There is quite a bit of discussion about sexual assault against those who are passed out due to alcohol or drug consumption or who fell asleep after consuming alcohol or drugs, but too much of this discussion puts the responsibility and focus onto the victim for deciding to consume. Many times if the victim claims to have been drugged that person faces additional blame for allegedly not taking responsibility for their own actions. If the victim cannot prove they were drugged many people will assume this is proof that they lied about being drugged and likely lied about being raped. The rapists in these situations are too often ignored or excused.
The reality is that most of us become vulnerable every night, but that isn't generally viewed as a risky behavior.
The most common occurrence of sexual assault against those who were sleeping as far as news coverage goes is the stranger break-in sexual assault. These assaults where the victim awakes to an in-progress assault are also quickly acknowledged by most people as clear cases of sexual assault. Sometimes these rapes are held as the standard of real rape since a sleeping person clearly hasn't consented and couldn't consent.
The attitudes about sexual assault quickly get muddier when the person who commits sexual violence against a sleeping person didn't need to get past any locks or didn't need to search for an unlocked window. Some people claim in effect that there is some sort of code where letting someone sleep in your home, or you sleeping in someone else's home, can become clear sexual consent which says, "after I fall asleep, please sneak into my bed and do whatever you want."
Those who dismiss these rapes will often talk about how girls and women want sex but don't want to be seen as easy so they go to great lengths to send coded messages of consent which look just like they haven't consented. These people will often dismiss pre-sleep conversations where lack of consent is clearly communicated and clearly acknowledged. This is just very clever coded consent.
What these people have done is make it clear that actual consent is optional and actual communicated lack of consent is meaningless. They may cite having given this type of coded message or they may tell of knowing someone who sent a coded message of consent. Their bottom line is that if anyone has ever been okay with something all those who are not okay with that action don't matter.
For these people proximity trumps lack of consent. Some people do this because they feel entitled to consent on behalf of those who didn't consent. Others do it because their image of who rapists are and how they operate is so fixed that they reject the reality of rape whenever it doesn't fit that limited image. They desperately need an alternative theory when the truth doesn't fit their expectations. Maintaining their idea of who rapists are becomes more important than protecting people from all rapists and more important than holding all rapists accountable.
Holding rapists accountable means more than criminal prosecutions. Some rapes are hard or even impossible to prosecute, but that doesn't mean those rapes should be treated like they never happened. Raping someone as they sleep is not a mistake and should never be dismissed as one. If a rapist listened to those who deny rape and uses their words as a defense that person is still responsible for committing rape.
The attitudes toward sexual assault victims get even muddier when the person who sexually assaults someone in their sleep is in a sexual relationship with the person they sexually assault. What is clear, lack of consent, can for some people become immaterial. This can be true even when conditions of consent which are always present while both people are awake are ignored such as required condom usage or limits on sexual actions. When this happens those who do the excusing are showing their disregard for the victim as a human being with full human rights.
These changes in attitude about sexual assaults are often linked to the idea that sexual consent can be like owning a car which you can drive whenever and however you want without worrying how the car feels. People who view relationships like one person is an object owned by the other are subscribing to a dangerous dehumanizing model. If you are no longer human then you no longer deserve basic human rights.
Too many people still believe that wives have absolutely no bodily autonomy from the moment they sign their marriage license. The marital rape exceptions which still exist in some places in the world made this the legal view. Making certain rapes legal didn't stop them from being real rapes, they just gave an official seal of approval to certain rapists.
Rape isn't actually illegal where there are rape exceptions, it is only regulated. The enforcement of rape laws where there is no rape exception often follows the regulation model. Juries may ignore a rapist's admission that there was no consent because of their belief in the regulation model.
What I can say about this type of sexual assault only skims at the reality of being sexually assaulted while you sleep. Here's what the survivor who emailed me wrote (quoted with permission and a request to remain anonymous):
Her experience highlights that the original harm is frequently compounded by professionals who minimize or glorify marital rape. It also highlights that relationship abuse can happen even when the abuser never strikes with a fist. Many abusers behave according to the standards set by the most common excuses.
My husband sexually assaulted me in my sleep on four occasions. I hit him and told him no on all four occasions. I dissociated the first three times. During two of these assaults, our baby (two different babies, as different years) was sleeping in the bed and nursing from me. I was pregnant at least one of the times. My husband was also sexually abusive and mildly coercive many other times. My husband is also aware that I have a history of CSA [childhood sexual abuse] and that consent is extremely important to me. I have more recently been able to sort out that he was and is emotionally abusive, mostly through passive aggressive means, but not always.
I went to a therapist about all of this about a year ago, but she told me I was overreacting, since she didn’t believe in spousal rape. I summoned the courage to go to a new, much more supportive and validating therapist a few months ago. I’m still married, but working on preparing to leave and basically living as though I’d separated in the same home as my husband. I am an at-home mom and we have children, so leaving is a process, not a quick event.
I should note that my new therapist validates and supports me, as do the many survivors at the online community I joined, and many friends. But when I told my family doctor, she couldn’t believe it and said that it was because I wasn’t forthcoming with sex (not true) and that, in her sexless former marriage, there were many times when she’d wished she could have raped her husband. Seriously.
These excuses are also why raping someone as they sleep can be a lesser crime in some jurisdictions (2nd degree vs. 1st degree) than raping someone while they are awake. We need to hold all rapists personally responsible for their actions and allow no excuses to reduce their personal responsibility.
Here are some links on this subject recommended by my reader.
Scarleteen: Can you have sex with someone while they're asleep?
Men's sexual aggression in marriage
Rape and Sexual Harassment Around the World - Marital Rape
And here are some research references (don't have links):
Raquel Kennedy Bergen and Paul Bukovec. “Men and Intimate Partner Rape: Characteristics of Men Who Sexually Abuse Their Partner” Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 2006; 21; 1375
Arnold S. Kahn, Virginia Andreoli Mathie and Cyndee Torgler. “Rape Scripts and Rape Acknowledgement”. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18 (1994), 53-66