Sexsomnia is the medical term for a condition where the affected person shows abnormal sexual behaviours during sleep.
Sexomania is also known as somnambulistic sexual behaviour, sleep sex or sleep-related sexual behaviour (SRSB).
Sexsomnia falls under a broad category of disorders known as parasomnias, which is an unpleasant or undesirable behavioural or experiential phenomena that happen predominantly or exclusively during sleep. Parasomnia includes sleepwalking, night terrors, sleep paralysis and sleep sex. Parasomnias are reported in approximately 2.5% of adults.
The affected person has amnesia or doesn’t remember the events and will not recall that he showed sexual behaviours during sleep.
Sleep sex is a rare condition, and only a few cases have been reported in scientific publications. Some of these reports of sleep sex are from sexual assault cases, where the defendants have used this disorder for their defence.
What causes the disorder of sleep sex?
Researchers are not clear about what causes sleep sex. Sexsomnia is thought to be a parasomnia of non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) stage of sleep. Parasomnias are arousal disorders which happen during the stage 3 or NREM sleep which is also known as the slow wave sleep (SWS). It is thought that they happen because of physiological activation of certain regions of the nervous system which shifts the person from slow wave sleep to a state between sleeping and waking. During these states, there is activation of the motor system (nerves that control movement), autonomic system (nerves which control heart rate, breathing, sweating, etc.), or cognitive processes (thoughts) during sleep or sleep-wake transitions.
Some researchers have noted that sexsomnia can be present with other sleep disorders such as sleepwalking, night terrors, bedwetting and sleep apnea.
Some triggers that are identified include:
- Excess consumption of alcohol or other drugs
- Fatigue or Stress
- Previous sleep deprivation
- Traumatic sexual or psychological stress during childhood
- Physical contact with a bed partner (falling asleep in close contact with someone and being bumped or rubbed can create a desire for sex and the person acts on this while asleep).
- Sleep-related epilepsy – This is a disorder where people have convulsions during sleep. This condition can be associated with sexual arousals, pelvic thrusting and orgasms in sleep.
Some examples of sexsomnia
The first scientific report of sleep-related sexual behaviour was published in 1986 (Wong KE) about masturbation while asleep. There was a report about sleep-related sexual abuse of children in 1989 (Hurwitz TD).
After that, reports have emerged in scientific literature and legal cases of sexual behaviour during sleep including making explicit sexual sounds, dirty talking, moaning, masturbation and complex sexual acts including vaginal, anal or oral penetration.
In many of these sleep sex reports, the person affected is male. However, this condition is also reported in women. There are reports by women, where their bed partners have reported sexual behaviours such as moaning, dirty talks, masturbation, sexual assault, and having intercourse.
Many legal cases have happened due to sex during sleep including alleged charges of
- Sexual battery/assault
- Sexual touching/fondling
- Indecent exposure
- Indecent assault with intent to rape
- Sexual misconduct
2003- A Canadian guy called Jan Luedecke attended a house party and slept on a couch next to a woman after drinking. When the woman woke up, she found Luedecke who was a stranger having sex with her. Luedecke claimed that he woke up dazed and confused when the woman pushed him off her. He told the court that on the day before the incident, he had no sleep and had taken some magic mushrooms (drugs). On the day of the incident, he had taken 16 drinks. He pleaded that he had a sleep disorder and the sexual assault had happened in his sleep precipitated by the drinks and drugs. Therefore he was acquitted.
2005 – In Britain, a man named James Bilton who claimed he was sleepwalker since the age of 13 was acquitted of rape based on the defence that it was a sleep-related behaviour. A sleeping woman had woken up to see Bilton having sex with her and charged him with rape.
2006 – An Australian man Darryl Kenneth Lotz, 35, woke up early in the morning and walked from the spare bedroom to the main bedroom of his friend’s house where he slid between the man and his girlfriend and started having sex with the woman. He claimed that he did not remember what happened and the sexual assault happened in his sleep. The jury did not accept his argument and he was sentenced to five years.
2008 – Another Australian man Leonard Andrew Spencer, 48, faced allegations of rape from a 21-year-old woman staying with her boyfriend in Spencer’s house. She woke up in the morning after her boyfriend had gone to work, to find Spencer lying behind having sex with her, while his hand was on her clitoris. Spencer was able to prove to the court that he had sleepwalking problem and was on medication for depression and his symptoms were sleep-related. The court acquitted him of the charges of gross indecency and sexual assault without consent.
Is there any treatment for Sleep Sex?
If you think that you or your partner are suffering from sexsomnia, it is important to talk to your doctor. You should visit a specialist in sleep medicine. Your behaviour may be dangerous to others and could negatively affect your relationship.
Some of the associated factors of sexsomnia are manageable. If your sleep sex is related to stress or anxiety, you will need medications and counselling for mental health.
Follow good sleep hygiene such as keep a regular sleep schedule and get a full night’s sleep.
Get treated for any underlying medical conditions that you may have, such as sleep-related epilepsy.
Avoid consuming too much alcohol or drugs and sleeping in proximity with strangers if you have a sleepwalking or other sleep-related behaviours.
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- Ingravallo F, et al. Sleep-related violence and sexual behavior in sleep: a systematic review of medical-legal case reports. J Clin Sleep Med. 2014 Aug 15;10(8):927-35.
- Wong KE. Masturbation during sleep–a somnambulistic variant? Singapore Med J 1986, Dec; 27 (6); 542-3.
- Hurwitz TD, Mahowald MW, Schluter JL. Sleep-related sexual abuse of children. Sleep Res 1989; 18:246.
- Shapiro CM, Fedoroff JP, Trajanovic NN. Sexual behavior in sleep: A newly descri‐ bed parasomnia. Sleep Res 1996; 25:367.
- Béjot Y, et al. Sexsomnia: an uncommon variety of parasomnia. Clin Neurol Neurosurg. 2010 Jan;112(1):72-5.
- Chris Idzikowski. An Essay on Sleep-Related Sexual Behaviours and Offences Related to Sexual Behaviours. Accessed at http://www.intechopen.com/books/sleep-and-its-disorders-affect-society/an-essay-on-sleep-related-sexual-behaviours-and-offences-related-to-sexual-behaviours on 19 September 2016.