Is Bestiality A Sexual Orientation?S

Jesse Bering's latest Scientific American column asks, "Is it really possible for an otherwise normal, healthy person to develop a genuine sexual preference for a nonhuman species?" And if so, should their love be legal?

We haven't always seen eye-to-eye with Bering in the past, but today he delivers a pretty interesting analysis of zoophilia — the term bestiality aficionados prefer. Though sex with animals is often considered "something teenaged boys try for a lark and see how far it goes" (as a psychiatric nurse who treats sex offenders put it), Bering writes, "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." Nor do all zoophiles fit the stereotype of the "woman-deprived, down-on-the-farm, and poorly educated male" — some are learned, city-raised, even married. Bering quotes from a case study of a "forty-seven-year-old, high-functioning (he earned his M.D. at age twenty-eight) and seemingly well-adjusted male" who also happened to love horses:

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.

If some humans are, indeed, sexually oriented toward horses, dogs, or other nonhuman animals (as Bering points out, we're animals too), should they be allowed to consummate their desires? Bering cops to some queasiness on this score, as will I. But he's also open to the zoophile's point of view. He writes,

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, [ethicist Peter 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.

This last part, though, is key. Disgust isn't a good argument for banning a sexual practice (philosopher Martha Nussbaum recently argued that unreasoning disgust is at the root of much homophobia), but lack of consent is. And the argument that zoophiles can tell when animals are willing feels a little like the excuse of a pedophile who says his victims really love him. It doesn't necessarily make sense to compare animals to children — descriptors like "as smart as a four-year-old" ignore the complex differences between the brains of different species — but in both cases, it's in the sexual aggressor's interest to interpret all sorts of behavior as consent when it might not be intended as such. And since nonhuman animals don't speak human languages, it's pretty impossible to determine their actual intentions. As the fatal mauling of bear activist Timothy Treadwell (chronicled in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man) attests, humans who claim to understand the thought processes of animals often suffer from great hubris. And while zoophiles may claim that those who would deny them their sexual pleasure are "speciesist," perhaps they are committing the ultimate in human exceptionalism — assuming that they, in their infinite wisdom, know what other animals want.

Animal Lovers: Zoophiles Make Scientists Rethink Human Sexuality [Scientific American]