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The term zoophilia derives from the combination of two nouns in Greek: ζῷον (zṓion, meaning "animal") and φιλία (philia, meaning "(fraternal) love").In general contemporary usage, the term zoophilia may refer to sexual activity between human and non-human animals, the desire to engage in such, or to the specific paraphilia (i.e., the atypical arousal) which indicates a definite preference for non-human animals over humans as sexual partners.The derivative noun "zoosexuality" is sometimes used by self-identified zoophiles in both support groups and on internet-based discussion forums to designate sexual orientation manifesting as romantic or emotional involvement with, or sexual attraction to, non-human animals.Some zoophiles and researchers draw a distinction between zoophilia and bestiality, using the former to describe the desire to form sexual relationships with animals, and the latter to describe the sex acts alone.The terms are often used interchangeably, but some researchers make a distinction between the attraction (zoophilia) and the act (bestiality).Three key terms commonly used in regards to the subject — zoophilia, bestiality, and zoosexuality — are often used somewhat interchangeably.Martin Duberman has written that it is difficult to get a random sample in sexual research, and that even when Paul Gebhard, Kinsey's research successor, removed prison samples from the figures, he found the figures were not significantly changed.By 1974, the farm population in the USA had declined by 80 percent compared with 1940, reducing the opportunity to live with animals; Hunt's 1974 study suggests that these demographic changes led to a significant change in reported occurrences of bestiality.

Miletski (1999) notes that information on sex with animals on the internet is often very emphatic as to what the zoophile believes gives pleasure and how to identify what is perceived as consent beforehand.

Sexual fantasies about zoophilic acts can occur in people who do not have any wish to experience them in real life.

Nancy Friday notes that zoophilia as a fantasy may provide an escape from cultural expectations, restrictions, and judgements in regard to sex.

However, a number of the most oft-quoted studies, such as Miletski, were not published in peer-reviewed journals.

There have been several significant modern books, from Masters (1962) to Beetz (2002); "The phenomenon of sexual contact with animals is starting to lose its taboo: it is appearing more often in scholarly publications, and the public are being confronted with it, too.[...] Sexual contact with animals – in the form of bestiality or zoophilia – needs to be discussed more openly and investigated in more detail by scholars working in disciplines such as animal ethics, animal behavior, anthrozoology, psychology, mental health, sociology, and the law." More recently, research has engaged three further directions – the speculation that at least some animals seem to enjoy a zoophilic relationship assuming sadism is not present, and can form an affectionate bond.

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