Editor's note: A Gizmodo report has revealed Damian Sendler is a serial fabulist who misrepresented himself and his work to VICE and many other outlets. Read the Gizmodo report here.
Bestiality, for obvious reasons, is one of the rare taboo subjects of the internet age.
While the online world has allowed us to have a nuanced discussion about an immense variety of kinks, consent, and the spectrum of sexuality, the urge to fuck animals is one impulse that’s pretty off-limits—even in the scientific community.
Dr. Damian Sendler, a forensic sexologist and research scientist, is one of the few people in the world attempting to change that. For several years now Sendler has been on the forefront of studying unusual paraphilias—sexual arousal to things most people don’t typically find attractive. He’s published articles on what happens if someone is killed when being choked during sex, fisting, and bestiality. In his newest paper, which he shared with VICE prior to its publication in the scientific journal Deviant Behaviour, Sendler studied how zoophiles communicate and speak about their conditions in one of the only places they speak openly, in online forums.
In the paper, titled “Why People Who Have Sex With Animals Believe That It Is Their Sexual Orientation—a Grounded Theory Study of Online Communities of Zoophiles,” Sendler found that zoophiles explain their attraction using a warped reading of genetics, debate if it is a true sexual orientation, discuss the legality and morality around having sex with animals, and compare animal love to human love. He’s hoping that understanding how this community views itself will help clinicians treat zoophiles in the future. It’s not an easy read at times, especially when zoophiles speak about how they know their animals want to consent to sex.
“My dog will always make a strange little bark and will always try to lick my feet, or my head, with a very slight lick; and then lay on his back, continuing with that little bark, until I respond,” wrote one user who goes by the name Nmyass. “If I do respond, he will either jump on me and fuck me like crazy, or he will turn his back to me, wanting me to do the same to him.”
The taboo nature of the topic extends to the academic world. Sendler has received pushback from other clinicians and researchers who call his subjects “deviants”—something he is constantly pushing back on. He told VICE he believes that it is his duty as a doctor to help people suffering from these illnesses because so few are.
“I want to say to these people that I know we have help for PTSD, for depression, but no one is looking into treatment for your condition and so why not do that,” Sendler told VICE. “Why would I do research on depression if there are hundreds of papers being published each day on that.”
VICE contacted Dr Sendler to talk about bestiality, online communities, and what it is like to study such a controversial topic.
VICE: What is the main takeaway from your recent study?
Sendler: The study we did retrospectively looks at what zoophiles are talking about and the concerns they have with having sex with animals, including consent. It looks at how these people determine how animals want it, why they think it’s permissible and it alludes to this big concept over if zoophilia is really a sexual orientation.
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The arguments they use tie it into how homosexuality was treated, how it was relieved of stigmatization after many years. So all the people that are doing sexual behaviour that is socially stigmatized are trying to address the same question: if gays and lesbians can marry and have normal lives, why can’t I?
Those are the typical questions and arguments that I’m trying to assess.
One of the interesting things in your study is that it seems that these zoophiles actually do care about consent and it’s a big topic on their forums.
It is. They’re essentially saying that if you hurt an animal or do something to them they will run away—it’s something we know from biological research. I think zoophiles are extending that to their own understanding of consent. They’re saying that ‘well, if we have sex with this dog or cat and they didn’t run away next time we go to do it, they’re probably ok or happy and if they bring me toys or things they really enjoy, maybe that really is consent? Maybe that is the sign they are giving me?’
What are online communities of zoophiles like?
One of the interesting things is that they converse with each other for years without ever expressing interest in actually meeting in person. I think it has to do with the issue of being stigmatizing and possibly prosecuted for their behaviour. It’s similar with pedophiles, they know all these people virtually but they will never be able to meet them in person so they give each other messages of support and they will celebrate each others’ birthdays and act like best friends but all of it only occurs online.
So you can imagine what would happen if someone deleted this space then what would happen. They would be left behind with no space to communicate with each other. We’re trying to figure out a way of helping these people using their most natural environment, these forums, so we’re testing out this idea that we can reach out to them and offer them help on there.
It sounds like, if we’re going to have sympathy for the devil, that this community could save their lives.
Absolutely, imagine if you’re beliefs, your desires, are so pathologizing that you can never come out with them to anyone so the online community becomes your home. It makes me think about what it was like 20 or 30 years ago when people didn’t have that kind of place.
We’ve been looking at how young people talk about their unusual sexuality and how the elders of the community who didn’t have the internet do. One of the interesting things we see is that the older you get as a zoophile the more likely you are to look out for others like you and move into the same community. This is why, for instance in the United States, we have these communities where these people band together with other zoophiles on countrysides. They live in farmlands where there is no police surveillance and express a high level of satisfaction, not just sexually but mentally because they’re not alone.
Zoophilia has been in the news recently, with new legislation and cases of people being caught. What does this mean for the community?
There was a story about a university employee accused of having sex with his dog for an extended period of time. Normally when you read stories about this on the news it is in regards to someone lower class but here you have a professor, a scholar for many decades, so people are now realizing that this doesn’t just affect marginalized, disadvantaged people but also educated people.
In a section of the study you say that this research could help clinicians understand this in the future. Do you think there is limited research about this, that we don’t understand enough to help them?
At the moment there isn’t too much known about zoophilia, there aren’t too many studies on it—there were some done around 15 years ago but not much since then. The problem with studying this particular group of individuals with this disorder is that most zoophiles that we’ve actually studied were clinical individuals so people that actually come forward because they want help or were accused of a crime.
The problem with working with just clinical patients is the sample becomes biased. The reason why we’re using discussion forums, these social media platforms, is first, it’s very difficult to get these peoples to contribute to the research. I thought that ‘well, if people have weird fetishes they’re going to use the internet, it’s anonymous, you can use it for free and disengage at any point’ whereas if you come to my clinic you have to sign paperwork and become a patient, it can be very laborious. On the internet, we can study weird behaviours, unusual behaviours, in the most natural contexts and describe it.
How do you think it should be treated?
I think that anyone who feels like they can’t be themselves because, specifically, of their sexual urges, then they should seek treatment. There are obviously problems because if you act on those urges that you can be prosecuted. I think that’s why we don’t see many patients show up for treatment because there are afraid of facing legal responsibility for their behaviour. You are going to see more people on their own coming forward and seeking help, especially now when they can just email anonymously and ask questions.
When they do that to me I just ask them simple questions like ‘does being a zoophile hurt your job or your relationships with people’ if the answer is yes then absolutely I tell them to seek help. If they’re just fantasizing though, maybe they’re ok without seeking treatment. I think it’s also important to recognize who should be treated because the treatment, at times, can be unpleasant and difficult and not many therapists or clinicians know how to treat it.
Why do you believe it is important to research these types of behaviours?
The problem with researchers in general and particularly, in general, is that people are afraid to touch subjects that are controversial and difficult. One reason is that we don’t have the right tools to study it, like us having to use discussion forums, but I tell people, just like research on homosexuality helped them gain recognition and get approval and removed the stigma that has existed over their sexuality for centuries.
I think my research, while it might not necessarily remove the stigma, but expose the fact that not all sexual behaviours and urges are unusual or affect specific people. We know that teenagers tend to experiment all the time to check the limits of their sexual pleasure. I tell people that I’m just exposing just a part of controversial sexual behaviour. I tell people that it mostly utilities for clinicians and it might be controversial but I want people to learn about it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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