This is a question I have wondered more than once while browsing statute. Many states have laws against bestiality. For the life of me, I have never heard of this practice actually occurring and I find it hard to imagine the public policy problem these statutes are intended to resolve. Why do we have these laws?

Although I have access to a law library (and therefore a law librarian) I am too embarrassed to ask them.

Asking why some law is in place is often difficult. I'm looking for:

  • Public statements by legislators regarding the need for these laws and why they are being supported. Every state I am aware of has these laws, so there should be plenty of extant material.
  • Applicable statements from relevant judicial decisions.
  • Statements from executive agencies which enforce these laws.
  • Scholarly discussions about bestiality laws.
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    "... I find it hard to imagine the public policy problem these statutes are intended to resolve." I imagine there might actually be people who would like to engage in zoophilia and then there might be concerns about animal rights or some religiously motivated reasons. Wouldn't that be a problem?
    – Trilarion
    Sep 3 '18 at 19:42
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    @Flater Certainly I did not mean to imply that. I had considered "why is x illegal" to be a value-free way of asking the question. I'm always interested in suggestions for how to maintain a value-neutral way of phrasing it. Sep 4 '18 at 2:54
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    @ErikE That implies the law was created out of necessity, which may or may not be true. There's nothing wrong with the current title.
    – Mast
    Sep 4 '18 at 6:03
  • 1
    That proposed new title is more cumbersome. The current title is clear and succinct. Let's not edit it to mitigate an imaginary issue. Sep 4 '18 at 6:10
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    Some comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question. If you would like to answer, please write a proper answer.
    – Philipp
    Oct 15 '18 at 11:26

As Wikipedia indicates such state laws seem to have a curiously bimodal distribution. Some are two (or more) centuries old, and some are pretty recent, e.g.

  • Arkansas has it since 1819
  • Alabama has it since 2014
  • South Carolina has it since 1712
  • South Dakota has it since 2003
  • Vermont has it since 2017
  • Virginia has it since 1661

I suspect the old laws have a pretty religious basis, or at least based on Victorian morality, like some sodomy laws of the time. Some of the newer ones seem to have a pro-animal-rights lean, e.g. Alaska's has provisions about reimbursing for the vet care of animals hurt this way.

I did find one 2017 piece of news headlined "Push to make bestiality a crime in Ohio after man who had sex with daughters' boxers only got 30 days in jail". According to Wikipedia, Ohio is one of the states with a recent (2017) law in this area. The animal-rights angle is not uncommon relative to other Western societies, e.g. Germany's 2012 ban contemporanous with news about "erotic zoos" and upheld in 2016.

The Ohio story has some background:

Eight states and the District of Columbia still lack anti-bestiality laws. Some states inadvertently lifted earlier prohibitions on human-animal sex when they were updating their laws to remove sodomy as a crime.

The Humane Society of the United States led the lobbying effort to outlaw bestiality, but a much larger coalition, including domestic violence shelters, conservative Christians, law enforcers and psychologists, got behind the law this time.

“We were able to explain that this is not just an animal issue,” said Corey Roscoe, the society’s Ohio state director. “This did have ramifications for human violence. Sexually deviant acts are a red flag to other acts of sexual violence.”

Since 2005, arrests for animal sex abuse and exploitation in the U.S. have risen dramatically. The number of arrests in 2014 was more than double the total number of arrests in the 30 years between 1970 and 2000.

Jenny Edwards, a criminologist in Washington who studies the issue, said the rise has been driven by the Internet.

Online forums that exist behind powerful firewalls allow like-minded people to communicate and share animals for breeding and sexual experiences.

“It’s been great for deviants,” Edwards said.

A decade of research by Edwards also shows links between those who abuse animals and those who abuse other vulnerable groups, including children, women and other family members. [...]

The Federal Bureau of Investigation singled out animal cruelty offences in its national crime statistics for the first time last year, in an effort to begin to definitively quantify the problem.


The Law

Bestiality is not a crime, per se, in five states, although in some cases it may constitute animal cruelty.

In Colorado (where the enactment was fairly recent), bestiality is per se an act that constitutes cruelty to animals, but some states classify it is a form of immoral and indecent conduct, focusing on the immorality of the perpetrator rather than on the alleged harm to the animal.

These laws are generally enforced by local prosecuting attorney's offices (a few states, such as Florida, assign the function to a state agency instead), which generally do not have coherent policies on the topic and play mostly a behind the scenes role in the legislative process, usually through a statewide lobbying organization for prosecuting attorneys generally.

