Raping While Supposedly Asleep – Guilty or Not Guilty?

Last spring we wrote a piece for the British feminist website The F-Word which discussed a sleeping disorder called sexsomnia. Sexsomnia is described as a condition in which people behave sexually in their sleep, such as masturbating or even engaging in intercourse.

In the post we were critical of sexsomnia as a defense claim for people who had been charged with rape or sexual abuse. Even though perpetrators have confessed that the sexual assault took place, they also claim to be innocent since they were not aware of their acts. And in some cases, the courts have responded by not invoking a sentence. In order to back up this claim of innocence, some rapists have stated that former partners have told them that they behaved sexually while asleep.

Our post received quite a few comments, and a wide range of reactions. We think that if a person does suffer from sexsomnia (and especially if they know that they do), they are responsible for protecting the people around them and avoiding any situation in which they may hurt or abuse someone, or put another person in danger.

The reason why we are again discussing sexsomnia is because the same argument was used as an attempted defense after a perpetrator raped a 15-year-old girl at a party. It should be noted that, according to people attending the party, the man was flirting with the girl while giving her drinks all night. After claiming to suffer from sexsomnia, the man was monitored for patterns consistent with the disorder. The examiner said that the man “sat up and moved unusually, grinded his teeth and had noticeable and sharp hand movements” and found the patterns to be “consistent with sleepwalking,” concluding that it was “a possibility that in this case he was suffering from sexsomnia – I cannot exclude it.”

Sexsomnia is described as a fairly new type of disorder, and falls under the category of sleep disorders or parasomnia. We believe that it may be beneficial for sexsomnia to be placed in a new or different category. In the case discussed above, the perpetrator showed signs of teeth grinding and hand movements, which are common for those with parasomnia or sleep disorders but not sexsomnia–even though under the wide definition, of parasomnia, sexsomnia could not be ruled out. Not only is more research needed to discern the causes of sexsomnia, but people who are inflicted by sexsomnia need to take precautions not to put other people in harm’s way, especially in cases where the person knows or has been told that they engage in sexual behavior while asleep. This would perhaps make sentencing in cases of rape and sexual assault easier. We also need to realize that sexsomnia can be used as yet another way to normalize rape.

Photo of night sky uploaded by flickr user kronerda and shared under a creative commons license.


  1. Irene Bolger says:

    Sorry, but this sounds like a bullshit defence against rape and I’m speaking as a criminal defence lawyer. Why would there suddenly be such a disorder if it has never existed before? I would assume that the woman who was being raped would at least resist in some way and I find it hard to believe that this would not wake the perpetrator up at which time he would have to stop.

    • Irene, we too are critical of sexsomnia. We find your points about sexsomnia valuable to the discussion. Thanks for sharing!

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