What Is Sexsomnia? What You Need to Know about Sleep Sex

Sexsomnia. You may not have heard of the term, but it’s easy to surmise what it might be — something to do with sex and slumber. But don’t confuse this disorder with sexual dreams. Sexsomnia, or sleep sex, is the actual engagement of sexual acts while still asleep. It’s certainly not romantic, and it may even be dangerous if the person afflicted forces themselves onto a bed partner.

What Is Sexsomnia?

Sexsomnia is a curious condition — a type of parasomnia, which is an abnormal physical phenomenon that occurs during sleep. Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is a parasomnia. So are sleep talking, sleep-related eating, and confusional arousal (a condition that causes a person to behave in odd and confused ways as they awaken from deep non-REM sleep — they are, in fact, in a combined state of being both asleep and awake).

The individual may appear awake, but they remain unresponsive to environmental cues, or they’re slow to respond to questions, and they typically possess a blank stare. In the morning they have no recollection of what occurred.

If you have a parasomnia, you are more likely to suffer from sexsomnia. Sleep sex participants typically have a history of sleepwalking or confusional arousals — or some other disruptive sleep disorder. Sexsomnia is not a one-off, and it’s not something that happens to a person out of the blue.

The Dangers of Sexsomnia

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An individual may experience an abnormally heightened level of sexual aggression that can lead to sexual assault or rape — against adults or children. A number of individuals who have experienced violent episodes have appeared in court on rape or assault charges, but those found to have a genuine sleep disorder have been acquitted. In these cases, it’s important to know what sexsomnia is…and what it isn’t.

For a legal defense, it’s impossible to fake sleep; the individuals’ history is taken into account (confirming whether or not they have a history of parasomnias) and they must undergo polysomnography, a sleep study that records brain waves, heart rate, breathing, and oxygen levels in the blood — all of which indicate whether or not a person is asleep. If abnormal sexual behavior is determined from the sleep study, acquittal is more likely. 

Sexsomnia is not always violent, however. And it may involve just the individual (self-touching, groaning, pelvic thrusting, etc). Some couples even embrace the act, considering it an exciting extension to their normal waking sexual relations. If it works for you, great. If not, a visit to a sleep specialist should be in the cards.

What Causes Sexsomnia?

Unfortunately, while we can answer the question of what sexsomnia is, we don’t have a clear answer as to what causes it. It appears that episodes of sexsomnia, as with other parasomnias, occur when the brain shifts between deep sleep cycles. It may also be triggered by obstructive sleep apnea. Other triggers that seem to increase the likelihood of experiencing an episode include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Sleep-related epilepsy
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Use of illicit drugs
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Sharing a bed with someone (regardless of their age or relationship)
  • Side effects of medication

Sexsomnia does not occur because of a lack of sexual satisfaction.

Is There a Cure for Sexsomnia?

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Yes, there is.

Where alcohol or drugs trigger sexsomnia, avoidance or reducing their use should be undertaken immediately. Where medication is the trigger, switching to a different drug or adjusting the dosage may be necessary, but your health practitioner must be consulted first.

Your health practitioner should also be able to help with any stress or anxiety issues. In some cases, clonazepam, an anticonvulsant medication that calms the brain and nerves, is prescribed.

If another sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, is the trigger (most likely because they result in sleep deprivation), these disorders should be treated first.

In many cases, the best way to treat sexsomnia is to get adequate sleep. With regular, good quality sleep, occurrences of sleep sex are often reduced or resolved altogether.