As more and more details come to light about Bill Cosby’s long career as a sexual predator—the number of his alleged victims (45, at latest count); his strategies for incapacitating women (quaaludes, he admitted under oath in 2005); one question remains unanswered: Why? Why would Cosby—or anyone—want to have sex with a partner who is unconscious?
For most men and women, a partner’s pleasure is a major component of their own enjoyment. Women’s magazines routinely list enthusiasm as the “number one turn-on for men.” Most men are not aroused by violence, either; in one study, researchers monitored men’s arousal levels with a “penile plethymospgraph”—a device that measures men’s physiological response to different stimuli—and found that men are typically significantly less aroused by listening to rape scenes than to scenes of consensual sex.
Robert Weiss, founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, understands Cosby’s behavior as fetishistic. “These women, when they’re unconscious, could be an object,” Weiss said in a phone interview with Women in the World. “They could be shoes or feet or a whip or a chain. It’s like a sexual fetish, a paraphilia. Some people need some kind of atypical scenario or object in order to become fully aroused.”
Many fetishists—whether they’re unable to obtain sexual gratification without the fetish scenario, or whether it’s an added turn-on—can trace the source of their unusual interest to an early sexual experience.
“These control scenarios inevitably come from early injury,” Weiss said. He recounted the story of one of his own patients, who had a preference for women who were sleeping. As a child, Weiss says, this man’s mother would come into his room at night and molest him. The boy discovered that if he pretended to be asleep, his mother would leave him alone. As an adult, he would ask his wife to pretend to be asleep before they had sex. “The trauma left scars on his sexuality,” Weiss said. “What’s arousing for him is to do to others what was done to him.”
Other experts question the likelihood that Cosby was acting out a fantasy about comatose women, based on the rarity of that fetish.
“Somnophilia is the term used to refer to sexual arousal from a sleeping or unconscious person,” said Renee Sorrentino, a psychiatrist and the director of the Institute for Sexual Wellness in Massachusetts. “We don’t know the prevalence of somnophilia—but I suspect it’s quite rare. I have never seen a case of somnophilia.”
Michael Aaron, a sex therapist in New York, compared Cosby’s behavior to a sinister fetish that’s more familiar—from horror movies and stories of morticians gone rogue. “This would be a type of fetish that is not exactly like, but has some similarities to necrophilia, which is sexual arousal for dead people,” he wrote in an email.
Aaron was more skeptical about the link between experiencing sexual trauma early in life and becoming a perpetrator later on. He pointed to a 1988 study suggesting that sex offenders might exaggerate their own experiences of sexual abuse. When asked to describe their sexual histories, 67 percent of convicted child sex offenders claimed to have been abused as children, but when told that they would have to tell their stories while being measured by a polygraph, that number dropped to 29 percent.
Weiss also speculates that unconscious women’s ignorance of their assault might help absolve the perpetrator’s feelings of guilt. Often, he says, men who are aroused by violence or entertain sadistic fantasies want to think of themselves as men who would never really harm a woman. “Doing it in this way would allow him to play out his fetish, but also to think of himself as someone who isn’t hurting women,” he said. “It lets him off the hook, on a psychological level, because they’re not fighting him.” It also helped get Cosby off the hook legally, at least for a while; it’s harder to prosecute an act you can’t remember. One common
“reason for engaging in sexual behavior with an unconscious individual relates to compliance and evasion of detection (‘getting away’),” said Sorrentino.
Others see Cosby’s behavior as more in line with that of a typical violent rapist, who’s more interested in power than sex. “I would guess that Cosby was more aroused by the idea of exerting complete control than the idea of having sex with a comatose body,” Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist in San Francisco, said in an email. “It seems like he enjoyed exploiting his position of power over other women who were trying to break into the comedy or entertainment world. For him, drugging those women and taking advantage of them may have been the ultimate expression of power.”