You knew you could sleepwalk. Did you know you can also sleep-grope—and even sleep-fuck? And can you imagine having a partner who gets explosively horny in their sleep and tries to ravish your sleeping body?
That type of bedroom quirk may sound more exciting than snoring or stealing the covers. But a couple of new Reddit threads on r/sex demonstrate how sexsomnia, the term for initiating all sorts of sex acts during sleep, can be either welcome and enjoyable or nightmarishly awful — but always very weird.
In the first post, titled “My boyfriend sleep-gropes,” we hear from a woman who says her normally shy boyfriend of a couple years began routinely groping her in the middle of the night a few months into their relationship. He did so by rolling over, grabbing at her and telling her, “Baby, you’re so beautiful, I fuckin’ love your body, you’re so sexy, mmm c’mere baby I just want to fuck you so bad, I just want to cuddle.” Sometimes she’d turn him down and sometimes they’d have sex, but either way, she says, he never remembers.
She says she eventually confronted him about it, and he explained that during these episodes, it felt like a dream to him. Even though she finds it strange and wants to understand the reasons behind it, she ultimately concludes it’s a sign of his interest, love and attraction — “quite cute, really.”
Sleep-Groping Isn’t Always Romantic
As you can imagine, a surprise sleep seduction might often not be welcome.
In a response post, a 29-year-old male says his relationship ended over his tendency to initiate sex in the middle of the night with his girlfriend. At first, he says he warned his girlfriend up front that he’d done this sort of thing before. Disturbed — and also because she said it triggered her past experience with sexual assault — she broke it off with him, but they soon began seeing each other again after she worked through her anxiety. He couldn’t curb his impulse, and it was the beginning of the end:
While I was asleep and trying to initiate sex I grabbed and pulled her wrist in a violent way. Often times my episodes happen as I’m coming out of sleep so I’m aware of the last several seconds of it. As it happened I couldn’t believe it. It’s not me. It’s not the kind of person I am. I would never hurt someone like that. The look of fear and sadness in her eyes still haunts me. She had a tough time believing me and that I wasn’t in control when these things occurred. Over the next couple of weeks we tried to work it out. She eventually believed me that my episodes were real and that I never wanted to hurt her but the anxiety from her past couldn’t allow her to love me anymore. Her body shut down around me. I could tell by the way she grew distant that things were ending. It was devastating. I loved her.
But It Doesn’t Mean You’re a Total Creep, Either
Sexsomnia isn’t wildly pervasive. One sleep clinic reported that only 7.6 percent of their patients had reported such an episode. It’s three times more likely in men than women. The clinic noted that because these were patients already being treated for other sleep disorders, the real prevalence of the condition is likely to be lower in the general population.
For those who experience it, it’s a bizarre acting-out that doesn’t always align with their typical behaviors, or even their typical waking sexual preferences, even when it’s okay with their partner.
Last year, a 31-year-old gay man wrote to Dan Savage to express concern about his sexsomnia. Even though his fiancé “finds it sexy,” the sexsomniac still wondered why he was trying to perform sexual acts he doesn’t typically seek out, like rimming and topping. Savage reached out to an expert who explained, more or less, that the behavior isn’t necessarily a reflection of “significant underlying psychiatric condition.” In other words, he’s not secretly a rape-y top who wants to eat ass.
Last year, we visited the idea of sexsomnia at MEL and found that it’s a relatively newly understood phenomenon, usually benign enough but potentially very dark:
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.
There’s a Legal Gray Area for Rape and Assault Cases
But complicating all this is that other instances of sexsomnia are perceived as rape, insomuch as they are absolutely unwanted, nonconsensual and extremely disturbing sex acts.
Take this tale of Tom and Sarah over at the BBC: Sarah awakes to find boyfriend Tom trying to penetrate her in a crude, disturbing way. He has no recollection of the episode. But Sarah recalls that Tom had told her he spent seven years in jail for raping ex-girlfriend Karen in her sleep in the same way. Sarah convinces Tom to see a doctor and get expert help.
The BBC writes:
“His brainwaves in his sleep study show something very unusual,” says Dr Guy Leschziner, the consultant neurologist in charge of Tom’s case.
“He appears to be awake and deeply asleep at the same time. During brief periods we can see the large slow brainwaves of deep sleep, with superimposed fast rhythms, suggesting simultaneously that he is awake. … It’s the parts of the brain controlling vision, movement and emotion that appear to be awake. While areas of the brain involved in memory, decision-making and rational thinking appear to remain in deep sleep. So people in this state can talk, walk, eat, cook, drive or even have sex, without clear consciousness or memory.
That sounds like a wonderful alibi, but in Tom’s case, it wasn’t enough to convince a jury of his innocence.
Still, other people have used the sexsomnia defense or the general sleepwalking defense successfully. A Toronto man drove and murdered his mother-in-law in the middle of the night and was acquitted because he claimed to be asleep during the ordeal. An Arizona man who murdered his wife, allegedly in his sleep, was convicted. More recently, a Glasgow man was acquitted of rape charges for having sex with his wife hundreds of times while he was allegedly asleep. She told the jury she thought he was trying to spice things up.
Here’s How to Tell if You’re a Sexsomniac
It’s important to note that waking up while feeling a bit randy, then turning over to reach for your partner to engage in half-awake, groggy sex, is not at all the same thing. Here’s how health experts list the symptoms of sexsomnia:
• fondling or inducing foreplay with bed partner
• pelvic thrusting
• behaviors that mimic sexual intercourse
• sexual intercourse
• spontaneous orgasm
• glassy, vacant look in eyes during these behaviors
• being unaware of behavior later
Again, it’s caused by stress, lack of sleep and using prescription or illegal drugs or alcohol (hint: Ambien), and sufferers who eliminate these substances and/or issues typically see some improvements.
And How to Tell if You’re the Bad Kind of Sexsomniac
Our limited understanding still doesn’t change the ultimate conundrum here or its potential legal ramifications: When is sexsomnia just an awkward but ultimately welcome condition, and when is it a problem?
It all depends on the recipient’s interpretation of the events.
Like the first poster on Reddit and the Dan Savage advice-seeker, there are people who seem to enjoy it. Glamour recently reported on the condition, and told the story of a woman named Grace and her partner, who’d stopped having any waking sex, yet the sex they had while both were asleep soon became they only sex they were actually having, which managed to foster legitimate intimacy between them. In other words, a sexsomniac love story.
Glamour notes that one woman said her sexsomniac husband would announce during his attempts at sleep sex that if she wouldn’t fuck him, he’d find someone who would. But another sexsomniac man told them that “he says really loving and tender things to his partner during his episodes of sexsomnia.”
The difference, bizarrely enough, may simply all come down to how the sexsomniac goes about their banditing—and how that lands on a completely knocked-out lover who was just trying to catch a couple of Zs.
In more benign cases, there might be a practical solution. “I am a sleep groper, and we have found a solution that has worked for me,” writes a Redditor called Mindtaker. “It’s pillow wall!…Which is really just a body pillow. It gets all my sleep attention and she gets to sleep.”