Who Are You Sleeping With? the Construction of Heteronormativity in Stories About Sleep in British Newspapers

by Pam Lowe, Sharon Boden, Simon Williams, Clive Seale and Deborah Steinberg
Aston University

Sociological Research Online 12(5)5

Received: 9 Jan 2007     Accepted: 13 Aug 2007    Published: 30 Sep 2007


In popular British understanding the terms 'sleeping' or 'slept' are often used to mean sex, and (hetero)sex is seen as crucial to sustaining intimate relationships. This study of UK newspapers coverage shows that stories about sleep and sleeping arrangements can be seen to (re)produce heteronormativity through focusing on the (heterosexual) 'marital bed'. The 'marital bed' is constructed as both the physical and symbolic centre of successful heterosexual relationships. Moreover, the maintenance of this symbolic space is gendered with women given primary responsibility. The focus on the 'marital bed' helps to exclude non-heterosexuals from the idea of intimate relationships, by effectively silencing their experiences of sleep and sleeping arrangements. Normative ideas about male and female (hetero)sexualities are drawn on to undermine women's right to refuse sex within the martial bed. In addition, the term 'sleep-sex' is used to reconceptualise stories of rape, minimising the victim's experiences and absolve the perpetrator from full responsibility for the assault. By exploring these articles we can see both how the representation of the organisation of sleep is produced through heteronormativity, as well as how heteronormativity determines whose accounts of sleeping are prioritised.



1.1 In popular British understanding, ‘sleeping with’ is a euphemism often used to mean a sexual encounter, although the form of this encounter will depend on length and type of the relationship between the people involved. For example, a headline in The Sun (20/04/2001) proclaims ‘I'm not sleeping with Robbie’ to deny rumours of relationship whereas the Daily Telegraph (30/01/2001) complains that the availability of emergency contraception at chemists gives the ‘green light to sleeping around'. This paper which emerges from a wider study on sleep in British newspapers (see for example Boden et al forthcoming) will demonstrate that within British newspapers, articles about sleep can be seen to (re)produce heteronormativity. Rather than referring to different forms of sexualities and sexual acts, their focus tends to be situated on the (heterosexual) ‘marital bed’. As well as the ‘marital bed’ being the physical site of sleeping it is also constructed as the crucial arena for the maintenance of successful heterosexual relationships. Studying the media’s focus on the social aspects of ‘sleep’, we argue, extends our understanding of the ways that heteronormativity constrains heterosexuality and silences other forms of sexual relationships.

1.2 As Williams (2005, 2002) has clearly argued, although sleep is an essential biological process, the way that it is arranged is entwined with the social divisions and relations of waking life. Moreover, considering the ‘who, where and when’ of our sleeping arrangements can add a new dimension to the study of other social areas (Williams 2005, 2002). Sociological studies of gendered sleep have begun to uncover the ways in which waking social roles and relationships impact on the sexual divisions of sleep (Williams 2005, Hislop and Arber 2003). So studying the ‘doing’ of sleep, its meanings, motives and management (Taylor 1993) provides insights into both the social arrangements of sleep, and its intersection with waking lives.

1.3 Hislop and Arber’s (2003) study of the sleep of mid-life women revealed the extent to which women felt a gendered responsibility for their partner’s sleep. They argue that the gendered division of labour within households constructs women as responsible for their families’ sleeping welfare. This means that they often sacrifice their own sleep to tend to the needs of other family members during the night. This could include accepting a male partner waking them in the night, caring for small children or listening out for late returning teenagers. Hislop and Arber found that generally women accepted reduced sleep as part of their gendered responsibilities as partners and mothers and adopted a range of ‘pragmatic solutions’ (2003:710) to try to reconcile their need to sleep with the needs of other household members.

1.4 Whilst Hislop and Arber’s (2003) main focus was on gender relationships, their work is also relevant to our understanding of heterosexual intimacy. As Jackson (2006) and others have argued, whilst gender and heterosexuality are intertwined they are not the same. Following Jackson (2006), gender is considered to be the social division between men and women re/produced through everyday structures and processes, whereas heterosexuality is a sexual desire, identity and practice which privileges male/female sexual relationships and is organised by and organises gendered relationships. The construction of heterosexuality as natural, normal and universal within the structure of institutions and everyday practices can be understood as heteronormativity (Richardson 2000). Heteronormativity structures heterosex and intimate heterosexual relationships by setting out the ‘taken–for-granted’ gendered norms in different areas of social life (Jackson 2006). It also has a significant impact on other sexualities through the presumption of heterosexuality and/or the construction of them as ‘other’ or ‘deviant’ in relation to the norm (Ingraham 2005). Thus, whilst these two aspects have diverse implications for people of different sexualities, the ways in which heteronormativity is transmitted may be the same.

