Sexsomnia – It’s a real thing
During the height of my couch-surfing days, there was a night where I accepted too many surfers for our space and I ended up sharing my bed with my housemate to make up for the extra people in our apartment. Given that there were three extra men in the apartment, two of whom were complete strangers, it didn’t seem like the worst idea to have someone I trusted sharing my room.
My housemate and I had been feeling some definite chemistry but had explicitly decided not to get physical for the sake of our friendship, and living situation, so we just went to sleep. You can imagine my shock when I woke up to him grabbing my breast.
I froze in fear.
I couldn’t believe my friend, someone I trusted, was trying to touch me, without my consent. When I paused my feverish brain as it tried to process what was happening, it became clear to me that he wasn’t awake. He was groping me in his sleep.
When I confronted him in the morning, he was surprised and embarrassed. He had no memory of touching me. We did eventually start dating. Over the course of our time together, there was more sleep groping, as well as very intense spooning bear hugs that would leave me gasping for air as I struggled, unsuccessfully, to wake him.
I think I first heard the word sexsomnia around that time but didn’t think much of it. We eventually broke up. While I never forgot those nighttime surprises, they weren’t on my mind anymore until I was once again woken up, this time by the sexual touch of another partner.
Because of past trauma, I’m not the kind of gal that can enjoy being woken up with sex, so I froze again. Despite trusting this person almost unconditionally, I felt fear, sadness, and, honestly, surprise. This helped me to interrupt my triggered mind again to realize this person was also asleep.
Thankfully, random non-consensual groping was not consistent with these two people’s personality, so I was able to pull myself back from fear to recognize that their actions were completely unintentional – and now I’m here to tell you what I learned.
What is Sexsomnia?
The DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), officially included sexsomnia under parasomnias, which includes behaviors such as sleep talking and sleepwalking. Sexsomnia, or sleep sex, is one of two “specialized” forms of sleepwalking, the other being sleep eating. The DSM 5 goes on to explain that, “in sexsomnia, varying degrees of sexual activity (e.g., masturbation, fondling, groping, sexual intercourse) occur as complex behaviors arising from sleep without conscious awareness” (APA, 2013).
Has this always been a thing, who does it affect, and how common is it?
The term sexsomnia was coined in 2003 by researchers Shapiro, Trajanovic, and Fedoroff using the symptoms of 11 patients, nine men and two woman. Several of them were referred to the study due to sexual assault cases with victims they did not remember touching. The researchers found they needed to ask patients specific questions to learn about symptoms, which means people who may experience sexsomnia may not be sharing if not specifically prompted.
When I posted about this condition on Instagram, multiple women commented or messaged me about their male partners having these symptoms. One man self-identified. Studies have also shown a higher prevalence/likelihood in men (Schenck, 2015; Muza, Rexford; Lawrence, Madeleine; Drakatos, Panagis, 2016; Dubessy, Leu-Semenescu, Attali, Maranci, & Arnulf, 2016). It’s definitely possible that this condition is more common in adults with penises than adults with vaginas, but I also imagine that it might be more jarring or noticeable when men with penises engage in unexpected sexual behavior than others and therefore gets identified more.
It is unclear how common sexsomnia is because the person experiencing it generally won’t know unless someone else tells them. A testing-based diagnosis requires observation. The 2015 Schenck study talked about having a total of 94 cases recorded but given that my Instagram post elicited about 6 different examples, in addition to my own two experiences, this might be more common than we know.
What are the causes/risk factors and treatments?
Sexsomia falls under “non–rapid eye movement sleep arousal disorders” (NREM), which are more common in children than adults, but can sometimes occur in adults without a history of them if they have sleep apnea, nocturnal seizures, or as a result of certain medications.
Things that increase risk of experiencing NREM episodes (not limited to sexsomnia) fall into two main categories: environmental and genetic/physiological. Environmental risks include disruptions to one’s normal sleep schedule, sleep deprivation and fatigue, stress, as well as using sedatives. Having a family history of NREM significantly increases someone’s likelihood of having one so it may be useful to speak to family members about whether they engage in sleepwalking.
Shapiro, Trajanovic, and Fedoroff found within their small sample, several of the people they studied had other parasomnia behaviors or familial histories, including sleep talking/walking. Several had sleeping issues and seemed to notice a relationship between stressful life events, as well as alcohol use and frequency. For one patient, use of clonazepam reduced, but did not eliminate sleep sex. For another, continuous positive airway pressure helped reduce or eliminate sexsomonia (Shapiro, Trajanovic, and Fedoroff, 2003).
Why does this matter?
It’s important for more people to know about sexsomnia for a couple of reasons. One, whether you’ve experienced sex-related trauma or not, it can be scary to wake up to someone touching you when you are not expecting that. Two, given that part of what brought this condition to light was children and women reporting sexual assault, it’s important that we learn to recognize symptoms so trauma can be avoided. Lastly, it can be confusing for people who are unaware they exhibit these behaviors and are being confronted about sexual acts they don’t remember. On the flipside, we should be careful that this condition should not be used for covering up intentional assaults (Holoyda, Sorrentino, Mohebbi, Fernando & Friedman, 2021).
Insufficient sleeps effects 50-70 Americans. If you are looking for resources to help you get better sleep, click this link.
Yael R. Rosenstock GonzalezSex Educator, Researcher, Author, Speaker
Yael has been engaged in workshop development and facilitation since she joined the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) as a teen peer reproductive rights educator at 15 years old. Since then, she has served as an educator with children ranging from 10 months old to adults in their 70s with different organizations and communities. In her work as first Program Coordinator, then Director of Programming, and finally Associate Director of the Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding, Yael developed and led events, workshops, and programs with an intersectionality lens.