A Question of Equine Consent

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By Emily L. Witt, Staff Writer
Graphic by Emily L. Witt

Great theatre should cause its audience to question their own morality and tolerance. Hampton Cade’s recent lab For Want of a Horse by Olivia Dufalt did just that.

Those of us that identify as liberals like to think we’re so satisfyingly open-minded to the point that there is no topic too taboo, as long as it’s discussed in a responsible manner. We strive to accept people for who they are, whether or not we can understand it. We say continuously that “love is love.” But how far does that sentiment reach? When is following your impulses on love not okay? And just how much can our minds question something like consent before our vast discomfort closes down the conversation? To me, consent between two adults is very black and white.

What about consent between humans and animals?

These are only a few of the thoughts that cropped up the first time I read For Want of a Horse. We follow the protagonist, Calvin, and his intense struggle to accept himself as a zoophile; a person who is sexually and emotionally attracted to animals. Calvin happens to be attracted to horses.

Throughout the play, we watch Calvin carve out his own place in the world. The playwright, Olivia Dufalt, offers us a complex story, woven with facets of laughter and moments when you must hold your breath. I was completely enthralled as soon as I read the line; “I think we should buy one. I think we should buy a horse.”

Before we delve into the complexities of navigating Calvin’s sexual preference; zoophilia, let’s define what zoophilia is, and what it is not.

What it is not: bestiality.

The first thing that pops up when you google “bestiality,” is porn, not a definition. This is because bestiality is the act of sex with an animal, not the emotional connection or sexual attraction to an animal. In fact, researchers have found that most people who have sex with animals don’t actually have a sexual preference towards them. Stephanie LaFarge, the Director of Counseling at the ASPCA, goes even further to characterize bestiality as the rape or abuse of animals.

What is zoophilia?

Zoophilia is an emotional and sexual attachment to animals, and just like our attractions to human beings, hinges on more than an animal’s physical attributes. As stated before, zoophilia is a sexual preference and is much more multifaceted than the act of sexual intercourse. Plenty of zoophiles never actually engage in sex with animals. Although zoophilia can involve sex with the animal, in this case, it is not bestiality by LaFarge’s definition.

I needed to find a pathway to understanding Calvin not only because I wanted to, but because Hampton had asked me to recreate a painting Calvin describes in great detail during the play, that spurned his discovery that he was sexually and emotionally attracted to horses as a child.

I found myself grasping for comparisons that exist within human relationships, regardless of how reductive this comparison might be. I began to equate zoophilia to homosexuality, especially when considering that currently, zoophilia is legally considered a mental disorder, just like homosexuality was up until 1987.

Although homosexuality did not belong on the list of paraphilias, there are still sexual preferences that are also mental illnesses.

This inability to make a clean comparison between one preference and the next leads us towards the intersection of zoophilia and consent.

What is the difference between Zoophilia and Pedophilia?

Just like in zoophilia, being a pedophile does not mean that you act on your impulses. In fact, many more zoophiles engage in sexual activity with animals than pedophiles with children. And, much like zoophilia, this sexual attraction doesn’t come from the desire to harm a child.

In most states, zoophilia (which appears as bestiality in legal terms) is illegal. An animal cannot give verbal consent, just like a child.

These very difficult and impossible comparisons are precisely why plays like For Want of a Horse exist. Instead of talking about Patient A in a textbook, we can talk about Calvin. And the thought of ever comparing Calvin to a pedophile, in terms of consent, kills me.

Calvin is a loving husband, caring friend, and passionate lover. We watch his journey throughout the play as he meets Q-Tip, his marefriend, begins to bond with her platonically, experiences his first sexual encounter with her, and ultimately falls in love with her.

In Q Tip’s closing monologue:

“You are blessed. It’s a bird, you’re it’s nest. You’re at peace. You’re a church, it’s a priest. It’s a beast. It’s a beast. It’s a beast.”

It seems apparent, at least to me, that Q-Tip has found comfort, solace, and love within her and Calvin’s relationship.

But how might I have felt if I hadn’t experienced it through the lens of a human playing a horse? Would it be too difficult for me to normalize Calvin and Q Tip’s relationship if I didn’t encounter it in a world where I could hear Q Tip’s thoughts and consent?

While I find comfort in Q Tip’s happiness at the closing of the play, I don’t pretend to think I know how an actual horse might feel on the inside.

Bonnie, Calvin’s wife, has given him the permission to get Q-Tip, so that he can live what she considers to be a fulfilled life. I think that his enduring unhappiness even after he is able to have sex with Q-Tip, is a clever tactic Dufalt uses to show us that Calvin is not a sexual deviant. Sexual deviance can breathe just fine in the shadows, but Calvin’s love for Q-Tip, cannot. Even if Bonnie did not ask Calvin to give up Q-Tip, I believe he would’ve ultimately found that he wanted Q-Tip to be his full-time partner, not just a sexual partner.

The comparison of homosexuality crept into my consciousness once again when I questioned how I felt about Calvin leaving Bonnie for Q-Tip. Would I condemn him if he were leaving her because he’s gay? Most certainly not. That doesn’t make it less heartbreaking to see how deeply Bonnie loves Calvin, and to imagine how crippled she must be by his decision.

Dufalt’s choice to show a zoophile whose preference is horses is dramatically brilliant. Horses are hyper-intuitive and intelligent animals. It cannot be ignored that if Q-Tip did not want to engage in sexual activity, she could literally kill him. You cannot simply pat your leg and put on a voice of mock sincerity. There is no lying to a horse.

Dufalt feeds us beautiful complications by the spoonful. This is something I fully embraced in my creation of the painting from Calvin’s childhood memories as I tried to encapsulate the serenity of the connection between the man and the horse, as well as the journey to self-acceptance that Calvin experiences throughout the play.

I still cannot say whether or not I think animals can ever truly give consent, but I can say that Calvin has opened my mind up to the possibility.

According to Calvin, Q-Tip’s choice not to hurt him, when she so easily could, is consent and happiness.

But in the case of a human and a non-human animal, is deriving pleasure the same as giving verbal consent?

I’ll leave that to you.

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