A recent Savage Love column raises an interesting question: Is having sex or attempting to do sex-related things while you’re sleeping a real thing? Is it normal? And do the things you do reflect your truest unconscious sexual desires? Let’s investigate.
“According to my fiancé, I have initiated or performed some kind of sex act in the middle of the night and then gone right back to sleep, advice-seeker SHEETS writes to Dan Savage. “The next day, I don’t remember anything.”
The 31-year-old gay man says his partner actually likes this sleepy seduction, but he still feels “kinda rapey.” What’s more, the sex acts he tried with his partner — rimming and topping — are things he wants to do or has done with others, but not with his current partner. “Is my body doing things that my mind won’t admit it wants to do?” SHEETS ultimately wonders. “Is there a way to prevent it from happening?”
First off, sexsomnia — also called banditing or sleep sex — is a real thing. Savage writes:
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says sexsomnia is real — a real clinical condition — but they prefer the fancier, more “medical” sounding name: sleep related abnormal sexual behaviors. Dr. Michel Cramer Bornemann, a lead researcher at Sleep Forensics Associates (sleepforensicmedicine.org), describes sexsomnia as “sleepwalking-like behaviors that have sexualized attributes.” And sleep-rimming your delighted fiancé definitely counts.
Such behaviors range from sexual touching, initiating sex, violently masturbating, and even, Savage writes, “loud, obscene vocalizations from sleep (that are typically uncharacteristic of the individual while awake).” Bornemann tells Savage that they’re “not reflective of a significant underlying psychiatric condition.”
So if it’s not an underlying condition, what it’s all about? Are sexsomniacs just sleep-hornier than the rest of us? And how many people act on a 3 a.m. sleep boner?
Sexsomnia is new territory for researchers (it only showed up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2014 as a NREM, non-rapid-eye-movement sleep arousal disorder), but one study at the Toronto Western Hospital of 832 sleep center patients found that 7.6 percent of them had experienced this before — 11 percent of the men, and 4 percent of the women — according to Everyday Health. Another study found 1 in 10 British people are sexsomniacs. Another suggests it’s 2 to 6 percent of the population.
Everyday Health spoke to Robert Oexman at the Sleep to Live Institute in Missouri, who explained that sexsomnia is like sleepwalking (it also happens during non-rapid-eye-movement sleep), but it’s a different parasomnia. While most of the acts involved in the disorder are relatively benign, it could at least theoretically involve sexual assault, Oexman notes. More troubling is the fact that the sexsomniac doesn’t remember what happened (a legal defense that has been used successfully more than once to get out of a rape charge, including by a man who molested his daughter).
“Most cases involve no recall and even a denial that the event occurred,” Russell Rosenberg of the National Sleep Foundation in Atlanta, told them. As for what causes it, he says nobody really knows, but risk factors include stress, drinking or doing drugs before going to bed (including sleeping pills), other sleep disorders like sleep apnea (sleep disorders also tend to run in families), or sleep deprivation. One study suggests it’s three times more common in men because it’s linked to sleep apnea, which men are also more likely to get.
All that said, because people feel ashamed of the condition, experts think it’s probably underreported. For instance, one poster on Reddit confessed to waking up in the middle of the night “jerking off a few feet away from my family.” Who wants to admit that to a doctor?
Episodes are said to usually occur within the first few hours of sleeping, though they can occur throughout the night. But since most sufferers don’t recall doing it, researchers are hard-pressed to study the phenomenon unless someone shows up self-reporting (because a partner alerted them) and cares enough to figure out what’s going on. In that case, sleep researchers combine a two-week sleep diary from the sufferer with an in-lab monitoring of the sleep.
“If we see arousals during non-REM or slow wave sleep that indicate physiological activation, that could indicate the presence of a parasomnia, Britney Blair, a clinical psychologist at Stanford University’s sleep center, told sleep website Van Winkles in a piece about the disorder. “But there’s no specific test for sexsomnia. ‘This person has arousals or differing brain activity that’s abnormal during slow wave sleep’ is basically the most we can say.”
Which leads us back to the original Savage Love advice-seeker’s more pressing question: Are sex sleepers acting out things they really want to do but are afraid to try during waking hours? In SHEETS’ case, Savage concludes that his “unconscious, late-night gropings/initiatings/rimmings don’t mean” he “secretly desires to be an ass-eating top.” Because in his case, he already knew he liked those things, and has previously done them.
However, in other cases, it very well could be subconscious desires at work. “Electrical switching errors in sleep may unleash the animal that actually lies within us all,” Bornemann tells Savage. But unless your partner is really really into this, you’re going to have to figure out a better way.
Treatments include stress management and antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. One woman whose partner continually interrupted their sleep with sexual advances said her partner’s triggers were stress and alcohol, so she guided them toward healthier pre-bedtime activities, and ended up changing sleeping arrangements to prevent the nighttime feels-copping. Other people obviously just break up, leaving sexsomniacs to find a more open partner or another sexsomniac to love.