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Sexsomnia in Canada Is Complicated and Frightening

Toronto-based forensic psychiatrist Dr. Julian Gojer said sexsomnia is a term for sexual activity that takes place when a person is sleeping. To paraphrase a piece published by our friends over at Motherboard, sexsomnia is like sleepwalking, but...

by Kristy Hoffman
Oct 22 2013, 6:52pm

“You tried to rape me.”

Mike received that text from his girlfriend after he woke up one morning and she was gone. The couple was at a party the night before. Mike was drunk, and he couldn’t remember anything that had happened once the booze kicked in.

“She told me I had a blank stare in my eyes,” he said. “It was forceful, and really rapey.”

Mike’s girlfriend continued to describe how he forced himself on her while he was asleep. That incident, and others that followed, fits the bill of what has been described by Dr. Colin Shapiro as sexsomnia—a phenomenon that he himself named. 

Toronto-based forensic psychiatrist Dr. Julian Gojer said sexsomnia is a term for sexual activity that takes place when a person is sleeping. To paraphrase a piece published by our friends over at Motherboard, sexsomnia is like sleepwalking, but instead of walking, you’re fucking.

Sexsomnia isn’t, however, a fun time for the unconscious and conscious parties involved. For females with male partners especially, sexsomnia can be a terrifying experience that ends in sexual assault.

“I woke up with blood on my bed,” Mike said while describing the aftermath of another sexsomniac incident. “She had dug her nails so far into my chest I still have scars from it. If I was allowed to succeed, it would have been rape.”

Evidently, whether sexsomnia constitutes as rape or sexual assault is a real grey area in the Canadian legal system.

“Someone was sexually assaulted, but no crime was committed,” Dr. Gojer said of how the Canadian legal system sees cases where someone is found not criminally responsible (NCR) when sexsomina occurs.

Sexsomnia is listed in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a variation of a sleep disorder, and therefore the American Psychiatric Association recognizes it as a mental disorder.

“What’s a mental disorder for legal purposes is very different as to what’s a mental disorder for psychiatric purposes,” Dr. Gojer said.

When Canadian courts accept sexsomnia as a defense, the law acknowledges the person committed a crime, but lacked intention. Therefore, they are not responsible for their actions.

Such was the case with Jan Luedecke, a Toronto man who, while asleep, allegedly sexually assaulted a woman at a house party in 2003. Then there was the Winnipeg man who, while asleep, reportedly raped his wife over a period of four years.

Reading about those cases upset me. At the time, I only considered these cases from the perspective of the women, who I regarded as victims. But Mike’s story—and maybe this is just because I’m friends with the guy—made me look at it from both sides.

“I asked myself what would happen if the social constructs that we live in fell apart: Would I be a violent rapist? Am I a terrible person?”

Mike is kind-natured and funny—so his story made it clear that sexsomnia can manifest itself in regular, fun-loving dudes. Luckily for him, anti-depressants and prescription pills for acid reflux disease eliminated the problem.

“If you know you’re a werewolf and you don’t lock yourself up at night, you’re responsible for what you do as a werewolf,” he added.

Dr. Gojer agreed, noting that perhaps the Canadian legal system should not excuse those who are aware they are prone to sexsomnia of their crimes. Sexsomnia cannot be cured, Dr. Gojer said, but there are pills to treat it.

Unfortunately, this is not going to help the girls, women, and children who will experience it in a stranger, partner, or a parent—who are either not medicating themselves, or are unaware they’re afflicted with sexsominac tendencies.

Sexsomnia can manifest itself in women as well. Recently, a girlfriend told me about her own unconscious sexual experience.

“I am so embarrassed,” she said, almost in tears. “I woke up in a different bed than I had gone to sleep in, and my boyfriend was not beside me. He told me I was touching myself in my sleep. It made him uncomfortable so he moved me to another room.”

Clearly, men and women are affected by sexsomnia in much different ways: men get rapey, and women masturbate.

As the recent controversy over Petra Collins’s menstruating-vagina shirt illustrates, female sexuality, including masturbation, is not a topic that most people can discuss or confront comfortably.

“He made me feel bad about it, ashamed I guess,” my girlfriend with sexsomnia said.

What is, inarguably, the most complex incident of sexsomnia is a case wherein a father molested his daughter while he was asleep.

“The person may have a problem with pedophilia but never act on his pedophiliac urges, but while asleep, act upon his urges in a pedophiliac direction. If it’s sexsomnia then he should be excused, even if he’s got a problem with pedophilia.”

As Dr. Shapiro said about this case at the time: “It's as if the motoric part of the brain gets disconnected from the appreciation for what you're doing.”

Clearly a case of sexual assault against a child where the assailant is unconscious is a deeply complex situation that is hard to muster up sympathy for, even in the face of medical professionals who insist it’s unintentional. This case alone exhibits the scary, zombified behaviour that sexsomnia can drive someone to.

From what I’ve gathered, it certainly doesn’t seem like the Mike’s of the world should be locked up for their sexsomnia issues. But at the same time, women who are victims of sexsomnia are being asked by the legal system to understand that—while they were sexually assaulted—the attacker did not have a guilty conscious.

I have yet to hear a theory on what should, or can, be done about sexsomnia, and I certainly do not have one of my own. Until that changes, however, the Canadian legal system will continue to ask women and girls to simply forgive and forget—which seems completely unfair to me.

Follow Kristy on Twitter: @kristy__hoffman

More about sex law:

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