Bestiality and Sexual Deviance: Crimes which Threaten the Human/Animal Divide

By Marc K.

Sexuality and sexual deviance are integral to understanding how early modern Europe defined what was human and what was animal. In particular, the crime of bestiality and how it was perceived in relation to legal and religious institutions is insightful. During this time period, the definition of bestiality was not limited to having sex with animals, but, as scholar Courtney Thomas points, “[it] was a part of the larger discourse of sodomy in the period and, consequently, the terms ‘sodomy’ and ‘buggery’ are frequently used interchangeably to describe both homosexual contacts and those which crossed the species border” (154). It is interesting that bestiality was a term which referenced a multitude of sexual deviances, for it emphasizes the early modern idea that those who act outside of the prescribed social and legal standards somehow become less human and more bestial, or animal-like.

Critic Christie Davies further explores this idea, noting that “the ways in which these sexual offences are linked together and described make it clear that the enactors of the new laws are obsessed with the urge to preserve boundaries of all kinds” (1046). It is this fear of transgressing the species boundary that made bestiality such a heinous crime. Not only does one perform an unnatural sexual act, which in itself begins to dissemble the definition of humanity by disregarding the established norms, but one performs it with an animal, further erasing the line between human and beast. Bestiality was so feared and considered so detestable that it was a crime punishable by death, whereas other forms of sexual deviance such as masturbation and homosexuality were not treated as harshly (although homosexuality would eventually also be punishable by death) (Thomas 158). Despite homosexuality and bestiality both being punishable by death, there were still differences in how these crimes were portrayed. As Caroline Bingham discusses, “bestiality was condemned as ‘confusion’ (i.e., confusion of the natural order), and homosexuality as ‘abomination’ ” (447). While homosexuality was simply seen as disgusting and wrong, bestiality posed a special threat in that in endangered the established natural hierarchy between man and animal.

It is also interesting to consider that bestiality, a supposedly “victimless crime,” was still punishable by death (Thomas 150). To many, this seems like a rather draconian penalty. In attempting to protect the strict social hierarchy and punishing those who transgress the species divide, we become more animal ourselves. As Christie Davies says, “The sexual behavior of the sodomists which was perceived as transgressing natural boundaries, was savagely suppressed because it was a reminder and a metaphor of the threatened identity and integrity of the group itself” (1043). While the laws and religious customs used to justify these harsh punishments is a vital aspect of what makes us human, they also seem to bring out the worst in our nature, causing us to be cruel and inhumane. We are then forced to wonder what, if anything, truly separates from the world of animals?


Image: Coulthart, John. ” Feuilleton .” Liceti’s Monsters. WordPress, 3 Aug. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Bingham, Caroline. “Seventeenth-Century Attitudes Toward Deviant Sex.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1.3 (1971): 447-68.
Davies, Christie. “Sexual Taboos and Social Boundaries.” American Journal of Sociology 87.5 (1982): 1032-1063.
Thomas, Courtney. “‘Not Having God Before His Eyes’: Bestiality in Early Modern England.” Seventeenth Century 26.1 (2011): 149-73.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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