At a small farm in Ohio, I once found myself outside a hog pen. It was a muddy, cloistered, chaotic space bustling with so many pink pounds of edible flesh. Two things struck me about these animals. The first was that some of these snorting beasts had such eminently slap-able bottoms that I could hardly keep myself from reaching over and giving them a good spanking. The other was that there was a lot of intelligence behind this façade of meat; piglets were playing jubilantly with each other that spring day, and bloated sows, reposed in the warm sunlight, were eyeing me with as much curiosity as I was eyeing them. That scene made such an impression on me that I’ve been meaning to write about the minds of swine ever since.
But that column will have to wait a little longer, because in examining the vast literature on cognitive studies of farm animals—and from all appearances, scientists’ understanding of pig cognition is in a woeful state of disarray—I got distracted (as I often do) by matters of sexual deviance. Between writing my columns for Slate, you see, I’m often scouring the holdings of the Cornell University Library, doing my own research for a book on the psychology of moral outrage and its relation to human sexuality. (Ithaca, after all, was the birthplace of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.) So, with those unsettled pigs still prancing about in my mind, it was only natural that my eyes would settle on a rather tangential nod to the genus Sus in a study of crime and punishment in Colonial New England. Social historian Robert Oaks had, like me, been interested in hogs—and for reasons that were, oddly enough, not altogether distinct from my earlier observation of their very humanlike rumps. It seems these animals were valued not so much for their minds or their meat, by some residents of early America, but as lovers. At least, that’s what many people thought at the time.
Now, I’ve written before about the fascinating research underway on the phenomenon of zoophilia and the reported 1 percent of the human population that feels a primary erotic attraction to other species. Yet I’d absolutely no idea about the brutal oppression that not only zoophiles faced in centuries prior, but also the animals themselves that had been involved in their sordid affairs. Today, I think, most people would feel sympathy for an animal that had been violated by a human being, but in the past, they were seen as being just as morally culpable as their sexual partners. And while today’s zoophiles continue to face, as they always have, irreparable stigma for acts of bestiality—along with perhaps some jail time and fines—the “buggers” of the past were burned alive. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this period of our history, however, is the paranoia over human-animal sex. Indeed, a panic over porking pigs grew so intense in Colonial New England that it became, for a time, the “other” witch-hunt.
One of the most sensational of the bestiality trials occurred not far from Yale University, in the colony of New Haven. Today’s New Haven, Conn., is known for its high concentration of genius, yet long ago it was notorious for breeding prodigies of a very different sort. “Prodigies,” according to Thomas Aquinas, that medieval anti-kink who was especially concerned about other people’s private behaviors, were those hybrid monsters sprung from the loins of another species but borne of human seed. These creatures could also be conceived through having sex with atheists, but apparently there were fewer of those milling about old New Haven than there were solicitous swine.
In 1646, Oaks tells us, a servant by the name of George Spencer, who was notorious for having “a prophane, lying, scoffing and lewd speritt” (sounds like my kind of man), was executed for making love to his master’s pig. He swore that he didn’t do it, but, unfortunately for Spencer, the sow happened to give birth to a deformed fetus (“a prodigious monster”) that resembled George a bit too closely for most people’s comfort. The critical piece of evidence held against him was the uncanny fact that, just like the pig fetus, this grumpy old man also had “butt one eye for use, the other hath (as itt is called) a pearle in itt, is whitish and deformed.” And so off to an imaginary hell he was cast.
If anyone could commiserate with George Spencer and his troubles, it was a fellow New Haven citizen with the ridiculously unfortunate name of Thomas Hogg. Like Spencer, Hogg found himself at the center of an intense buggery investigation when a neighborhood sow bore a deformed fetus with “a faire & white skinne & head, as Thomas Hogg is.” Needless to say, with so many of its male residents being reminiscent of aborted pig fetuses, we might also pity the women of New Haven.
The allegations made against Hogg were so serious, in fact, that the governor and deputy governor personally frogmarched him out to the barnyard toward the sow in question and ordered him to “scratt” (fondle) the animal before their eyes. This was done to gauge just how intimately familiar Hogg and hog might be. “Immedyatly there appeared a working of lust in the sow,” the court records recount for us, “insomuch that she powred out seede before them.” When Hogg reluctantly titillated the teats of a different sow, that animal showed no sign of returning his affections.
It wasn’t just pigs. In the nearby colony of Plymouth, a similar witch hunt for buggers was underway, and according to Oaks it reached fairly dramatic heights with the 1642 trial of a 16-year-old boy named Thomas Granger. This randy adolescent had been indicted for taking indecent liberties with what seems an entire stable full of animals, including “a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.” I realize the turkey part is a bit distracting (and how one goes about having sex with a large clawed bird is perhaps better left unexamined); but even more remarkable, not to mention infinitely more absurd than fouling a fowl, is the legal diligence and sobriety with which this case was prosecuted.
There was little question in these righteous minds that the boy should be dispatched to the flames for his egregious violations of God’s natural law, but there was a lot of head-scratching on the bench over which sheep, exactly, he’d been defiling. This was vital to sort out, because if they executed the wrong sheep, they risked the unthinkable happening: a monstrously bleating, hoofed prodigy might drop undetected onto Plymouth. So, naturally, a line-up of busily masticating victims was staged for Granger. With one trembling finger, the boy pointed out those five naïve, amber-eyed ruminants that had been targets of his secret woolly lust. Court records indicate that the animals were then “killed before this face, according to the law, Leviticus xx. 15; and then he himself was executed.”
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.