Written by Anja Vaskinn. She is a PhD and specialist in clinical adult psychology. Her research interests include psychosis, social cognition, animal abuse, and sexual deviance. She is employed at the Centre for Research and Education in Forensic Psychiatry, Oslo University Hospital, Oslo, Norway (email: email@example.com, homepage: https://sifer.no/ansatt/anja-vaskinn/)
Sexual activity between humans and animals is a topic that elicits strong negative emotions. Although humor can be one reaction (Shir-Vertesh, 2013), disgust, condemnation, and incomprehension are common. In spite of strong reactions, such activity might not be that rare. According to recent prevalence studies, 2–6 % of the population experience some degree of sexual arousal to animals (Dawson et al., 2016; Bártova et al., 2021), and a large population-based Czech study found that 1.6 % had engaged in sexual activity with an animal (Bártova et al., 2021).
Individuals who conduct sexual acts with animals are met with stigmatizing labels. They are sometimes called “crazy”, and some refer to their behavior as “sick”. If we move from such stigmatizing lay terms to established psychiatric classification systems to ask whether persons who conduct sexual acts with animals in fact fulfil diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder, we see that this is not always the case.
Diagnostic classifications of persons with self-defined sexual interest in animals
The most relevant diagnostic category is zoophilia. ICD-10 does not operate with this term, but “sexual activity with animals” is subsumed under F65.8 Other disorders of sexual preference. The larger category of disorders of sexual preference has been renamed in ICD-11 and is currently referred to as paraphilic disorders. ICD-11 has limited this category to conditions with sexual arousal patterns that involve non-consenting others (Krueger et al., 2017). The relevant diagnostic category is 6D35 Other paraphilic disorders involving non-consenting individuals. Among requirements is a sustained and intense pattern of atypical sexual arousal focusing on others who are unwilling or unable to consent—such as animals (or corpses). In addition, the individual must have acted on or be distressed by the fantasies or urges of this sexual arousal.
DSM treats this very similarly. According to DSM-5, sexual contact with animals is a mental disorder, i.e., a paraphilic disorder, if the person also has intense and persistent sexual interest in animals. This is coded as 302.89 Other specified paraphilic disorder, zoophilia. Of note, a distinction has been made between paraphilia and paraphilic disorder. Someone with an intense and persistent sexual interest in animals, but who is not bothered by it and/or does not act on it, has a paraphilia. This is not a mental disorder. Someone who uses animals for sexual purposes, but who does so without having intense and persistent sexual interests in animals does not have a paraphilic disorder. There are, in other words, cases where sexual contact with animals is not a paraphilic disorder or even a paraphilia. It may for example occur as rare or single incidents due to intoxication or opportunity (Holoyda, 2017). Further, some people use animals to humiliate others, for instance by forcing someone to perform sexual acts with an animal, as has been reported for domestic violence (Roguski, 2012). This points to psychopathic tendencies such as lack of empathy, or cruelty. In diagnostic terms, antisocial or dissocial personality disorder may be of more relevance in such cases. Moreover, hurting animals is part of DSM-5’s diagnostic criteria for some childhood disorders (i.e. physical injury for intermittent explosive disorder, and animal cruelty for conduct disorder).
Other classifications of persons with self-defined sexual interest in animals
There have been other attempts at subcategorizing zoophilia or people who conduct sexual acts with animals. An early classification proposed ten classes of zoophilia, existing on a continuum from “role players” (class I) to the “exclusive zoophile” (class X) unable to have sexual intercourse with humans (Aggrawal, 2011). This classification was not empirically based, but a recent study (Emmet et al., 2021) applied it to an online sample of individuals who described themselves as zoophiles (n = 445). The largest groups were the “zoophilic fantasizers” (class III—people who fantasize about sexual acts with animals without acting on their fantasies) and “regular zoophiles” (class VIII—people who enjoy performing sexual acts with animals, not with humans, but who may have sex with humans), encompassing 31% and 27% of the sample, respectively. None of the participants endorsed inflicting pain, injury, or death to the animal (class VI “sadistic bestials” and class IX “homicidal zoophiles”). Based on their results, Emmet et al. (2021) proposed a new, dynamic classification. Some of the classes overlap with Aggrawal’s (2011), while others are new. The seven classes are platonic zoophiles, zoophilic fantasizers, tactile zoophiles, opportunistic zoophiles, regular zoophiles, emotional exclusive zoophiles, and exclusive zoophiles. Note that this classification only includes zoophile behavior relating to a living animal.
