A “meme statistic” is making the rounds: 51% of women have woken up to their male partner performing a sexual act on them while asleep. The source for this is the VictimFocus organization headed by a British psychologist and feminist named Jessica Taylor. This estimate seemed high to me and, according to an interview with the LBC, it seemed high to Taylor too. She said, “I thought it would be high, so i.e. 20 to 30%.”
Reading the methodology of the survey we didn’t find the specific question that was asked, but it occurred to us that if the question were broad enough it could produce a large figure.
Additionally in the methodology, terms like “abuse,” “rape,” and “domestic violence” were excluded. According to the report, “when broad terms such as ‘rape’, ‘sexual violence’ and ‘domestic violence’ are used to collect prevalence data, many women do not identify with the terms and do not consider themselves to be victims.” This is a trend in research on sexual assault. The researchers, rather than the victims, define who the victims are. People who do not see themselves as victims may be counted as victims, even if their sexual experiences are self evaluated as positive.
This is not to say that it is spurious (although in some cases it may be). In an interview with the Metro entitled “Half Of Women Have Woken Up To Find Their Partner Sexually Assaulting Them”, Taylor said: “Despite the debate this has caused, sexually touching or penetrating someone whilst they sleep is always an offense. No one can consent to sexual activity if they are asleep. The sexual offenses act is very clear about this.”
Here we have a legal definition — touching someone sexually while asleep is assault. This is not limited to penetrative sex, but may include any sexual contact at all. For example, kissing a person who does not consent is assault under Section 3 of the Sexual Offenses Act and under Section 75 any sleeping person cannot consent. We’re not sure if anyone has ever been charged for kissing their wife or husband while asleep, but in theory you could be.
An additional point to note is that the sample consisted only of women. Men may also be victims of sexual assault. A recent literature review noted current estimates for male and female sexual victimization were 27% and 32% respectively (Thomas & Kopel, 2023). Estimates for sexual victimization of both men and women vary widely.
One might ask why in a sample of 22,000 online participants no men were included. Obviously Jessica Taylor’s VictimFocus organization is a feminist organization with a focus on female victims. However, using the same broad measurements to calculate female victimization (her report found 99% of women were victims of sexual violence) we might also see similarly high rates of male victimization.
We collected a social media convenience sample (N = 1,343, 24.9% female) and confirmed current and past romantic relationship status.
For current and past relationships, we asked: “Has your current romantic partner ever woke you up for sex by physically touching you?” We also gave the following examples and instructions: “Touching or caressing your body, kissing you, attempting to perform oral sex, attempting a sexual act, etc. Try to imagine any physical advances to initiate sex that may have occurred.”
The second item for current and past relationships asked if participants who experienced this believed it was sexual assault. This item read: “Thinking about the previous question, do you feel that you were sexually assaulted by your current romantic partner when they did this?”
Additionally, we asked participants if they viewed this as a positive or negative experience on a 1-7 Likert scale (1 = Very Negative, 7 = Very Positive).
Participants were also asked a single item “how satisfied are you with your relationship” on a 1-7 Likert scale.
Finally participants were asked if they flirted with current and romantic partners about sex while asleep. This item read: “Do you ever flirt with your current partner about waking them up or being woken up for sex?”
32.5% of men and 28.1% of women were not in a current relationship. Of those who were, 66.5% of men and 64.2% of women had been woken up by a physical act to initiate sex. A chi-squared test with 1 degree of freedom (X^2 = 0.33887) yielded a p-value of 0.5605, indicating no sex difference between men and women on this item.
Asking participants who had experienced being woken up by a sexual act if they perceived it to be sexual assault, 99.6% of men and 96.9% of women said that they did not. In the total sample, three men and five women indicated that they perceived it to be sexual assault. A chi-squared test indicated no sex difference (X^2 = 1.6798e-30, df = 1, p = 1).
66.2% of men and 56.8% of women reported flirting with a current romantic partner about being woken up for sex. Men were more likely to report flirting with a romantic partner about being woken up for sex (X^2 = 6.3675, df = 1, p = 0.01162).
