If you were fast asleep and your partner tried to have sex with you and later said he or she couldn’t remember the incident, would you believe them? You might if you’d heard of sexsomnia, a little-known condition that’s quite rare but actually exists.
Some months ago I had a telephone counselling session with a client in the country. He called me because his girlfriend had broken up with him after she accused him of trying to have sex with her in the middle of the night when she was asleep. He told her he had no recollection of it at all, but she did not believe him.
Sexsomnia, more commonly known as ‘sleep sex’, is a condition in which a person engages in sexual acts while still asleep. It can include fondling, masturbation, oral sex or intercourse.
Sexsomnia is most likely to occur in the first few hours of the night during the deep-sleep state. At this time, the cortex – the thinking, planning and awareness part of the brain – gets switched off. But the brain stem, the part responsible for the basic urges like the drive to eat or have sex, is still working.
By this stage, the sexsomniac is acting completely without inhibition. Because the lower level of the brain is amnesic, he or she will have no memory of what he or she has done.
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The consensus among opinion leaders in sleep medicine is that sexsomnia may be quite common, but that it often goes unreported because of embarrassment and shame on the part of the person carrying out these acts. When they are told of what has happened they usually respond with disbelief.
Sexsomnia can be precipitated by stress, alcohol, illicit drugs, sleep deprivation or primary sleep disorders such a sleep apnoea. Seeking medical help is important as a person with sexsomnia may experience negative emotions such as shame, confusion, anger, denial, fear, guilt or frustration. These negative emotions can lead to enormous stress.
Relationships can be damaged when couples have to deal with this problem and there is also the real worry of being charged with sexual assault or rape. Several unscrupulous lawyers have tried to use sexsomnia as a defence.
As for my client and his partner, I was able to explain that his behaviour is a form of sleepwalking and he was not aware of what he was doing.
I referred him to the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, which has several consultants who specialise in a range of sleep disorders.
They assess people’s overall medical state to see if there are medical causes for the condition and monitor them in a sleep laboratory to exclude other triggers for sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea, leg movements or epilepsy.
If there are no clear triggers and sexsomnia behaviour is frequent or distressing, they look at using medication or psychological strategies such as hypnosis or meditation to reduce the frequency of behaviours.
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Sexsomnia is a form of sleepwalking. The condition is not linked to deep-seated psychological issues, or an indicator of mental illness, it is just a failure to switch on/off all parts of the brain in synchrony on the border of wake and sleep.
Seeking help can increase awareness and understanding of the problem and help individuals and couples deal with the condition constructively.
If any readers believe they may be experiencing these symptoms, see your GP and ask for a sleep clinic referral.
Matty Silver is a Relationship Counsellor and Sex Therapist. Matty is also the president of ASSERT NSW the Australian Society of Sex Educators, Researchers and Therapists.