. I tried to be normal. I tried to get interested in girls, but for me they were always foreign, distasteful and repulsive. A couple of early adolescent sexual explorations … were mechanical, forced and unsuccessful.
At the age of fourteen, the boy had managed to find the nearest horse stables, which he would visit frequently—secretly—by bicycle. Imagine him there, a young boy lurking in the fields, leaning against fencing in the meadows, perhaps under the strawberry, pale blue sky of early Autumn, longing to be close to these huge, mysterious creatures that created such strange stirrings in his loins. Eventually they came close enough for him to touch them and smell them, a scent he would describe over thirty years later as “astonishingly wonderful.” This was no copycat version of the fabled play Equus (in fact, it was still years before the alleged British case of bestiality that the play was loosely based on), but instead a real developmental experience for an otherwise normal human being. This is what makes it so extraordinarily interesting. Three years later, the teenager purchased his own mare, took riding lessons and began a “long courtship” with the female horse until, finally, the pair consummated their relationship:
When that black mare finally just stood there quietly while I cuddled and caressed her, when she lifted her tail up and to the side when I stroked the root of it, and when she left it there, and stood quietly while I climbed upon a bucket, then, breathlessly, electrically, warmly, I slipped inside her, it was a moment of sheer peace and harmony, it felt so right, it was an epiphany.
This case study reveals that, again, it’s not only mentally deficient farmhands that have sex with animals. And neither, it seems, is it simply unattractive, unsavory men who can’t find willing sexual partners of their own species. In fact, shortly after obtaining his medical degree, this particular man married a (human) woman and had two children with her. But their sex life relied on his imagining her to be a horse and—perhaps not surprisingly—the marriage didn’t last. As my sister said when I mentioned this tidbit to her: “I can see how that would be a problem.”
Another pioneering researcher in zoophilia, Maryland-based sexologist Hani Miletski, found similarly in her Internet surveys that more than half of the 93 self-identified zoophiles she’d spoken to (82 men and 11 women with an average age of thirty-eight years) reported being more attracted to animals than to people. And just like the mare-lover from Earls and Lalumière’s 2009 study, the majority (71 percent) considered themselves to be well-adjusted in their current lives, with 92 percent seeing no reason to stop having sex with their animal partners. This is an important point, because the current version of the American Psychological Association’s professional handbook (the DSM-IV) classifies zoophilia as a disorder only if an individual’s sexual attraction to nonhuman animals causes the person to experience distress. Bestiality is still illegal in all fifty states, but it’s rarely prosecuted, mainly because it’s quite a challenge catching an interspecies coital coupling as it’s happening.
As you can probably imagine, though, the subject of zoophilia is a highly charged one, attracting the ire of animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and causing a knee-jerk moralistic response in the rest of us platonic animal lovers. Ironically, it landed one prominent animal rights defender, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who authored the classic book Animal Liberation in 1975, in some hot water. Ten years ago, in an essay for Nerve magazine called “Heavy Petting,” Singer was asked to review the book Dearest Pet (Verso, 2000) by Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers. But he did more than just review the book. As a professor of bioethics, Singer also asked readers to reconsider whether humans’ having mutually pleasurable, nonabusive sex with other animals is as inherently wrong as we’ve been lead to believe by our traditional Judeo-Christian mores (go on, quote Leviticus).
The vehemence with which this prohibition [against sex with other species] continues to be held, its persistence while other non-reproductive sexual acts have become acceptable, suggests that there is [a] powerful force at work: our desire to differentiate ourselves, erotically and in every other way, from animals.
Singer told me recently that he wasn’t advocating sex with animals in “Heavy Petting,” but rather just raising the question of why we find it so objectionable. Ever since, however, the piece has been used unfairly against Singer by his opponents, most of whom are trying to discredit his controversial views on human euthanasia and abortion: “Look,” argue many of Singer’s critics, “how can we take anything this guy says seriously when he wants us to have sex with animals!” But most zoophiles, of course, tend to agree with Singer’s general assessment of human “speciesism” being cloaked under the tenuous justification of animal protection. After all, we are animals.
