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I asked four women what it’s like to live with sexsomnia

WORDS BY JESS BAHR

“I seem to have absolutely no conscience or filter at night… I say and do things I would never even think about.”

Content warning: This article mentions sexual assault

Imagine you’re fast asleep, but your body is awake. Without your knowledge, it’s making sexual movements and sounds, touching itself, or even instigating sex with the person you’re sharing a bed with. When you wake up, you have no memory of what happened or what you’ve done.

This might sound like a plot device in a movie, but it’s actually a very real type of sleep disorder, and it’s called sexsomnia. Along with behaviours like sleepwalking and sleep talking, sexsomnia is a type of parasomnia. While it can be quite minor for some people, for others it can have significant emotional and even legal ramifications.


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According to sleep medicine specialist Dr Anup Desai, many people who suffer from sexsomnia are completely unaware of the disorder. “The person might be confused, or it’s minor and infrequent, or maybe if they have no partner they don’t know they’re doing it,” he says.

“Thee ones that tend to get medical treatment are the ones where the behaviours are really disturbing the partner. Other times, it comes up in medical-legal cases, for example, a person has been accused of something, and (their) defence is that they were asleep. There are probably a lot of cases in the community that go unrecognised and aren’t really discussed.”

What causes sexsomnia?

According to Dr Anup, sexsomnia is often linked to other parasomnias and often occurs in individuals with a history of sleepwalking or sleep talking. “There are a lot of potential triggers to consider,” he says.

“Sometimes people experience parasomnias on anti-depression or anxiety medication, sometimes it is thought to be triggered by other disorders like sleep apnea, or when people are sleep deprived.” So, what is it really like to have the disorder, or to sleep beside a partner who has it? We asked four women to share their experiences.

Rachel

My husband has had this for a few years now. It would happen multiple times a week; about an hour into falling asleep he would start initiating sex. I knew something was off because it didn’t seem like him… I would say something the next day and he would have absolutely no idea he’d even tried.

It wasn’t until he was tested for sleep apnea that they said it was a side effect… the sleep specialist told him he will get it under control with his CPAP machine, so we will see if that’s the magic cure. It hasn’t impacted (our relationship) anymore, though it used to. But once we knew what was causing it and [that] it was out of his control I was more understanding. I believe it’s something that should be more spoken about… I think there would be a lot of people out there who suffer from it without realising it.

Lola

I have suffered from sexsomnia for about 10 years, and like most people hadn’t heard of it until I was diagnosed. It gets worse and more frequent with stress, but on average happens three to five nights a week. There is very little information and really no medications that have helped me in any way at all… I’ve tried just about everything over the years.

One of the hardest things is that I seem to have absolutely no conscience or filter at night… I say and do things I would never even think about; things I would never want to do. I also suffer from night terrors and REM sleep behaviour disorder which involves verbalising and acting out dreams.

I’ve thrown myself out of bed and dislocated my shoulder, fallen down the stairs, and punched, kneed, kicked and elbowed my partner while asleep. It has put an undeniable strain on our relationship over time – it has nearly broken us a few times. My partner deals with between 30 minutes and two hours of broken sleep most nights… I carry a huge amount of guilt and shame for what it does to him.

Hilary

My husband has these little episodes during the night, usually in times of high stress. It started a few years ago – he was always a sleep talker (and) this seems to be an extension of it. When it happened the first time and ‘no’ wasn’t cutting it, I was really confused… the next morning he had no recollection of it. He was so upset, he cried – he was shattered that he’d made me feel uncomfortable.

I often won’t even tell him (what he’s done) because I know it will break his heart. He’s considered sleeping in the spare room so many times. It’s not affected (our relationship) greatly, but I can see how it could if you didn’t wholeheartedly know the person.

Amie

It started when I was 20 years old, so (it’s been) about 12 years. I go through months of doing it a couple of times a week and then months where I won’t do it at all. I’d never heard of it before, I just figured it was like my sleepwalking that I have done since I was a kid. I guess I’m lucky to have it now while I’m in a partnership I love – it’s certainly harder and triggering when you’re doing this to a partner that you’re not wanting to be sleeping with or aren’t on good terms with.

There have been times that I wake up during it too, I find this scary… I was sexually abused for most of my childhood and experienced other abuse too, so I have complex PTSD which could add to why I find it so confronting. I don’t think there’s a cure because my sleep issues are associated with my PTSD and that’s not curable, it’s more about managing the symptoms by putting barriers in place to prevent it or at least not having it be traumatising.

*Names have been changed

For more on sexsomnia, head here.

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