Sexsomnia Refers to Sexual Activity During Sleep, Why It Happens and How to Cope

couple sleeping

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Sexsomnia, also referred to as "sleep sex," is a sleep disorder characterized by engaging in sexual behavior while sleeping. Similar to sleepwalking and sleep talking, sexsomnia is a parasomnia, which is a sleep behavior that happens when you are in a sleep state that is between sleeping and waking.

When someone is experiencing sexsomnia, they engage in sexual activity—including masturbation and sex with others—during non-rapid eye movement sleep. People who have sexsomnia do not have any recollection of what they did, and there is often shame and embarrassment associated with having the disorder.

How Common Is Sexsomnia?

Experts are not sure exactly how common sexsomnia is, but believe that it is quite rare. One study found that among a group of patients who entered a sleep clinic for treatment, a little under 8% of them were found to have sexsomnia.

This study also found that sexsomnia was three times more common in males than in females. Other studies have found that females are more likely to engage in masturbation during sexsomnia than males.

What Are the Symptoms of Sexsomnia?

When someone experiences a parasomnia like sexsomnia, they are not aware that they are doing the behavior. When they wake up and are told what happened, they have no recollection.

Studies have found that up to 96% of people who have sexsomnia have no memory of what happened. In fact, usually once someone learns about what they did, they are both shocked and upset.

Still, what happens during sexsomnia may resemble many of the sexual behaviors that people exhibit while awake. These may include:

  • Masturbation
  • Spontaneous orgasm
  • Sexual vocalizations
  • Sexual movements
  • Fondling
  • Oral sex
  • Anal sex
  • Attempts at intercourse
  • Intercourse

Sexsomnia is not the same thing as nocturnal emissions, or the wet dreams that males experience during adolescence or adulthood. But someone who doesn’t know they have sexsomnia may mistake their experience for a wet dream.

When someone’s partner witnesses sexsomnia, they often notice that the person experiencing it exhibits different sexual behavior than they normally do. They may become more aggressive, show less inhibition, and may not connect in the same way with their partner. They may seem glassy-eyed and distant.

Sometimes the behavior that happens during sexsomnia is aggressive and happens without consent. Some instances of sexsomnia result in a sexual assaults. Cases of sexual assault connected to sexsomnia have gone to court, and these are challenging cases to litigate, as it’s difficult to prove whether or not an assault happened as a result of sexsomnia and what the consequences of this should be.

What Causes Sexsomnia?

Sleep specialists are still learning what causes sexsomnia, but there are certain medical conditions and lifestyle triggers may contribute to the disorder.

Medical Conditions

  • Sleep apnea
  • Bruxism (teeth grinding)
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Periodic limb movements
  • A history of other parasomnias, such as sleep walking, sleep terrors, or sleep talking

Lifestyle Triggers

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Use of recreational drugs
  • Lack of sleep
  • Exhaustion
  • Disruptions to circadian rhythm such as jet lag or shift work

How Is Sexsomnia Treated?

Most people who experience sexsomnia don’t know about it right away. They usually have to have a partner or other who witnesses the behavior, and describes it to them. Even then, the degree of shame and embarrassment about the disorder may make it difficult to reach out and seek help.

However, it’s important to remember that sexsomnia is a recognized sleep disorder, and there is nothing you did wrong if you are someone who is experiencing it. What’s more, help is out there for you.

See a Sleep Specialist

If you believe you may have sexsomnia, you should visit a sleep specialist for a diagnosis. Diagnosing sexsomnia usually will require a sleep specialist to ask you questions about your medical and sleep history.

Your sleep specialist may also need to interview your partner to find out what behaviors you are exhibiting. The provider will also need to do a full clinical exam to rule out any other medical conditions, or to understand if certain medical conditions may be contributing to your sexsomnia.

Often, people who have sleep disorders will need to participate in a sleep study, which will require you to stay overnight at a sleep center for observation. An electroencephalogram (EEG) will likely be utilized to record your brain activity during sleep and you will be monitored by video.

If you receive a diagnosis of sexsomnia, your healthcare provider will discuss treatment options, based on what they believe is causing the condition. Treatments for sexsomnia may include lifestyle changes, such as decreasing alcohol consumption and practicing smart sleep hygiene. Treating an underlying medical condition, such as sleep apnea, can also decrease symptoms.

Sometimes medication is prescribed for parasomnias, including sexsomnia. The medication most likely to be prescribed for sexsomnia is clonazepam. However, your provider may prescribe other medications, depending on what comorbidities you have.

Coping With Sexsomnia

Managing your feelings about having sexsomnia can be complicated and challenging. It’s common to feel depressed, ashamed, or anxious about your diagnosis. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to cope with your feelings, including the option of meeting with a psychotherapist who understands the mental health implications of having sexsomnia.

If you are partnered with someone who has sexsomnia, you may have your own set of difficult emotions to contend with. It’s important to speak honestly and openly with your partner about how you feel and to collaborate on a plan to ensure that you feel safe and comfortable.

Sometimes, it makes sense to sleep separately from your partner until their sexsomnia is treated. At times, it may be necessary to lock the door to your room so that your partner can’t enter during an episode of sexsomnia.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.