Sexsomia or sleep sex: How sleep disorders are linked to sex

Having worked as a sex researcher, educator and columnist over the past decade, one of the more interesting questions that I’ve been asked – and quite a few times, by the way – pertains to sexual behaviors that occur during sleep (sometimes called sexsomnia or sleepsex). Sometimes people (usually women) have described their partner’s (usually men) behavior as such: that while they were sleeping, they would wake up to find that their partner was masturbating – often quite aggressively or even “violently”, according to their descriptions. Or else they would wake to find that their partner was trying to have sex (usually intercourse) with them.

In all cases that I can recall hearing about, the person who was exhibiting sleepsex didn’t remember doing whatever it was he’d been doing the next day. Often the woman would try to wake him from his sleep, sometimes successfully, other times not. And sometimes the women would describe their male partners as behaving a bit differently during the sleepsex episode - for example, being more passionate or intense that they were during their waking sex lives.

The first time or two that I was asked questions about sleepsex, there were very few resources available. Few colleagues had heard of such a phenomenon and there were few scientific articles about it. More recently, more doctors and scientists have been documenting such cases. In addition, sleep disorders that involve sexual behaviors are being recognized and classification systems (i.e., diagnostic names and criteria) have been proposed.

Although sex-related sleep disorders are not common, they can be worrisome or distressing for individuals who experience them and for their partners. In addition, such sleep disorders can have serious consequences – for example, there have been some legal cases involving sexsomnia (sleepsex) and rape – see here and here  for examples. As such, here are a few things that are important to know about sleep disorders involving sex:

1.) Sleepsex is real. Though we don’t know how many people experience it, it does seem to be uncommon. Sleep tests have confirmed that brain activity during sleep is different for people who have sexsomnia than for those who do not. There are also different types of sleep disorders that can result in sexual behavior – though I use the term “sexsomnia” broadly, it’s important to note that there are actually several possible diagnoses including parasomnias and sleep related seizures.

2.) Sleepsex sexual behavior varies. Some people exhibit masturbation during sleepsex. Others attempt to have intercourse during sleepsex. If you know that you are prone to sleepsex, please share this information with a partner so that you two can decide how you want to deal with this. Some partners enjoy the night time wake-up calls for sex and wonder if it is okay to participate in sex given that their sleepsex partner will be unaware of it the next day. Other partners of people with sleepsex are frightened by the sleepsex behavior or simply don’t enjoy it.

3.) Both women and men may experience sexsomnia. Although I have mainly heard from women who have questions about their male partners’ sleepsex behaviors, and although the scientific literature has more examples of men than women, that does not mean that women cannot or do not experience sexsomnia. In fact, there are some examples of women who exhibit sexual behavior during sex. However, it seems that women’s sexual behavior during sleep tends to be more masturbation-focused and less intercourse-focused than men’s.

4.) Sleepsex behavior – when it occurs – is not always reflective of one’s sexual orientation. Although most sleepsex cases involve sexual behaviors with the gender one would normally be attracted to during waking life, that may simply be an artifact of convenience. After all, if you are a man married to and sleeping with a woman, then you will most likely try to be sexual with her during your sleepsex routine rather than troll the neighborhood for someone else. In some instances, however, there have been documented reports of people trying to be sexual with others in their household including those who are of a gender (or age) they would not normally be attracted to. This includes cases of people who tried to have sex with an uncle or with their child (like I said, such sleep problems can have serious consequences).

5.) Sex-related sleep disorders are often treatable. As doctors have been learning more about sexsomnia, they have found some success in treating people with this condition using different medications. If you think that you or your partner may have a sex-related sleep disorder, talk to your healthcare provider or meet with a specialist at a sleep disorder clinic. If your doctor is not familiar with sex-related sleep disorders, refer them to an article titled Sleep and Sex: What Can Go Wrong? A Review of the Literature on Sleep Related Disorders and Abnormal Sexual Behaviors and Experiences by Dr. Carlos Schenck and colleagues from the University of Minnesota and Stanford University.

Related MSP articles:
- How to be happier in your relationship: emotional bids
- Enough pre-ejaculate (pre-cum) to soak through clothes
- Sex toys you can use with a partner

You  may also find it interesting to read a question about sleepsex that I answered in a January 2009 issue of Time Out Chicago (read it HERE).

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.