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Trigger warning: Sexual misconduct, Assault

“Even though I knew what happened was not right, I found myself denying the extent of the impact that the act had on me. Normalisation, it was. Because the person who had tried touching me sexually while I was sleeping was also the person that I had called my partner”, said a survivor of sexual assault by a man who claimed to have a ‘sleep disorder’.

Is this rape? Or a mental health issue? Or a disorder, really? We are talking about sexsomnia, which is defined in medical sciences as a sleep disorder that is associated with sexual urges during sleep. The patients do not seem to have control upon these urges or the consequent actions that may have on people around.

What does it look like?

People who suffer from sexsomnia also show other kinds of sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and sleep deprivation. One of the causes of sexsomnia is sleep-related epilepsy that can cause a person to experience sexual arousal, pelvic thrusting and orgasms. The degree of sexual activity ranges from masturbation to minor fondling, groping, making sex noises, to actual intercourse. Some mental health experts are of the opinion that when women experience sleep sex, they typically exhibit sexual vocalisations and masturbation. Men, on the other hand, would engage in fondling and intercourse.

Also read: Why I Was In Denial About Experiencing Intimate Partner Abuse

Sexsomnia episodes may be triggered by physical contact with a bed partner. It is considered a type of non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) parasomnia. Medical experts believe it can also be caused by stress, mere erratic sleeping patterns, previous sleep deprivation and excessive consumption of alcohol or other drugs. This could be your usual drunken-forced sex-story or not. The alarming side of the disorder is that patients do not remember the acts that they perform while they are asleep. A fairly new medically recognized behaviour, the disorder has been used in criminal defence cases of rape.

The alarming side of the disorder is that patients do not remember the acts that they perform while they are asleep.

Still Researching…

US National Institute of Health conducted a study showing that 80% of the people who suffered from sexsomnia were men. Studies also show that men are more likely to report sexsomnia than women. Now, that’s something we really need to sleep on!

Researchers interpreting sexsomnia with a Freudian lens apply the concepts of eros and death instinct to the actions of the individual. They acknowledge that the sexsomniac has repressed, sadistic desires to control others. The ‘others’ in a society that rests on clear patriarchal dynamics is always the relatively powerless women and children. Requiring that the patient disclose his violent disposition to those whom sleep brings him into contact (or their parents, in the case of potential child victims) would base guilt on a denial of self-responsibility.

An investigation of legal cases primarily in Canada, UK, and Australia reveal that sexsomnia is undeniably invested in cases of alleged rape and paedophilia. The press increasingly reports on, usually drunk, men claiming to have been asleep at the time of non-consensual sex with their traumatised victims. At trial, these men have overwhelmingly been accepted to have acted in an automation state and acquitted. This is despite the fact that prior fault typically removes opportunities for pleading automatism.

No, We Don’t Yet Have a Law!

Several unscrupulous lawyers have tried to use it as a defence against rape and the Australasian Sleep Association is concerned that growing numbers of people charged with sex offences are claiming to be affected by sexsomnia. They want to ensure the doctors called to give expert testimony in court are well versed in its symptoms and sexsomnia, as a defence, is scrutinised. Another concern involves the question of how to reliably and validly diagnose sexsomnia and ensure that it accounts for the accused’s behaviour at the time of the events in question. 

Sexsomnia and Marital Rape

The definition of rape codified in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) includes all forms of sexual assault involving nonconsensual intercourse with a woman. However, Exception 2 to Section 375 exempts unwilling sexual intercourse between a husband and a wife over fifteen years of age from Section 375’s definition of “rape” and thus immunises such acts from prosecution. While unwilling sexual contact between a husband and a wife is recognized as a criminal offence in almost every country of the world, India is one of the thirty-six countries that still have not criminalised marital rape. In such a scenario, blaming rape on sleep is yet another convenient tool that we place in the hands of the powerful in a patriarchal society.

blaming rape on sleep is yet another convenient tool that we place in the hands of the powerful in a patriarchal society.

Sexsomnia and HIV Transmission

India has the third largest HIV epidemic in the world. As a victim of forced sex by a sexsomniac, one comes under the risk of reckless transmission of HIV. Now, in the event of non-disclosure, the sexsomniac could possibly be liable for rape, with the possibility of life imprisonment and other associated rape laws. By comparison, the punishment for reckless, non-intentional transmission of HIV is nowhere close to that. Besides, one comes under the risk of forced pregnancies and/or abortion which again is ruled by different laws.

Sexsomnia and Mental Health Laws

Indian Penal Code, 1860 states that “Nothing is an offence, which is done by a person who, at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to law.” Notwithstanding, the requirement of disclosure in cases of sexsomnia has already arisen in the context of mental illnesses. It is tacit that a defendant facing an additional charge of rape following non-disclosure of his sexsomnia can resort to mental illness.

Questions a Feminist would ask…

Why is there a high percentage of men ‘suffering’ from sexsomnia?

In a country like India where marital rape is legal, can a discourse around sexsomnia further normalize it?

In a country where reporting of rapes is already low, how does this give way to further impunity of men?

Also read: 4 Things People Said When I Spoke Out About Intimate Partner Violence

All this to say that this not your usual ‘unsolved mysteries of the world’ edition. It is a disorder that needs to be taken with utmost seriousness and treated as soon as one sees any symptoms (within self or others) rather than brush it under the carpet. The disorder is currently being used (and has a further potential) to mask sexual violence against women and escape the gamut of laws. It is time to nip the issue in the bud than wait for it to become yet another claw of patriarchy!


Featured Image Source:Vice

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