In fall 2014, I started communicating with a Canadian man who was living in a secret sexual relationship with a horse. The night before my first interview with him was scheduled to be published on New York Magazine’s “Science of Us,” I was approached by an editor who had concerns about the story. What would readers make of it? How did I know that “Paul” (the man I’d met on Reddit and interviewed over the phone) was telling the truth? We’d spent the week editing the Q&A and it was ready to go. It was more than 6,000 words long and included questions like, “How do you find a sex partner?”, “How do you have sex with a mare?”, “Is there foreplay?”, and “How can you tell when a mare is having an orgasm?”, which Paul (who proudly identifies as a zoophile) answered in depth, often providing lots of technical detail — including the logistics of having oral sex with a female horse. He also mused about his love for his horse partner (Ms. C.) and described his sexual coming-of-age, which was almost completely facilitated by the internet.
I met with two senior editors and the online editorial chief, who cracked his knuckles and said, “It reads like a parody. What if he’s making it all up?” “Why would he do that?” I snapped, startling myself. I wasn’t aware how protective of Paul’s story I’d become. I walked them through everything I’d done to authenticate him and showed them samples of his long history talking about his identity online. “We have to run this,” I said forcefully. “We have to let him be heard.”
The interview went live early on a weekday morning — by the end of the day, it was the top-performing article on nymag.com. I was quickly bombarded with emails. At first they were playful: “Is this true?”, “OMG, where the hell did you find this man?” Then it went viral, and the comments section on the article was flooded with outrage.
Roughly half of the hundreds of commenters responding to the interview were repulsed. They said things like, “This is absolutely sick,” or that it’s “the worst thing I’ve ever read in my entire life … he tries to draw out so much sympathy because he ‘treats her so right’ but honestly it’s just vile. No animal can truly consent.” People tweeted that I was an enabler or normalizer of dangerous desires and that the interview pandered to the anti-LGBTQI+ right’s slippery-slope argument. As one poster put it, “Thanks, Obama.” Or another: “You realize of course this just feeds fuel to the fire to the anti-gay crowd — they are going to say ‘well this is what we were waiting for’ in some attempt to normalize it. Disappointed you even gave it a voice.” And, referring to a 1998 episode of The Jerry Springer Show featuring a man and his horse wife that was pulled from the air in some U.S. states (in it, Jerry Springer doesn’t mince his words when he says that it makes him want to vomit): “Hell, this crap was even banned from Jerry Springer.” Equine websites and newsletters shared it in full. Christian fundamentalists devoted entire blog posts to the interview, saying I was responsible for assisting this country’s moral decline.
In Canada, Paul was having his own reaction. When he read the interview at work, he had his first-ever panic attack. He’d written about his experience for years online, but this time he was representing himself to an open, global, and mainstream audience. As he put it, “It was my life story all in one place, and I had never seen that before.” Paul tried to respond to each negative comment, but it got to be too much. By the afternoon, he’d gone off-line and asked a zoophile friend to monitor the comments and step in and defend their sexuality if anyone went too far. His biggest concern was any suggestion that he’d mistreated Ms. C.
After he’d calmed down, he followed up to let me know how well his interview was received by the zoophile community. “There are those who think I should have kept my mouth closed, but mostly the reaction has been very positive.” Exposing himself like that was scary, but it was also validating because he felt as if he’d given back.
A few months later, I arrived at work and was greeted by an elaborate gift basket. I unpacked the horse-themed contents — a mug emblazoned with a horse’s head, a candle, and a stuffed toy pony — and a note that simply said, “Thank you for objectively reporting a zoosexual relationship.” The next year, an excerpt was included in the print version of the magazine. The cover, which was designed to look like the Google search page, includes the line “what it’s like to date a horse.” In response, the New York Post said that Paul’s description of his love for horses was “poetry of the stomach-churning variety.”
About two years after we first talked on the phone, having decided to write about him in a book I was working on called Finding Normal, I finally traveled to Canada to meet Paul IRL. Revealing his identity to me was risky. What if I was really an animal-rights activist? What if I was planning to report him to the police, or showed up and ambushed him with a camera and a reality-TV crew? What if I planned to post his name and location online? What if I was sloppy and ran around telling locals why I was there? What if I let a friend, or worse a nosy colleague, know where I’d be? What if I posted pictures on Instagram, or updated my Facebook status without turning off my location preferences and accidentally revealed where I was? Paul has been hiding for years, so he primed me on his method of privacy: obscure but don’t lie, because lies always snowball.
