Definition of Sexsomnia
We’ve all heard of people who walk, wet the bed, or grind their teeth while sleeping — but what about having sex?
Though rare, sexsomnia is a recently recognized sleep disorder that causes you to have sex in your sleep. Canadian sleep doctor J. Paul Fedoroff, MD, of the University of Ottawa, is credited with coining the term “sexsomnia” in 1996, and it has been getting a lot more attention from researchers of late.
“When I first started doing research, you couldn’t find much about it in academic literature,” says Michael Mangan, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and author of the e-book, Sleepsex: Uncovered. Now it’s advanced to the point where it’s commonly believed to be another one of those things that people do in their sleep.”
According to Mangan, sexsomnia can include the full range of sexual behavior, including simple fondling, sexual vocalizations, moaning and groaning, and intercourse.
While there aren’t a lot of statistics on this sleep disorder, any adult or older teen who sleeps could potentially experience sleep sex, Mangan says. “That includes quite a few people.” However, he adds, it is most likely a small number — about 1 to 2 percent of the general population — which is similar to the number of people who experience other parasomnias, such as sleepwalking.
The vast majority of reported cases of sexsomnia involve men, but women can initiate sleep sex as well. People with prior history of sleep disorders are more likely to experience sleep sex, Mangan says.
Research presented at an annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies found that nearly 8 percent of patients referred to a sleep disorders clinic in Toronto reported engaging in sleep sex. Of the 832 patients asked, 11 percent of men and 4 percent of women said they had engaged in sexual behaviors while asleep.
The Good and Bad of Sleep Sex
Having sex in your sleep has both its advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, Mangan says, both men and women who have experienced sleep sex say they are more assertive when asleep. “Their sexual demeanor is different compared to when they are awake,” he says. “The ordinary inhibitions that confine them to a routine pattern of sexual behavior when they are awake aren’t there. So they’re more adventurous and will do partner-pleasing stuff they don’t ordinarily do.” Sexsomnia can help some people conquer sexual problems.
On the other hand, Mangan says, it raises issues of consent and can harm some relationships. Your sleep partner may not wish to engage in sex and may be victimized by the act. Also, he says, “It can be annoying to have someone pawing away at you when you’re trying to sleep, so you suffer from sleep loss.” Sexsomnia can leave you and your partner feeling tired.
Yet another issue for some people is that they feel abandoned sexually. “A man or a woman might show little interest in sex while he or she is awake,” Mangan says. “But when they go to sleep they turn on and this creates the question on the recipient’s side: Are you dreaming about sex with other people?” Having this sexual problem might create negative sentiment around the couple’s sex life.
Causes of Sleep Sex
Researchers aren’t clear on just what causes this sleep disorder. One theory is that for some people just sharing a bed can trigger an incident. “When you fall asleep in close proximity to someone, being jostled or bumped can trigger a desire for sex that you act on, though you’re asleep,” Mangan says.
Some researchers cite drugs and alcohol as a cause of sexsomnia. Fatigue and stress also are considered likely causes.
Treatment for Sleep Sex
The good news is that sexsomnia is treatable. If stress or anxiety is causing you to have sleep sex, you may benefit from mental health counseling. Good sleep hygiene — getting a full night’s sleep, keeping to a regular sleep schedule, and seeking treatment for any medical conditions you may have — is also important.
While not an easy subject to broach, it’s important you talk to your doctor if you find that you or your partner is experiencing sleep sex. You may benefit from outside help to keep this nocturnal activity from negatively affecting your relationship.