Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife: Could the octopus be traumatized…

Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. Katsushika Hokusai, c 1820.

Every once in a while I get an email from someone I don’t know with a question about animal behavior. Usually they have to do with cats compulsively plucking their hair, or a question from a prospective MIT graduate student about my doctoral program. Yesterday I got a fairly unusual one though. And the curious person who sent it agreed that I could publish our exchange here. I have changed her name.

Dear Ms Braitman,

I am researching PTSD in animals as a result of sexual assault. I contacted James Crosby for help in this research and he told me about your website and your upcoming book, which I would really like to read. Sexual assault against animals is a topic that really bothers me, especially when I’ve heard people try to reason that its not such a bad thing. I’m in search of information that proves how harmful sexual molestation is to an animal, even if they have not necessarily been raped. I know of the psychological pain and confusion that perpetrators are filled with that leads them to commit such an act, but I want to know more about the psychological pain that animals suffer from once they’ve been sexually molested. Do you know where I can find specific information on this? Any specific cases where PTSD has been studied in animals that have been sexually molested? I know how psychologically harmful sexual molestation in children is, and I want to find out if animals are effected in the same ways. I really want to prove once and for all what a wrongful act sexual assault is to both humans and animals.

Thank you so much,

Animal Lover

Hi Animal Lover,

Thank you so much for your message. I actually just finished reading this article by a journalist suffering from PTSD. It concerns the human animal and is quite beautiful.

Anyway–back to your question. I am actually not sure what to tell you here. I do not know how I would define sexual molestation in nonhuman animals. That which is considered sexual behavior (as opposed to grooming behavior, for example) is so dependent on culture, context, individual preference and more. Among humans and certainly among other species. This isn’t to say that sexual molestation or assault of animals doesn’t exist or that they can’t be traumatized by it. But a strange person coming up to me and attempting to lick my anus without my consent would be considered sexual harassment. But is this true for a dog? Doubtfully. I wouldn’t know where a dog’s line of sexual comfort falls.

So much of our interaction with nonhuman animals would be considered sexually deviant if we tried it on another person.

Of course though, an animal exposed to repeated violation that they didn’t enjoy or physically injured them could be considered abuse and may be traumatizing…but it may not be for the same reasons that a human in similar situation would find disturbing. Ie. in the context of a horse that was, say, repeatedly restrained and forcibly entered by a person–would the horse consider this sexual abuse? Or is the horse stressed because of the confinement and any physical pain? Do the motivations of the abuser matter to a horse? I think that this is what distinguishes thinking about generalized trauma from trauma stemming from sexual abuse. And unless you know exactly what sexual abuse is for a given animal–then answering your question would be difficult.

I also think that finding out which animals have been exposed to such treatment might be somewhat of a challenge. Unless you’ve already stumbled on a sanctuary of some sort I did not know existed (ie. for zoophilia/bestiality survivors)? If not (unless you have witnessed certain behaviors yourself) you will be depending on the testimony of humans about a behavior most often considered taboo.

As for research that exists, perhaps you should check out the primatologist Robert Sapolsky’s work on what could arguably be called sexual politics among baboons. While he, I imagine, would not consider what he documents sexual abuse, he has studied the longterm affects of stress on subordinate baboons.

Warm wishes and best of luck!


After I responded, I found about this case. A man in Washington State, who bred stallions and other animals, and was busted for cocaine last year and then discovered to be running a petting-zoo of a much darker kind.

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