‘Sexsomnia’: Studies Shed Light On Obscure ‘Sleep Sex’ Disorder

Sexsomnia; what image does that word conjure up?

Although it’s poorly-understood among the general public, most have heard of insomnia, the classic can’t-sleep condition, but sexsomnia sounds like an excuse a teenager would come up with. However, according to a report from the Huffington Post, the condition may be significantly more prevalent than previously believed.

In fact, a study at the Toronto Western Hospital in Canada found that, out of 832 sleep center patients, some 7.6 percent experienced sexsomnia, a genuine condition that causes people to engage in sexual behaviors in their sleep, including making sexual noises, pelvic thrusting, masturbation, and intercourse.

And while many doctors have never even heard of it, researchers are beginning to study the condition more closely.

During sleep studies, doctors monitor nervous system and brain-wave activity to determine if subjects are genuinely suffering from a disorder.
During sleep studies, doctors monitor nervous system and brain-wave activity to determine if subjects are genuinely suffering from a disorder. [Photo by Jeff T. Green/Getty Images]
Broadly speaking, sexsomnia is a parasomnia; that is, a sleep disorder that causes unusual involuntary behavior of the nervous system while asleep. To put that a little more simply, it’s the same group of disorders that includes sleepwalking, tooth grinding, and restless leg syndrome.

Dr. Saul Rothenberg, a sleep specialist with Northwell Health, explained to CBS New York.

“Normally, you’re either asleep or awake and in parasomnias, including sex, you would have an incomplete awakening. So you’re stuck in sleep, but you start doing things that are normally restricted to waking.”

The patients, much like sleepwalkers, have no recollection whatsoever of what they were doing upon awakening fully — which, at the very least, can lead to some uncomfortable conversations around the dinner table.

Some questions may be more awkward than others.
Some questions may be more awkward than others. [Photo by Franck Prevel/Getty Images]
From this point on, please be aware that this article will be discussing sensitive, triggering subjects including sexual assault, rape, and child abuse.

And although there is currently no treatment for sexsomnia, medical researchers and doctors are now studying the condition in an effort to understand and treat it. While to some, it is merely an annoyance, to others, it can be upsetting, or even dangerous, leading partners, family members, even strangers who happen to be sleeping in the same room to assault or molest one another without even being aware of it. This is not only troubling on its own, it can lead to unwanted complications (such as an unwanted or even incestual pregnancy) or a danger of physical harm to either or both parties.

Unsurprisingly, there is a darker side to increased public awareness of a sleep sex disorder. Anyone who has watched any television whatsoever is familiar with the sleepwalking defense — claims that a defendant committed a crime while sleepwalking and was therefore not responsible for their actions. So, naturally, the sleep-sex defense has been used multiple times in court, and has even proven successful at least twice in spite of the extreme rarity of actual sexsomnia-induced intercourse.

According to Salon, a man was acquited of charges of raping a 16-year-old girl in 2007 thanks to the sleep-sex defense, and another in Denmark was acquitted of raping two girls in 2013. Both were high-profile cases overseas. More recently, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reports that a man serving 14 years for raping a teenage girl after a judge rejected his sexsomnia defense has been awarded a new trial due to alleged bad advice from his lawyer.

Perhaps worst of all, an Ottawa father was acquitted in his second trial for raping his seven-year-old daughter, on a defense of sexsomnia. In all fairness to the man, who cannot be named to protect his daughter’s identity, his daughter sided with him, stating that he was not to blame. But not only is she only seven years old, these cases potentially set a dangerous precedent, and studies have found that incidences of sexsomnia defenses are growing.

Meanwhile, please be assured that actual cases of sexsomnia-caused intercourse are extremely rare, and that if you do suffer from the condition, there are some steps that you can take.

Doctors recommend that reducing stress, alcohol and drug intake, avoiding sleeping medications (many of which are hypnotics), and simply making sure that you get enough sleep can all help reduce the triggering factors of parasomniac conditions. In some cases, separate bedrooms may be necessary, and a basic lock or latch requiring more than minimal coordination may be sufficient to thwart extreme incidents while asleep.

[Photo by Jacobsen/Three Lions/Getty Images]