Hope has always had an active sex life with her partner. “One time I asked him if he’d enjoyed the present—a blowjob—last night,” says the South African 23-year-old, who prefers to use only her first name since she works in the public sector. “He was completely confused, but I thought he was joking—he has that sort of sense of humor.” Although her boyfriend had initiated the touching that eventually led to oral sex, he insisted that he didn’t remember anything. “Eventually, I complained to him because I was tired and he kept getting handsy at night.” He took it seriously, had a look online, and discovered that he was likely experiencing a little-known condition: sexsomnia.
Sexsomnia—also known as sleep sex or sleep groping—belongs to a category of sleep disorders called parasomnias. Parasomnias constitute a number of undesirable physical events or sensory experiences that happen when falling asleep, during sleep, or waking up from sleep (think sleepwalking, talking in your sleep, or sleep paralysis). Parasomnias in general are experienced by around 4.2 percent of the general adult population. Sexsomnia is characterized by a sleeper engaging in sexual activities—including masturbation, fondling, and full on intercourse—often with limited awareness, environmental unresponsiveness, and a complete lack of memory of the event ever happening. It’s been difficult to survey people with the condition about the experience, so there’s almost no epidemiological information about it.
Sleep experts believe that sexomnia occurs during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, otherwise known as deep sleep. “When suddenly aroused from deep sleep, a person can enter into a sleep-state dissociation—in this case being both awake, with regard to motor activity, and still asleep, with regard to higher cognitive functions such as judgment,” says John Cline, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and sleep psychologist at the Sleep Disorders Center of Connecticut. This means that an individual can get an erection or experience vaginal lubrication, physically move their body to engage in various sex acts, and even reach orgasm, while being completely amnesic of anything having ever happened.
This is the case for the sexsomniacs I spoke to. A 30-year-old project manager living in Luxembourg describes how he can never remember the sex he has at night the next morning: “I usually feel quite ashamed of myself and start worrying about my partner, fearing that I might have hurt her or done something against her will.” A 27-year-old research chemist from Ohio tells me that she and her husband are both sexsomniacs. She explains that her husband has sloppier movements and doesn’t notice her body language cues after initiating sleep sex, while she finds the experience of waking up mid-sex somewhat confusing and disorienting. For Californian Sammy Reynard, 46, one of three things happens. “Very rarely, we will complete sex acts, I go back to sleep and am never aware of it,” he recalls. “Slightly more commonly, I will wake up during and once I get my bearings, continue while awake. Most commonly, I will at some point stop and go back to sleep before we've finished.”
Other parasomnias, as well as obstructive sleep apnea (a disorder that disrupts breathing during sleep), may be a major predisposing factor for sleep sex, suggests Carlos H. Schenck, psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School. This makes sense for Reynard, who also experiences sleep paralysis. In this context, we can kind of understand the relationship between to the two conditions. However, for many others, it’s not quite as simple. Cline believes that excessive fatigue, high levels of stress, and prior substance use may play a role in the onset of sexsomnia, but ultimately concludes that—so far—there is no definitive explanation for what causes it.
As Schenck explains, the occurrence of both amnesia and waking up during sex can have potentially tricky consequences. “There are reported cases of the name of someone else being uttered during the nocturnal sex—without any basis in reality—which arouses suspicions of infidelity,” he says. “Then there are reported scenarios where the female sexsomniac initiates sex, and the male partner is willing, despite the associated sleep disruption, and during the sexual intercourse the female wakes up and says, ‘what are you doing? I don't want to have sex.’”
Lee Copland, a 28-year-old Australian student, tells me that his first experience with sexsomnia ultimately ended a friendship. When he was 16, he had a sleepover with two platonic female friends, one of whom stopped speaking to him the following day. “The other friend told me I had groped her and that was why. I tried to apologize and explain that I had no recollection of that happening, but unfortunately that friendship was irreparable.”
