FOXSexpert: Understanding Sleep Sex Disorders

Imagine falling asleep, having sex, and not remembering a thing. You have no clue that you have sexually expressed yourself. You can’t recall any pleasurable effects. You don’t know that you suffer from this sleep oddity until a partner says something — until you’re awakened with a good slap. Or, in the worst-case scenario, somebody presses charges against you.

Misunderstood and under-recognized, it is only recently that sleep disorders involving sex have received proper attention. These conditions cause the sleeper — and any partner — distress, and they can have legal ramifications. Forensic consequences are common.

There are at least 11 different sex-related sleep disorders that are classified as “sexsomnia,” “sleep sex,” or “atypical sexual behavior during sleep.” People with sexsomnia unknowingly engage in a variety of sexual activities while they sleep. Reported behaviors include fondling, masturbation, initiating sex with a partner, sexual vocalizations, sexual assault and/or rape (including of one’s spouse), sleep exacerbation of persistent sexual arousal syndrome, ictal sexual hyperarousal and ictal orgasm. (“Ictal” is a physiological state like that of a seizure or stroke.)

In a review of studies regarding behavioral sleep disorders that were published between 1950 and 2006, psychiatrist Carl Schenck and colleagues found that having another sleep disorder, like sleep terrors or sleepwalking, puts one at increased risk for sleep sex. Those with a history of sleep apnea, bedwetting and seizure disorders appear to be at greater risk for experiencing sexsomnia. Documented sleep sex clinical cases include:

— A 34-year-old man who masturbated every night, after sleeping for two to three hours, despite having sex nightly with his wife before bedtime;

— A 26-year-old woman who would talk erotically to her husband between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m. When he would respond positively, she would awaken and accuse him of forcing sex on her while she slept;

— A husband who would grab his wife’s butt and grind up against her from behind while sleeping.

Whether married, coupled or single, any case of sexsomnia involves the “no consent” issue of sex. Sleep invites the opportunity for the emergence of a person’s basic instincts — and ones that are released inappropriately at that. The court system, couples, and victims alike are all grappling with the issues of accountability and consequences for one’s actions while asleep.

In February, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld an acquittal on sexual assault charges brought against a 35-year-old Toronto landscaper who tried to have sex with a woman at a party. Both had fallen asleep before the man attempted intercourse while in a state of sexsomnia (he had been drinking heavily that evening).

While the Supreme Court of Canada had previously dealt with sleep-walking defenses, this was the first time the high court handled a sexsomnia defense. The court upheld the man's acquittal on the basis of “non-insane automatism.” Since his actions were without conscious control, like the beating of his heart, the court ruled that there was a lack of criminal intent, and therefore he couldn't be proven guilty of sexual assault.

What makes sleep sex disorders even more perplexing and difficult to sort through is that they do not indicate psychological problems. The people who suffer from these disorders are otherwise psychologically healthy. However, if left untreated, these conditions increase an individual’s risk of developing a psychological problem, like depression.

Sexsomnia itself can also take quite a toll on the sufferer, his or her partner and relationship(s). Partners may experience lesions and lacerations from more aggressive or forced sex. The sexsomniac may awaken with a bruised penis or fractured fingers. Both parties report feelings of bewilderment, embarrassment, shame, guilt, despair, shock, denial, annoyance, confusion, worry and fear.

Other problems include feelings of:

— A lack of emotional intimacy;

— A sense of repulsion and sexual abandonment;

— Self-incrimination in sexually expressing one’s self.

Some partners of sexsomniacs do, however, report having more satisfying sex during these nightly romps, whether this involves a lover being:

— More aggressive and dominant;

— Kinkier;

— More amorous;

— Gentler;

— More into satisfying his or her partner.

Regardless, it is important for people with sexsomnia and their lovers to recognize sleep sex triggers. These tend to be physical contact with another person in bed, sleep deprivation, stress, and alcohol. As researchers learn more about these disorders, they are also finding that they can be treated with medication.

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Dr. Yvonne Kristín Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."

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