Photo: Antoine Rouleau via Getty Image
This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.When Margot met Loïc five years ago, they were both just out of a long relationship. At the time, both 23 year olds wanted to keep things chill, but they quickly fell in love. It was only after they’d spent the night together a few times that they realised they had a very serious problem on their hands: sexomnia, otherwise known as sleep sex or sexual somnambulism.
That means Loïc touches himself or initiates sex at night, despite being asleep. (Both Loïc and Margot requested anonymity for privacy reasons.) The first time it happened, Margot thought it was just regular sex, although it felt off, like “his brain was unplugged”, as she put it.“He says and does things he doesn't normally do, breathes differently and looks away,” she says of his sexomnia. One morning, she asked him about it without really knowing where to start. He said he had a vague memory of the sex, but didn’t really remember it. According to Sharon Chung, researcher at Sleep Research Unit at the University Health Network in Toronto, this little-known condition actually affects 8 percent of people with sleep disorders. Just like a sleepwalker can take a shower without remembering the day after, Loïc can engage in sexual behaviour – be it masturbation or penetration – while asleep.Sexomnia doesn’t just affect the person who struggles with the disorder. They are often much more sexually aggressive than when they’re awake, and their partners are, unfortunately, often on the receiving end of that treatment. “In real life, he could never be violent,” Margot said. “But at night, he's a completely different person.” Neurologist and sexologist Aurore Malet-Karas calls the phenomenon “impaired inhibition”. In other words, the person cannot control their sexual impulses. “We haven’t been able yet to determine whether this is linked to unconscious fantasies or not,” she adds.
The complicated thing with sexomnia is that it touches on issues of moral and personal responsibility: Loïc unintentionally puts Margot through a lot. “It's very complicated because he's my boyfriend, not my harasser,” she says. “Sometimes it's hard not to feel resentful when you've had a terrible night. He's the source of the problem, but he also suffers from it. He doesn't do it on purpose.” At first, Margot chose to stay with him. Somewhere along the line, she explains, she felt invested in supporting him. She couldn't bear the thought of leaving the person she loved to face his condition on his own.But because sexomnia is still little understood among the public and the medical establishment, she often feels lonely an disolated. “The topic hasn’t been discussed or researched for that long,” Malet-Karas says. “From a neurobiological point of view, we don't have much to go on.” For a while, Margot reassured and supported Loïc, but that led her to neglect herself and the impact Loïc’s condition had on her own life. After all, sleep “has a major impact on quality of life,” explains Malet-Karas. When it’s constantly interrupted, you can develop fatigue and serious health problems – just ask any new parent. “It affects my self-confidence and my libido,” Margot sighs.
Margot still has to push Loïc away on a nightly basis. “That ranges from a simple, slightly assertive hug, where I just need to nudge him, to having to really hit him,” she says. “It's really hard because it feels like gratuitous violence. I hit him and he won't even remember it.” Every morning, before he even says hi, Loïc asks what happened during the night and apologises.Although Margot doesn't blame him for his disorder, resentment inevitably shows up when they argue. “The problem always comes up,” she adds. During the first month of their relationship, Margot fell asleep early and Loïc tried to penetrate her, injuring her in the process. She screamed, which woke him up and made him realise what he was doing. He started sobbing, saying that he was a rapist, though he had no memory of what had just happened. “If these episodes had remained small and easy to push against, he would never have become aware of the problem,” Margot says.It took several months of asking before Loïc finally sought help. “The fact that you're asleep, that you're not experiencing these actions... It took me a long time to realise [what was going on],” Loïc explains. “I blamed myself because I took too long to understand how serious this was.” At first, Loïc thought he could manage this on his own – like a typical man who refuses to see a GP, Margot recalls. “Very patriarchal,” she adds.
Sexomnia is also complicated from a legal and ethical perspective. When Loïc has sex with Margot when he’s asleep, he doesn’t ask for consent. Controversially, some defendants in sexual assault trials have even claimed to have sexomnia as part of a successful defence. But Malet-Karas believes the issue isn’t black and white when people are aware of their partner’s diagnosis and stay in the relationship of their own free will. “Everything hinges on the decision to support [the diagnosed partner] or not,” Malet-Karas explains. A year ago, all these complications led Margot to break up with Loïc. “I couldn't take it any more, I felt alone with this problem,” she says. A few months later, they got back together, under one condition: Loïc had to seek specialist help. “I kept putting it off because I knew the process was going to be long,” Loïc remembers. “But it’s a journey that has to be done.” According to Malet-Karas, sexomnia is rarely cured. “You have to learn to live with it,” she explains. This is where Loïc and Margot are at: They’ve made the necessary adjustments to make their life as a couple as healthy as possible. They have a second bedroom so Margot can sleep alone if she wants to; a situation that Loïc finds sad, but “manages to put [my] feelings aside to do what needs to be done.” When they sleep together, they place a bolster pillow between them. “I can’t fall asleep skin-on-skin with her anymore,” Loïc says.Although they do their best not to let the condition take over their relationship, it comes up in their daily lives. Since the diagnosis, their sex life has been close to non-existent – Margot can find everyday sex too triggering. “It's a sort of necessary break,” she says. “We're still a bit shocked by it all, even after five years.” Loïc hopes they can find a way to get back to regular intimacy. “Today, sex is full of anxiety,” he says. “I'd rather do nothing than take the risk that something goes wrong. But because of this disorder, I'm depriving us of something cool.”It's hard to imagine what the future holds for them, but Loïc and Margot are still in love and say they want to greet it standing shoulder to shoulder. On the bad days, though, Margot sometimes feels herself pulling towards a break-up. “I hope he'll manage to relieve me of some of the weight I'm carrying,” she says. “I'm hopeful, because it's already started.”If there’s one bright side to their ordeal, it’s that they’ve learnt to communicate extremely well and are now, paradoxically, very comfortable with each other. “It's strange, we know we want to have kids, even though we don’t have sex,” Loïc says. “We take it one day at a time, but there's hope. We'll deal with it.”