He let me know the best airport to fly into and did some research to make sure it was accessible by train when I told him I can’t drive. Then, a few weeks before the visit, he revealed the name of a town close to where he lives. He planned a weekend: He’d introduce me to his wife and take me to the stable to meet his horse lover Ms. C. I nervously booked a hotel using a pseudonym. I felt as if he were trying to put me off visiting when he wrote in an email a few weeks before I left New York: “I am a little scared on your behalf, I’ve seen a lot of people investigate this topic over the years and almost universally they end up disappearing or ending their work suddenly.” Later, Paul claimed that his main concern leading up to our first meeting was managing his wife Fran’s emotions.
In Canada, I took Paul’s privacy seriously. I felt like a scrappy secret agent with a burner phone. I’d left my computer and iPhone at home. I paid in cash and avoided small talk. “Friday might not be an option,” Paul texted me the day before my train ride from the city to his town. “It’s date night,” he said, referring to the ritual he and Fran (who have been married since 1996) started a few years ago. I had to stop myself from replying, “Really, Paul? Date night? Don’t be such a liar and don’t be such a fucking norm.” “I really hope she wants to see me, too!” I wrote instead.
The train took me past alabaster lawns, naked trees, frostbitten paddocks, and stables, so many stables. I was apprehensive about meeting Paul: What if we didn’t get on? He’d put so much trust in me, but what if he didn’t like me? And I also had the same thought that Paul had all those years ago when he was a teenager getting ready to meet a zoophile face-to-face for the first time after spending hours talking online: “What if he’s a total freak?”
I was nearly at my destination when Paul texted, “My wife wants to meet you.” We’d arranged to have dinner at a chain restaurant with diner booths and a salad buffet. I arrived early, found a seat away from the full tables, and texted Paul to tell him where I was sitting and what I was wearing. They arrived about 20 minutes late, bundled up in puffer coats and hats, eyes darting around. As soon as I saw them, I stood up and greeted them both with a hug.
If Fran had a “look,” it would be “Amish hippie” or a life-size figure from a Vermeer. She appeared to be a woman in control with her fanny pack complete with a knife case. Paul looked much younger than his 46 years with his soft baby face and wide eyes, like Buddha with a neatly trimmed beard. Conflict averse and patient, he let Fran lead the conversation. When he did talk, he was calm and measured; he was so patient and listened so carefully I often worried I was boring him. It’s not that he lacks social skills; it’s that most of his conversations about his sexuality have played out in text. To my relief, Fran had no time for small talk. She immediately began to tell me about a visit to a relative of a friend of theirs who had recently died. As she chatted away at me, her face was pulled tight as if it might split — the same shape mine takes when I’m nervous. After that heavy intro, she ordered a Diet Coke and excused herself, announcing, “I’m gonna go raid the salad bar!” Paul nodded and followed like a butler in her wake.
Communication is key to Paul and Fran’s relationship; they’re like two hosts on The View, fact-checking and deconstructing the minutiae of everyday life. A 15-minute conversation with them can cover a dizzying range of topics: the alarming levels of mercury in the Great Lakes; the history of swearing in the military; regional Canadian food customs; the chances that Oprah could ever be elected president of the United States (Hell no! says Fran: “There’s way too much racism and sexism going on”); how to build a sound card; the politics of public versus private education.
She’d reluctantly agreed to dinner to be polite but also because she wanted to sniff me out — make sure I had good intentions. She listed all the things I had going against me: “You’re female; you live in New York; you’re single; we don’t really know you; what you know could damage Paul’s life.” Later, when I went to the restroom, I overheard Fran fretting about getting germs from me if they took my leftovers home. My lifestyle — alone in a big city — is her worst nightmare, and she probably wondered what sort of person would want to live that way. She confessed that her anxiety had made them late. Just before Paul picked her up, she texted him and said, “I have a doubt.” Right until the moment they got on the highway, she was making the decision: fight or flight.
When I reflect on the time I got to know Paul, I’m struck by how thin my line became between what’s “normal” and what’s not. I wasn’t a stranger to the visceral repulsion that Paul’s sexuality generated. I’d read the online furor when my interview with him was published, but as it’s so easy to do when we are behind the screen, I distanced myself from the humans who were expressing this outrage. Unlike Paul, I didn’t dwell on their disgust or read negative comments in much depth. That was where I enjoyed privilege as a reporter; it wasn’t my life that had been laid bare for the world to comment on. Instead, I focused on reactions from people who were surprised to find that after they’d learned about Paul’s very unusual sex life, despite finding his preferences beyond the realm of anything they could ever imagine themselves possibly wanting, they were left feeling as if they couldn’t judge.
In the comments, one poster wrote about how the interview made them feel both “thoroughly disturbed” and unable to “full-heartedly” judge: “I know what it’s like being judged — and I know he’d be ostracized if anyone ever found out about his sexual preferences, such as I would.” Another, who identified as a Christian libertarian conservative, addressed his comment to Paul directly: “It takes bravery to share something that most simply knee-jerk an ugly opinion about.”