Why Are These Law Enacted?

Basically, bestiality laws are reactions to moral panic:

a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. A Dictionary of Sociology defines a moral panic as "the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media".

The legislative history of the Ohio example, detailed by @Fizz illustrates the moral panic narrative of these enactments, following a repeal of many such laws in connection with the repeal of anti-sodomy laws.

In some cases, anti-sodomy laws that included bestiality where repealed in connection with state overhauls of their criminal statutes modeled on the Model Penal Code (1962) which served as a template for state legislation (at least in part) in two-thirds of U.S. states, which did not include a bestiality offense. Many of the legal revisions modeled on the Model Penal Code took place in the early 1970s. But, some of those states later enacted bestiality laws as noted in the answer of @Fizz regarding the bimodal distribution of enactment dates.

Other anti-sodomy laws that happened to also include bestiality were repealed as a housekeeping matter because the case Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 538 (2003) that held a law banning consensual sodomy between adults to be unconstitutional. Conservative Justice Scalia's dissent in that case argued that if the court was not prepared to validate laws based on moral choices as it had done in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986) (which Lawrence overruled), state laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity would not prove sustainable.

An account from 2005 in Colorado:

Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff sums up this point succinctly in talking about another issue that occurred last spring when Republican Reps. Keith King and Jim Welker started comparing homosexuality to increased crime rates and later bestiality. Said Romanoff: “We’re talking about the budget, and they’re talking about bestiality.”

The bestiality prohibition in Colorado was enacted two years later, but as a form of cruelty to animals rather than as a form of immorality law, a compromise reached to allow pro-gay rights legislators to avoid attacks claiming that they were pro-bestiality.

The motives of the proponents of the law sums up some of the motive of recent legislative action on the issue, which is that a focus on criminalizing bestiality flows, in part, from an effort to obtain legislative buy-in to an agenda that also includes opposition to gay rights.

Much of the conservative opposition to gay rights in turn derives from declining marriage rates and increasing divorce rates, especially for working class adults, which conservatives have framed as a decline in and threat to a societal commitment to "family values" such as marriage between one man and one woman, and sex as confined to marriage. (The actually cause has more to do with the stagnant or declining economic prospects of working class men relative to the rising economic prospects of working class women.)

Purportedly this traditional marriage concept has roots in the Bible, even though this ideal is does not have Biblical support and is instead a considerably later development (e.g. the Biblical Hebrews were polygamous). Bestiality laws, of course, do have a Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament) precedent, e.g. in Exodus 22:19 which states:

Whoever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death.


There is a fair amount of legal or partially legal/political scholarship on the topic as well as the evolving behavioral science literature. Some of the most cited and notable include the following (in reverse chronological order, you will need to find your own links in some cases):

Jenkins notes that:

Although conservative groups are singled out due to their opposition based on moral grounds, opposition to bestiality is found across the political spectrum, including from such liberal groups as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States. Nevertheless, cases occasionally come into public view, such as an Eastbank, West Virginia case in which police allege that they caught a man in the act of raping a sheep at a live Nativity scene (PETA, 2003). According to Pet-Abuse.com (2003), there were nine such criminal cases in the United States during 2002 involving animals as small as a poodle to as large as a horse.

Hensley, Adams, and Zillman extend the theory that bestiality like other forms of animal cruelty is predictive of psychopathy and violence against humans.

Peter Singer is the most prominent advocate for only making it a crime when there is actual cruelty to the animal on a case by case basis, with criticism of him in papers commenting on his work. Critics on the animal cruelty front such as Beirne are largely arguing that animals can't meaningfully consent.

Rubin, Monter and Rydström indicate the linkage of LGBTQ issues to Bestiality, in general, in legal/political motive.

Several look at historical status like Murrin, Salisbury, Monter, Rydström and Liliequist are applicable to the reasons for older wave statutes, basically moral ones motivated by "disgust" and traditional morality.

Beetz is useful as a general source with many different opinions. I have not been able to locate full text access to Pierson, Habermas, Dekkers, Noske and Regan but they are referenced in other works and appear to be meaningful contributions to the academic discussion.

