Sex with a Sleeping Person: The Psychology of Somnophilia
August 4, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
Somnophilia refers to a sexual interest in which someone is turned on by the idea of having sex with a person who is sleeping—or being asleep and receiving sexual attention from someone else. I recently wrote an article exploring what we know about how common this sexual interest is and what somnophilia fantasies look like—but in this article, we’re going to take a deeper dive into the psychology behind it.
A recent study sought to explore how interest in different forms of somnophilia (consensual vs. non-consensual scenario and active vs. passive role) are related to a range of other sexual interests in an online survey of 437 adults.
One of the questions they explored was whether there is a potential connection between somnophilia (specifically, the kind that involves taking on an active role with a non-consenting partner) and necrophilia (a sexual interest in dead people).
I hadn’t previously thought about how these interests might be linked, but it makes intuitive sense. For example, as I’ve discussed before, the single most common reason reported for necrophilia is a desire to have a partner who will not resist or reject you. Having sex with a person who is sleeping and does not wake up would offer another way of fulfilling that kind of desire, right?
Through this lens, then, somnophilia—the non-consensual type—and necrophilia may both be about attraction to passive partners who are unable to reject one’s advances. Alternatively, it may be that somnophilia is a stand-in or substitute for necrophilia in some cases, given that the former may be seen as a more feasible way than the latter.
Consistent with this idea, the researchers did find a link between interest in necrophilia and interest in non-consensual somnophilia, which suggests that whatever psychological factors underlie necrophilia could also be what drives certain forms of somnophilia.
The researchers also looked at whether non-consensual somnophilia is related to interest in non-consensual sex more broadly (known as biastophilia)—and, indeed, there was also a connection there. So that could be another motivating factor for some.
And, yet another connection that emerged was between somnophilia interest and having more dominant and sadistic fantasies—but this link appeared primarily for the active, consensual somnophilia scenarios. Thus, when somnophilia is motivated by BDSM, it’s not about wanting to abuse/harm someone or about fear or rejection—it’s about using sleep as a vehicle for establishing a consensual dominant-submissive dynamic.
Consistent with this idea, among those who reported interest in passive somnophilia (that is, being asleep while someone else has sex with you), this was linked to having more fantasies about submission and masochism—as well as more fantasies about being “forced” to have sex (i.e., consensual non-consent fantasies).
This study doesn’t provide insight into every possible origin of somnophilia fantasies—it’s possible that interest could be motivated by other factors, too. And the motives are probably very different in cases of somnophilia where the sleeping partner wakes up and continues sexual activity (i.e., Sleeping Beauty Syndrome), which this study did not explore. Also, it doesn’t shed light on which motivations are most common, although it is worth pointing out that interest in consensual somnophilia was more common than the non-consensual forms, which would suggest that ties to necrophilia and biastophilia may not be the main drivers of this.
It’s also worth pointing out that there were some gender differences in this study, with men being more interested than women in taking on an active role in the scenario; however, men and women did not differ in their interest in taking on a passive role.
With all of that said, the results of this research suggest that the psychological roots of somnophilia—like most other sexual fantasies—are diverse. Different people can be drawn to it for very different reasons; however, in exploring the underlying motivations, it is essential to avoid looking at somnophilia as just one thing and to consider the role people are taking (active vs. passive) and whether or not consent is present.
Somnophilia is often discussed in the popular media in the context of sexual abuse—and, indeed, it is abusive when consent is not present. However, given that non-consensual somnophilia interest is less common than the consensual type, this suggests that somnophilia, in general, may not necessarily be indicative of a proclivity toward sexual offending.
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To learn more about this research, see: Deehan, E. T., & Bartels, R. M. (2021). Somnophilia: Examining its various forms and associated constructs. Sexual Abuse, 33(2), 200-222.
Image Source: Photo by DAVIDCOHEN on Unsplash
Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >