|Bestiality and its Relevance in Psychosexual Evaluations|
|by Brian Holoyda, MD, MPH, MBA|
Martinez Detention Facility
Bestiality, or sexual activity between humans and nonhuman animals, has been a source of both fascination and revulsion since earliest recorded human history. That ancient Greek myths often depict sexual acts between humans and other animals demonstrates that bestiality either occurred or was in the popular imagination at the time. In 2017, a movie depicting the relationship between a woman and a fish-like anthropomorphic creature, The Shape of Water, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Societies have dealt with bestiality through legal codes across history as demonstrated by some of the earliest laws ever recorded. For example, the Hittites are thought to have written their laws in cuneiform on clay tablets between the years 1650 B.C. and 1500 B.C., including four laws that directly address bestiality (Roth et al., 1995). Despite humanity’s long-standing interest in and legislation of bestiality, it is perhaps one of the least understand aspects of human sexuality. Studies on individuals who have sex with animals are largely siloed to different samples that are not representative of the general population. This puts lawmakers and forensic evaluators in a difficult place, creating laws and generating risk assessments with little research support. This article serves as an introduction to bestiality with a focus on the growing recent body of literature examining its relationship to other problematic sexual behaviors.
The word bestiality refers to sexual acts between human and nonhuman animals. In the field of veterinary medicine the term animal sexual abuse is the “preferred and encompassing term for all sexual contact between people and animals” (Stern & Smith-Blackmore, 2016, p. 1058), as it highlights harms that may occur to the animal from sex with humans. Zoophilia is a paraphilia in which the object of intense and persistent sexual interest is an animal or sexual acts involving animals. With the transition from DSM-IV-TR to DSM-5, a paraphilia is a paraphilic disorder when the individual experiences distress or impairment from the paraphilia or when its “satisfaction has entailed personal harm, or risk of harm, to others” (APA, 2013, pp. 685-686). There is no specified zoophilic disorder diagnosis in DSM-5, however the text indicates that it may be diagnosed under the category of other specified paraphilic disorder (OSPD). To meet criteria for OSPD (zoophilia), then, an individual with zoophilia would have to act on the zoophilic interest or experience distress or impairment related to the sexual interest. There is a selection of terms that some individuals with zoophilic interest and others who engage in sex with animals have adopted to describe themselves. A bestialist engages in sexual contact with animals, whereas zoophiles, zoos, zoosexuals, or zooerasts report having intimate relationships with animals in which sexual activity may be involved (Holoyda et al., 2018).
Remarkably little is known regarding basic scientific issues related to bestiality, for example who engages in sex with animals, what animals are utilized for sex acts, and why people do it. One of the most extensive surveys of sex with animals comes from Alfred Kinsey and colleagues (1948), who reported that 8% of males had sexual contact with animals across the lifespan. The prevalence of such a history increased to 40-50% when restricting the sample to farm-raised men. In some rural Western communities, 65% of men reported having had sex with animals, including some who did so multiple times each week over many years. Among women, Kinsey and colleagues (1953) identified lower rates of bestiality, noting that 1.5% of their sample had sexual contact with an animal prior to adolescence and 3.6% after adolescence. Since Kinsey’s studies, there have been few large-scale epidemiologic surveys on bestiality. One survey of the general population in U.S. cities in the 1970’s found that 5% of men and 2% of women reported having sexual contact with an animal (Hunt, 1974). Other studies have utilized samples that are not representative of the general population. For example, in two studies of male prisoners in the southern United States, Hensley and colleagues (2006, 2010) found that 6% and 20% reported previously having sex with animals. In a study of forensically committed male sexual offenders at a state hospital in California, Holoyda (2017) found that 3.6% (n = 3) reported a history of bestiality, of whom two were diagnosed with zoophilia. Out of 1248 individuals committed as sexually violent predators in Virginia, Holoyda and colleagues (2020) discovered that 2.6% reported a history of bestiality.
Kinsey and colleagues (1948) found that men most often reported having sex with calves, burros, and sheep, though dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and geese were also mentioned. Of possible sex acts, penile penetration of the animal’s vagina was most common, followed by masturbating the animal, fellatio of the human, and penile penetration of the animal’s anus. Among women (1953), however, three-quarters reported having sex with dogs and most others reported cats. Most acts involved general body contact, touching an animal’s genitals, or masturbating the animal. Less commonly, the animal performed cunnilingus on the woman. In her study of self-identified zoophiles, Hani Miletski (2002) found that 63% of 82 men and 100% of 11 women first experienced bestiality with a dog, while 14 men first did so with a horse. Over 30% of the men in her sample reported primary sexual acts of masturbating a male animal, penile-vaginal intercourse with a female animal, fellating a male animal, masturbating a female animal, being anally penetrated by a male animal, or performing cunnilingus on a female animal. Of her female subjects, over 30% reported primary sexual acts of masturbating a male animal, receiving cunnilingus from a male animal, receiving penile-vaginal penetration from a male animal, performing fellatio on a male animal, and receiving cunnilingus from a female animal. Other studies of self-identified zoophiles have identified similar animals and sexual acts of preference (Beetz, 2002; Williams and Weinberg, 2003).
