In early America, farm animals took the blame for zoophilic sex.
Much of these zero-tolerance laws against bestiality had been imported from Europe, of course, where the biblically mandated execution of buggers had been practiced for centuries. But an interesting development emerged on that side of the Atlantic in the 18th century, highlighted by the case of a ragged French peasant named Jacques Ferron, who was tried for having sex with a female donkey. As described by Edward Payson Evans in his cult classic of legal scholarship, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, it was clear enough that Ferron would be killed promptly, since he was “taken in the act of coition” with the animal. Soon he’d be shoved along in shackles to the public square, where an already smouldering stake was waiting to consume him in flames as he pleaded for mercy into an empty sea of scornful faces. But in this case the locals chose not to slay the jenny along with him. She was so beloved by the community that she was given her own separate trial, with witnesses to testify that never once had they seen her exhibiting even the slightest sign of licentiousness. Before the proceedings, a certificate was drawn up affirming the donkey’s sterling character and virtuous reputation. This impassioned plea was signed by the parish priest and was enough to persuade the court officials to acquit the animal on the grounds that she’d been raped.
Since bestiality was and remains a wee faux pas, and since God clearly prescribes death to any such beasts, willing or unwilling, that have been tainted with human semen, the sparing of this donkey might be seen as a graduation of sorts to the principle of sexual consent. This was a small moment in history where people stopped and questioned religious ideas of punishment and chose their own more humane, rational course of action instead. Of course, they weren’t quite humane enough to spare the man’s life, but … baby steps.
We no longer burn buggers alive at the stake—or refer to them as “buggers,” which is an improvement in itself—and the issue of animal consent has become central to the legal treatment of zoophilic behavior. Injunctions against human-animal sex—in courtrooms and among the public—now seem to derive from the question of whether a hog can ever really agree to make love to a Hogg. It’s a problem that may relate, in some way, to animal intelligence—which, you’ll remember, is where I began this foray.
Can an animal be smart enough to give sexual consent to a human partner? Even if it were smart enough, would it have means by which to express its desire? The zoophiles themselves would say that it can. Animal lovers strive to differentiate themselves from those they call zoosadists—people who take sexual pleasure in harming animals. The (self-identified) more enlightened ones make a point of proclaiming considerable interest in the well-being of their hoofed and pawed bedfellows. (Pig sex isn’t much in vogue these days and probably never was, despite all the hysteria; most zoophiles find themselves attracted to horses and dogs.) They say they are swept up in romantic relationships, and that, as one such zoophile (recently widowed from his mare partner) explained to me over email, they “get the consent of [their] mates by their actions and body language, not words. Horses are very clear on what they want and do not want.”
We may never know how many of those lost to the flames of the bestiality trials were gentle and misunderstood zoophiles, how many were horrible zoosadists, and how many were just extraordinarily and unfortunately ugly. But their erotic descendants are certainly among us today. For most people, it’s an icky conversation to have—I do wish my dog would stop staring at me as I’m typing this—but queasiness doesn’t negate reason. Nobody in their right mind would choose to be aroused by some member of another species over his or her own (a swish of the tail over a sway of the hips, a wet nose over a powdered one), and, indeed, by all accounts, zoophilia seems to be an actual sexual orientation. It’s also as though the pendulum has swung from one end to the other. We no longer hold animals morally culpable for having sex with people, but we’ve now Bambi-fied domestic animals to the point that they’re regarded as sexless innocents. Even the phrase “human-animal sex” is smoke and mirrors: There’s really only animal-animal sex: It’s just that, for still unknown scientific reasons, some human animals are into nonhuman animals. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m fairly sure that my first masturbation experience “to completion” involved a well-built specimen of the species Homo erectus, posing au naturel in one of my father’s old anthropology textbooks. His face, alight with the glow from a fire pit he’d just gruntingly put together, was nothing to write home about, though. Rather more prognathic than I like these days.
Disgust reactions aside, the challenge lies in teasing apart the animal’s actual consent to sex from the human partner’s mere perception of the animal’s giving consent—a perception that, like that of any erotically-charged mind, is prone to a dangerous confirmation bias. Having said that, however, we’ve no reason to think that most zoophiles aren’t just as compassionate and loving as they say they are, and it’s not entirely clear that some animals, in some circumstances, cannot derive pleasure—even benefit—from sex with humans. Anyway, it’s often the animals that are doing the penetrating (of both male and female zoophiles), and in cases involving an erect horse penis the size of a small moped, exactly who’s being assaulted becomes difficult to sort out.
Just be grateful that your carnal taste buds happen to favor members of your own species. I’m glad we’ve evolved beyond the cruel witch hunts of zoophiles and their poor animal partners, but we’ve still got a long way to go before scientists manage to get a handle on why certain people lust not for the conventional tits and ass, but for actual teats and jackasses.
And now I’ve got my own “hog bottom” to tuck into bed, which is my partner, Juan’s, favorite new name for my big derriere. See, those martyrs of old New Haven didn’t fry for nothing. Resurrecting them has given Juan arsenal for at least another year.
Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (July 2012). He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. His next book will be on the curiously scandalous science of human sexuality. Follow him at www.jessebering.com, on Twitter @JesseBering, or try adding him on Facebook.