It needs to be stated clearly that a diagnosis of Bill Cosby is not possible until he is subjected to psychiatric assessment. We actually know very little about what transpired between him and the women who now accuse him – other than their accusations, and what has been revealed in the form of admissions he made under oath in 2005.
Sex with unconscious women
It’s not unusual for men of all ages to try to persuade women to go to bed with them. The phenomenon of “date rape”, where women are given sedatives to make them incapable of resisting sexual advances is well known. What has puzzled many people about these accusations is the suggestion that Cosby chose drugs that would go one step further and cause women to go into a deep sleep. Could it be that he preferred having sex with women who were entirely unconscious?
It is this aspect of the story that reminded me of a recognized but little known medical/psychosexual condition called somnophilia. Then I found that the lawyer of one of the women accusing him has raised exactly this possibility . . .
It was the lawyer for Andrea Constand, the first person to accuse him of sexual assault who spoke of how the accusations of other women, even those who had consented to have sex with him, “substantiated defendant’s alleged predilection for somnophilia”. In his earlier deposition Cosby admitted to obtaining Quaaludes to sedate women he intended having sex with.
Read: The drug Bill Cosby gave women for sex
Now multiple accusations have accumulated of drugging and raping women over years, using Quaaludes and Benadryl to sedate them. He has maintained they all consented both to the drugs and the sex.
He wanted something different
One of the women claims one of her friends had a long affair with Cosby in the 80s, and was drugged by him, even though they were already in a consensual sexual relationship. She told her friend, “It’s not like I would have said no to anything,” but she was still pressed to take the sedatives. She felt betrayed about this, and the sense that he enjoyed having power over her.
As a rich, popular and powerful man, he could surely have had as many sexual partners as he wished. But if the allegations are true, he wanted something more, something different. It’s a curious demand: you want to avoid having an interactive sexual relationship with a lively woman; you prefer her to to be largely absent from the proceedings, sedated and passive.
Read: Alcohol blackouts common in UK teens
Curiously, this fetish was depicted in the 2011 movie “Sleeping Beauty” directed by Julia Leigh and based on a book she wrote, in which Emily Browning plays a young woman hired by men who wanted to sleep with her while she’s unconscious.
The Cosby allegations tend to tell similar stories about him. He apparently persuaded them to drink with him and take pills until they were unconscious or semi-unconscious – waking up with vague memories of having had sex, and finding their clothes in disarray.
We don’t know how common this condition is, as the victims are unaware of what happened to them, or don’t trust their own partial memories. But there have been previous cases in court. For instance, a British man, Robert Fryer, was convicted of raping his girlfriend while she was asleep.
Read: Memory loss
It appeared that he had been doing this for the full four years they had been together. Newspapers reported that he would rape her while she was asleep, and also paint her nails and put jewelry on her. When he bragged about it to a friend, the friend called the police, and evidence of what he had been doing was found on his computer.
Then there was the American Andrew Luster, who was convicted over a decade ago of drugging and raping women. He even videotaped himself raping them while they were unconscious. In the early 2000s he was accused of three cases where he gave women the date rape drug GHB before raping them. One was a woman with whom he later formed a relationship, who discovered that without her knowledge he had raped her the first night he met her.
The police found a collection of videotapes he had made of these events. In one he sits on his bed with an unconscious blonde teenager beside him, and says to the camera: “I dream about this, a strawberry blonde passed out on my bed, waiting for me to do with her what I will.” Then he rapes her, and she can be heard snoring throughout the assault.
He was handsome and like Cosby, very rich. He had a 3 million dollar trust fund and would have had no difficulty at all finding willing sexual partners. But he didn’t want a conscious partner; he greatly preferred them unconscious. It brings a whole new creepy meaning to the phrase, “sleep with me”.
According to WebMD paraphilias are abnormal sexual behaviours or impulses characterised by intense sexual fantasies and urges that keep coming back. The urges and behaviours may involve unusual objects, activities, or situations that are not usually considered sexually arousing by others.
Where the paraphilic interest is driven, obsessive, causing distress to the person or to others, or impairment in normal functioning, it becomes a paraphilic disorder.
Read: Sexual responses different for men
These conditions are named by clinicians: from agalmatophilia, an erotic fascination with statues and mannequins (in preference to human partners), to zoophilia, which is sexual focusing on animals.
Then there’s hoplophilia, an erotic fixation on guns, which could perhaps be more common in America, where the emotional attachment to weapons is sometimes extreme. And what about stigmatophilia, the eroticization of tattoos and piercings?
Some have suggested we should rather use the term ETLE, or Erotic Target Location Error which sounds more like an erotically misguided drone.
However, rather than cataloguing these as though they’re all separate conditions, even though some descriptions are based on a single example, I find it more useful to recognise the general category of a person whose sexual interests and erotic turn-ons are unusually concentrated on uncommon objects and aspects of a person, rather than on a relationship with the entire person.
Taking something without consent
To get back to somnophilia, some more romantically inclined experts have called this the sleeping princess syndrome or sleeping beauty syndrome. It’s a paraphilia in which you become sexually aroused by someone who is asleep or unconscious – a predatory variety of eroticism. The typical somnophiliac is aroused by and prefers to have sex with someone unable to respond (favourably or unfavourably).
He likened it to kleptomania, the urge to steal, and it is in a sense taking something without consent, i.e. rape without direct physical violence. It enables the perpetrator to do as he wishes without needing to use force, because the target person is unaware and unable to resist.
Read: Do spiked drinks = rape?
When making such a diagnosis one of course needs to be sure that the person didn’t resort to drugging his target partner simply in order to achieve the sex as his primary aim.
It’s far from clear how common somnophilia might be: where the perpetrator is successful, his victim is largely unaware of what happened, so these cases are usually only reported when the plans somehow went wrong, or, rarely, where someone described their preferences. I found an article about the rather kinky preferences of the Irish author James Joyce, who enthusiastically wrote to his wife about somnophilia, amongst other fantasies.
In this case, we must wait to see what transpires, as American lawyers can be highly creative. The degree of compulsiveness of his alleged paraphilia should provide no legal excuse for his behaviours, but might help to explain the degree of risks repeatedly taken, in what appears to be predatory somnophilia.
Although in most, or all of the cases, the statute of limitations has seen to it that he may not be prosecuted for whatever happened. But there is of course no statute of limitations to protect him from being convicted in the court of public opinion. He’ll never again be associated with that cuddly and wholesome character he used to play on television.
Date rape drug detector
Image: Bill Cosby from Shutterstock
Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.