The motivations for which individuals engage in sex with animals are poorly understood. Miletski’s (2002) self-identified zoophile subjects most often reported motivations of being sexually attracted to the animals, wanting to express love or affection, the animal wanting it, or the animal being accepting and easy to please. Williams and Weinberg (2003) identified similar reasons that zoophiles engaged in sex with animals. Other researchers have described prisoners engaging in sex with animals as an act of animal cruelty alongside other physically harmful acts like hitting, kicking, shooting, or drowning animals (Henderson et al., 2011; Hensley et al., 2006; Hensley et al., 2010). It is not clear from these studies if all participants were intentionally inflicting pain on the animals, however the authors suggested that bestiality may represent one form of violence against animals. As Holoyda described in 2016, other potential motivations for bestiality include culturally sanctioned practices, financial gain, psychosis, intoxication, cognitive or impairment, or sensory preferences associated with autism spectrum disorder.
Bestiality and Forensically Relevant Research
Most studies assessing the psychopathology of individuals with a history of bestiality have focused on samples with comorbid psychiatric problems or those facing legal sanctions. One consistent finding of this small body of literature is that a history of bestiality is likely related to other paraphilic interests and/or disorders. In Abel and colleagues’ 1988 study of over 500 men voluntarily seeking treatment for problematic sexual behaviors, 14 reported a history of bestiality. The average number of comorbid paraphilias in these men was 4.8, the third highest after those reporting a history of obscene phone calling and public masturbation. No individual reporting a history of bestiality had a single comorbid paraphilia. In their study of Virginian Sexually Violent Predators (SVPs), Holoyda and colleagues (2020) found that those with a history of bestiality were more likely to report having sexually abused a child (63.6%) and to have engaged in necrophilic acts (6.1%) than SVPs without a history of bestiality. The former finding supports Abel’s 2008 report that bestiality, when compared to other paraphilic and problematic sexual behaviors, is the greatest predictor for the commission of child sexual abuse. This body of evidence reinforces the concept of paraphilic crossover, defined as the often broad-ranging problematic sexual interests and behaviors seen in those with paraphilic disorders, including those with a history of zoophilia or bestiality. Though some case reports have identified a relationship between certain psychopathological states and acts of bestiality, there is no clear relationship between mood, psychotic, or other mental illnesses and sex with animals.
There have been numerous studies examining bestiality as an act of animal cruelty, specifically as a predictor of future interpersonal violence, a relationship commonly referred to as “the Link.” In a study of 261 prisoners in the southern United States, Hensley and colleagues (2006) found that about 6% reported engaging in bestiality during childhood and adolescence. Those reporting such a history were significantly more likely to have committed an interpersonal crime and to have a history of more interpersonal crimes than those without such a history. In a follow-up survey of 180 prisoners, Hensley and colleagues (2010) found that about 13% reported a history of childhood bestiality and they confirmed their prior findings. Using the same dataset, Henderson and colleagues (2011) compared bestiality to a variety of other physical forms of animal abuse and found that only bestiality predicted recurrent interpersonal violence in adulthood. Based on this limited body of evidence, the researchers proposed that a history of childhood bestiality may be a risk factor for adult interpersonal violence.
As already described, Holoyda and colleagues (2018) and Abel (2008) found that bestiality may be a risk factor for the commission of child sexual abuse in SVPs and men assessed for problematic sexual behaviors, respectively. A recent study on individuals arrested for animal cruelty supports this hypothesis. Levitt and colleagues (2016) studied 150 adult animal cruelty offenders, 35 of whom were arrested for bestiality. About one-third (n = 12) of these individuals also had a history of sexually assaulting a human and more than half of their victims were under the age of 18. Similarly, Edwards (2019) published a review of 472 arrests for bestiality in the United States between 1975 and 2015. Over half of the 456 adult offenders had a prior criminal history, of whom one-third had committed a sexual offense. In 144 arrests (31.6%), the offender directly sexually victimized 213 children and 28 adults. Fifty arrests involved bestiality plus sex with a child or non-consenting adult and thirty involved the coercion of a child or adult to have sex with an animal.
Most recently, researchers have been exploring the relationship between bestiality and the possession of child sexual exploitation materials (CSEM). Seto and Eke (2015) found that 15% of adult male CSEM offenders collected bestiality material within five years of release from custody. Steel and colleagues (2021) compared pornography viewing habits between 254 members of the public and 78 adults convicted of CSEM-related offenses. Forty-four percent of the offender group reported viewing adult pornography involving bestiality and 18% reported viewing CSEM involving bestiality. Three percent of the public sample reported viewing any pornography involving bestiality. The offender-to-public ratio of viewing bestiality material (15.82) was greater than that for any other type of pornography, including rape, anal sex, teen sex, hentai, and others. In Edwards’ (2019) study, most bestiality-related arrests involving children related to the production of CSEM or coercion of the child to engage in sexual activity with an animal. These studies suggest that individuals with a history of CSEM offenses may be more likely to view bestiality material.
Data on bestiality is limited and represents an area for further study, including to further delineate the relationship between bestiality and other paraphilic disorders, child sexual abuse, CSEM offending, and other problematic sexual behaviors. With more data, evaluators will be better suited to incorporate a history of bestiality into a sexual violence risk formulation. Current research seems to support the hypothesis that bestiality is associated with various other problematic behaviors, including sexual assault of adults, child sexual abuse, and the viewing and/or possession of CSEM. While elucidating the violence risk implications of bestiality is important, it is also essential to better understand basic issues related to the behavior, for example the incidence of bestiality today and the motivations for which individuals engage in sex with animals. Without this important “base rate” information, evaluators will struggle to place evaluees’ acts of bestiality in context and to formulate appropriate, unbiased conclusions regarding individuals’ behavior and future risk.
This author has no financial disclosures to declare.
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