Most children affected by sleepwalking grow out of the condition by adulthood. Of those still affected, a small proportion will also experience sexsomnia. Photo: Simon SchluterA growing number of people charged with sex offences are claiming to be affected by “sexsomnia”, where they initiated sexual contact while asleep and cannot recall the event.
The Australasian Sleep Association is concerned that some sex offenders are feigning the affliction, and want to ensure the doctors called to give expert testimony in court are well versed in its symptoms.
Woolcock Institute of Medical Research medical director Dev Banerjee is giving a presentation to colleagues at an Australasian Sleep Association conference in Perth on Thursday on how to conduct themselves in court if they are called to give evidence in such cases.
“It’s a wake-up call that there are a lot more of these cases in the public media and therefore it’s highly likely that this sort of defence – of sexsomnia and automatism – will be coming their way,” Dr Banerjee said.
Automatism is a criminal defence under which the defendant claims that he or she did not consciously perform the guilty act.
Sleepwalking is the classic example and is used in various driving, murder and assault cases.
Dr Banerjee said it was important that sleep clinicians called to give expert testimony in sexsomnia cases were able to identify true manifestations of the condition.
“We’re seeing a few clinicians out there who think they’re experts in sleep who aren’t trained to give expert advice,” he said.
“I’ve been involved in cases where I thought the defendant probably could have got away with it, and at the end of the day we’re trying to protect society.
“I’ve done a lot of cases where the Crown and police are staggered that the jury has acquitted the defendant.”
Sleepwalking affects about one in 25 children, but two thirds of them outgrow the condition by adulthood.
Only a very small proportion of sleepwalkers – usually men – will also experience sexsomnia, which includes masturbating, sexual vocalisation, fondling another person or intercourse while sleeping.
But researchers believe it is under-reported because people are embarrassed to admit to it.
Sleep clinician Peter Buchanan said he has provided his expert opinion in about 12 sexsomnia cases in the past decade, including three in the past 18 months, although he has been asked to do so on many more occasions.
All of the victims were known to the perpetrators and asleep in the same house when the assaults took place.
Recently he was asked to give his opinion in the case of a man who allowed his stepdaughter, a young teenager, to share his bed while her mother was away.
During the night he performed two sexual acts on the girl.
“These cases are distressing,” Dr Buchanan said.
“Whether the perpetrator is exonerated or not there is still a victim. The victims are almost always minors.
“They’re usually flummoxed.
“In this particular case [the victim] had no sexual experience whatsoever.”
The man was found convicted of indecent assault and is awaiting sentence.
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