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A brief look at somnophilia

Somnophilia is a sexual paraphilia in which sexual arousal is derived from intruding on, caressing, and/or fondling someone (typically a stranger) while they are asleep without force or violence. However, some definitions of somnophilia—while all connected with sleep—sometimes slightly differ. For instance, some definitions of somnophilia say that it refers to actually having sexual intercourse with a sleeping partner (rather than just touching someone sexually while they are asleep). Another definition I came across says that somnophilia also includes having sex with someone while they are unconscious. This latter variation may have come about by the increased use of drugs such as rohypnol (“roofies”) that have been implicated in sexual offences such as ‘date rape’. There is no technical term for the reciprocal condition of being the recipient of sexual advances while asleep. This is thought to occur more often in fantasy than in reality.

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Some signs or symptoms that may point to somnophilia include recurring thoughts regarding unconscious or sleeping individuals and feeling sexual urges when in contact with or in the proximity of those people. While there is speculation about treatment (e.g., hypnosis, behavioural therapy, and 12-step programs), it is not needed unless the behavior becomes destructive, problematic, and/or involves sexually criminal activity and becomes a legal issue.

Empirically, very little is known about somnophilia and as far as I am aware there are no data concerning its prevalence, etiology, or treatment (not even a single case study). Various sexologists and authors have made reference to it (such as John Money, Nancy Butcher, and Rudy Flora). The historian Richard Burg published a 1982 article in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and suggested the possibility of a continuum of erotic focus from somnophilia fantasy through to acts involving necrophilia. In fact, sometimes somnophilia has been described as ‘pseudo-necrophilia’ in that both paraphilias involve having sex with a human that is not aware and/or conscious, and have not given consent.

In a 1972 issue of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, the psychologists Dr. Victor Calef and Dr. Edward Weinshel decribed somnophila as ‘Sleeping Beauty Syndrome’ and asserted that somnophilia was the neurotic equivalent of necrophilia. As they asserted:

“The theme of the 'Sleeping Beauty' who is brought back to life, as it were, by the love of a Prince Charming is one which has fascinated both story-tellers and listeners for hundreds of years. It is our impression that not infrequently we hear, from our analytic patients—primarily via various denials—this same theme and its disguised wishes. We are referring to those patients who complain that their spouses go to sleep before them and before sexual activity can be initiated. It is our experience that, at least in many of these individuals, this complaint is an attempt to hide the fascination and attraction for the sleeping sexual object and the wish to make love to that object”.

However, they ultimately concluded that although somnophilia appears to have some characteristics in common with necrophilia, the two syndromes do not necessarily reflect the same underlying pathology. Using Freudian theory, Calef and Weinshel speculated that underlying somnophilia was the desire to return to the maternal womb, and that somnophiliacs had unresolved Oedipal complex issues, fixations on pre-genital stages of psychosexual development, and castration anxiety. However, as with almost all psychoanalytic theory, it is hard to design any research to either confirm or deny such speculations.


Author James Joyce

In researching the topic of somnophilia, I did come across a 2006 paper by Mark Knowles (New School for Social Research, New York) that examined the sexual content of the letters written by Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941). The primary purpose of Knowles’ paper was to examine the ways in which the paraphilic sexual fantasies of Joyce were expressed in his relationship with his wife (Nora Barnacle) via letters written at the end of 1909. Most of the paraphilic writings concerned coprophilia (sexual interest in faeces), but in one letter (dated December 8), Knowles noted there was also an instance of somnophilic fantasy. Here, Joyce writes of how he will perform cunnilingus on his wife in an effort to "surprise [her] asleep." This will cause her to "groan and grunt and sigh and fart with lust in [her] sleep".

Knowles claimed that investigators have suggested that the etiology of somnophilia is similar to that of fetishism and coprophilia (although these “investigators” were not referenced—although he did cite the paper by Calef and Weinshel). Knowles noted:

“The degree to which Joyce's own aberrant libidinal impulses were influenced by factors such as these is uncertain; however, the fact that castration anxiety has been posited as a causal mechanism with regard to somnophilia as well as fetishism and coprophilia, the latter two of which played salient roles in his sexual fantasies, lends credence to the notion that the threat of castration did indeed constitute Joyce's ‘nuclear complex.'"

