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Surf emancipation: Using the internet to study zoophilia

I have just had a paper published in the latest issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions that outlines the advantages, disadvantages, and other implications of using the Internet to collect data from those people displaying sexually paraphilic behaviour. Up until around 2000, paraphilic behaviour had been relatively little studied outside of published case studies. However, in my new paper I have argued that the internet has provided a new arena in which researchers can collect data from people in much easier ways than prior to the introduction of online technologies. Probably the most used online data collection method for studying paraphilic behaviour is the online questionnaire. Typically in these types of study, online questionnaires are publicized and placed at online paraphilia forums. These forums are a convenient way to communicate information between paraphiliacs.

I argued in my latest paper that the one particular paraphilia where researchers have arguably made the most use of the internet for both recruitment and data collection is that of zoophilia. As Dr. Christopher Earls and Dr. Martin Lalumiere noted in a 2009 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, almost all data on zoophiles since 2000 have come from online recruitment. There have been three notable quantitative studies of zoophilia among non-clinical (i.e., community) samples. This includes studies by Dr. Andrea Beetz (in 2004 with 32 zoophiles), Dr. Colin Williams and Dr. Martin Weinberg (2003; 114 zoophiles), and Dr. Hani Miletski (2004; 93 zoophiles). It could be argued that none of these data sets would have been possible without the advent of the internet, and the internet sites devoted to bestiality and zoophilia. Research into zoophilia via online data collection demonstrated that online samples provided different results to previously reported case studies. Unlike the relatively few published case accounts, online zoophilic studies suggested that there were both men and women who had clear preferences for zoophilic activities and that the behaviour was not a substitute for the absence of other humans in the locality. Online zoophilic studies also showed that far from suffering any kind of mental abnormality or psychiatric condition, that many zoophiles lived both happy and productive lives.

The Internet can also be a rich and complex resource of textual material. As such, it can be invaluable to those researchers interested in specific experiences of particular individuals such as zoophilia. Included in the lived experiences of zoophiles are perceptions, beliefs and feelings, all of which are made sense of by the individual through the process of meaning making. Online forums are often the first port of call for zoophiles to contact and meet other like-minded people. However extreme the sexual behaviour is, the internet arguably provides the best medium in which to facilitate people’s sexual desires. Some of the most interactive and textually rich parts of the Internet are numerous zoophilic forums. Zoophilic forums typically comprise interactive sites where messages can be left or particular topics discussed in real time. These sorts of data are naturalistic and can be collected without identifying oneself as a researcher or even acknowledging a researcher’s presence

In order to understand the nature of the bestiality subculture online, Dr. Robert Jenkins and Dr. Alexander Thomas in their 2004 book Deviance Online: Portrayals of Bestiality on the Internet studied 100 forum websites dedicated to the portrayal of bestiality. The authors claimed that the advent of the internet had facilitated the networking among and marketing to a subculture of participants across time and space. All 100 websites were selected and coded and fell into three main types. These were ‘pornography’ (i.e., sites oriented toward those who enjoyed viewing or participating in bestiality; 80% of the sites), ‘community building’ (i.e., sites oriented toward providing news or encouraging communication among fellow bestiality practitioners and sympathizers; 7%), and ‘exhibitionism’ (sites oriented to showing bestiality for exhibitionist purposes, either as moral judgment or for humour; 9%). The remaining sites were hybrid sites. The authors hypothesized that women would be disproportionately represented on bestiality websites. The study found only one of the 100 websites featured a (human) male in a bestial act (a man receiving fellatio from a goat). They also reported that it was difficult to describe the depictions of women as anything but degrading. They also claim that the:

“The Internet fulfills a similar function as bohemian neighborhoods and red light districts have fulfilled for other (larger) deviant subcultures in the past. By creating a commons for individuals with similar interests and concerns, it is not surprising that a subculture devoted to bestiality has developed”.

Despite the clear advantages of using online forum data to study zoophilic populations (e.g., ease of data collection, cost-efficiency), the collection of zoophilic data by ‘lurking’ (i.e., observing without making presence known) raises some interesting ethical issues. In online research, the lines have become blurred between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces. On some level, cyberspace is always a public domain unless specifically designated as private. However, respecting a person’s right to privacy is viewed as a basic ethical requirement of any social science study. Some may argue that it is the perceptions of the participant that defines the domain as public or private, rather than the physicality of the situation. The issue of privacy may become more complicated if the researcher is involved in online participant observation.

