Expert tells court rape accused diagnosed as having sexsomnia
Former chief of UK sleep clinic says actions following alleged crime ‘were remorseful’
The doctor told the jury at the Central Criminal Court that psychiatrists have regarded sexsomnia as a sleep disorder rather than a psychiatric condition. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
A man who allegedly raped his female friend while he was asleep had been diagnosed by a sleep expert as having sexsomnia in the months before the incident and during it, the Central Criminal Court has been told.
“He was in automatism due to his sleep disorder. He was unaware of what he had done,” Dr John Michael Shneerson, former director of a UK sleep clinic and author of The handbook of sleep medicine, told Hugh Hartnett SC, defending.
He said it was his opinion that the accused “fits very well with sexsomnia”.
“He jumps through the hoops and fits the template very well . . . it doesn’t fit in very well with someone who was drunk, awakes and has sex with someone,” Dr Shneerson continued.
“His actions afterward were remorseful and guilty. He went to his GP and a rape crisis centre in order to try and find out what had happened. He didn’t try to cover it up, which is a typical reaction from someone with sexsomnia, because they’ve no awareness and no consciousness.
“If he had been a sexual predator it would be unusual, with being both sleep deprived and having taken alcohol, to be able to stay awake to rape someone,” said the doctor.
He said it was also out of character for the accused not to use a condom and he had no memory or recollection of the episode, which was also consistent with sexsomnia.
The 29-year-old man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has pleaded not guilty to one count of raping the woman at an apartment in Dublin in the early hours of September 28th, 2008.
The doctor explained to the jury that sexsomnia occurs in non-REM sleep, when the body, apart from breathing muscles, are paralysed as it is disconnected from the “engine” which makes actions happen.
He said things could go wrong if the “switch” shutting off the “engine” is broken and a person is freed from suppression so they can make movements. If sexual functioning is set free from suppression a person can carry out sexual activities, sometimes simple, sometimes complex.
The doctor told the jury that psychiatrists have regarded sexsomnia as a sleep disorder rather than a psychiatric condition as it involves complex behaviours arising from sleep without conscious awareness. The person has no awareness or mental control over their actions.
He said the accused recounted an incident in 2008 when he made “reasonably intensive sexual approaches” towards another girl during his sleep. He was sleeping next to his own girlfriend and this other girl was sleeping the other side of him, beside her boyfriend.
Dr Shneerson told the jury that another incident occurred when the accused had been awake for 22 hours before going to bed with a male friend. He again made sexual approaches to this man during the night.
“It is possible for a heterosexual man to have sleep sex with another man, because he is now working as a reflex person without normal sexual preferences,” said Dr Shneerson.
He added that in this case the accused had no homosexual history. Neither was he attracted to the other woman who had been sleeping beside him, but as it was a sexsomnia episode he had no sexual preferences.
The doctor said men would not usually have an erection during non-REM sleep.
However he said in the case of someone who has sexsomnia, they do not have normal non-REM sleep and are able to make sexual advances without mental control. He said in sexsomnia erections do occur adding that it was part of the condition.
The trial continues before Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy and a jury of eight men and four women.
Dr Shneerson said that sexsomnia usually occurs in young males, who have a history of other sleep disorders, such as sleep walking and a family history of similar disorders.
He also said sexsomnia occurs usually during the deepest part of non-REM sleep, about 60 to 90 minutes after falling asleep and is more common when a person is sleep deprived or stressed.
The doctor said the accused had also described incidents of sleep walking as a child and as an adult, that he suffered night terrors and that there was also a family history of sleep walking.
He said the accused had been under quite a lot of stress at the time. His father had died two year previously, the family had financial pressures and he was considering moving to Australia for work.
He said he was satisfied that the accused had sexsomnia incidents previous to the alleged rape.
He told the jury that just because the accused had sexsomnia before did not mean he had sexsomnia at the time of the incident.
Dr Shneerson said having examined the case he was satisfied that the alleged rape happened about 90 minutes after the accused fell asleep. He said he was sleep deprived as he had gone to bed that night much later than usual.
“My personal opinion is that it fits very well with sexsomnia the day before and on the night again,” said the doctor.