1.5 As Jamieson (1998) has made clear, although there have been theoretical claims (such as by Giddens 1992) that we are moving towards an era of more democratic/egalitarian relationships, there is scant evidence that this is impacting on the everyday lives of heterosexual couples. Popular culture projects the message that sex is not only pleasurable and healthy but is also central to building and sustaining intimate relationships. Yet this is not the only message. Alongside the image of heterosexual couples as equals whose sharing of sexual pleasure confirms their relationship, a second theme reasserts the traditional narrative of the active male pursuing the passive female. This version of ‘normal’ sex as something men do to women not only rationalises some of the common rape mythologies (Gavey and Gow 2001), but also undermines women’s right to refuse sex within heterosexual relationships (Duncombe and Marsden 1996). It also means that both women and men may privilege men’s sexual preferences both within the sexual activity itself (Duncombe and Marston 1996) as well as in terms of the practical organisation of sexual activity though issues such as contraception (Lowe 2005).

1.6 This paper will show how the symbol of the ‘marital bed’ is central to the construction of heteronormativity within British newspapers coverage of sleep. The sharing of a bed becomes the barometer measuring the success or failure of a heterosexual relationship, and its maintenance remains the gendered responsibility of women. This female responsibility does not stop, moreover at providing clean sheets, but extends to making themselves sexually available. By building on the cultural connections between sleeping together and (hetero)sex, and largely ignoring gay and lesbian sleeping narratives, these stories form part of the ‘mobilisation’ and ‘reproduction’ of heteronormativity in everyday life (Jackson 2006).


2.1 The articles analysed for this paper were retrieved through the Lexis Nexis archival database. The project selected the UK national newspapers (The Times, The Guardian, The Sun, Daily Mirror and Daily Mail) on the basis of circulation figures and readership profiles alongside aiming for diversity in tone, format and political orientation. The Times and The Guardian are ‘serious’ newspapers serving a readership comprised predominantly of highly educated, higher social class people with The Times serving a slightly older readership. They contrast with the tabloids, The Sun and Daily Mirror, which serve a readership with a higher proportion of less educated lower social class people, with the Daily Mirror’s readership being markedly older than The Sun’s. The Daily Mail stands out from these in serving a predominately female and older readership with a class or educational profile that lies somewhat in between the tabloid versus serious poles. Together these five papers accounted for 76% of the total circulation of UK national dailies in 2005 (calculated from the circulation figures on Newspaper Marketing Agency website http://www.nmauk.co.uk).

2.2 Articles were retrieved from these five newspapers using a search strategy designed to be inclusive. For example, we searched simply for the term ‘sleep’ in the headline or at the start of each article. The earliest article in our sample was published in 1984 with different newspapers recruited to Lexis Nexis at different times. Our sample period ended on 30th September 2005. Each article retrieved was read to screen out articles that had no relevant discussion of sleep or sleep disorders. This left us with a final sample of 1051 articles which were coded according to six emerging themes (articles could be coded to more than one category). For this paper, articles were initially selected if they were related to the theme of ‘sleep and the domestic context’ or contained the word ‘sex’. If the articles were predominantly using the term ‘sleep’ as a substitute for the word ‘sex’ then they were not included in the final sample. Articles were included only if they mentioned some form of sleeping or sleeping arrangements as this was the focus of the analysis. Although this excluded a large number of articles, the heteronormativity of the newspaper articles was still clearly evident.

‘My wife won’t sleep with me’ (The Sun 20/7/2005).

Dear Deidre, My wife won't sleep with me any more and only thinks about herself. I'm 38, she is 34 and we've been married for 12 years. We have two lovely daughters aged ten and five. Until a few months ago everything was fine, including our sex life. Now she says she's fallen out of love with me and wants a divorce. She sleeps in my younger daughter's bed and my daughter sleeps with me. I love my wife but she's hurting me so much and the children feel it too. She used to be kind and loving but she's changed. (The Sun 20/7/2005).
3.1 The above letter featured in The Sun’s regular Agony Aunt column. It is clear here that the ‘not sleeping with’ has different dimensions. The husband’s complaining that his wife is sleeping in one of their daughter’s bed, she wants a divorce and he implies their sex life is no longer ‘fine’. The first distinct dimension seen in this letter is that the couple are now physically sleeping apart in different beds. Secondly, their relationship now lacks intimacy, and finally they are no longer having any form of sexual relationship. As well as many other articles, here the ‘marital bed’ becomes both the site and symbol of the couple’s relationship.

3.2 These connections are conveyed as obvious to the majority of the readership, particularly within articles that questioned whether or not a move to sleeping in separate beds or bedrooms to avoid disrupted sleep really is a sign or cause of decline of either (hetero)sex or intimacy. Janice Turner in The Times draws this image:

It is rather sad and not a little middle-aged this move from arms-around-each-other-all-night bliss to solitary slumber. Separate beds in the same room might help, but you think of Cybil and Basil Fawlty glaring at each other across the marital chasm, or the sexless twin bunks of Eisenhower-era America (2/7/2000).

3.3 In this extract like many of the other articles, the ‘marital bed’ is constructed as more than just a place to sleep, but as symbolic of the intimate and sexy nature of successful heterosexual relationships today.

3.4 Consequently ‘sleeping apart’ can be constructed as at best damaging or at worst marking the end of a relationship. This was made clear in some of the articles discussing or advising about children’s (lack of) sleep. Here the eviction of a partner/parent from the ‘marital bed’ to make way for a child was seen as possibly signalling the adult’s relationship was to some extent uncertain. For example, in the Daily Mirror, a new male partner was complaining about his girlfriend’s son coming into his mother’s bed:

I've been dating a 34-year-old woman for two years. Her son is six, still sleeps with his mum (…). When he does sleep in his own bed - about once a week - he gets up in the middle of the night and goes to his mum's bed. Then I have to get out and sleep in the spare bedroom’. (08/07/2003)

3.5 The Agony Aunt, Miriam Stoppard, suggested that the child’s mother was allowing this for her benefit:

Children who sleep with a parent on an habitual basis usually do so because that's how the parent wants it. I have no idea why your partner continues to need her son's presence in her bed - but this is the crux of the situation. (08/07/2003)

3.6 She went on to suggest that that if the mother could not bring herself to insist the child stayed in his own room then the complainant ‘may have to face up to the fact that she could be afraid of committing herself to you’ (08/07/2003). This interchange clearly constructs the site of the ‘martial bed’ as a pivotal element in maintaining the adult relationship, and the mother’s reluctance to accept this could be evidence of an uncertain relationship.

3.7 Yet the assumption that sharing the ‘marital bed’ was crucial to the maintenance of a healthy heterosexual relationship was questioned. Articles appeared in The Times, The Guardian and Daily Mail questioning this implied orthodoxy, and suggesting that healthy (heterosexual) relationships could be maintained through sleeping apart. A feature run in The Guardian women’s section summed up this matter in the title ‘The Night Shift: Can couples who sleep apart really stay together’ (09/05/2003):

But who decided that the married and long-term cohabiting should be sentenced to a lifetime of bed-sharing? Or that physical proximity while sleeping was a fundamental barometer of marital happiness? For every couple that slumbers in a cosy embrace, there are others who have to cope with snoring, insomnia, young children and babies in the bed, different time clocks, or a partner who reads for hours and sniffs as they turn each page. So is it possible to stay together - and have sex together - if you don't like sleeping together? (09/05/2003):

3.8 Like a similar article in The Times, the orthodoxy of the ‘martial bed’ was brought into question through stories of successful sleeping apart. This coverage focuses on the disturbances such as snoring that can lead to disrupted sleep within married couples. However this was done in a way which did not necessarily question the symbolic position of the ‘marital bed’. Indeed, in both articles it was suggested that another possibility was a bigger bed with king size or super king size possible alternatives (The Times 11/08/2001, The Guardian 09/05/2003). The Daily Mirror, however, felt sleeping apart might sound ‘like a step too far’ (08/07/2004) for its readers. It proposes alternative solutions to sleep disturbances caused by a partner (such as snoring or having restless legs), including changes to diet. Responsibility for these changes was clearly gendered.

Gendered responsibilities

4.1 The articles suggested that the maintenance of successful heterosexual sleeping arrangements was largely women’s responsibility. In the aforementioned articles about the possibility of successfully sleeping apart, for example both The Times and The Guardian use only quotations from the female partners. The Daily Mirror goes further in allocating gendered responsibility:
Thousands of women are now opting for separate beds or even decamping to the spare room after being driven crazy by their men's unhealthy bedroom habits (…). But if sleeping apart sounds like a step too far then take a look at our top tips to banish those bedroom bugbears... (08/07/2004).

4.2 The article then went on to give advice on six different sleep-related problems such as snoring and restless legs. Yet the responsibility for easing these conditions was clearly women’s as the following ‘sleeping solution’ for insomnia makes clear:

Make sure the bed is comfortable and get him to read a book until he feels dozy or have a warm bath followed by a gentle massage from you. He should get up again if he’s not able to sleep within half an hour, read or watch TV then try again 30 minutes later. If the symptoms persist, get him to see his doctor (08/07/2004).

4.3 This advice clearly constitutes the couple as heterosexual, but also dictates a high level of female responsibility for a partner’s welfare. The article conveys the impression that it is preferable for women to take on additional duties in order to increase the harmony of the sleeping together rather than for the couple to sleep apart.

4.4 Part of these duties also stem from a requirement to ‘look good’ at night. The Mirror featured an article (27/4/2004) on what to wear in bed. Women were encouraged to become a ‘sex goddess’ and to think about male preferences, yet men did not seem to be required to make the same effort. Women were told, ‘Much as you love your old T-shirt, your partner may feel that you are failing to make an effort if you wear it to bed every night’. Yet in contrast, ‘he will probably make the final decision on what he wants to wear in bed (27/4/2004).

4.5 Lack of proper attention to male partners was also a feature in stories about new mothers. The sample contained many examples of surveys which have regularly found that new mothers were sleep deprived and highlighted how many of them were too tired for sex. The Guardian (02/06/05) reported on a survey of parents and grandparents in which 84% of the mothers stated a preference for sleep rather than sex. The impact on their sex-lives was given before discussion on their coping at work. The decline in sex was also seen a key problem in the tabloids. For example, The Mirror (13/03/2001) reports a few years earlier on a similar survey:

Eight out of 10 of all new mums say that lack of sleep is wrecking their relationship with their partners (…). And dads rarely, if ever, get up to help, leaving mums exhausted, with 52 per cent driven to "despair". An overwhelming 91 per cent become bad-tempered - with partners bearing the brunt (…) And 70 per cent are so tired they've gone off sex completely. (13/03/2001)

4.6 In this article, the emphasis was on the relationships with male partners, including the high numbers that had gone off sex. While it reported the lack of help women had from male partners, sympathy with men was established through stating that men were ‘bearing the brunt’ of women’s sleep deprived bad tempers.

4.7 These articles show the gendered expectations as to the responsibilities around sleep. According to the newspapers, women should be prepared to sacrifice their time and sleep, in order to maintain the relationship. Yet men do not seem to be expected to make similar gestures. As VanEvery (1995) has point out, whilst heterosexuality is not monolithic, the notion of the ‘ideal family’ often leads to particular forms of heterosexual domestic life. This does not mean that all heterosexual couples conform, but it re/constructs the hegemonic status of this particular form of gendered heterosexual relationship. Furthermore, the different ways that heteronormativity operates was clear from contrasting the dominance of articles discussing such gendered expectations of heterosexuality with gay and lesbian sleep stories.

Gay and lesbian sleep stories

5.1 There were very few articles that mentioned gay or lesbian sexualities in our sample about sleep. Coverage of the Ashby libel case was among them and it raised the issue of whether you could sleep next to, without ‘sleeping with’ someone. The Sunday Times had printed a series of stories intimating that Conservative MP David Ashby was having an affair with a male neighbour. At the centre of the evidence was an incident where they had shared a bed in a hotel room while on holiday (see for example The Times 5/12/1995). Ashby brought a case of libel against the Times Newspaper group and Andrew Neil (the then editor). Although Ashby vigorously denied a sexual relationship, he lost his case (The Guardian carried an overview of the story on the 20/12/1995).

