What is sexsomnia? Sleep is a fascinating subject to many in the science world, not the least of which is due to the countless, and sometimes mysterious, things our bodies do when we’re trying to get some shuteye. Many of us, having slept side by side with other human beings at some point in our lives, are familiar with a range of these somatic acts: sleepwalking, snoring, teeth grinding, wetting the bed, talking in full sentences. One thing you may not be aware of, however, is the fact that some people even engage in sexual activity while asleep.
It’s known as sexsomnia — a term that was coined back in 1996 by Canadian sleep doctor J. Paul Fedoroff — and it’s a sleep disorder that runs the full gamut of sexual behavior, from fondling, moaning and groaning, masturbation, and intercourse itself.
As recently as a decade ago, sleep experts such as Dr. Michael J. Breus, the self-described Sleep Doctor, were publicly wondering whether sexsomnia was even a real condition. However, with its inclusion in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – a 947-page behemoth published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013 and used by those in the field as the be-all, end-all for classifying disorders and dysfunctions of all kinds – researchers have been paying more attention to sexsomnia. And, as men are more likely to be affected than women, it’s worth it for all gents to get up to speed.
What Is Sexsomnia?
Sexsomnia is categorized alongside its fellow parasomnias (a catch-all term for abnormal activity that takes place while you’re asleep) in the DSM-5, and is classified as a non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) arousal disorder, as most research has found that sexsomniac episodes occur during that deepest, yet dreamless, stage of the sleep cycle. So if you were wondering, the answer is no: the disorder is not tied in with wet dreams, but is an altogether different monster, and one that can be rather problematic when it comes to romantic relationships.
While in the best of cases, partners may report that their boyfriend is “a better lover with more effective techniques when asleep than awake,” sexsomnia more often leads to stickier scenarios (pun intended), as the behaviors exhibited during sleep sex can range from mildly irritating to flat-out sexual assault. The chances a person suffering from the disorder will unconsciously assault their girlfriend/boyfriend, a family member, friend, or anyone who happens to be sharing a bed with them, are not insignificant.
In fact, a study published in late 2016 in a peer-reviewed medical journal called “Sleep” examined 17 people diagnosed with sexsomnia, finding that the disorder led to violent episodes resulting in injuries in at least a couple of cases, and in involuntary sexual assault in a handful of others. That study described one male patient that routinely became violent and who proved impossible to wake up, while another male participant “exhibited gentle sexual behaviors during most episodes but was violent once, leading to severe genital injuries to his spouse (who required surgery).”
What Causes It?
That in mind, it’s pretty plain to see that it can be a big deal. It isn’t difficult to imagine how unwanted sexual advances, even of the unconscious variety, could put a strain on a relationship, or even land you in court. But that’s got to have you wondering: What causes sexsomnia in the first place? According to Dr. John Cline, a licensed psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sexsomnia most often pops up in individuals who already deal with other sleep-related problems.
“In addition to co-existing sleep disorders, other factors that may increase the risk of sexsomnia include the use of alcohol, sleep disruption such as caused by obstructive sleep apnea and sleep deprivation,” Cline wrote inan article for Psychology Today. “Another cause of sexsomnia is sleep-related epilepsy that can result in sexual arousal, pelvic thrusting and orgasms.”
The good news here is that sexsomnia, like sleepwalking, is considered to be relatively rare. Though one study alone cannot provide us with the whole picture, it’s telling that the researchers behind the 2016 study we were talking about earlier made a note about the difficulty of finding people with legitimate cases. Over the course of eight years, they were able to find just those 17 people out of 16,000 patients who came through the university hospital where they were conducting their research during that time frame.
If you happen to be one of those rare few who suffer from the disorder, know that it is treatable. According to Health Line, dealing with underlying sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, may also have the effect of ridding you of sexsomniac behaviors. And because depression, anxiety and stress can sometimes be contributing factors, receiving proper medication or sitting down with a therapist can also potentially be helpful.
Treatment takes care of the issue most of the time, but if you’ve got a lingering case of sexsomnia, there are also tactics you can employ to manage the condition. Some of these include sleeping in separate bedrooms, placing yourself in a locked room overnight and monitoring your use of alcohol and/or recreational drugs to see if one or the other may be triggering those unwanted behaviors.
Getting a good, consistent night’s sleep is always recommended, as well. Ensuring that you do could also mean that whomever you’re sharing a bed with will have a pretty solid chance of getting a proper amount of shuteye, too — and who knows, maybe then you’ll have enough energy to get it on the traditional way, you know, while you’re fully conscious.