How do we speak about the unspeakable?
Detail from Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David.
Content Warning: This entry discusses bestiality, sexual violence, and death in some detail. There is a mention of child abuse.
Well, here we are: the truly taboo. This Substack has, so far, looked at tickling fetishes, piss play, and erotic hypnosis - fetishes that are seen as unusual or niche in vanilla contexts, but none that would render one ostracised if you were to admit to it. Bestiality, however, carries that weight - bestiality became a specific offense in the UK alongside necrophilia (having sex with dead bodies) in 2003 with revisions to the Sexual Offenses Act. Previously bestiality had been categorised under ‘buggery’ in the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, which categorised bestiality alongside anal sex between men.
This newsletter is not going to address the ethics of bestiality or whether animals can meaningfully consent to sex acts. The topic is too large and too complicated to address in such a short space and has been covered by Jeanne Bourke in her fantastic book Loving Animals.
The challenge, for me, is how to speak about the unspeakable - a fetish so taboo that even acknowledging its existence is difficult. We compulsively pretend that uncomfortable or difficult things do not happen or, if they do, happen in isolated incidents by people we don’t know, and will never know. It’s much harder to acknowledge the truly taboo existing in our community, as it so often does.
Detail from Whistlejacket by George Stubbs.
For millennials like myself, our first exposure to bestiality was likely in the form of a video titled ‘Mr. Hands’ that circulated school corridors in the late 2000s. The combination of video and Bluetooth-enabled phones becoming accessible to teenagers and the largely unregulated internet of the era meant a teen canon of gross-out porn emerged. Videos were circulated in canteens and classrooms by kids holding their phones under their desks, waiting for the painfully slow Bluetooth transfer.
Mr. Hands was one of those videos, alongside ‘2 girls 1 cup’ and goatse, names I imagine many millennials will recognise.The video featured a man being anally penetrated by a horse penis - I have not watched the video since I was a teenager, but I still remember the barn setting, the man’s body illuminated by a torch, and of course the horse standing behind him. The rumour was that the man died after the video was taken, and that the horse penis had killed him.
Redditors searching for the Mr. Hands video in 2020 as part of a corpus of ‘classic’ shock videos.
What we did not know, as 14-year-olds on the Isle of Man, was that the video we were watching was part of a far wider moral panic that unfolded in Washington State, USA in 2005. The video was actually of a man named Kenneth Pinyan, an engineer at Boeing and divorced father, who had been part of a horse sex ring visiting the small town of Emunclaw from Oak Harbor, a two hour drive away.
Pinyan had visited the town in 2005, which was renowned for its love of horses and horse culture. Bourke describes that followed:
Late on the evening of 1 July 2005, on a farm just 8 km (5 mi.) northwest of Enumclaw, 45-year-old Boeing engineer and doting father Kenneth Pinyan was anally penetrated by a stallion known colloquially as ‘Big Dick’. Early the following morning, a friend – subsequently identified as James Michael Tait – dumped his pulseless body at the community hospital. Pinyan died of acute peritonitis due to a perforated colon.
Following the incident and its coverage in the national press, there was public outcry that Tait could not be prosecuted for bestiality as no specific law against bestiality existed in Washington. Under state law, the physical abuse of animals was an offense, but prosecutors could not argue that any animals had been harmed. State politicians found that bestiality used to be illegal in the state under anti-sodomy laws much like the UK and, on their repeal in 1976, the state had also inadvertently decriminalised bestiality alongside homosexual sex. Tait was eventually charged with trespassing and forbidden from going into his neighbour’s barn again.
Photo of horse statue in Emunclaw, WA. Courtesy of The Stranger.
What followed was a scrambling to criminalise bestiality. On 1st February 2006 the Senate voted unanimously to make bestiality a crime though, as Bourke writes, ‘some senators would not actually sign the Bill because they found the idea of bestiality too “repugnant” to even think about.’
The senators’ condemnation of bestiality as too ‘repugnant’ to discuss, even while criminalising it, is demonstrative of the double-consciousness that occurs around the truly taboo. In order to punish something, we must acknowledge that it exists, but certain acts such as bestiality or child abuse come so far outside of social norms that even to acknowledge they occur is to jeopardise the fantasy that they don’t.
The contradiction is that these acts are not vanishingly rare. In the 1950s US-based sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey claimed that 8% of males and 4% of females had at least one sexual experience with an animal, while for males who worked on farms that number grew to 17%. In the UK, there were 27 people convicted under the Sexual Offenses Act of having sex with an animal beween 2007 and 2016 according to a Freedom of Information Request submitted to the Ministry of Justice. The amount of people convicted for bestiality will, as we know, be far smaller than the amount of people actually engaging in it.
The case of Mr. Hands is not unique, but the legislative and social reaction to it is indicative of how the truly taboo is both criminalised and the subject of absolute denial. Even while the existence of bestiality was considered too repugnant to think about, the video of Mr. Hands found its way onto the phones of British and Manx teenagers as a kind of ghostly afterlife for Pinyan. The taboo can be criminalised and denied, but it cannot be eradicated.
You can find Robin on Twitter @robin__craig. He is a PhD student and freelance culture writer. If you enjoy these essays, please consider buying him a coffee on his Ko-Fi.
‘2 girls 1 cup’ is a gross-out porn video of two women eating shit out of a cup, while goatse is a shock image of a man’s anus pulled open.