Given what we know about sexsomnia, Copland’s explanation is believable. Nonetheless, the perception of sexsomnia is complicated by the reality of sexual assault, as well as various criminal cases in the US and Canada, where defendants accused of sexual offenses have claimed the sleep disorder as a defense. These cases might lead the public to perceive sexsomnia as an excuse, rather than an actual clinical condition.
More from Tonic:
The first time Rowan Miller—whose preferred pronoun is “they”—tried to speak to a couples therapist about their partner Alex’s sexsomnia, they had the feeling that the therapist suspected something more sinister. For a period, the 27-year-old from Washington state wasn’t aware that Alex was experiencing sexsomnia and assumed that he was touching them with the intent of initiating sex. Sometimes they would reciprocate, but often they would simply cuddle him and—as Miller understood the situation—Alex would go back to sleep.
One night Miller woke up in pain. “I remember having a vague memory of him thrusting on top of me, but it was just bits and pieces since I was asleep,” they tell me. Miller was sexually assaulted in their sleep by a friend during high school and experiences PTSD as a result. The brief memories of the previous night triggered their PTSD. Alex told Miller that he wasn’t sure whether they’d had sex. “I am trying to keep my panic under control, and I tell him that I'm pretty sure penetration did happen because I am injured and in pain. Then I tell him that I would like to revise our [previously set] boundary [allowing consensual] wake-up sex, because this time I was in deep sleep and the similarity to my molestation was causing me trauma.”
Miller says that Alex was also traumatized by the event—he's not a violent or abusive partner and had no recollection of what happened. He searched online and came across sexsomnia, which they both believe was what occurred that night and on other occasions when Alex had touched Miller with uncharacteristic lightness or roughness. After a while, the couple stopped having sex completely and Alex even stopped cuddling and expressing physical intimacy in bed, out of fear for how he might behave when asleep. “I pushed really hard for us to go to couples therapy, because it is important to catch problems early instead of when they have been getting worse for years and are beyond the point of no return,” Miller explains. After a few months, they’re still not having sex, but are finding their new therapist helpful and hope to see a sexsomnia specialist in the future.
Just being aware of his condition and what it entails has helped Reynard better manage his sexsomnia. He first became aware that he was trying to initiate sleep sex over 20 years ago, and it’s taken him some time to figure out how to deal with it. “The partner I discovered it with, once we knew what it was, was fascinated by it and enjoyed it,” he remembers. “The second partner it happened with never really believed in it and alternated between just going along with my ‘kink’ of pretending I was asleep, and being annoyed that I was waking her in the middle of the night trying to have sex.” Reynard tells me that his biggest strategy to live with this functionally is to discuss his sexsomnia with his partners. To date, he’s told that he always responds to being turned away by giving up and falling back asleep.
Schenck agrees that a good initial method for couples experiencing sexsomnia can be to explore whether the sexsomniac responds positively to a gentle “stop, you’re asleep.” Cline suggests that good sleep hygiene, avoiding alcohol and other psychoactive drugs prior to bedtime, and getting enough sleep can all minimize stress, fatigue, and potential disruptors of deep sleep. He adds that safety measures, including sleeping in separate bedrooms, can protect the bed partner if sexsomnia does occur. Psychotherapy and stress management techniques can help mitigate episodes, too. Both sleep disorder specialists are keen to emphasize to individuals experiencing sleep sex that it is often a clinical condition, and that professional assessment and treatment of sleep apnea, other parasomnias, or conditions such as epilepsy may assist with reducing occurrences of sexsomnia.
That said, it’s always worth clarifying whether a partner might actually enjoy sleep sex. “While it can be extremely annoying, most nights I revel in it,” Hope says. “It’s just an incredible turn-on for me and makes me feel incredibly wanted. Sometimes it drives me nuts, particularly while writing exams, but 90 percent of the time I either ignore it—if I’m not in the mood—or I get into it. If I firmly say ‘no’ and don’t react, he will go back into a deeper sleep. It feels like a little secret we have together.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.