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What is sexsomania, and what should I know about it?

June 9 2022 | Written by Rhea Kumar (She/Her)

Yes, sexsomnia is real. 

What could be mistaken for a raunchy moniker spin on the medical term for insomnia, sexsomnia is a type of parasomnia. 

Parasomnias are defined as disrupted sleep disorders. It can manifest as movements, talk, emotions, and actions while you sleep. With parasomnias, your brain is caught in between sleep phases.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), sexsomnia is more prevalent in men than women. The first known case was reported in 1986. In the study, a 34-year old married male, masturbated every night after about 2-3 hours of being asleep.

Because of the scarce numbers in medical research, it is believed to be a disorder that is often unreported. I had never heard of this disorder until I actively conducted research, but embarrassingly my initial thought was that sexsomnia was some sort of disorder where people can’t go to bed after having sex (bear with me dear readers). 

According to the AASM site, “With sleep sex, the individual is not typically aware they are engaging in sexual activity during sleep. After the event, the person displaying sleep sex behaviors will experience amnesia and fall back asleep with no recollection the event even occurred.”

Symptoms of sexsomnia can be behaviours such as masturbation, sexual movements, sexual aggression, or initiating sex with another person in one’s sleep.

Because of the nature of the disorder-which occurs during non-REM sleep, meaning when one wakes up they often have no recollection of what they did in their sleep-one may not realize they suffer with sexsomnia until it is brought up with a partner. 

What does this all mean to someone who suffers with sexsomnia?

Unfortunately, sexsomnia has led to clinical, interpersonal, and even legal consequences for those dealing with it and those living with them. 

In 2017, a Swedish man was acquitted of rape after experts said he was asleep during the attack and had no memory of the incident. Legally, his defense was that he suffered from sexsomnia. 

Dr. Kingman Strohl, a professor of medicine and director of research at the Sleep Center at Case Medical Center in Cleveland says that in cases when a person is on trial and wants to claim they were asleep when they allegedly committed a crime, doctors have to be particularly careful that people aren’t trying to lie about their symptoms. Helpful signs that medical professionals rely on during evaluations will be found in the patient’s past in the context of sleepwalking and sleep talking. It’s important to find the truth and ensure that people aren’t using this underreported disorder as an excuse for unwanted advances. 

According to VeryWell Health: “The diagnosis of sexsomnia is completed by an overnight sleep study held at a sleep center. During the study, an electroencephalogram (EEG) is used to test brain activity in order to rule out possible seizures, and the remaining measures of the nocturnal polysomnogram (PSG) will monitor abrupt and spontaneous arousals during slow-wave sleep and rule out epileptic disorders. Behavior is closely watched and recorded.”

What treatments are available?

Treatment varies but it’s also important to fully establish why it occurs. Available studies suggest that sexsomnia can stem from sleep deprivation, stress, sleep disturbances and shift-work. 

The best way to treat and manage the condition is to ensure adequate and scheduled sleep. Most cases were resolved when individuals got more consistent, high quality sleep. Treating the underlying condition that is causing the sexsomnia may also help whether it be anti-anxiety medication, mild sedatives or mouth guards. Seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist may also help to reduce feelings of shame and embarrassment. 

While it may still be considered a rare disorder, that doesn’t mean that you should experience it alone, so if you suspect you may suffer from sexsomnia or perhaps you’ll be surprised to find out you do from your sleeping partner, the best thing to do is to reach out to a trusted medical professional.