“My girlfriend, to whom I'm now married, began affectionately referring to my nocturnal advances as the ‘Midnight Sex Pest,’ even though it typically happened around 1am. But these encounters also go by another name gaining in popularity: sexsomnia,” Stephen Klinck explained in Motherboard. He is one of millions of sufferers of sexsomnia which is, well, basically what it sounds like—a condition similar to sleepwalking, but where a person instigates or engages in sexual behavior while they are asleep.
And it’s more common than you think. According to some research, as many as 1 in 12 have reported to engaging in some kind of sexual activity while they slept, though not all of those would reach the level of a sexsomnia diagnosis. Interestingly, three quarters of those who said they had engaged in sexual behavior while they were sleeping were men, so it is suggested that they are affected more than women. Sexsomnia can cause problems and be frustrating for anyone who suffers from it but, in a marriage or a relationship, it can become a huge issue to manage. Depending on the frequency of the episodes or the severity of the condition, it can range from an inconvenience that a couple has to deal with or it can be a series of incredibly traumatic experiences. And the bigger problem? We just don’t know that much about it.
The truth is, we still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding sexsomnia—let alone overcoming it. Though there was some awareness about it in the medical community long before, it only really came to the forefront when Dr. Colin Shapiro started studying the condition in the 1990s and published a paper in 2003. So it’s really only been studied recently.
We have learned some things about the disease. Certain studies have suggested that taking Ambien or other sleeping pills is the main catalyst for sexomnia, but it is far from the only one. Sleep deprivation is a common trigger, but so is alcohol, restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, nocturnal seizures, psychological factors, and sleeping in new environments—and that’s only some of findings. Basically, the research into sexsomnia is still embryonic, so there’s a lot that needs to be learned. That means for those who suffer from the condition, there are often unsatisfactory answer to big questions about their behavior and how to manage it.
Some seek treatment through medication. Klonopin (generic Clonazepam), a benzodiazepine anti-anxiety sedative, is a common option, which has proven to be effective in treating non-REM parasomnias like sexsomnia about 70 percent of the time. CPAP machines, like ones for sleep apnea, are sometimes effective, but sometimes spouses feel more comfortable sleeping in separate beds until the issue is resolved.
A Burden On Both Partners
Which, in a marriage, can be a huge choice. But for some, it’s necessary. “I'm fortunate in the sense that my sexsomnia episodes are mild and non-threatening,” Klinck wrote. “My wife understands my condition, and accepts it. But then, there is the other end of the spectrum. As you might imagine, sexsomnia can lead to relationship problems, including divorce. Even worse, it can lead to—or at least be blamed for—incidents of sexual assault.” It’s easy to see how it could cause rifts in a marriage.
Now, some experts have suggested their are ways around it. “Partners with healthy communication know how to navigate the sexsomnia so it doesn't become something nonconsensual or something that deprives them of sleep," sexual wellness coach Lauren Brim tells Glamour. "Those in a relationship with a sexsomniac can help their partner discover what triggers might bring on sexsomnia in the night, and how to lessen or stop the behavior.” And I’m sure that’s true, but it also suggests that having good communication is enough to combat it— but in some cases, it just won’t be. No matter how strong your relationship communication is, if the episodes are intense then it’s going to be a problem.
The other thing that’s important to remember is that a sleeping person can’t consent. So even though some men might chortle and say it sounds like a dream, it’s not a joke. The syndrome can end up with both partners feeling violated.
Dealing with sexsomnia in a marriage can mean a lot of different thing. For some, it’s the occasional, unthreatening episode that can be easily navigated. For others, it can be such a traumatic situation that it forces the couples into separate beds. Luckily, it’s a growing area of research and different treatments are being tested and developed. So hopefully, there will be an effective way to handle it, in all of it’s many forms, soon. But in the meantime, if sexsomnia affects your relationship then remember how surprisingly common it is. A huge number of people are affected by it—and there’s never any shame in asking for help.