5.2 Much of the coverage suggested that, for Ashby, the accusation that a gay affair caused his marriage breakdown was so stigmatizing that he risked his career and financial security through taking costly legal action, as this example from the Guardian makes clear:

A middle-aged, apparently dull but competent Conservative MP, much respected in his constituency, an upholder of family values, decided to sue a national newspaper, lie through his teeth in the witness box (or so the jury decided), subject his daughter to one of the most obviously painful acts of betrayal it is possible to imagine, expose himself and his wife to public humiliation, and risk a legal bill that we are told he is going to be hard-pushed to pay. And why? Because all this was better than admitting his marriage was a disaster zone and he had homosexual desires. (The Guardian 23/12/1995)

5.3 The backdrop to this case was the launch by the (then) British Prime Minister, John Major, of the ‘Back-to-Basics’ campaign centred around (heterosexual) ‘family values’ (See Doig 2001 for an account of some of the other ‘Back-to-Basics’ scandals). Consequently, coverage of this case could also be interpreted as a morality tale, where those who step outside the boundaries of heterosexuality risk all.

5.4 The coverage of the Ashby libel trial constructs being gay as, at best, something to be ashamed of, or at worst, deviant and dangerous. Yet it does acknowledge being gay as a sexuality. In contrast, being a lesbian is not always afforded that status. For example, a letter written to Miriam Stoppard, the Agony Aunt in the Daily Mirror, was headed ‘I lose sleep with my lesbian pal’ (04/06/1999). The letter writer was asking why she was having problems with insomnia when she was sleeping with her girlfriend. Whilst the reply offered did refer to her partner as a girlfriend and suggested several reasons for her sleep problems ranging from needing a new mattress to feeling secure in the relationship, the use of the word ‘pal’ rather an ‘lover’ or ‘partner’ in the heading seems to undermine this relationship as a serious one. Although the term ‘pal’ was used in other letters involving heterosex, it was used when a relationship was associated with friendship (such as ‘Wife's pal has stolen my heart’ 14/3/2001). Consequently, it could be argued that the lack of coverage of lesbian and gay relationships in articles about sleep and the undermining of them as ‘proper’ relationships both act to reinforce heteronormativity.

The re/construction of rape

6.1 The idea that women have responsibilities to maintain a sexual relationship was more starkly evident in the tabloid articles concerning what was euphemistically often described as ‘sleep sex’. This term did not appear in either The Times or The Guardian during the sample period, but several of the other papers carried reports about criminal trials where men were convicted or acquitted of having sex with women whilst they were asleep. One of the headlines that showed how rape was minimised was in the Mirror (15/04/2000). It stated ‘4 years for Sleep Sex’. It gave outline details of the case of a teenage student who woke up as she was being attacked in her halls of residence in Scotland. Despite the conviction on a charge of ‘clandestine injury’[1] the article does not mention the word rape at all.

6.2 However it was in the Agony Aunt letters and advice that women’s ‘duty’ to agree to sex was most strongly advocated. One woman wrote to Dear Deidre in The Sun (23/07/02) complaining: her boyfriend kept trying to have sex with her when she was asleep.

My boyfriend tries to have sex with me when I am asleep. I find it a big problem. We've been together for two years (…) and we have a good, regular sex life. (…) Being bothered at night is the only thing spoiling our relationship. We sleep naked and when he gets aroused he rolls over to me for sex. I tell him to stop and he soon falls asleep again but it is disturbing my sleep. When I tackle him about it in the morning, he can remember nothing about it. He is upset at bothering me. It is putting a strain on our affair. How can we sort it out? (23/07/04)

6.3 The response suggested that the woman was being unreasonable in her distress:

Most men in a loving relationship need to express their feelings. Wanting sex is a very obvious sign of this. See it as showing his love rather than bothering you. It will help you both to be more relaxed about it. You could ask him to wear boxers in bed. Then he would have to wake up sufficiently to remove them before attempting to have sex. (23/07/04)

6.4 Another letter and answer also showed a not dissimilar attitude. In it a man had written to ask if his wife could become pregnant if she was asleep, as she always says she is too tired to have sex when he asks (7/04/04). The letter was headed ‘I bonk my wife as she sleeps’. Dear Deidre responded by saying:

‘Your wife certainly could become pregnant – and would probably feel raped if she discovered what you are doing. I realise you love your wife and are desperate but this is sex without consent. Maybe you could give her more help with the kids and around the home so she has more energy for sex (our emphasis). (7/04/04).

