This article originally appeared on VICE US.
In 1948, Alfred Kinsey shocked the world when he released his first publication about Americans’ sexual behaviors. Among his more surprising findings—both then and now—was that 8 percent of the men he interviewed reported having engaged in sexual activity with an animal. That’s right—we’re talking almost 1 in 12 men.
Kinsey’s work wasn’t based on a representative sample of Americans, of course, so many have concluded that he probably just oversampled zoophiles. But, then again, maybe he didn’t. In a recent survey I conducted on the sex fantasies of 4,175 Americans, I found that 1 in 5 participants reported having fantasized about what it would be like to get it on with an animal at least once before. To be clear, my data aren’t representative either, but no matter how you look at it, it certainly seems to be the case that inter-species sex fantasies and behaviors are occurring with surprising frequency—this despite the fact that bestiality is currently illegal in 45 states.
The question you’re all probably asking yourself now is what so many people find arousing about having sex with animals in the first place. Well, we finally have some insight: A new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy presents findings from largest survey to date of self-identified adult zoophiles.
This study included 958 zoophiles, all of whom were recruited online and asked about their frequency of sex with animals, their beliefs about zoophilia, and their sexual preferences and practices. On average, these folks reported having sex with animals two to three times per week. Some of them were exclusively into animals, while others had human partners, too. The most-preferred animal partners were dogs, but horses followed closely behind (a finding that is consistent with previous research on this subject). In fact, dogs and horses were the two most popular animals, with 97 percent of participants having a preference for one of the two.
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So what do they find so sexually appealing about these animals? In part, it has to do with their scent. Believe it or not, 89 percent said that a “musky smell” was a key factor in their animal partner’s attractiveness. But it’s not just that—it’s really the smell and appearance of the genitals in particular that seems to be the crucial factor. In the words of the study’s authors, “the more wet, hairy, and smelly, the more attractive the animal is for zoosexuals.”
It’s not all about the senses, however. For many, part of the appeal resides in the fact that sex with animals violates major social rules and conventions. Taboo activities in general (whether they involve animals or not) hold a lot of sexual appeal to people because they add an extra layer of excitement and thrill. In the words of one participant: “What makes animals sexually attractive to me I guess has to do with the taboo nature of it, and that while their sexual organs function the same as a human's, they have different features that make sexual activity more interesting and more pleasurable. I like human genitalia too, but I prefer animals more strongly. I'm not really sure why, I just do. They turn me on more than humans having kinky sex.”
To me, what the above findings suggest is that some people may be drawn to sex with animals because they’re sensation seekers—they just have a higher bar or threshold for sexual excitement, meaning they need a more intense stimulus to get off. Doing something taboo and/or being with a creature that has genitalia that are very different from humans could be just what these people need to push their excitement threshold up a notch.
That said, there could also be a learning component here. Indeed, some participants in this study talked about early childhood experiences (including visits to farms that left an indelible impression) that shaped their interest in animals. However, there’s an important caveat here: We can’t say whether that’s truly what led them to this interest, or if these people are just searching for answers by looking into their pasts.
So how do these folks feel about having sex with animals? The vast majority—72 percent—said they don’t see anything wrong with what they’re doing. Even more—80 percent—said they think everything they do with the animals is safe for them and that the animals have offered consent.
Participants described many symbols of animal consent, ranging from audible cues like barking to physical cues like whether the animal looks happy or is running around. In the words of one participant: “Animals communicate using body language and will make it known they dislike whatever you're doing, usually by warning you by making noises and showing signs that whatever you're doing is irritating them.”
As another participant said: “Those dogs never look happier than when their female owner lets them put it in. Dogs don't view sex as sacred like our society does. They do it because they want to and can't be emotionally harmed by it.”
A common reaction to all of this is to say that because animals aren’t humans and can’t speak for themselves, they can’t truly offer consent. Therefore, many would say that zoophilia is wrong on these grounds. Others might point out that this raises the question of why we care so much about issues of consent when it comes to having sex with animals, but not when it comes to hunting them, eating them, keeping them as pets, or turning them into fashion accessories.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.