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Sleeping Beauty always kind of freaked me out. While valiant in his efforts, kissing a girl who’s asleep (and thus in no way able to consent) made the Prince slightly less “Charming.” Fantasizing about making a move on a sleeping person isn’t my thing – hell, I didn’t think it was anyone’s thing. And then I learned about somnophilia. Ironically sometimes referred to as “sleeping beauty syndrome,” somnophilia is a paraphilia in which a man or woman derives sexual arousal from someone who is sleeping or otherwise unconscious. It’s not necrophilia, and it’s not sexual assault. Unfortunately, we know about as much about somnophilia as we do about Sleeping Beauty. After extensive browsing, here’s the low-down we have thus far.
Where Does It Come From?
Psychologist John Money identified somnophilia in the late 1900s as “of the marauding-predatory type in which erotic arousal and facilitation or attainment of orgasm are responsive to and dependent on intruding upon someone who is unable to respond.” In other words, sexual arousal from an unconscious or otherwise unresponsive individual. Money believed that somnophilia was an entirely separate sexual fetishism than necrophilia, a fetishism for the dead, but could eventually progress into such. He found that somnophilia was very common in incestual relationships, but that the behavior was otherwise typically carried out with a stranger.
Do I Have It?
Sexual arousal derived from sleeping or unconscious people is the biggest red flag. However, this behavior does not have to be carried out to be considered a somnophiliac. Spending an excessive amount of time thinking or fantasizing about sleeping or unconscious individuals Sexual urges, sexual fantasies, and sexual behavior are all equally valid criteria to be diagnosed or otherwise identified.
Can It Be Treated?
If somnophilia begins to interfere with an individual’s daily life or goes so far as to cause legal trouble, treatment should be pursued immediately. The most prevalent types of treatment for somnophilia include, but are not limited to psychoanalysis, hypnosis, behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and medication. Other therapeutical approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy, orgasmic reconditioning, individual expressive-supportive psychotherapy, and group therapy. While medications are not typically used and are never the primary form of treatment, some somnophiliacs are prescribed antidepressants, long-acting gonadotropin-releasing hormones (GnRH, i.e., medical castration), antiandrogens, phenothiazine, and mood stabilizers.
Because somnophilia is a relatively novel concept, it is easy to identify somnophiliac behavior as necrophiliac behavior or even sexual assault. The seemingly minor differentiations between the three, however, can result in a hugely detrimental misdiagnosis and/or legal trouble. I cannot stress how important it is to know how they differ before jumping to conclusions.
Somnophilia vs. Necrophilia
Unlike necrophilia, which is a sexual attraction to corpses, those who meet the criteria for somnophilia are sexually aroused by an unconscious but still living individuals. In her 2002 thesis, ’Stories of the Sleeping Body: Literary, Scientific and Philosophical Narratives of Sleep in Nineteenth Century France,’ psychologist Carolyn Fay asserts that “Contemporary sleep fetish culture is driven by the idea that a 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] “or if the person wakes up, the fantasy and the fetish object become lost.”
Although, as previously mentioned, somnophilia can develop into necrophilia, the two are completely separate fetishes. Psychologists Dr. Victor Calef and Dr. Edward Weinshel believe that the roots of somnophilia lie in castration anxiety, obsession over one’s personal pre-genital stages of psychosexual development, and unresolved Oedipus complex conflicts. In her 2006 thesis ‘Potent Sleep: The Cultural Politics of Sleep,” Christina Eugene explains that “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. Following the totality of capitalism and phallocentrism, an erotic fetish for sleeping beauties has surfaced”.
Somnophilia vs. Sexual Assault
Somnophilia should not be confused with sexual assault, though the line is often blurred. Though somnophiliacs do not employ force or violence while fondling or engaging in sexual behavior with an unconscious individual, there is obviously a lack of consent. A partner that is familiar with the conditions of somnophilia and gives prior consent to this type of behavior is very different than a stranger. Little empirical evidence exists to understand better what somnophilia is. I expect that this is due to a lack of acknowledging somnophilia as a sexual paraphilia rather than an “excuse” for rape or sexual assault. A man claiming to be osmophilic, after all, does not make the young woman he fondled or engaged in sexual acts while she was asleep feel any better. Not a single case study exists, which creates a bit of a challenging cycle. WIth no studies, there is a lack of separation between somnophilia and sexual assault. With the lack of separation between a sexual paraphilia and a traumatic crime, there likely won’t be any studies any time soon.
A Personal Note
Unfortunately, no empirical evidence exists regarding somnophilia. Most “case studies” are in the form of online conversations that occur in open forums or chats. Many of the forums I found, unfortunately, were somewhat concerning. In the WebMD Sexual Health Community, an anonymous user who identifies as somnophilia claims that he has “told this to (his) girlfriend and she has no problem with it, or with allowing (him) to fulfill my fantasy with her, since she is very submissive.” Seems legit enough. But the user then proceeds to say: “I have tried artificial methods such as OTC sleeping pills. However, these just make her drowsy, but don’t affect her depth of sleep, i.e.,. she still wakes up right away. So here’s my problem. I am looking for either a method or a drug that will put her into a profound 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.” Sounds a bit like an alarm bell. Rohypnol, which you might know as the date rape drug, is medically intended for sedation, muscle relaxation, reduction in anxiety. However, in the sexual context to which the anonymous user is referring to, it reminds me a bit of a “roofie.” In the late 90s, Rohypnol was dropped into an individual’s drink unknowingly to sedate the person and create amnesic effects so that it was easier to sexually assault the individual while providing the “benefit” of amnesic effects which would cause them to remember the occurrence poorly, if at all. Safe to say, it is long past overdue for a legitimate psychological study.