Sexsomnia case a wake-up call for men who think wives are chattels

The 'sexsomnia' rape conviction case shows how far the law has come in our lifetime, Jane Bowron says.

The 'sexsomnia' rape conviction case shows how far the law has come in our lifetime, Jane Bowron says.

OPINION: The article about the man who unsuccessfully mounted a 'sexsomnia' defence for rape within marriage, published in Saturday's paper, sent shockwaves through a visiting male friend.

Having always loathed the cliched term "shockwaves" nearly as much as the much-used journalistic phrase "tight knit community" after a town suffers a tragedy, I vowed never to use such hackneyed phrases.

But shockwave was entirely appropriate for the reaction seen in said male's dial as he remarked that having reached a great age he thought he'd heard and seen it all … till now.

Incredulous that "it had come to this" he kept uttering the word 'sexsomnia', the latest word to enter the lexicon of disorders and conditions.

If you didn't read the story, sexsomnia is a rare condition where the sufferer initiates or engages in sexual activity while sleeping. According to New Zealand sex therapist Mary Hudson sexsomnia is not to be confused with the kind of half-asleep sexual activity many couples may have engaged in, and is related to sleep walking or sleep talking.

In the article the woman being raped on a regular basis by her husband took the preventive action of sleeping on the couch, or wearing many layers of clothing, to stop the assaults.

Her husband claimed that he had no memory of the aggressive sexual intercourse that took place, explaining to his wife that he may have been suffering from sexsomnia. She chose to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe his explanation because she said it was easier to believe that she was married to someone with a sleep disorder - rather than a monster who did it to her knowingly.

The 42-year-old man who was convicted of rape and assault over a five-year period used the sexsomnia condition as part of his defence during his trial. He maintained that the sex he had with his wife was consensual - and that anything that wasn't must have been committed while he was asleep.

The unknowablity defence, close to running the criminal defence of automatism, would be very difficult to prove. Though there were no witnesses to the acts, proving that they were rape would be less difficult because there is a long-established historical premise of convictions of rape within a marriage.

And rightly so. The article created much discussion in this household as we reflected how far the law had come in our lifetimes, and how fine it is to live in a country where women are no longer treated as mere chattels in a marriage.

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Even the most formal of marriage ceremonies have now dispensed with the vow to "love, honour and obey" or dropped the "obey" bit off the end at least. Women of my vintage may clearly remember our mothers having a quiet word in the ear that even if one wasn't in the mood, one had to grin and bear it for the sake of the marriage.

Grooming their girls for the grimace of unwanted ardour was thought to be good advice, so that we would be prepared for the event of tiresome or forced copulation by boorish husbands. No details were gone into of course, but you got the gist that even the nicest chap was capable of becoming a sex pest and that marriage was full of any number of unpleasant things that simply had to put up with.

Our mothers can be forgiven for they lived in an era when most of them didn't know their orgasms from their elbows, unlike mine who slavishly obeyed the mores of Cosmopolitan and Cleo and were made to think ourselves abnormal if we weren't yelping seal bark climaxes five times a day.

We were hell bent on amassing mountains of erotic capital so that we could live sexually-fulfilled lives and were fit and imaginative companions and champions of the bedrooms. Girls can do anything … or anyone was our boastful bumper sticker.

But back to the male friend who I may have made sound a bit dodgy. It was more the term sexsomnia that got to him and dropped his jaw. He thought the condition sounded as hysterical as the crazed zombie expression 'reefer madness'.

Come to think of it, sexsomnia does rather have the ring of the lurid comicbook title to it.

 - Stuff

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