When I was in medical school, our lecturers didn’t have much to say about sex, thinking it too ungentlemanly a topic, but dealt briefly with what we might call the “standard deviations”, ignoring more exotic aberrations. So, when any young doctor came across any of these, he had to do his utmost to suppress his amazement and just nod sagely.
Bestiality was mentioned only once, with the suggestion that only people with severely subnormal intelligence did it – people like especially dimwitted farmers or farm workers.
With other more common variations of sexual expression becoming more widely accepted, the term “zoophilia” is now euphemistically used, although it has essentially the same meaning as bestiality. The implication is that it’s more affectionate, and consensual, perhaps suggesting that practitioners (who like to call themselves “zoos” ) might call their favourite sheep the next morning, and perhaps even send them flowers.
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The legal status of such sexual activities varies among countries. At one stage the objection was mainly that it was a disgusting thing to do, and “against nature”. More recently, in countries where it’s illegal, the objection is more likely to be because it constitutes animal abuse.
Where we object to others engaging in such practices, it’s often because we find it disgusting or incomprehensible. But there are many styles of sex to which some folks are profoundly devoted, which others of us find impossible to understand. I recall when first visiting Copenhagen to lecture, I was taken on the customary tour of the Red Light District, and saw depictions of a wide range of sexual activities.
If you were turned on by dwarfs or a dominatrix with a cigar – your tastes were catered for. I was particularly struck by the niche called “gummi”, whose practitioners attempted varieties of sex while enveloped in black rubber and plastic garments. I felt no moral objection, but found the idea utterly unerotic and likely to be very clammy and uncomfortable.
Complex and loving relationships
Cross-species sexual activity is widespread in pornographic art from the 1700s and 1800s onward, often graphically depicted in especially Europe, India and Japan. Some of it is clearly fantasy, as in an Indian classic showing a woman coupling with a graceful elephant, or in “The Fisherman’s Wife” by the great Japanese artist Hokusai, showing a woman having sex with an eager octopus. The concepts are ancient, like the Greek legend of Leda and the Swan, in which the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, rapes or seduces Leda.
A more useful distinction has been proposed between those who rape and sexually abuse animals and those who claim to form complex and loving emotional relationships with them, possibly including sexual activity. The latter would say that they concern themselves with the well-being and pleasure of the animal, and even claim that they seek signs of consent. Sadistic interest in animals, however, especially early in life, is a fairly reliable sign of sociopathic tendencies.
Read: Karma and conscience
How common is cross-species sexual activity? In Kinsey’s studies, he found that around 8% of men and under 4% of women reported sexual interaction with animals at some time in their life, and suggested it could be as high as 40-50% among people in farming environments. As his samples of people interviewed are not really random and included prisoners, his results have been challenged – although a colleague got similar results after removing the prison data.
Later studies, in the 1970’s, when there had been a very large drop in the population living on farms, found the proportion of people reporting sex with animals had fallen to around 5% for men and under 2% for women. But this can be due to reduced opportunity rather than reduced interest!
Read: Agricultural health
Certainly zoophilia is rarely encountered by psychiatrists, as “perpetrators” rarely seek help for their proclivity. I have come across no useful reports of attempts to treat zoophilia. The threshold for intervening with someone asking for help would be, as with all other conditions, related to the degree of distress, and the extent to which it interferes with their ability to lead a standard, productive and happy life.
No attraction to humans at all
In some situations the individual may have severe personality problems and serious difficulties in relating to and communicating with other humans, requiring therapy – and it would be these broader problems which would be regarded as causing or explaining their zoophilic activities, rather than the other way round.
Most seem to also have (or have had) long lasting human relationships, often concurrent with their zoophilic activities, and their animal partners are usually dogs and/or horses. Some are aroused by many species, some only by a particular variety of animal, and some have no attraction to humans at all.
Though there can be fierce debate, some who have studied the situation believe the zoophile’s emotional relationship with the animal can be authentic and real, and zoo’s insist that, within the obvious limits of the animal’s means of expression, appear to be reciprocal and mutual.
Read: Braai Day se ma se *^&% !
There can be concern that, even when there is no deliberate cruelty involved, there is a degree of similarity between the zoophile and the paedophile, in that they both seek unequal partners, less able to assert or form their own decisions in the situation, and may persuade themselves that their chosen partner is willing, even when this is not so. (Referenced below is an article in a respectable American magazine about a relationship with a horse.)
Can an animal truly give consent? Many are convinced that animals cannot comprehend such situations, and though they may be able to vigorously signal dissent, their acquiescence can’t be considered full and proper consent, meaning that such sexual activity would be abusive.
On the other hand, you could argue that it is entirely legal to e.g. slaughter animals for food, and to use them in scientific experiments without the need for consent, so why bother about such matters when using them for sexual purposes.
Deeply emotional relationships between humans and animals are common, widely enjoyed, and considered entirely wholesome and enjoyable. For some of us pets such as dogs and cats may be sincerely loved and demonstrate their own fondness for their human. Such pets are designed by evolution and breeding to appeal to us and to be affectionate, yet some people even dote on “unemotional” animals like turtles, snakes and insects.
Do animals have any sexual interest in us?
It’s well known that dogs may “hump” the legs of humans of both sexes, in a form of copulation. Other examples are quoted where animals are perceived as initiating sexual advances to humans. Certainly most pets convincingly enjoy being petted and stroked, and clearly indicate their displeasure when they are not enjoying the attention.
Does sex occur between different species in nature?
Yes. Research has found that many animals, like so many humans, are sexually opportunistic and will on occasion have or attempt, sex with other species. In nature, such matings may or may not produce offspring, but various hybrids occur. Progeny is more likely the more closely related the species are related, but theresulting hybrid animals are mostly sterile.
Read: New rules on hybrid experiments
This is apparently more common in domesticated creatures, which have often been selected and bred for more vigorous mating, and those in captivity, but of course these are also the animals mostly observed by humans. But it has also been seen in other animals, with reports, for instance, of male sea otters vigorously copulating with seals, and seals have been seen copulating with penguins. There are even reports of some wild animals trying to mate with inanimate objects.
So, such interests, fantasies and activities have been around in probably all cultures, and probably throughout history. If we don’t choose to ignore it, we may actually learn more about the phenomenon.
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Image: Amorous buffalo from Shutterstock
Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.