Mean scores for perceiving being woken up by sexual contact as positive or negative were 5.3 (SD 1.72) for men and 5.3 (SD 1.76) for women. 60.5% of men and 62.1% of women reported this as a positive experience. 30.2% of men and 27.1% of women reported this as a neutral experience. 9.3% of men and 10.8% of women reported this as a negative experience.
A Wilcoxon rank sum test indicated that men and women did not differ significantly in reporting being woken up sexually as a positive or negative experience (W = 180772, p = 0.6372, d = -0.02).
Mean relationship satisfaction for men was 5.24 (SD 1.62) and for women was 5.23 (SD 1.64). 65.1% of men and 63.9% of women reported being satisfied with their current relationship. Relationship satisfaction was not significantly different for men who had been awoken by sexual contact (W = 77360, p = 0.9101, d = 0.03). Relationship satisfaction was also not significantly different for women who had been awoken by sexual contact (W = 98737, p = 0.7578, d = -0.01).
16.8% of men and 13.5% of women reported never having had a past romantic relationship. Of those who were, 61.4% of men and 76% of women had been woken up by a physical act to initiate sex. The sex difference was not statistically significant (X^2 = 3.7084, df = 1, p = 0.05414).
Asking participants who had experienced this in a past relationship if they perceived it to be sexual assault, 98.3% of men and 83.6% of women said that they did not. 14 men and 46 women in the total sample reported having been assaulted while asleep in a past relationship. The sex difference was statistically significant (X^2 = 86.126, df = 1, p < 2.2e-16) with women more likely to report that they had been assaulted while asleep in a past relationship.
65.3% of men and 50% of women reported flirting with a past romantic partner about being woken up for sex.
Mean scores for perceiving being woken up by sexual contact as positive or negative in a past relationship were 5.24 (SD 1.75) for men and 5.26 (SD 1.76) for women. 61.6% of men and 63.4% of women reported this as a positive experience. 26% of men and 24.7% of women reported this as a neutral experience. 12.4% of men and 11.9% of women reported this as a negative experience.
Men and women did/did not differ significantly in reporting being woken up sexually as a positive or negative experience in past relationships (W = 297638, p = 0.7062).
- Using an expansive definition of sexual assault that would fall afoul of the Sexual Offenses Act, most men and women have been sexually assaulted in their current relationship.
- However, don’t panic — very few men or women actually consider this to be sexual assault. 99.6% of men and 96.9% of women said that they did not.
- There was no sex difference in perceptions of being woken up with a sexual act as a positive or negative experience. Men and women who experienced this perceived it similarly, with most rating it as positive or neutral.
- There was no difference in relationship satisfaction for men or women who had been woken up with a sexual act in their current relationship.
- In past relationships, 61.4% of men and 76% of women said that they have been woken physically with the intent to have sex. 1.7% of men and 16.4% of women considered this to be sexual assault. Women are more likely to experience sexual assault while sleeping than men, but the percentage who have is not as high as the 51% estimate provided by the Jessica Taylor’s VictimFocus organization.
Sexual boundaries can vary by individuals based on past personal experience and preferences. Boundaries may further vary by cultural differences and expectations in how one receives verbal interactions, physical touch, and in the visceral responses expressed. If a romantic partner is trusted or not may play a key role in distinguishing between what behavior is acceptable or not. The same behavior from a stranger, a one-night stand, or a spouse may be perceived very differently.
This makes it difficult to gauge what one’s individual boundaries may consist of or what one’s preferences might be. There may not be a single, simple rule to do this. To deem a desired or preferred behavior as sexual assault may create shame. On the other hand, one may create their own boundaries as a way of empowerment and agency over their own bodies and sexual experiences.
Verbal consent is often at the forefront of debate surrounding what consent consists of. Additionally, verbal consent often plays a key role in legal definitions of consent or nonconsent. However, in the daily life of romantic dyads explicit verbal consent is often not deemed necessary for established relationships. You may have learned in your human sexuality class that every form of physical touch should be preceded by a verbal request for consent. You don’t lean in for a kiss, you ask for a kiss. Consent to kiss does not imply consent to remove someone’s pants — now you should follow up and make an explicit verbal request for that as well. The entire process is a series of “may I’s” drawn out through the night. For many, this is the antithesis of romantic and sexy. It’s not uncommon to hear women say that they explicitly do not want to be asked, but would rather that you read the room and pick up on unspoken cues.
