It’s time to talk about “sleep sex,” an infrequent yet difficult sleep disorder that involves engaging in sexual activity while asleep and the inability to remember it in the morning. In 2010, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) reported that this erotic sleep disorder affected 7.6 percent, or 63 out of 832, patients at a sleep disorder center.
It’s officially called sexsomnia, and it’s rare, but real. Although experts don’t know a lot about it, what they do know is that it can have real health and legal implications for those who experience it.
In a moving 2021 personal essay for Well + Good that’s recently been re-making its way around the Internet, writer Morgan Mandriota detailed her experience with sexsomnia. She describes spending the weekend with a friend and being mortified after being told the next morning that she was moaning so loudly in her sleep that her friend’s parents thought Mandriata and her friend were having sex.
“Mortifying? Yup. Did I ever show my face there again? Nope. Welcome to my reality of living with sexsomnia,” she wrote.
What Exactly IS Sexsomnia?
Essentially, it’s a rare type of parasomnia (aka a sleep disorder). The AASM says that it involves a person, “ initiating or engaging in sexual activity with a bed partner while asleep.” But it can occur while someone is alone as well, and most of the time, the people affected have no recollection of it.
Mandriota notes that for her, it tends to show up in the form of “groggy morning masturbation,” but SELF explains that it can also occur through intercourse, groping, and more.
What Causes Sexsomnia?
Researchers aren’t entirely sure. SELF’s Patia Braithwaite reviewed a 2016 study that looked at 41 patients who had been diagnosed with sexsomnia and found that 73 percent of them (29 participants) had a history of other types of sleep problems, including sleepwalking.
Mandriota spoke to sociologist and clinical sexologist Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., who noted that, “Stressful events, moderate to high levels of alcohol intake or marijuana consumption the night before, changes in one’s relationship, and physical contact with a partner while sleeping have [also] been linked,” to the condition.
How Does Sexsomnia Impact Your Sleep?
One article by the American Association of Sleep Technologists (AAST), describes sexsomnia as occurring during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and like other parasomnias, in between other sleep phases.
Sexsomnia is similar to the likes of sleepwalking. It can manifest itself through other existing sleep disorders as well, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), sleep talking, and sleep-related epilepsy, according to Healthline.
What to Do if You Have Sexsomnia
Sexsomnia can be straight up uncomfortable and embarrassing. But thankfully, there are some changes you can make to manage sexsomnia.
- Start an observation journal. Healthline advises those who suspect they are experiencing sexsomnia to ask those who’ve seen an episode to journal their experiences. This information may help a doctor with reaching a diagnosis.
- Seek medical treatment. Make an appointment with your usual doctor and come prepared with documented examples. Visiting a psychologist can also help those with this condition pinpoint potential triggers or causes they may not be aware of.
- Identify triggers. Whether it’s an existing sleep disorder in conjunction with sexsomnia or something like anxiety or stress, it will help you figure out what exacerbates sexsomnia episodes.
- Improve your sleep hygiene. Take a look at your habits, assess what could be causing your sexsomnia, and pivot. This could include implementing earlier bedtime routines, cutting out alcohol before bed, or adding a new ritual like meditation to reduce stress or anxiety.
- Remember that you’re enough. Remember that this condition is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. If you have sexsomnia, you may be grappling with some complicated feelings related to it, and we can assure it’s not your fault.
Tips for Navigating a Relationship with Sexsomnia
While sexsomnia can be uncomfortable in itself, it also brings up some concerns for consent with a partner. Below are some tips for maintaining a healthy relationship if one of you had this condition.
- Communication is key. Sex educator Dainis Graveris explained to Well + Good that you should create an open dialogue with potential partners about your disorder before spending a night together. It’s also a good idea to discuss how you each view and value consent and make a plan for how each of you might have to respond to an episode of sexsomnia.
- Sleeping apart. If you’re fearful of crossing a line Dr. Sarah Melancon also told Well + Good that you can try sleeping apart to be safe. You can find more details on navigating a potential sleep divorce, here.
Do you or someone you know have a tip that helps you better live with sexsomnia? We’d like to hear from you. Send us a note at [email protected].