August 23, 2022
In July, the Australian Festival of Dangerous Ideas announced its speaker lineup for an upcoming event. At FODI, speakers question the status quo of things and talk about uncomfortable topics. Past speakers have included Christopher Hichens, Alan Dershowitz, and others who spoke on controversial and thought-provoking topics like religion and law. This year’s lineup includes a session on “The Last Taboo” by Joanna Bourke, based on her recent book called “Loving Animals”. Bourke is a history professor at a university in the U.K. whose pastl books have been on various topics such as midwifery, wars, and rape.
The Festival promo team announced that Bourke planned to talk about the history of human-animal sex and the ethics of “animal loving” - a polite euphemism for bestiality. But the Aussie’s aren’t having it.
Careful readers of Bourke’s book identified a recurring theme: sex with animals can be “complex, rich and fulfilling” and “being ‘open to otherness’ [i.e. viewing zoophilia as a just another form of sexual expression] may make us better human companions.
Almost immediately, everyone from local media and radio shows to the Minister of Arts was in an uproar. Some of this outrage may be due to the number of animal sex abuse arrests that have occurred throughout New South Wales and other parts of Australia. In one case, a man convicted for the murder of a young woman who was nearly beheaded admitted to also having sex with animals before slitting their throats. In another case a man kidnapped a teenaged girl, forced her to have sex with a dog, and sold the images online. A recent investigation into child porn netted dozens of men who were trading child and animal pornography across New South Wales, Queeensland, Western Australia. Some of the child victims identified were in the U.S. There is one trial about to begin involving bestiality acts that are so heinous, all information has been sealed by the court.
Suffice it to say that sex with animals isn’t a good idea to promote in Australia (or elsewhere for that mattter). Even when animals are not visibly injured, havoc is wreaked on communities, families, and the animals left behind.
Aside from the controversy surrounding Bourke’s anticipated presentation at FODI, there’s her book to consider.
As a historian, Bourke should have written a better book. As it stands, it is primarily an opinion piece full of provocative images and biased language that leaves one wondering why the book was published at all. Based largely on erotic art, musings by a porn actress in “Deep Throat”, a shelved episode of Jerry Springer about a man who married his horse, and a pro-zoo docudrama, Bourke draws the conclusion that sex with animals is ok as long as they are not physically injured. By highlighting zoo-friendly writers and 30-year-old literature, while ignoring current scientific and academic research, Bourke reaches the conclusion that just because humans don’t understand dog-speak, it doesn’t make having sex with them wrong.
In a chapter on bestiality laws, Bourke describes scenes from a docudrama based on the death of a man after being willingly sodomized by a horse. She informs the reader that laws passed after the actual incident were a “witch-hunt” based on “statistics plucked out of thin air” and communal “anxieties about perverted, urban ‘outsiders’ who were polluting [the State’s] more ‘natural’ rural communities”. In a chapter on animal cruelty, Bourke starts with a caution to her non-vegan or vegetarian readers that animal cruelty is more about slaughter and leather handbags than sex. Apparently, she feels spay/neuter is also cruel, using a 1920’s photo of a dog bound and tied to a stretcher to demonstrate how castration is done. [It should be noted that this is not a normal or standard method used by veterinarians in the 21st century.]
Bourke is entitled to her own opinions; she is not entitled to her own facts. And from this writer’s perspective, therein lies the real problem with this book. Throughout Loving Animals, Bourke makes unsupported claims, mis-states or misinterprets research findings, and relies on articles that are out of date or whose authors or data are suspect. Early on, she says “there seems to be a high correlation between human [sexual] orientation and the ... gender preference in animals”. There is no research to support the notion that gay men preferentially choose male dogs or that lesbian women choose female dogs as partners. In fact, the opposite might be true: although males make up 86% of animal sex offenders, female animals and children are nearly twice as likely to be sexually victimized than male animals or children (Edwards, 2019).
Midway through the book, Bourke claims that “a formidable range of psychiatrists” and “a tsunami” of mental health professionals have published research indicating that people who engage in animal sexual abuse are mentally ill. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A current controversy among mental health professionals is whether zoophilia should even be considered as a mental health condition, let alone a diagnosable mental health disorder. A great paper on this topic is “Paraphilias and its Course in DSMs” by Nesrin Duman (2018).
Bourke has a tendency to conflate statistics and studies about animal cruelty with information about animal sexual abuse. To be clear, animal cruelty means neglect or physical/emotional abuse of an animal. While multiple studies have demonstrated the link between witnessing or committing animal cruelty as a child and later interpersonal violence [see, for example, Keeley (2020) or Longobardi and Badenes-Ribea (2019)], no similar studies have established a link between the sexual abuse of an animal – either as a child or an adult – and the commission of interpersonal or sexual violence.
Bourke’s book was disappointing. As a historian, she might have shed light on how opinions or laws on deviant sexual habits have changed over time. Taboo topics consistently tweak our interest, and topics like zoophilia and bestiality definitely should be talked about more openly, but in the words of New Sales Wales member of Parliament, Emma Hurst, “Bestiality is the sexual abuse of animals … a grotesque form of animal abuse. While conversations on these issues are important, they shouldn’t be considered a form of entertainment.”