Christina Eugene (Bowling Green State University, USA) also made some interesting observations in her 2006 thesis ‘Potent Sleep: The Cultural Politics of Sleep’. She asserted:

“Sleep is the essential objectifier of all life. The passivity of sleep transforms subjects into inanimate objects, and in doing so removes the subject’s privilege of being able to act on the world of objects…This rendering of people into inanimate objects allows them to be fundamentally treated as objects—consumed, fetishized, and controlled. In accordance with the totality of capitalism and phallocentrism, an erotic fetish for sleeping beauties has surfaced”.

Eugene also makes heavy reference to Carolyn Fay’s 2002 (University of Virginia, USA) thesis ’Stories of the Sleeping Body: Literary, Scientific and Philosophical Narratives of Sleep in Nineteenth Century France.’ Although not actually using the word ‘somnophilia’, Fay says that:

“Contemporary sleep fetish culture is driven by the idea that the sleeping person is an absent person…To the fetishist, sleep is that perfect moment when consciousness is evacuated, leaving a living, breathing fragment, worthy of love.” [Men who seek to actualize their desire to have intercourse with a sleeping woman may use drugs to maintain the unconscious state] “for if the person wakes up, the fantasy and the fetish object become lost."

In response to this, Eugene thus claims that somnophilia emphasizes:

“The conflating of absence and passivity because rather than her being passive, the fetish is maintained by her absence. What are the dynamics that created these perplexities? What can account for both the sleeping beauty fetish and the somnaphobia of a culture where people are disposed to self-inflicting the torture of sleep deprivation? Despite the sheer obscurity of this fetish culture, both are, nevertheless, an exemplification of particular cultural messages that are written onto the sleeping body."

Given that I prefer empirical data, I’m not sure whether these debates in the Arts and Humanities literature add to what we know scientifically know about somnophilia, but at the very least they make an interesting read about the human condition. In the absence of anything in the empirical literature, I did spend ages trying to find some kind of case study and this was the best I could come up with:

“I have a fetish that I have found out is called somnophilia. I have told this to my girlfriend and she has no problem with it, or with allowing me to fulfill my fantasy with her, since she is very submissive. The only problem is, she's an extremely light sleeper. As in, she wakes up at the drop of a hat. For this reason, there's really no way for me to do it naturally. I have tried artificial methods such as [over-the-counter] sleeping pills. However, these just make her drowsy, but don't affect her depth of sleep (i.e., she still wakes up right away). I am looking for either a method or a drug that will put her into a very deep sleep, or even leave her unconscious, such as you would be under the influence of a general anesthetic during surgery. I guess I would need a very powerful sedative/hypnotic. I have heard of drugs such as Rohypnol, but I know that these are illegal in the US, and I'm not trying to get into any trouble here. I considered asking a pharmacist, but I'm worried they'd think I'm looking for a ‘date rape drug’ for illegal purposes and call the cops on me. I'm looking for something that'll knock her out and will withstand a vigorous activity like sex”.

Although there is little detail here, and there is no way of checking the veracity, this plea does at least suggest that somnophilia is more than a theoretical paraphilia.

 

References abd further reading

Burg, B.R. (1982). The sick and the dead: The development of psychological theory on necrophilia from Krafft-Ebing to the present. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 18, 242-254.

Butcher, N. (2003). The Strange Case of the Walking Corpse: A Chronicle of Medical Mysteries, Curious Remedies, and Bizarre but True Healing Folklore. New York: Avery.

Calef, V., & Weinshel, E. M. (1972). On certain neurotic equivalents of necrophilia. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 53, 67-75.

Eugene, N.C. (2006). Potent Sleep: The Cultural Politics of Sleep. Master’s Thesis, Bowling Green State University, American Culture Studies/English. 

Fay, C.M. (2002). Stories of the Sleeping Body: Literary, Scientific and Philosophical Narratives of Sleep in Nineteenth Century France. Diss. U Virginia, 2002. Ann Arbor: UMI.

Flora, R. (2001). How to Work with Sex Offenders: A Handbook for Criminal Justice, Human Service, and Mental Health Professionals. New York: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

Joyce, J. (1975). Selected letters of James Joyce. R. Ellmann (Ed.). New York: Viking Press.

Knowles, J.M. (2006). Nora's Filthy Words: Scatology in the Letters of James Joyce. The New School Psychology Bulletin, 4, 91-101.

Love, B. (1992). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books

Money, J. (1986). Lovemaps: Clinical concepts of sexual/erotic health and pathology, paraphilia, and gender transposition in childhood, adolescence, and maturity. New York: Irvington.

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

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