The night stuff: A very brief look at nyctophilia and scotophilia
According to Dr. Anil Aggrawal in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices nyctophilia is a sexual paraphilia where the individual derives sexual pleasure and arousal by a “love of night”. In the same book, Aggrawal defines similar (if not the same conditions) including scotophilia (“turned on by darkness”), lygophilia (“love of darkness”) and achluophilia (“arousal from darkness”). Another related condition is arguably amaurophilia (“arousal by a partner who is blind or unable to see due to artificial means such as being blindfolded or having sex in total darkness”, a paraphilia that I examined in depth in a previous blog). Other sources (such as Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices doesn’t mention any of these, apart from amaurophilia) whereas other medical dictionaries conflate darkness and night together and define nyctophilia as a “preference for the night or darkness. Also called scotophilia”.
As far as I can ascertain, there is no empirical research on this topic at all. There are many references to the similar sounding scopophilia (viewed by many as another term for ‘voyeurism’) but as Dr. Aggrawal notes:
“Several terms have been used as synonyms of voyeurism, although some writers have constantly pointed out subtle differences. The terms scopophilia and scoptophilia are taken as synonyms to voyeurism by most writers. However, others have pointed out a minor difference. If the victim is unsuspecting and non-consenting, the act is voyeurism, but if the other party is consenting, the act is scopophilia or scoptophilia. Furthermore, if the person watched is in the act of disrobing, or nude, the act is voyeurism, but if the person watched is engaged in sex, the act is either mixoscopia (if the watched person is the voyeur’s lover) or allopellia (if the watched persons are complete strangers)”.
The reason I mention this is because in a paper by Dr. Patrick Mahony on voyeurism in a 1989 issue Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association noted that the “alternate spelling scoptophilia, preferred by some of the older German psychoanalysts, must not be confused with scotophilia or love of darkness”. This appears to have happened in other academic papers I found directly referring to ‘scotophilia’. For instance, one paper dating back almost 70 years was that of Dr. F.S. Caprio who wrote a paper entitled ‘Scotophilia–exhibitionism: A case report’ in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Psychopathology but it was actually a paper about voyeurism. More specifically, the paper reported the cases of a mother and son who constantly watched residents for sexual arousal in the mother’s rooming house via drilled holes in the wall. A 1966 theoretical review paper by Dr. Jerome Sattler on embarrassment and blushing published in the Journal of Social Psychology claimed that “stage-fright and erythrophobia [fear of blushing] are not simply expressions of the warding off of heightened exhibitionism and scotophilia but also develop as a result of previous instinctual conflict”. Here again, scotophilia appears to be a synonym for voyeurism rather than a sexual love of darkness.
I was pleasantly surprised to find dozens of references to nyctophilia in the scientific literature but the overwhelming majority of papers were biological in origin and all referred to non-human species. For instance, a recent 2016 paper Dr. Luis Espinasa and colleagues in the journal Subterranean Biology reported that cave amphipods are eyeless troglobitic crustaceans found in caves located in the Northeastern (Allegheny) region of the United States and who “exhibit nyctophilia” (literally meaning they love darkness, and has absolutely nothing sexual whatsoever).
I only managed to find one non-biological academic reference on nyctophilia and this was a 1994 paper by Dr. Lewis Lawson in the journal Papers on Language and Literature. In actuality, the use of the word ‘nyctophilia’ was mentioned in passing and noted that the term was defined by psychoanalyst Bertram Lewin as “an erotic pleasure in darkness, which enters as a wish-fulfillment element on fantasies of being in the ‘womb,’ or more properly, as the German word Mutterlieb suggests, of being in the mother’s body”. I was unable to track down the original source so I don’t know the context in which Lewin used the word but the definition is certainly used in a sexual sense rather than the general ‘love of darkness’ used in the biologically-based papers.
