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Characteristics of Juvenile Offenders Admitting to Sexual Activity with Nonhuman Animals

Fleming, William M., Brian Jory, & David L. Burton. Characteristics of Juvenile Offenders Admitting to Sexual Activity with Nonhuman Animals. Society & Animals, 2002, Vol. 10, No. 1, 31-45

Sexual relations between humans and non human animals, sometimes referred to as bestiality, is perhaps the least understood of all human-animal interactions. Studies of bestiality are difficult to conduct since bestiality carries a social stigma and generally is kept secret by those who have engaged in it. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) classifies bestiality among the paraphilic disorders—deviant, but essentially victimless, forms of sexual gratification. According to other sources cited in this paper, this classification suggests that bestiality is not a psychiatric problem in and of itself and that bestiality may be more prevalent among psychiatric patients with major mental disorders than in the general population.

Understanding who engages in sex with animals may help conclude whether it should be considered normal. The study was designed to compare the family characteristics, victimization histories, and number of perpetration offenses of three groups of juvenile offenders: (a) those who admitted to sex with animals (Animal Offenders), (b) those who admitted to sexual offenses against humans but not to bestiality (Sex Offenders), and (c) those who admitted to neither sex offenses against humans nor sex with animals (Non Sex Offenders). In addition, the study was conducted to provide useful information about the developmental issues for juvenile offenders, and to contribute knowledge about how to approach future studies of bestiality in the general population. A group of institutionalized, adjudicated, male youth offenders who were similar in age (the average age was 17 years old) and racial composition completed an anonymous self-reported survey. The survey was designed to: assess sexual victimization history of the juveniles; inquire about acts of perpetration the juvenile has committed; assess victimization experiences in the juvenile’s history, including child neglect and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; measure for positive family environment, family cohesion and adaptability, incendiary and affirming styles of family communication.

The study presented several findings. Of the juvenile offenders who completed the survey, 6% admitted to having done something sexual with an animal. The average age of these juveniles at the time of the reported first acts was approximately 11 years old. Data revealed that almost all (96%) of the animal offenders also admitted to sex offenses against humans. This finding supports the notion that juvenile animal offenders should be considered a subgroup of sex offenders. Furthermore, animal offenders reported substantially more perpetration offenses against humans than other sex offenders, suggesting that this group may actually be further advanced as offenders than other juvenile sex offenders. Attention was also directed on the finding that 20% of the juveniles had admitted to offenses on a person for which they had not been adjudicated. This is not unusual, according to the authors, because juvenile justice authorities estimate that the adjudication rate for sex offenses is only a small percentage of the offenses committed. Another notable finding is that although almost all of the juveniles who admitted to bestiality also admitted to having sexually offended a human, only half had been adjudicated for sex offenses. Survey results showed that animal offenders and sex offenders seemed to share a number of other commonalities. Both groups apparently came from families with less affirming communication, more incendiary communication, lower attachment, less adaptability, and less positive environments than juvenile offenders who admitted no sexual offenses. Also, the victimization histories of animal offenders and other sex offenders were similar. Animal offenders and sex offenders had been victimized by more physical abuse, more emotional abuse, more sexual abuse, and more emotional neglect than non sex offenders. They also had higher numbers of “victimization events” than non sex offenders. Animal offenders showed some distinguishing aspects in that they actually reported more problems than other sex offenders. Animal offenders reported less affirming communication and less positive environments in their families than other sex offenders. Animal offenders also reported more emotional abuse and neglect than other sex offenders, though they did not report on more physical and sexual abuse. Lastly, the reported number of victimization events was substantially higher for animal offenders than for other sex offenders.

The authors expand on analytical discussion and introduce implications which demonstrate the need for future empirical studies on bestiality in the juvenile and general population. It was concluded that sex with animals should not be considered normal or benign among the juvenile population. Instead, sex with animals may be an important indicator of potential or co-occurring sex offenses against humans and also may be a sign of severe family dysfunction and abuse that should be addressed in the arenas of psychological intervention, juvenile, justice programs, and public policy. The findings of this study are in accordance with other research which argues that bestiality is “interspecies sexual assault”, at least among adjudicated juvenile offenders. The speculation as to whether juveniles who have committed sex acts with animals would consider their behavior as a sex offense brings forth the recognition that there is a need for research on this topic. The authors believe that most juveniles, like adults, consider bestiality as deviant behavior, but not necessarily as a form of sexual assault. Public education programs might be necessary to bring this awareness to the general public. A body of research is discussed on the evidence of the violence link which asserts that those who engage in cruelty against animals are more likely to engage in violence against humans. The findings of the current study suggest that this link might be extended to include sex with animals. However, this link should be researched among populations other than juveniles in order to validate it as a generalized statement. The findings of the current study have important implications for research on violence intervention and prevention programs that have been based on the evidence of the link between animal cruelty and human violence. These programs are founded on evidence that early detection of animal abuse opens the door to psychological and social intervention, particularly among juveniles and young adults. The current study suggests that juveniles who engage in bestiality come from families with more severe problems and more emotional abuse than the “average” sex offender. This raises the questions of what needs animal offenders may be acting out. Further studies should explore the precise links between abusive and problematic family environments and sex acts with animals.

At the time of the writing of this paper, few states had laws specifically prohibiting sexual contact with animals. Legislation is proposed to curb social violence and protect the rights of animals by extending animal cruelty laws to include bestiality. Although the average age of the juveniles in the current study reported that their first sexual act against an animal was only approximately 11 years old, the acts are viewed as reaching beyond mere child-like curiosity. Based on the findings it is plausible to give consideration that these animal offences should not be dismissed as “victimless forms of sexual gratification”. It is difficult for the authors to see how animals are capable of consenting to such sex acts, considering that pain and injury are most likely inflicted on many of the victims of these acts. Moreover, the finding that 23 of the 24 juveniles who engaged in bestiality reported also sexually assaulting humans is alarming. It has been observed that bestiality seldom occurs in isolation from other sex-offending activity among the juvenile population. Further studies are needed to determine if bestiality in adolescence or pre-adolescence is a predictor of sex-offending activity in adulthood. Lastly, as the authors initial discussed in this paper, bestiality carries a social stigma and generally is kept secret by those who have engaged in it, therefore related acts are most likely under reported and under represented. Furthermore, based on this stigma, attention must be placed on the possibility that subjects might minimize their sex acts against animals with respect to frequency and degrees of severity. Finally, as previously indicated, further studies are warranted before broader generalizations can be made.

Summary by Effie Heotis