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    I appreciate your doggedness, ferreting out the answer.
    – smci
    Sep 2 '18 at 22:33
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    I'm having some difficulty with the list of academic sources. They seem to be making a lot of different points. How did you intend them to be understood? Sep 4 '18 at 3:54
  • Peter Singer is the most prominent advocate for only making it a crime when there is actual cruelty to the animal on a case by case basis. The links also indicate the linkage of LGBTQ issues in general in recent times. Several look at historical status like Murrin applicable to the reasons for older wave statutes. Critics on the animal cruelty front are arguing that animals can't meaningfully consent. Hensley extends the theory that bestiality like other forms of animal cruelty is predictive of psychopathy and violence against humans. Didn't have time to annotate. Will update a bit on that.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 4 '18 at 17:04

I do not have any references about this, but many Western laws have been carried over from our Jewish/Christian backgrounds. Bestiality is forbidden in the Bible numerous times, e.g. in Exodus 22:19:

Whoever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death.

As for the need for these laws: one thing that comes to mind is that intercourse with an animal without proper protection can result in new sexually transmitted diseases, causing not only danger to the offender's health but also to other people.
Under some (all?*) conditions it's animal abuse, but there are separate laws for that.

*: I've been told that e.g. cows don't feel anything from the act; after all, sometimes a vet inserts their entire arm into a cow's rectum during an examination. I don't think it's necessary to discuss this; I usually try to avoid the subject.

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    Bestiality was legal in the Netherlands until fairly recently, under the conditions that the animal didn't object or suffered harm. It was made illegal a few years ago; the motivation for this wasn't religious, but animal welfare. I think that for many – especially on the left, but also the right – animal welfare is the concern in the US as well.
    – user11249
    Sep 1 '18 at 11:37

Apparently it does happen and if there is no law against it the authorities can only prosecute the offender for animal cruelty (assuming there is evidence for that). From an article by 10TV (dating back to 2011):

Investigators said that they would like to charge Bower with more serious offenses but Ohio has no laws regarding bestiality.

Ohio State Rep. Jay Goyal said that he plans to introduce legislation that would outlaw sexual contact with animals because of the Bower case.

Apparently, such a law exists now in Ohio, according to a more recent article by Fox News reporting on a different case:

CLEVELAND – A man accused of performing a sex act on a dog has been charged under a new state law that criminalizes bestiality.

The law went into effect March 21 and makes sexual contact with an animal a misdemeanor offense that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail upon conviction. Previously, animal cruelty laws applied, but Cleveland Animal Protection League president Sharon Harvey said those cases were difficult to prosecute because they required proof the animal suffered.

Summing up, these articles provide two reasons. Firstly (following from the first article), the bestiality charge is more serious, that might (speculation on my part) carry a more serious penalty. Secondly (following from the second article), the animal cruelty charge may be more difficult to prove in a court of law because prosecutors need to show the animal suffered.

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    All you say is "they had to pass a law because otherwise it wasn't illegal". That's begging the question.
    – IMil
    Sep 2 '18 at 22:59

Bestiality was not illegal in Washington state from 1975 until 2006. It had been covered under the same set of laws that outlawed sodomy, but those were repealed in 1975 (presumably to decriminalize consensual, homosexual or heterosexual sex acts involving adult humans).

It was made illegal after a 2005 event called the Enumclaw horse sex case. You can read about it in the link, but the quick summary is that a man having sex with a horse on a farm in Enumclaw died afterward. The man had the event filmed, as he distributed bestiality porn. The person who filmed the event was charged with criminal trespass and banned from that farm. However, he would later be charged with felony animal cruelty in Tennessee while shooting a similar film.

The Stranger (NSFW language) quotes state senator Pam Roach as saying:

"It's really a bill that will protect animals, who are innocent by the fact they can't consent,"