How often do people in committed relationships seek repetitive verbal consent? Not often. Instead, romantic partners create a shared understanding of sexual expectations and consent. They build a set of unspoken rules. What a partner may consent to is learned and implied from past experiences. This may be withdrawn through a “no,” but few would accuse their husband or wife of sexually assaulting them for giving them an unrequested kiss in the morning.
We also know that violations of consent are a common sexual fantasy for women (Bivona & Critelli, 2009). It’s important to understand that aggressive or nonconsensual fantasies are not a desire for a truly nonconsensual experience — a rape fantasy does not mean that someone wishes to be raped. Rather, if this fantasy is acted out at all, it is with a trusted person in a committed relationship (nonconsensual roleplaying). Otherwise it remains safely in the realm of fantasy. Given this, it should not be surprising at all that some couples are comfortable pushing boundaries around consent when in a trusting relationship.
We may also ask who gets to decide what is deemed “assault.” As a legal term, the law does, but this does not necessarily map onto individual psychology. One’s own sexual preferences may fall under a category as “fringe” or “extreme,” yet be entirely consensual and desired between partners. Choking during sex, for example, has been denounced by some as an inherently violent and aggressive act. Yet 86.3% of women who have been choked during sex nonetheless indicated that they wanted to be choked when a sexual partner performed the act (Herbenick et al., 2023). A great number of people seem very comfortable setting forth sexual rules for what others do in the privacy of their own bedrooms — and far from being sexual conservatives these are often the “woke” or individuals who identify as progressive.
It’s common to read “you may have been assaulted and not even know it” in ideological discourse on the matter. However, we must ask if someone has been assaulted or if they are merely being instructed that they were. Naturally aversive and pleasant experiences are felt without instruction. However, for a neutral or pleasurable stimulus to become aversive it needs to be paired with an inherently aversive stimulus. This is precisely what instructed threat does: tell someone that a stimulus is threatening and they will become fearful of it.
This is also related to discourse on trauma. We know that the learning of fear can be instructed — merely telling someone that something is dangerous is enough to make them fear it. Telling people that they have been harmed or traumatized when they have never experienced an event that they perceived as aversive may have the potential to effectively generate a new trauma within them. If so, you are not protecting people from harm. You are actively harming them. You are not helping them “realize” that they have been harmed, but giving them anxiety over a past event that was not troublesome to them.
The current results show that initiating sex with a committed romantic partner is common and rarely perceived as aversive. Most participants viewed it as a pleasurable experience and few perceived it as sexual assault. Additionally, having a partner who initiates sex while sleeping did not predict lower relationship satisfaction. Couples regularly flout broad, legalistic rules around consent and may not be the worse off for it.
The current sample was a non-probability convenience/snowball sample derived from social media and as such it cannot be presumed representative of the general population. Although we didn’t collect participant demographics, past surveys on the same platform have skewed toward samples that are highly educated and predominantly heterosexual. A strength, in contrast to the VictimFocus survey (also a non-probability convenience sample), is that victims of sexual assault are less likely to be overrepresented (selection bias may exist for assault victims who follow sexual assault resources on social media and take surveys posted by an organization focused on sexual violence).
The expansive nature of the question on initiating sex while sleeping may capture a large percentage of the population who has engaged in behaviors that most people would not consider assault (and this is in effect what the result shows). As such, it should not be used as an estimate for the prevalence of sexual assault while sleeping.
Bivona, J., & Critelli, J. (2009). The nature of women’s rape fantasies: An analysis of prevalence, frequency, and contents. Journal of sex research, 46(1), 33-45.
Herbenick, D., Fu, T. C., Patterson, C., Rosenstock Gonzalez, Y. R., Luetke, M., Svetina Valdivia, D., … & Rosenberg, M. (2023). Prevalence and characteristics of choking/strangulation during sex: Findings from a probability survey of undergraduate students. Journal of American college health, 71(4), 1059-1073.
Thomas, J. C., & Kopel, J. (2023). Male victims of sexual assault: a review of the literature. Behavioral Sciences, 13(4), 304.