6.5 In this extract the rape itself is mitigated to being an unfortunate but understandable act of a desperate but loving husband. The woman’s right or desire to refuse sex is not considered. While it is suggested that the husband takes over some of her gendered responsibilities, the response clearly positions her as being deficient in fulfilling all her marital obligations for the children, home and sex, rather than promoting gender equality.

6.6 As Lowe et al has argued (2007), being attacked or raped whilst asleep is not an uncommon experience for women living with violent partners. Feigning sleep is also a strategy that many women have tried to avoid confrontation (Lowe et al 2007). Moreover, the minimisation of ‘rape’ is not a new phenomenon (see for example Gavey and Gow 2001). There are, as Clark (1998) has shown, two alternative discursive positions in coverage of rape in newspapers. Either the rapist is defined as aberrant through the use of descriptors such as ‘beast’. Or he is presented as ‘ordinary’ with references to his occupation and the ‘rape’ itself is brought into question. Consequently, it is not surprising that tabloid coverage of rape or attempted rape can be redefined as ‘sleep sex’ and the symbolic space of the ‘marital bed’ is constructed as a place where consent to sex is only unreasonably refused by women.

6.7 In the other instances of ‘sleep-sex’, the instigator of the sexual act was said to be sleep-walking at the time. According to the Daily Mail, ‘sleep-sex’ as a variation on sleep walking is ‘a newly discovered and little understood problem’ (15/10/2004). Two articles in the sample which referred to this condition were printed in the Daily Mail. In one of the articles, the condition is used to explain the ‘bizarre’ behaviour of a ‘happy and loyal wife’ who was having sexual encounters with strangers (15/10/2004). This case was reported as being presented at a medical conference and it was implied that it would support getting ‘sleep-sex’ officially recognised within the International Classification of Sleep Disorders[2]. In the other case, a man was ‘freed’ when a court accepted the testimony that he was sleep-walking when he tried to rape his neighbour (17/09/1994). The article does not speculate on the impact of either the attack or the non-custodial sentence on the woman.

6.8 The reporting of both of these cases also illustrates how gender roles are implicated in the construction of heteronormativity. In the case of the woman sleep-walker, the description of her as happy, loyal and married clearly emphasises her position as, at heart, respectable, even if her ‘medical condition’ flouts the conventions of ‘acceptable behaviour’. Given that the Daily Mail takes a particular prescriptive stance towards women’s sexual behaviour (Morgan 2006) it is difficult to envisage the paper taking the same understanding stance with a non-married woman or other ‘deviant’ woman. Moreover, it does not comment on the willingness or otherwise of the strangers she was having sex with. In the case of rape, the article highlights the man’s respectability and normality through details about his age, occupation and marital status (see Morgan 2006). The medical reports were said to confirm both his ‘intelligence’ and that he did not need ‘psychiatric help’ (Daily Mail 17/09/1994). His use of alcohol was implicated as being associated with his history of sleep-walking, and it was implied that this could have been a reason for this attack. Rather than this constructing him to be at least partially responsible for the attack, it was just recommended he did not drink in future. This, it can be argued, constructs his alcohol use merely leading to an unfortunate event, in contrast to reports of women’s drinking in which they are pathologised (Ettorre 1992).

Concluding remarks

7.1 Throughout our sample of articles are ideas about sleep entwined with normative notions of heterosexuality and heterosex. Within the domestic context, ‘sleep’ seemed more often to mean sexual intercourse than actual sleep! Whilst this paper does not make any claims about how the audiences might interpret these articles, nor that there is a direct relationship them and actual behaviour, the media’s use of stereotypical ideas about gendered roles and responsibilities as Wood (2002) notes does impact on their re/production in everyday life. Given that gender roles and responsibilities structure heterosexuality and heteronormativity, studying representations within the media can therefore add to our understanding of these social processes.

7.2 Societies, as Ingraham (2005) has argued, operate on an assumption of ‘straightness’ with institutionalised heterosexuality constructed as naturally occurring rather than as a socially organised arrangement. Whilst Ingraham singles out television programming as the most powerful influence (2005:5) others such as Naylor (2001) have shown how news stories of violence contribute to the social construction of gender. Indeed studies of newspaper reports in the area of rape (Clark 1998) and murder (Morgan 2006) have shown how women may lose their status as victims if they are considered to have breached the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ behaviour.