In a 2009 chapter published in the edited volume Transgressive Sex: Subversion and Control in Erotic Encounters, Goldsmiths anthropologist Rebecca Cassidy offers a particularly sad account of how this religiously-laden assumption that humans are “more than animal” manifested itself in a 1601 courtroom in Rognon France. It was there that a sixteen-year-old girl named Claudine de Culam was being tried for bestiality with her pet dog.
Apparently uncertain as to whether such an act was anatomically possible, the judge appointed a number of female assistants in order to put the dog and the girl to the test. As the women undressed Claudine, the dog leaped upon her. On the basis of this evidence both the dog and the young woman were strangled, their bodies burned and scattered to the four winds, ‘that as little trace as possible might remain to remind mankind of their monstrous deeds.’
One especially provocative study published as a 2003 report in Archives of Sexual Behavior involved Indiana University sociologists Colin Williams and Martin Weinberg attending a zoophile gathering on a farm, where a group of predominantly young men—nearly all of whom were college educated—were observed to have “genuine affection” for the animals they had sex with. Many zoophiles consider “zoosadists” anathema, and they have been sincerely striving to distance themselves from those who derive pleasure from harming animals. Yet some scholars, such as University of Southern Maine criminologist Piers Bierne, contends that zoophiles incorrectly assume that animals are capable of consenting to having sex with them, and therefore human sexual relations with animals of any kind should be considered “interspecies sexual assault.”
In taking stock of my own position on this touchy subject, I find myself emotionally drawn to Bierne’s “zero tolerance” stance. If some unscrupulous zoophile were to lure away my beloved dog, Uma, with a bacon strip into the back of his van, well, hell hath no fury—even if she did come back wagging her tail. But this is mostly just the reflexive moralizer in me. Words like “pervert” and “unnatural” have all the theoretical depth of a thimble. Rationally, Singer is right to question our visceral aversion to interspecies sex. And having had an orangutan rudely thrust his penis into my ear, a chimpanzee in estrus forcibly back her swollen anogenital region into my midsection (“Darling,” I said, “not only are you the wrong species, but the wrong sex”), and more dogs than I care to mention mount my leg, I know that it’s not only humans who are at risk of misreading sexual interest in other species. The Arabian stallion that impaled a Seattle man with its erect penis in 2005, fatally perforating the man’s colon, makes one wonder who the victim really was.
And if zoophilia occurs in certain members of our own species, could members of other species be aroused primarily by humans? In Maurice Temerlin’s 1973 book about his chimpanzee “daughter” titled Lucy: Growing up Human (Science and Behavior Books), the author claims that, once she reached sexual maturity, the chimp was only interested sexually in human males. Temerlin, a psychotherapist, even bought Lucy a Playgirl magazine and found her rubbing her genitals on the full-page spread of a naked man.
In any event, philosophical questions aside, I simply find it astounding—and incredibly fascinating from an evolutionary perspective—that so many people (as much as a full percent of the general population) are certifiable zoophiles. And scientific researchers appear to be slowly conceding that zoophilia may be a genuine human sexual orientation.
Still, just as you probably do, I have a slew of unanswered questions that have yet to be addressed by researchers. What makes some domestic species—such as horses and dogs—more common erotic targets for zoophiles than others, such as, say, cats, llamas, or pigs? (Okay, okay, cats would be a problem.) Do zoophiles find particular members of their preferred species more “attractive” than other individuals from those species, and, if so, are they seduced by standard beauty cues, such as facial symmetry in horses? What is the percentage of homosexual zoophiles (those who prefer animal partners of the same sex) over heterosexual zoophiles? How do zoophiles differentiate between a “consenting” animal partner and one who isn’t “in the mood”?—aside from the hoof marks on their foreheads, that is. Why are men more likely to be zoophiles than women? Are zoophiles attracted only to sexually mature animals—and if not, does this make them “zoopedophiles”? What about cross-cultural differences? Is the tendency to become a zoophile heritable?
But I suppose that I’ll have to wait a while longer for some intrepid sexologist to dig into these and other unanswered scientific questions about zoophilia, perhaps the rarest of all the sexual paraphilias. Meanwhile, I must confess that I’m a bit jealous of you caring zoophiles out there. How nice it would be to be able to dispense with all those emotional encumbrances that come with being attracted to other members of the human species. If only I could settle down discreetly with a sassy little bitch—a consenting adult, of course—life would probably be a lot easier.
In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns.