Sleep sexing – understanding sexsomnia

A sexsomniac is a term used to describe someone who has a sleep disorder, in which a person unconsciously engages in sexual activity. This includes moaning in a sexual way, to masturbating, to full intercourse. When they wake up, an insomniac has no recollection of what’s gone on in their sleep.

The sexual behaviour can be very aggressive, and even violent.

Who gets sexsomnia?

Sexsomnia is a type of parasomnia, like sleepwalking, sleep eating, or night terrors. It is estimated that around one in 10 people is affected by these sleep disorders.

In one study, about four per cent of women who suffer from parasomnias reported sexual behaviours in their sleep. Men can be insomniacs too, with another study looking at what we do while we’re asleep, and how that differs by (cis) gender.

Men commonly engage in fondling and intercourse with females, while women almost exclusively engaged in masturbation and sexual vocalisations.

Women report they’ve been told by partners that they are much more aggressive when they’re sleep-sexing, initiating things that would normally be well out of their comfort zone. This can be embarrassing, and kinda cool at the same time. Foreplay may go completely out the window.

Why does sexsomnia occur?

The question is, is this some kind of deep-seated desire floating out while we’re asleep? It seems not.

Sleep is complicated, with several stages involved that affect various parts of the brain and body. Sexsomnia occurs in stage 3 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, where the prefrontal cortex is inactive. This part of our brain controls rational thought, decision-making, morality, and other parts of our ‘mind’ that may inhibit our behaviour in real life.

During NREM sleep, the body is not paralysed as it is during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. If you are partially woken during stage 3 sleep, the sleep walking, eating, and talking may occur. The body has nobody being the captain of the ship (prefrontal cortex), so the body just does whatever it likes, satiating its needs as it sees fit. That may include getting it on, eating, or feeling safe. This is the flight-fight-or-fuck response.

Sexsomniacs are likely to have other sleep issues such as nightmares, restless leg syndrome, or sleep apnoea.

Treatment for sexsomniacs

Treating the underlying sleep disorder is key to curing sexsomnia, with one study into sleep disorders curing 10 people out of 11 of sexsomnia. The main problem remains sleep, not being a sex-crazed maniac.

The legal ramifications of sexsomnia

People who are awake do not have the same level of legal responsibility, since sexsomnia is a legitimate sleep disorder with laws that exist to support legal defences based on when we are not in control of our actions (automatism). The legal defence of automatism has two varieties, with for example twitches or seizures being one, and being in a blackout-type state (semi-fugue state). This means sexsomnia could fit into either category – being a result of a seizure or a sleep disorder.

But, having sex with someone while you’re asleep, and maybe they’re asleep, is tricky business. Criminal actions such as sexual assault or rape don’t go away because you were asleep, and a court will weigh the evidence appropriately to determine whether the criminal actions were involuntary. 

This is extra tricky when the sexual behaviour is directed at a less forgiving party, such as a child. Sexsomnia has been used as a defence in some cases, with an example being a man who was accused of molesting his step-daughter. He used the sexsomnia excuse, however the court found that because he positioned her pillows and opened and closed the door to her room meant that he had higher brain functions going on than would be present in sexsomnia.

Typically, sexsomniacs don’t leave the bed. If you can walk and open a door, you have something else.

References

  • Organ A, Fedoroff JP. Sexsomnia: sleep sex research and its legal implications. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2015 May;17(5):34. doi: 10.1007/s11920-015-0568-y.
  • Carlos H. Schenck, Isabelle Arnulf, Mark W. Mahowald, Sleep and Sex: What Can Go Wrong? A Review of the Literature on Sleep Related Disorders and Abnormal Sexual Behaviors and Experiences, Sleep, Volume 30, Issue 6, June 2007, Pages 683–702.
  • Zaharna, Mia, et al. “Sexual behavior during sleep: convenient alibi or parasomnia; ‘sexsomnia’ disrupts sleep, threatens relationships, and has forensic implications.” Current Psychiatry, vol. 7, no. 7, 2008, p. 21+.
Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)
Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

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