7.3 The intertwining of sleep, heterosexuality and heterosex in the articles considered for this paper consistently re/produced stereotypical gender roles. The symbolic position of the ‘marital bed’ as the heart of heterosexual relationships acts to naturalise the social organisation of sleeping arrangements. The focus on the ‘marital bed’ as the place whereby intimacy is both created and maintained can be seen to act in different ways. First, within the cultural context of ‘sleep’ meaning ‘(hetero)sex’, it naturalises and normalises heterosex as a fundamental part of partnerships. It also reaffirms the institution of marriage as the preferred organisation of heterosexual relationships. Finally, by constructing the ‘marital bed’ as the ultimate space for intimacy, it acts to exclude ‘other’ relationships and the possibility of either ‘true’ intimacy or meaningful partnerships.

7.4 The gendered responsibilities of women within heteronormativity were clearly reinforced through the emphasis on women’s responsibility for maintaining intimacy and their partner’s sleep. This reflects the ways in which heterosexuality structures domestic life (VanEvery 1995). It also illustrates the expectation that women should perform emotional labour to further the maintenance of heterosexual relationships (Duncombe and Marsden 1996). Again here the ‘marital bed’ becomes the focus of these gendered responsibilities. By encouraging women to see male sleep disorders as a problem for which they should seek solutions, the articles are contributing to and maintaining women’s role as family carers. Moreover, by privileging men’s sleep over women’s they further reinforced heterosexual relationships as hierarchal rather than equal. The construction of the ‘marital bed’ as the symbol of the heterosexual relationship also means ‘good’ reasons for sleeping apart (such as a partner snoring) run the risk of being seen as ‘bad’ (relationship problems) (see Hislop in this Special Issue). In addition, the emphasis on women taking steps to ‘look good’ in the bedroom remind women that the ‘marital bed’ should be the location for appropriate femininity (see Boden 2007et al in this Special Issue for a more detailed analysis of the construction of femininity with the bedroom). This emphasis on appearance is closely linked to the ‘duty’ of women to have heterosex.

7.5 The use of the term ‘sleep-sex’ builds on the association of the term (hetero)sex and sleep, particularly as the term is used to conflate two different circumstances. In one case the perpetrators are awake and attack a sleeping person. In the other the instigator is considered to be unaware of their actions as they are sleepwalking. Whether or not ‘sleep-sex’ in this latter case is a medical condition is outside the scope of this paper. However, regardless of this if the other party has not given their consent, they have still been raped even if the law does not recognise this.

7.6 In the cases were the perpetrator is awake, the re/construction of rape as ‘sleep sex’ within the articles can be considered to minimise the seriousness of the attack. In many of these cases, the women who were attacked whilst sleeping had often been drinking, a behaviour often associated with a loss of victim status. As Lees (1996) has shown, the use of alcohol or drugs is the most common factor in discrediting women during rape trials. For men, however, the use of alcohol acts as a mitigating circumstance, which in conjunction with the construction of rape as ‘sleep sex’, absolves them of guilt. Drinking alcohol is, after all, considered part of hegemonic male identity (Thom 2003). The use of the term ‘sleep-sex’ in these cases instead of rape can thus be seen to build on normative ideas about ‘acceptable’ male and female behaviour.

7.7 Articles about sleep can be seen to re/produce heteronormativity in two distinct ways. First, they construct and are constructed by the gendered roles and responsibilities which structure heterosexuality and heterosex. The symbolic space of the ‘marital bed’ is a key element in this. Women are expected to organise, care and submit to their husband’s needs. Indeed, the focus on the ‘marital bed’ helps the second element of heteronormativity through excluding non-heterosexuals from the idea of intimate relationships, by effectively silencing their experiences of sleep and sleeping arrangements. In addition, the re/construction of rape as ‘sleep-sex’ builds on normative ideas about active male and passive female (hetero)sexualities, and minimises the victim’s experiences. By exploring these articles we can see both how the organisation of sleep is produced through heteronormativity, but also how heteronormativity determines whose accounts of sleeping prioritised.


We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and the British Academy for funding this research.


1 At this time a rape charge in Scotland needed to include force. Sex with an unconscious or sleeping woman was deemed to be clandestine injury (seeScottish Parliament Research notes 2001). http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/research/pdf_res_notes/rn01-46.pdf)

2 No mention of the term ‘sleep sex’ is made in the latest edition (American Board of Sleep Medicine 2005)


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