Strange Sexuality: A Closer Look at Somnophilia

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.

7 comments
  1. I believe I have this. Before I was in a relationship, it was something that worried me. I was young and going through changes and even the sound of someone sleeping, the change in their breathing or the quiet snore was something that would intrigue me. Then later on in life when I got into my current relationship I discussed it with him and now it is something that I fulfil. I like to hear the sleeping. The steady breathing but still that slight edge of being caught red-handed. It has that edge but also provides that level of control to dominate their body. The vulnerability of the person and the secret that you are hiding while they are sleeping. We discuss it in the morning and I let him know what happened, but at the time of it happening, its a big turn on for me.

  2. Is there a name for those with a fetish for being taken while they are asleep or is this just a subsection of the rape fantasy and there is not a specific word for it? I have meet a few women that have that fantasy of being sleeping beauty in this situation and I wonder if there is any research in that.

  3. Somnophilia can still result in rape, though. While it isn’t inherently sexual assault, the fetish can lead to a person assaulting a stranger or even their partner if they had not previously discussed their fetish with them. Like in BDSM, you have to discuss it beforehand. You can’t just pop up one day and put your partner in some gear and try to act out a scene without their prior knowledge or consent. The key factor here for somnophilia to be consensual and not sexual assault/rape is informed prior knowledge and consent.

  4. Somnophilia, when committed against an unconscious and non-consenting victim IS sexual assault. It is RAPE. End of story.

  5. I’m surprised this kink is being studied academically. I believe I qualify as somnophilic. Several factors converged to bring about an awareness of what is actually happening to me. The big difference with some others, for me it’s NOT about some coma-like immobilization of my partner. For me, a state of extreme focus and attention on the minute details during sex, particularly my partners slightest reactions – the slighter, the better, is what works for me. Not only is my wife a willing participant but she introduced this kink into our bedroom. What was her kink became our kink and now THE thing we do.

    I wasn’t paying attention to the Cosby case, I’d have to assume his attorneys were grasping at straws to beg leniency on medical terms.

    Sleeping Beauty to us is, she’s faking it, she’s not really asleep and she gets off holding still, quieting her breath, watching me adore her, and it all started 30 years ago when we silently did it in a closet while her parents were just inches away on the other side of the door.

  6. I and my wife would probably classify as lightweight somnophiliacs. We have discussed the topic in lenght, both have given our consent time and time again, and we engage in this every now and then to spice things up a little.

    Obviously consent is key, and no matter what any stark raving feminist says, it is not rape or any other form of sexual assault when both parties are willing. Just like BDSM. But try to explain this in the current man-hating climate of the western world where non-vanilla people are persecuted and treated like animals.

    As a man, I’ve woken up to another guy having oral sex with me without my consent. While the act obviously classifies as sexual assault, it did not bother me one bit. In fact, it turned me on. My wife has this sleeping beauty fetish and she has opened me up to being the active partner in this. Something we enjoy as much as her being the active one.

    What two adults engage in and enjoy out of a mutual agreement is not anyone elses business. No matter how offensive or repulsive more sexually conservative people might find it.

  7. It happened to me. I did not give consent. It was rape and it was creepy. I filed charges but grand jury did not indict as it was basically he said she said. I went through hell but I’m glad I filed charges.

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