Another online methodology that can be utilized to collect data on paraphilic behaviours is online interviewing. Such a methodology is particularly useful for case study research involving paraphiliacs. Online interviewing of zoophiles is advantageous. As with collecting zoophilic data via online questionnaires, online interviewing of zoophiles involves a considerable saving in time for both researchers and participants as there is no travelling involved for either party. Online interviews can also be carried out synchronously (via an instant messenger system) or asynchronously (via email). Asynchronous online interviews may be attractive and convenient for zoophiles allowing them to respond at their own pace and in their own time. Such detailed accounts can also be used to publish case studies that may have not been highlighted in the literature

One of the main advantages with the collection of case study data onlineis that those being interviewed may be very different from those who seek out medical and professional help for their zoophilic behaviour. As with data collected via online surveys, zoophiles divulging information online may be less psychologically disturbed about their behaviour and may be happy and have incorporated their zoophilic behaviour into their day-to-day lives.

Another informative paper in a 2009 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior was by Dr. Christopher Earls and Dr. Martin Lalumiere (2009) whose recruitment of a zoophile via the internet allowed them to establish the veracity of some of their respondents who contacted them online. For instance, one letter from “Possum” was long and detailed. Earls and Lalumiere noted that embedded within the email was a name. By cross-referencing the name with a number of different data banks (e.g., the Social Sciences Citation Index, Google, and Yahoo), they were able to verify several important demographic aspects of the person who sent the email. Possum soon realized he had inadvertently divulged his identity. Earls and Lalumiere were thus satisfied that the information supplied in the initial email was true and (with the person’s permission) published the case in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

The utilization of a variety of online research methods can be a useful and practical way of examining many different aspects of zoophilic behaviour. As Earls and Lalumiere correctly noted, paraphiliacs recruited via medical treatment centres will tend to show more general pathology. Paraphiliacs recruited from prison samples will tend to have greater criminal histories, and paraphiliacs recruited online will tend to show better adjustment and perhaps better intellectual skills. Basically, compared to psychiatric patients and inmates, those recruited online would be expected to be computer sophisticated and more open to discussing their sexuality.

Zoophiles’ familiarity with Internet technology – particularly as being online is often the best way to meet and communicate with other like-minded people – along with the anonymity of the media, may facilitate and enhance such studies being undertaken. The main disadvantages of online methodologies (such as self-selecting samples, issues concerning reliability and validity) are no different to those encountered in more conventional offline research methodologies.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Beetz, A. M. (2004). Bestiality/zoophilia: A scarcely investigated phenomenon between crime, paraphilia, and love. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 4, 1-36.

Earls, C.M. & Lalumiere, M.L. (2009). A case study of preferential bestiality Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 605-609.

Griffiths, M. D. (2010). The use of online methodologies in data collection for gambling and gaming addictions. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 8-20.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The use of online methodologies in studying paraphilia: A review. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 143-150.

Jenkins, R.E. & Thomas, A.R. (2004). Deviance Online: Portrayals of Bestiality on the Internet. New York: Center for Social Science Research.

Kim, P., & Bailey, M. (1997). Sidestreets on the information superhighway: Paraphilias and sexual variations on the Internet. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 22, 35-43.

Mangan, M. A. & Reips, U. (2007). Sleep, sex, and the Web: Surveying the difficult-to-reach clinical population suffering from sexsomnia. Behavior Research Methods, 39, 233-236.

Miletski, H. (2000). Bestiality/zoophilia: An exploratory study. Scandinavian Journal of Sexology, 3, 149-150.

Miletski, H. (2005). Is zoophilia a sexual orientation? A study. In A. M. Beetz & A. L. Podberscek (Eds.), Bestiality and zoophilia: Sexual relations with animals (pp. 82–97). Ashland, IN: Purdue University Press.

Mustanski, B.S. (2001). Getting wired: Exploiting the Internet for the collection of sexually valid data. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 292–301.

Williams, C. J., & Weinberg, M. S. (2003). Zoophilia in men: A study of sexual interests in animals. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 32, 523–535.

Wood, R. T. A., & Griffiths, M. D. (2007). Online data collection from gamblers: Methodological issues. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 151–163.