In a more general search on the internet, located dedicated photographic sites for nyctophilia, a number of fictional books with the title of Nyctophilia (such as the novel by Welsh author K.A. Hambly), and even the name of a 2014 film (although details about it are sketchy to say the least). I also came across one first-person account of nyctophilia online from someone who has written a number of different articles about the condition such as ‘What is nyctophilia?’, ‘What is it like to have nytophilia?’ and ‘Everything you wanted to know about nyctophilia symptoms’. However, detailed reading of these articles suggests that any sexual element is secondary to a general love of darkness. Here are a few extracts from the articles:
Extract 1: “I have a confession to make. I am a nyctophiliac…Well, a lot of people have told me that I am an insomniac. An insomniac is someone who has difficulty sleeping at night. But I have realized over time that I am not just an insomniac. Insomnia is a physical condition, not a psychological one. Nyctophilia, on the other hand, is purely a psychological condition. Many say that nyctophiliacs are sexually aroused by the dark. Is that true? Well, yes and no. I like darkness, but I am not always sexually aroused by it. I just love it for what it is. It gives me a sense of relief and it makes me happy”.
Extract 2: “To help you understand nyctophilia symptoms, [here] I reveal some uncomfortable details of my life. Every night, I try to sleep at 10 pm. I take sleeping pills such as Klonopin and get myself a good book to read. When I do fall asleep, at around 10:30 pm or 10:45 pm, I find myself waking up at 12:00 am sharp, as fresh as the day, as though I’ve been asleep for 9 hours. I am wide awake at this time and no matter what I do, I cannot go to sleep. Unlike an insomniac, who would turn the lights on and perhaps watch TV, that’s the last thing on my mind. I just want to sit in the bedroom chair in the dark, all alone, with just darkness as my company. I love the darkness. It makes me happy. I feel a sense of relief as I sit in the dark and listen to the sound of the clock ticking by. I know it’s not good for me to stay awake like this, like a ghost, in complete darkness. I tell that to myself several times and often I try my very best to sleep. That is when I get those dreams. Those horrible dreams. The nightmares. I find myself in impossible situations, either getting tortured like Mel Gibson in Braveheart or dying of a dreadful disease, like a child affected by the Ebola virus in Africa”.
Extract 3: “There isn’t much of an awareness of nyctophilia, or nyctophilia symptoms, out there on the Web…The UrbanDictionnary.com defines nyctophilia as ‘The love of darkness or night, or feeling like you belong in the dark” and adds that the condition ‘usually applies to those who often feel sadness!’ Nyctophilia is a condition that makes you want to sit in the dark all by yourself late at night, wide awake…You may wander off late at night in the dark. This will get you in trouble with the authorities, who do not really understand the nyctophilia meaning and cannot even comprehend how you feel. So you may get mistaken for a sex addict or a pervert, or possibly a criminal. Your neighbors would avoid you and report you to the law enforcement agencies. They would want you to leave the neighborhood and move somewhere else. They would feel distinctly uncomfortable about your condition and word would get around about the fact that you stay up all night in the dark, basically doing nothing”.
Extract 4: “There are many who say that nyctophialiacs find darkness sexually arousing. They compare the condition to a form of sex addiction. Indeed, have been given medication for sex addiction, such as GnRH, a long lasting gonadotropin releasing hormone that suppresses sexual desires. If you feel that you have any of the nyctophilia symptoms…it is important to get yourself treated by a qualified psychiatrist, preferably someone who has experience of working with modern or unusual psychiatric conditions. Take the medications that are suggested to you and ask support from your friends and family”
In all the reading I have done on this topic, there appears to be very little genuine evidence that scotophilia and nyctophilia exist, and if the condition does exist, few people appear to suffer major problems as a consequence, unless their love of the dark leaves the person feeling so sleep-deprived that it interferes with their day-to-day functioning. Maybe this condition is a sub-type of insomnia but that the underlying reasons for not going to sleep are very different from the usual reasons for not being able to sleep.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Caprio, F. S. (1949). Scoptophilia, exhibitionism; a case report. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Psychopathology, 10(1), 50-72.
Espinasa, L., Collins, E., Finocchiaro, A., Kopp, J., Robinson, J., & Rutkowski, J. (2016). Incipient regressive evolution of the circadian rhythms of a cave amphipod. Subterranean Biology, 20, 1-13.
Love, B. (1992). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books.
Lawson, L. A. (1994). The dream screen in The moviegoer. Papers on Language and Literature, 30(1), 25.
Mahony, P. J. (1989). Aspects of nonperverse scopophilia within an analysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 37(2), 365-399.
Sattler, J. M. (1966). Embarrassment and blushing: A theoretical review. Journal of Social Psychology, 69(1), 117-133.