Cressida Heyes Phd

Dead to the World: Rape, Unconsciousness, and Social Media

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This article appeared in the journal Signs 41:2, January 2016: 361-383.

Here’s a pre-print version that includes all the images referred to in the text.

Here is a teaching worksheet I put together for instructors who want to include this article on their syllabi, whether in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Philosophy, or Media Studies.


In January 2020, at the conclusion of his fourth trial, Reynhard Sinaga was found guilty of 159 sexual assaults against 48 men. Sinaga targeted young men at Manchester night clubs, especially those who were very drunk. He is also accused of drugging his victims with GHB, although this was not proven in court. He brought them back to his flat, and sexually assaulted them while they were unconscious or asleep, videoing the attacks on his cellphone.

Chanel Miller published her memoir, Know My Name, in October 2019. She is the victim of the 2015 Stanford sexual assault, by Brock Turner, that made headlines. Now she is a successful author, artist, and public speaker.

The issue of sexual assault against women who are anaesthetized was little more than a footnote to “Dead to the World,” but it is not just an aberration of the occasional unethical doctor but rather has been an institutionalized practice in medical schools, only fairly recent brought under ethical scrutiny. #MeTooPelvic.

A recent horrific case in Calgary contains all the elements of sexual assault against an unconscious woman, video of the rape, and circulation of the images on social media–which in turn were central to the prosecution.

Bill Cosby has been sentenced to between three and ten years in prison for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand after drugging her. Over 60 women came forward to accuse him of similar crimes, over decades. 

A court decision in the Canadian province of Ontario has made it easier for those accused of sexual assault to use intoxication as a defence.

In January 2015 a woman was sexually assaulted on the Stanford University campus while unconscious behind a dumpster. Brock Turner, the student athlete who was found guilty of sexual assault, was sentenced to six months in jail (he served three). Here is her powerful statement in court. The Guardian newspaper has a lot of online coverage of the case and its fallout. In September 2019 the victim published her memoir: Chanel Miller, Know My Name.

A similar case in Massachusetts provoked related debates about white and male privilege in the legal system.

Slate’s feature on sexual assaults on long-haul overnight flights and the failures of the airline industry to respond appropriately.

A case in an Austin hotel.

A Halifax taxi driver is acquitted of sexually assaulting a drunk, unconscious woman in his cab. Judge declares that “clearly, a drunk can consent.” Here’s some Toronto Star coverage of the legal issues involved in the Halifax case. The case was retried and resulted in a second acquittal in September 2019.

What’s it about?

A recent popular focus on sexual assault cases involving women who are unconscious—whether because drunk, drugged, anesthetized, in a coma, or asleep—has drawn attention to the role of social media in both exacerbating and gaining redress for the harms of rape while unconscious. To be violated while “dead to the world” is a complex wrong: it scarcely seems to count as a “lived experience” at all, yet it often shatters the victim’s body schema and world. This essay situates cultural anxiety about women’s unconsciousness and sexual assault while offering a phenomenological analysis of its harms. Sexual assault in these situations, and especially rape (defined as penetration of the body by another object or body part), exploits and reinforces any victim’s absence from the shared world, and exposes her body in ways that make it especially difficult for her to reconstitute herself as a subject. It damages both her ability to engage with the world in four dimensions (through a temporally persisting body schema) and her ability to retreat from it into anonymity.


Although this phenomenological analysis is generalizable, the exposure of the body’s surface and the two-dimensional visibility it analyses are wrongs within the context of the racialization and sexualization of bodies. Drawing on Frantz Fanon’s account of the racial-epidermal schema in the context of Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of “night” and anonymity, the article argues that rape while unconscious can make the restful anonymity of sleep impossible, leaving only the violent exposure of a two-dimensional life. This effect is doubled and redoubled for women in visibly racialized and sexually stereotyped groups—who are, contra media fixation, the more likely to be sexually assaulted.

There is another layer to this lived experience: the way the assault is played back to the victim after the fact can draw out the experience in a way that forecloses her future, and this is especially true given contemporary communications technologies. By providing a richer phenomenological analysis of the lived experience of rape in these circumstances, and by showing its complexity and ubiquity, I hope to undermine the trivialization of this kind of offense, and to challenge pervasive attitudes of victim blaming that permeate popular commentary on sexual violence against women who are unconscious or semiconscious.


I gave various pieces of the article as talks around North America and in the UK in 2014 and 2015 and that was very helpful for its development. I’ve also heard from many students and academics that they are longing for philosophically engaged work on sexual violence that can be taught, to supplement various kinds of political work or administrative action against sexual assault, especially on campus.


Cressida J. Heyes, “Dead to the World: Rape, Unconsciousness, and Social Media.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41:2, January 2016.