But when I started to test how people reacted when I told them I was including his story in Finding Normal, I was taken aback by their disgust. First, I told my hairstylist — a man who grew up in a small town in Texas who was in his early 20s. I studied his reflection in the mirror; his face wilted into a sick frown. He begged me, “Please, I don’t even want to think about it.” He was repulsed, and I felt deviant by association. At work, one of my editors (a woman in her early 30s) was baffled when I told her that what I find the most interesting about Paul is that he hasn’t actually had sex with his mare companion for years. “Their relationship is clearly about more than just sex,” I explained, carried away, while she looked at me blankly as if to say that I was in too deep. She told me she was struggling to digest the fact that he’d done it once, or ever, at all.
When one of my friends, an attorney who is married and straight, asked me how my “horse fetish” reporting was going, my first thought was, STFU, you normative bitch! I was genuinely annoyed that she’d described his entire sexual identity as a kink. “It’s a sexuality, not a fetish!” I earnestly texted back to her in all caps. After a while, like Paul, I just stopped talking about it. When people asked, I’d gloss over the project with rehearsed sound bites like, “I’m writing about people who lead complicated lives,” which was both vague and dull enough that it usually ended the conversation.
When I was deciding if I should even keep the chapter about Paul in Finding Normal, I contacted other people who have written or spoken about zoophilia. First, I attempted to discuss it with Jerry Springer or one of his producers; I wanted to know what he thought about filming that infamous episode. However, his publicist politely informed me that it’s still on their “do not discuss” list. Next, I asked psychotherapist Hani Miletski, who wrote her Ph.D. thesis about zoophiles, how her work was received. She said that when she first told people what she planned to write about for her dissertation, she was warned that it would put off future clients and ruin her career (and her boyfriend was so repulsed he wouldn’t let her talk about it). Over 20 years later, she avoids telling people about it because she doesn’t want to “disgust” them. Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, left a chapter about sex with animals out of the print version of his 2018 survey of American sexual fantasies because he was worried it would impact the way readers approached the rest of the book (one in five of his participants said they’d fantasized at least once about sex with an animal). He wanted to normalize sexual desires and worried if he dwelled on more unusual fantasies like zoophilia, it might turn off people who would otherwise benefit from his findings. However, he did think that the information was important, so he made it available online as a bonus chapter.
In November 2020, University of London professor Joanna Bourke launched her book about the history of bestiality and zoophilia via an online lecture in London. The video was uploaded on YouTube, and for three days the trolling was unrelenting. On Twitter, she was told she should seek therapy (or be committed), that she needed Jesus, and that she should commit suicide.
Peter Singer, who is often referred to as the father of the animal-rights movement, discussed bestiality in a 2001 book review for the online sexualities magazine Nerve, which was commissioned by Emily Nussbaum, who is now a staff writer at The New Yorker. He didn’t condemn sex with animals; he said that if an animal is not being abused, there’s nothing wrong with it. The backlash was swift. Animal-rights organizations issued statements against Singer and a conference he was scheduled to speak at had to be moved off-campus when people complained to the dean that he was a bestiality supporter.
Why did Nussbaum commission the piece? When we spoke, she recalled that when the Dutch book landed on her desk, it seemed like a natural fit for the publication, and because Singer had written about animal rights, she thought he’d have an interesting take, so she sent it to him instead of to her regular book reviewer. In retrospect, she thinks it was naïve not to have predicted it would provoke such a reaction: “I genuinely don’t think I understood that it would put him in a vulnerable position to the degree that it did.”
It wasn’t just the disgust it generated or the prospect of online abuse that concerned me; I also began to feel as if I couldn’t write about zoosexuality at all because there was nothing I could put it near. The idea that social change will end with animals enjoying the same rights as humans is a hurtful conservative trope that’s been used throughout history, in discussions first about interracial marriage and more recently about same-sex marriage, like in 2014, when a Mississippi Baptist pastor protested a federal judge’s temporarily blocked ban on same-sex marriage by occupying the steps of the federal courthouse with a horse dressed in a wedding gown. Or in 2003, when Rick Santorum compared gay marriage to “man on dog or whatever the case may be.” The philosopher John Corvino has called it the “PIB argument” — the idea that, as he puts it, “approving homosexuality” will lead to a sexual free-for-all where anything goes, hence the PIB, which stands for “polygamy, incest, bestiality.”
I was worried about including Paul’s story in a book that also had chapters about marginalized sexualities; in fact, I totally scrapped two completed chapters. When I’d made my initial decisions about whom to write about, I was concerned about, but not deterred by, the optics of publishing certain stories alongside others. To me it was obvious that I wasn’t comparing experiences or suggesting they exist on a spectrum, and I’d been so focused on the overall premise of the book — about how people find themselves as normal in new ways in the hyperconnected era.
From Finding Normal by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.