Television Review

MARK WAS with Cherry for 18 months before he felt able to tell her he loved her. That happened one night after they had made love. He told the camera that this was the last night they spent together: soon after, Cherry got sick and died. This is a sad story: does it make it any less sad that Cherry was a pony?

Last night's Hidden Love (C4) was devoted to zoophiles - people who form lasting emotional and sexual bonds with an animal, as opposed to the bastards who specialise in one-night stands. This was not an easy programme to make (and at times to watch, though by the end I had managed to hoist my jaw more or less back into position): in most countries, after all, having sex with animals is illegal, and it doesn't get you invited to many parties. So Mark, who lives in Missouri, where the practice has never been outlawed, is one of very few zoophiles prepared to speak about the subject. He has already appeared on Jerry Springer, under the title "I married a horse" (he and his pony Pixel were married - in an unofficial ceremony - five years ago). That episode was never broadcast.

Mark had his first sexual experience with a pony when he was a teenager: unable to get anywhere with girls, he felt that he had "outsmarted the system". He married and had children, but the marriage didn't last. He went through a long dark night of the soul in a motel room where he had intended to kill himself; then he went out and bought Cherry, and found real love at last. He said frankly that this life was a sort of cop-out, that he didn't want the complication of human relationships. But would he rather be normal? He shook his head, baffled.

Sarah had a similar story of frustration with people. Unhappily married, she had found love with her dog, Miles; her husband, suspicious, had him castrated - shades of Heloise and Abelard here - and that was the last nail in the coffin. Now she lived on a Nebraska farm with a number of ponies - her favourite was a little stallion called Sandy, but he was too young for her to have tried anything on with him. Not that he wasn't eager to learn: "He just jumps right up on me." Mark, too, detected eagerness on the part of his pony: if she didn't want it, she could kick or bite.

An expert turned up to argue that zoophiles manufacture the idea of consent in much the same way as paedophiles. Another expert claimed to detect an underlying pathology - zoophiles were deprived of tactile stimulus as children - while an Oxford theologian suggested that, however loving, zoophile relationships are based on an imbalance of power.

But the central thrust of Christopher Spencer's film was that zoophilia is fine; it's our hang-ups we need to examine. Treating zoophiles seriously and sympathetically is one thing; citing the myth of Leda and the swan as evidence that animal sex was acceptable in pre-Christian societies was intellectually shoddy, as if "boffing the beef" (to borrow one of Mark's phrases) could simply be part of a New Age package of love for Mother Nature. Is it showing more respect to a sick person to pretend they're not sick?

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