It happens at least three times a week: I wake up to find myself masturbating, breathing heavily, and on the brink of an orgasm. I always finish myself off (sorry, TMI) and then fall right back asleep afterward.
Sounds great, right? Not really. These frequent episodes are the main symptom of sexsomnia—a rare sleep disorder that causes people to have sex or masturbate in their sleep. Though I haven't been clinically diagnosed with sexsomnia, I've been experiencing episodes like this for as long as I can remember. In the last few years, though, they've happened more regularly.
Along with the physical irritation caused by rubbing my clitoris beneath my sweatpants so often, sexsomnia has brought me emotional frustration, too. That’s because I have no control over this behavior, or even awareness of what I'm doing until it's just about over. Though I've never tried to have sleep sex with a partner, I'm still cringing at the memory of sleeping over a friend's house five years ago and finding out that I woke the entire family with my loud moaning.
Sexsomnia falls under the umbrella category of parasomnias, which are any disruptive, abnormal, and habitual activities that occur between and during stages of deep sleep. Other parasomnias include sleepwalking, night terrors, and sleep eating—except you’re getting way freakier than just spooning ice cream into your mouth in your slippers at two in the morning.
What causes sexsomnia, and who gets it? Can my fellow sexsomniacs and I be cured? I spoke with psychiatrists and sleep specialists to get to the bottom of this rare yet real disorder.
Sexsomnia symptoms and triggers
Sexsomnia is a lot more than the occasional sexy dream or hazy morning bumping and grinding. People who have the disorder will experience regular instances of moaning, pelvic thrusting, and masturbating or initiating sexual intercourse with the person lying beside them, all while they're snoozing away.
Men are more likely to have sexsomnia than women, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Sleep. Another study, published in Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine in 2016, found that male sexsomniacs are more likely to try to have sexual intercourse with a partner, while women with sexsomnia tend to masturbate, as I do.
The 2016 study confirms that these behaviors are amnesic, meaning they happen in a confused, partially awake state and likely won’t be remembered once the person has fully woken up. (Unlike my experience, where I wake up aware of what's going on.) It also suggests that sexsomnia may occur along with other parasomnias.
What triggers sexsomnia? Basically anything that disrupts a normal, healthy sleep pattern—such as drinking alcohol or consuming caffeine too close to bedtime. Maintaining an irregular sleep schedule or not getting enough sleep can led to sexsomnia as well, Alex Dimitriu, MD, who is double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine in New Jersey, tells Health. Less commonly, sleep apnea, seizures, or a condition called REM behavior disorder can also contribute, he explains.
Depression, anxiety, and a lack of sexual activity may also affect how frequent sexsomnia episodes occur. In my case, I’m an anxious person in general, but I’ve certainly noticed that I wake up touching myself more often when I'm in the middle of a sexual dry spell.
Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College, tells me that sleep disorders like sexsomnia are made worse by certain medications, including many psychiatric medications. Being highly stressed can be a factor as well, says Dr. Saltz, who adds that it tends to run in families.
How sexsomnia has affected me
As troubling as sexsomnia can be, I'm lucky because my symptoms seem to bother me more than they bother anyone else.
None of my partners have ever brought it up to me, which is a good sign—unless they were too uncomfortable to mention that something happened. To see if that was the case, I recently asked an ex if he noticed that I did anything “weird” in my sleep, adding, "like… sexually” to help jog his memory. “No, but I do remember you waking up really horny,” he replied. That’s not sexsomnia, though, since I was awake and in the mood.
Last summer, I went on a 16-day road trip with my best friend. We shared a bed that whole time, and I caught myself having an episode one night but immediately stopped as soon as I could snap out of it, thankfully. This November, I'm taking a vacation to Aruba with my family, and needless to say, I’m definitely fearful of what might happen, since we'll be sharing close quarters.
As you could imagine, sexsomnia is more problematic when you’re in a long-term relationship and share a bed with that person every night. In my case, I haven't been in enough serious relationships where the disorder might affect someone other than myself, which is when I'd finally seek treatment. Dr. Saltz recommends seeking help “if sexsomnia becomes a real problem, such as your partner is disturbed by it, you are doing things that you or your partner do not want, or there is any danger.”
Are sexsomniacs cursed for life?
Speaking of treatment, there's no magic cure for sexsomnia, unfortunately. But there are steps you can take to make it happen less frequently or even halt it completely.
People who sleep alongside sexsomniacs can often stop the episodes by either pushing their partner away or not responding to them. As for sexsomniacs themselves, they can aim to get better quality sleep, reduce their stress levels, decrease nighttime drug and alcohol consumption, and have more (conscious) sex.
Prescription meds are also an option. “Paroxetine is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor that can increase deep sleep, reduce nighttime erections, and reduce the frequency of nighttime awakenings, so it may be helpful for sexsomnia," Martin Reed, a certified clinical sleep health educator and founder of the online sleep help site Insomnia Coach, tells me. "Clonazepam is another drug typically used to treat parasomnias."
Dr. Dimitriu says that treatment should begin with optimizing and eliminating the triggers. If the behavior continues, then a discussion with your doctor and a consultation with a sleep specialist would be the next step.
Dr. Saltz warns, however, that people shouldn’t read into sexsomnia and give it too much meaning. “These behaviors are more about primitive human behavior due to random brain stimulation than something personally about you,” she says. After all, sex is one of our strongest biological drives as mammals. Deciding whether to treat sexsomnia seems to boil down to if these instincts are problematic for those who have it and the people they sleep next to at night.
Since I'm not sharing a bed with anyone right now, I'm keeping these tips in mind for the future. For now, I'm going to start masturbating before I fall asleep—so I'm getting the sexual release that will hopefully put my sexsomnia to bed once and for all.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter