Sexsomnia: More Common Than You Might Think

Sex or sleep? For some, the answer is both

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m so tired, I’d rather sleep than have sex?” Well, there are people who do both.

Sexsomniacs have sex while they are sleeping. They are sound asleep while they masturbate, fondle, initiate sex or just produce some pretty loud sexual moaning sounds. And the next day, they have no memory of any of it. This is different than waking up from a particularly hot dream and initiating sex, and it’s different than waking up to a partner whose trying to jumpstart your engine.

Depending on the person sexsomnia can be exciting and interesting—or destructive and abusive. The sexsomniac has no control over his nocturnal actions, leaving some feeling guilty, confused or ashamed over the behavior. And if you’re the one he’s sharing a bed with, you can be fearful of what will happen once the sexsomniac falls asleep. You could feel robbed of sexual intimacy or just outright annoyed.

For Adam, 28, of San Diego (not his real name), sleep sex was a huge turn-on for his girlfriend. In his case, sexsomnia actually added some zing to their sex lives. But it can cause embarrassment, like the time Adam’s fraternity brothers found their sleeping friend masturbating. “They never let me hear the end of it, but I just joke right back with them,” Adam says. “Now when we go on road trips, I get to demand my own bed and everyone obliges. It actually worked out great for me.” 

What causes sexsomnia?

Just like eating or protecting yourself from danger, sex is a primal impulse, explains Michel Cramer Bornemann, M.D., sleep forensics expert and Director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center. The urges are housed in the brain stem, located at the very base of your brain. Fortunately you also have a cortex, which serves as your brain’s hallway monitor and reminds us to control ourselves. So while your primal urge might be to punch that driver who slammed into your car, your alert cortex stops you from actually doing it.

When you’re sleeping, your cortex is resting too, but the brain stem is always working. You might get sexually stimulated by a dream or just turned on by the feel of your partner beside you in bed. In most people, these urges stop right there. But here’s where an urge can turn to sexsomnia: The brain stem is located very close to the sleep center of the brain and an impulse can misfire. If the sleep center accidentally picks up that “let’s get it on” signal, the next thing you know, you’re not just dreaming about sex, you’re acting on that urge.

“This switching error can happen in all of us,” says Dr. Cramer Bornemann. “In some of us, this happens once in a blue moon and it’s not a clinical condition. In others, it can happen with greater frequency and can certainly be very troublesome and problematic.”

How common is it?

No one knows for sure, but a recent study indicates it's more common than previously thought. A review of more than 800 patients at a Toronto-area sleep clinic revealed that 7.6 percent of patients who had undergone sleep studies reported symptoms of sexsomnia. The report showed that it affected 11 percent of male patients and 4 percent of females. And researcher Sharon A. Chung, Ph.D., of Toronto Western Hospital department of psychiatry says those numbers might not tell the whole story. For example, the study only looked at people who were being evaluated for other sleep disorders, so it’s not indicative of how common sexsomnia is in the general population. And it was based on questions on an intake form, not a specific sexsomnia survey.

The seminal study on sexsomnia, published in 2007 by Drs. Carlos Schenck and Mark Mahowald at the University of Minnesota and Dr. Isabelle Arnulf of the Stanford University School of Medicine in the journal SLEEP, showed that this condition presents itself in different ways in men and women. Women are more likely to masturbate and moan sexually, whereas men are more likely to fondle and initiate sex.

Sexsomnia is more likely to occur if someone has a bed partner, says Dr. Cramer Bornemann, though it can happen when sleeping alone. Factors such as sleep medications, obstructive sleep apnea and extreme exhaustion can trigger sexsomnia episodes. In Adam’s case, he believes stress triggers sleep sex. “It sort of went away when I started meditating and working on incorporating other stress-reducing methods,” he says.

If after ruling out those factors sexsomnia is still a problem, there are drugs that can help. Clonazepam, a benzodiazepine most often used to treat anxiety or as a sedative-hypnotic for insomnia, is effective in more than 70 percent of cases, Dr. Cramer Bornemann says.

For some sexsomnia might not be cause for complaint, but the main reason for Dr. Chung’s research has to do with a very serious issue—sexsomnia is being used as a legal defense in rape cases. Dr. Cramer Bornemann, who regularly serves as an expert witness in sexsomnia-defense criminal cases, says that because sleep sex arises from a primal urge, often triggered simply by sharing a bed, some of these defenses do stand up in court.

“A case with merit is usually because you have two people sleeping in close proximity who probably shouldn’t have been sleeping in close proximity,” Dr. Cramer Bornemann says. “But it’s not because the defense says that, ‘He slept-walked two doors down and then sexually molested the 12-year-old.’ That’s not the pattern of behavior I’m talking about.”

For this reason, understanding how common it is and why it happens could help stop abusive sexsomnia from occurring. “More research is needed,” Dr. Cramer Bornemann says. “I think it’s important to better understand this because it has significant forensic implications. As I personally believe, the misapplication of this knowledge is a problem in the legal realm.”

Have you ever had an experience with sexsomnia? Chime in below!

Like this? Read these:
- 8 Natural Remedies for Insomnia
- No Doze: One Woman’s Five-Year Struggle with Sleep
- 9 Ways to Get Better Sleep

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