Holoyda and Newman (2016) proposed a classification based on the motivation behind the sexual act involving animal(s). The five suggested types of motivations were affection (self-identified zoophiles), situational variables (opportunity, curiosity), secondary gain (pornography, prostitution), sexual violence/cruelty (wanting to inflict pain in a victim), or “other” (intoxication, cognitive impairment).
Self-identified zoophiles: psychological characteristics
The research on people who conduct sexual acts with animals has, roughly speaking, been undertaken on two populations: incarcerated men (for a synopsis, see Vaskinn & Muri, 2021) and self-identified zoophiles recruited from the internet. In the following, the focus is on the self-described or “self-identified zoophile”.
In the course of the last twenty years, there has been a handful of attempts at gaining more knowledge of their psychological characteristics. Miletski’s study from the 1990s involved a snailmailed questionnaire returned by 93 participants (Miletski, 2017). The majority of men (74%) and women (67%) in this study indicated that they performed sexual acts with animals as a way of expressing love and affection towards the animal. Beetz (2004) also described an affectional orientation towards the animal. Her online study with 116 participants found that 76% expressed strong emotional attachment to the animal. In regards to psychopathology, 38% of the 113 men in the study had received psychotherapy, and 12% suffered from depression. The sample had elevated levels of interpersonal problems, but did not differ from the normal population for psychopathy. In Miletski’s study (2017), 16% of the men reported a history of childhood sexual abuse.
Williams and Weinberg (2003) conducted another early study, also online. Participants were 114 self-identified zoophile men. When asked to explain their sexual interest in animals, respondents highlighted the pleasure involved in these sexual acts, as well as a desire for affection. Practically everyone who were currently performing sexual acts with an animal stated that they had been in love with an animal and that an animal had been in love with them (Williams & Weinberg, 2003). Thus, early studies of self-defined zoophiles consistently showed an affective bond to the animal (Beetz, 2004; Miletski, 2017; Williams & Weinberg, 2003).
More recently, a study undertaken in Brazil (Baltieri & Silva, 2017) examined several psychosocial variables in participants included from zoophilia blogs (n = 106, 71% men). The sample did not have depressive symptoms, but scored above the clinical cutoff for sexual addiction/impulsiveness. A history of childhood sexual abuse was reported by 24%. Childhood sexual abuse and sexual impulsiveness were related to greater zoophilic interest.
A recent large study from Austria (Emmet et al., 2021) examined self-reported social anxiety, self-esteem, and empathy in people recruited from online zoophilia forums. The sample consisted of 445 participants, of which 84 % were men. Close to a third had clinically significant signs of social anxiety, without differences between men and women. On the other hand, the mean scores for both men and women indicated high self-esteem. The authors did not discuss their sample’s empathy scores compared to the normal population, and instead highlighted that women were more empathic than men. However, the scores reported by Emmet et al. (2021) are higher than the scores reported in the original publication of the utilized instrument, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980). This suggests that this sample of self-defined zoophiles was not characterized by empathy deficits. Such a finding is in line with Beetz’ (2004) abovementioned study, where there were no signs of psychopathy.
