WTF is Sexsomnia (and Is It Dangerous)?
Have you ever woken up from a deep slumber in mid thrust? Although it's rare, the condition sexsomnia is an underreported parasomnia that causes people to exhibit sexual behaviors while fully asleep. Yep, some people moan, masturbate or initiate intercourse with a person sleeping beside them. According to Chris Winter, neurologist, sleep specialist and author of "The Sleep Solution," the individual usually has little or no memory of these episodes, which can be frustrating, embarrassing and even troublesome for people who share the same bed.
As a sexsomniac, I can vouch for all of the above. I wake up masturbating a few times each month and have even had (humiliating) episodes while sleeping in the same bed with friends on vacation. And although getting laid in your sleep sounds effortless and dreamy, it can cause distress and relationship concerns.
Waking up in a fit of orgasm
After giving birth to her child, Florida-native Emma, 37, and co-founder of the blog ModestFish, began to experience episodes of sexsomnia. According to her husband, her episodes usually happen between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. While recalling the first time he noticed it, she said, “He came into the room before leaving for work around 5:30 a.m. and saw me moaning, tossing and turning, all with what seemed pleasurable and of an erotic nature.”
Every few weeks Emma has one of these episodes, but she says it has no negative effect on their lives. “Sometimes though, I’ll wake my husband due to my actions and he’ll get turned on and try to wake me for sex,” she said. “But just because I’m experiencing these things while I sleep doesn’t make me extraordinarily horny or aroused when I wake up.”
When the couple mentioned Emma’s episodes to their primary care physician, he reassured them there was nothing to worry about. It won’t harm you or your partner’s health, but it can lead to arguments or sleep divorce (where people keep separate bedrooms and sleep apart) if episodes become too much of a disruption.
It's not entirely clear how rare sexsomnia is, but one 2016 study published in the journal Sleep found that 47 percent of people who had sexsomnia also had a history of sleepwalking. Some people who have one sleep disorder also have many other conditions such as sleepwalking, parasomnia (abnormal behaviors while sleeping), sleep apnea or sleep seizures. Some have a history of night terrors.
Even though sexsomnia doesn't happen often, Sara, an academic book editor in Canada, has experienced it with two separate people. Both her ex-husband and current partner have the condition. When her ex started initiating sex in his sleep, the two experienced challenges navigating the situation. “His libido was lower than mine so there was infrequent sex, then this occasional nighttime approach," Sara said. "It was difficult in that I thought he was doing it on purpose but over time I [realized] he wasn’t."
Sara's ex eventually underwent a sleep study, wore a CPAP machine for his sleep apnea and tried to lose weight, while she slept with more clothes on to avoid having night sex. In Sara's situation, she isn't against getting laid in the middle of the night. “Both of us are also allowed to wake the other for sex so nine times out of ten I’m going to respond favorably,” she said. At this time, her partner has had two episodes in the year they’ve been together.
Men are three times more likely to have sexsomnia.
But this might not be the case for everyone. Some people may desperately need shut-eye, others may not be in the mood to have sex with someone who appears dead asleep. “My advice for those with a partner that has it is to not be afraid to discuss it and look for solutions together,” Sara suggested. She said wearing one-piece pajamas or sleeping upside down in bed to prevent any undressing.
For a person with sexsomnia, sleeping alongside someone who isn’t your partner can also be awkward—or even traumatic. “Once, years ago, I shared a bed with my older brother and woke up hugging him, thinking he was my girlfriend at the time, which he obviously wasn’t,” Kevin, a plumber based in Florida, recalled. “I quickly slept on the floor after that. I’m still scared to sleep next to anyone other than my current partner.”
Kevin has experienced parasomnia symptoms all his life, noting there’s no parallel between when he drinks, smokes, takes drugs or is stressed. A 2019 study published in Sleep did find a link between alcohol consumption and sexual nighttime behavior, however. One patient in the study abstained from alcohol and was prescribed a medication called paroxetine, an antidepressant, and after two months, he was sharing a bed with his wife again.
Kevin initiates sex with his current girlfriend three to four times a month while asleep. He’s never seen a doctor to try and find a solution. “I’d love a sleep study to see what’s going on, but I haven’t yet," he said. "I guess I don’t see it as a problem or issue yet because my girlfriend doesn’t mind.”
How to manage sexsomnia
Although sexsomnia may be a challenging condition to navigate, there are ways to manage it so it doesn’t disrupt your life.
“Depending on the severity, anything is on the table,” neurologist Chris Winter said. He believes holistic lifestyle changes, such as limiting stress, establishing a consistent sleep schedule, and engaging in sex while awake, could potentially help reduce episode frequency. For those more negatively impacted by sexsomnia, an in-depth sleep assessment by a trained professional and/or medication can also help.
“Primarily, I think the goal is to keep all parties safe,” Winter said, noting that good communication with your partner is essential. “Many times, if a partner is aware, they can have a plan for when their partner seems to be acting inappropriately.”
Whether or not you’re officially diagnosed with sexsomnia, it’s important to know that nothing is wrong with you. If you learn your triggers and understand the management plan that works best for you, it's entirely possible to live a happy, healthy life as a sexsomniac and enjoy a midnight romp when your partner is up to it.