Article By Ro White
~ March 2023 ~
YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD about sleepwalking and sleeping talking—but what about sleep sex?
Sexsomnia, or “sleep sex,” is a sleep disorder that causes people to engage in sexual behavior while they’re fully asleep, when they have no awareness of what they’re doing.
How do you know if you have sexsomnia? If you’re exhibiting sexsomnia symptoms, how do you treat it, and what can you do to keep yourself and your household members safe? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about sexsomnia.
What is sexsomnia?
Sexsomnia is a type of parasomnia, or a disorder marked by abnormal behavior during sleep. Parasomnia behaviors can include talking, walking, eating, bedwetting, or even driving—and for people experiencing sexsomnia, that behavior is sexual.
Sexsomnia might involve masturbating, groping, pelvic thrusting, spontaneous orgasm, or initiating intercourse with others. People experiencing sexsomnia have no awareness or memory of their behavior.
How common is sexsomnia?
It’s hard to know exactly how many people experience sexsomnia, because patients don’t always share these symptoms with their doctors. “The whole issue is filled with a lot of guilt and embarrassment,” says Dr. Chris Winter, M.D., a neurologist, sleep specialist, and host of the podcast Sleep Unplugged. “But [sexsomnia] is a lot more common than people think.”
According to research presented at the 2010 meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC, sexsomnia was reported by almost 8% of patients at a sleep disorders center. Of those patients, men were nearly three times more likely than women to exhibit sexsomnia symptoms.
How is sexsomnia diagnosed?
“It’s typically diagnosed clinically,” Dr. Winter explains. “Maybe a couple comes in and says a couple of times a month, one partner sexually gropes the other partner during sleep and does not seem to have a particularly clear recollection of it. Or someone says, ‘I noticed a commotion in bed and realized my partner was masturbating in their sleep and didn’t seem to be aware of what was going on.’”
Dr. Winter notes that patients might be embarrassed to bring up this behavior with a doctor, but for people with sexsomnia, getting help as soon as possible is critical for their health, their safety, and the safety of other household members.
“Individuals who already have sleep disorders—sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy—tend to have [sexsomnia episodes] more frequently,” Dr. Winter says. Sleep interruptions like travel and stress can trigger sexsomnia episodes, too, along with alcohol and sleep medications. “The biggest cause of sexsomnia in this country is probably sleeping pill use like Ambien—that’s a huge cause and parasomnias in general,” Dr. Winter says.
How can you treat sexsomnia?
Go to the doctor.
If you believe you may be experiencing sexsomnia, seek help from a doctor. A sleep specialist can diagnose and treat other underlying sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, which may reduce or eliminate your sexsomnia symptoms. Your doctor may also ask you to stop, reduce, or change any sleep medication you’re taking and stick to a sleep schedule. “Regular bedtimes and regular wake times are really important,” Dr. Winter says. He also recommends avoiding alcohol and caffeine in the evening.
See a mental health professional.
A mental health professional can also help you regulate your sleep and curtail sexsomnia episodes. “There are some cognitive behavioral strategies that can be helpful, like when you mentally rehearse certain things you’re going to do before you go to bed,” Dr. Winter says. If you live with a partner, a couple’s therapist can help you come up with a plan to manage your sexsomnia together and recover from the aftermath of sexsomnia episodes—which can be scary for everyone involved.
Protect other people in your home.
In addition to seeking treatment, identifying and avoiding sexsomnia triggers, and improving your overall sleep hygiene, protecting your safety and the safety of others in your home is absolutely essential. That might involve sleeping in a separate bedroom away from other household members. “Some patients also put an alarm on the bedroom door,” Dr. Winter says. “If they get up and open the door, the alarm goes off, which often snaps them out of their sleep or wakes somebody else to let them know that this person is leaving their bedroom.”
A final word on sexsomnia:
It’s worth repeating that you should seek help for sexsomnia as soon as you’re aware that something’s off.
“You might feel really out of control, but these things can be addressed,” Dr. Winter says. “And step number one is talking to somebody about it.”
A version of this article originally appeared here on menshealth.com