Lastly, a doctoral thesis recently submitted to the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, had some interesting results (Zidenberg, 2021). In this non-peer reviewed work, a self-report instrument of sexual interest in animals was created based on earlier classifications (such as Aggrawal, 2011) and on the responses of 1228 participants. Respondents were recruited from the student population (in exchange for course credit), from social media, and from an online zoophilia forum. Seventy-two percent identified as zoophiles. A factor analysis of the final 37-item instrument identified four factors that were labeled zoophilia, opportunism, furryism, and zoosadism. The presence of zoosadism in this group of self-identified zoophiles indicates that sexual interest in animals goes beyond the desire for affection described in other studies (Beetz, 2004; Miletski, 2017). Participants who self-identified as zoophiles had significantly increased odds of involvement in other paraphilic behaviors, especially furryism (odds ratio = 5.45) and necrophilia (odds ratio = 5.21). “Furries” refer to people interested in anthropomorphism/zoomorphism, i.e. ascribing human traits to animals and vice-versa (Gerbasi et al., 2008). The co-occurrence of multiple paraphilias aligns with a study by Abel et al. (1988) of men who sought voluntary evaluation/treatment for paraphilia. In that study, men with zoophilia had an average of 4.8 other paraphilias, a higher number than for men with any other paraphilia.
Studies of individuals with self-defined sexual interest in animals are both few and have investigated different constructs. Thus, we can draw no conclusions. However, the findings reviewed above enable us to generate hypotheses for future studies to focus on. In regards to psychopathology beyond paraphilic interests, it appears that at least a portion of self-identified zoophiles have mental health issues. This is reflected in seeking and receiving psychotherapy (Beetz, 2004) and the presence of social anxiety (Emmet et al., 2021) and depression (Beetz, 2004). Further, high social anxiety (Emmet et al., 2021) and interpersonal problems (Beetz, 2004) suggest that people with self-defined sexual interest in animals find it challenging to relate to other people. This is perhaps more related to a negative attitude toward oneself than to non-empathic behavior as none of the two studies that examined empathy found reduced levels (Beetz, 2004; Emmet et al., 2021). Finally, the presence of childhood sexual abuse among individuals with self-defined sexual interest in animals merits further examinations. Childhood maltreatment is associated with a number of adverse consequences (Dye, 2018), and the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse appears to be higher in persons with sexual offense histories than in the general population (Levenson et al., 2016).
In order to increase our knowledge, carefully designed studies that cover the same psychological constructs using similar methodology—preferably from different geographical and cultural settings—are required.
Miletski has asked whether zoophilia is “another sexual orientation” (2017). The combination of affectional, sexual fantasy, and erotic orientations directed at animals is, according to Miletski (2017), suggestive of the existence of a sexual orientation toward animals. Beetz (2004) goes far in suggesting that conducting sexual acts with animals may be acceptable. She states that it “may not always need force or violence, but, rather, may involve a sensitivity or knowledge of animal behavior” (p. 13). She goes on to doubt that “every sexual contact with an animal represents violent abuse….” (p.14), and writes “(sexual contact that)…rather reacts to the sexual instinct of the animal or elicits it in an ‘appropriate’ way has a different quality” (p.14) (Beetz, 2005). Similarly, Peter Singer suggested that sexual acts between animals and humans could be tolerated if these acts do not involve cruelty (2001).
These viewpoints contrast with the premise set forth in the diagnostic manuals. Regardless of how the sexual contact with an animal is initiated and regardless if cruelty is involved, an animal will always be—in ICD-11 terminology—a non-consenting partner (as is a corpse). The animal is not—in DSM-5 terminology—a “phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partner” (neither is a human child).
Piers Beirne (2001) refers to the phenomenon as animal sexual assault, arguing that since animals cannot communicate consent, i.e. say yes or no to the sexual advances of a human being in a readily understandable way, it involves coercion. Furthermore, an animal does not have a voice to protest or report abuse. The argument is that sexual activity with an animal violates the rights of another being. Thus, it should not be tolerated (Beirne, 2001). The same idea is reflected in the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act (Dyrevelferdsloven, 2009), which recognizes the value of animals beyond their usefulness for humans. It states, “Animals have an intrinsic value which is irrespective of the usable value they may have for man.” (Dyrevelferdsloven, 2009, §3). It is hard to see how sexual acts with an animal does not serve the desires of the human, i.e. that the human uses the animal for his/her own purposes. Indeed, performing sexual acts with an animal constitutes animal abuse according to the Norwegian legislation. It is not only prohibited (Dyrevelferdsloven, 2009, §14), but was recently defined as a serious ongoing threat by Økokrim, the Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime (Økokrim, 2022).
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