  • 1
    I effect we can't penetrate a sow's vagina with a penis since she is unable to give consent (couldn't we just prescribe that we can't tie her up? I believe she would make her dissent very well known!), but we can stun her with a bolt pistol and then penetrate her throat with a knife? Presumably without her consent as well. How about stunning her before intercourse? I think the animal protection cause is just a red herring. Law makers and public in the horse sex case were just incredulous that there was no law and needed a reason for one. Sep 3 '18 at 19:34
  • Remember, in the horse sex case the men were penetrated by the horses. I find it hard to find abuse there. You can't expect more consent than that from an animal. Sep 3 '18 at 19:37
  • @PeterA.Schneider: Defining assault/abuse/rape/... as committed by whoever penetrates the other is an incredibly dangerous precedent to set. Just to prove the point, your comment indirectly asserts that if the horse was tied down and physically forced, it somehow was still consenting (I know that this is not the case for the video, and that I'm using an extreme example, but your proposed definition would label this extreme example as consent, even though it clearly isn't).
    – Flater
    Sep 4 '18 at 9:18
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica So you're saying that female teachers which coerce minor male students into sex are not committing rape or sexual assault? Dec 21 '19 at 21:00
  • @LawnmowerMan It depends on (1) How minor. There is a difference between 17 year olds and 7 year olds. (2) Coercion. Coercing somebody to perform a sexual act is morally wrong, and illegal in many cases and places independently of the age of the victim. In the case of a female teacher seducing a 17 year old male, without coercion, I'll be hard pressed to see assault, indeed. Abuse perhaps, due to the exploitation of the teacher-student relationship. It is mostly utterly unprofessional and I'd agree with removing her from her job. (Similar to therapist/client relationships.) Dec 22 '19 at 10:34

Another angle to consider is maintaining public order.

We have laws against lots of things which objectively harm nobody, but when it becomes known that such things are done, their extreme unpopularity creates the risk of mob violence, which most jurisdictions would prefer to avoid.

Making the acts in question formally illegal puts the situation firmly in the hands of the criminal justice system. This also provides some protection to people who are falsely accused—assuming that law enforcement is objective—because there is now a disinterested party which has the power to authoritatively declare that the accusation is without basis.

I am not saying that maintaining public order is a motivation in crafting such laws—some of them are indeed legislated religion—but once made such laws have this effect.

This has obvious parallels with the Heckler's Veto, here linked for the interested reader.

  • There are not that many forbidden things which don't harm anybody; public nudity and domestic drug use are among them, and are always debated exactly for this reason. Sep 3 '18 at 19:41
  • Welcome to the site. This sounds reasonable, but is there any reason to believe that it is true? Can you reference statements by legislators, judges, or public officials saying this is why they outlawed it? Sep 4 '18 at 3:46

The recently adopted bestially laws are a consequence of the way social media works. A few decades ago, incidents where people had intercourse with animals would either not appear in newspapers, or would appear somewhere hidden as a story of just a few lines together with a few other stories of people behaving in odd ways.

In today's social media world, the population at large is far more in control of the talking points. In the old days people could at most write letters to the editor, today people can publish their thoughts directly on Facebook, twitter etc. etc. The strict separation between entertainment and real news that existed in the old days, no longer exists. In the old days, people got their daily dose of entertainment from soap series, today real news and entertainment have morphed into one entity on social media.

The conventional news outlets need to attract viewers and readers, which affects the editorial decisions about what news stories are newsworthy. A topic like bestiality is going to get more exposure in the conventional news outlets, simply because people are tweeting about such topics. This then affects the topics politicians discuss, ultimately leading to new laws.

In the old days there would have been much more input from experts like e.g. psychologists in identifying problems and the details of new laws to tackle any such problems. Social media has de-facto sidelined the experts and their whole body of knowledge. The gut feeling of lay people is now far more a decisive factor in society.

None of this means that people who have sex with animals are not harming animals. The relevant factor that explains why we've recently seen so many jurisdictions adopt the laws is social media, it's not any new scientific facts about harm to animals due to bestiality. The fact that after such laws were passed, many such laws had to be revised to give people who work in animal breeding programs enough legal room to continue their jobs, speaks volumes about the whole process.

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    Do you have any evidence that this is the actual reason? Some kind of statement from a legislator, judge, or expert on the subject? Sep 1 '18 at 20:36
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    "The old days" are only a couple of decades ago, are they? Some of these laws date back centuries. No experts back then - it entirely came from Biblical rules.
    – Graham
    Sep 1 '18 at 20:47
  • @Graham well, someone came up with those rules, right? Ever since people wrote stuff down there must have been experts on certain topics compared to regular people.
    – JJJ
    Sep 1 '18 at 23:48
  • @JJJ No, there were priests recording the local taboos. Thou shalt not eat pork. Thou shall not mix fabrics. And thou shalt not screw the livestock. Writing down and enforcing a cultural taboo does not make you an expert in animal welfare, or psychology, or anything really.
    – Graham
    Sep 2 '18 at 0:21
  • @graham knowing much about local taboos made them experts on taboos. Sure, not to the extent that they could compete with today's experts, but they knew more than the average person on that subject.
    – JJJ
    Sep 2 '18 at 0:37

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