Sexsomnia is a sleep disorder or parasomnia in which a person exhibits sexual behavior during sleep that would normally be associated with wakefulness. A little-understood disorder, it often manifests itself in touching, groping, fondling, masturbation and even actual violent and aggressive penetrative sex with an unwilling participant. According to sleep specialists, when a person wakes up after such an episode, they have absolutely no recollection of it. It’s easy to understand how sleep sex could become a destructive and terrifying experience in one’s life.
In these real-life stories of sexsomniacs, the names have been changed to spare reputations, careers and embarrassment. However, the names of the sleep specialists are real.
A few years ago, Bob, a Vancouver man, was charged with sexual assault after having nonconsensual sex with a woman after crashing out at a party. “It’s the most frightful thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “I never really understood fear until it did happen to me.”
Bob had a successful business, a great social life, a bright future and a completely normal life prior to the criminal indictment. But, after the charges were brought forth, which dragged through the courts for almost three years, things spiraled rapidly downhill. In weeks his hair turned gray. He became depressed and suicidal. His life was thrown into utter turmoil. It was like “a hurricane of fear and pain and anguish,” Bob says.
In order for Bob to be acquitted of the sexual assault charges, and the crown attorney threw in a mental disorder charge for good measure, the defense had to prove that Bob’s actions were completely beyond the world of consciousness; that he couldn’t remember it; that he was a sexsomniac.
Enter sleep specialist Doctor Colin Shapiro, who interviewed Bob and had him undergo sleep studies in a sleep lab in the months leading up to the trial. Doctor Shapiro, who testified at Bob’s trial, concluded that Bob suffered from sexsomnia, or “a non-REM sleepwalking disorder.” According to Doctor Shapiro, Bob suffered from an inappropriate sleep behavior which happened to take a sexual form. And since he wasn’t conscious at the time, nor had any recollection of the assault, he should not be held responsible. Evidence showed during childhood Bob suffered from sleepwalking and there was a history of sleepwalking in his family. Other triggers included sleep-deprivation and alcohol consumption.
In the victim’s statement to police she said it was as if she’d woken Bob out of a deep sleep.
In a landmark decision, one of the first of its kind in Canada, Bob was acquitted on all charges. Upon hearing the decision, he broke down in tears of joy and sorrow; joy because he’d beaten the charges, sorrow at the realization that he still carried the heavy and intimidating burden of sexsomnia on his shoulders. Although Bob is now rebuilding his life, he realizes his potentially dangerous sleep disorder is something he has to introduce right away if he decides to get into a relationship. With the possible repercussions too terrifying to endure a second time, it’s not something you tell a prospective partner deep into a relationship.
Two years into his marriage, United Kingdom resident Jim was on top of the world. He and spouse Betty were young, in love, and the future looked bright. Then the sexsomnia started, and would sometimes manifest itself in violent and aggressive sex with Betty, who oftentimes became too terrified to try and stop it. Literally, Jim would sometimes rape her in the middle of the night. Initially Jim refused to acknowledge or believe Betty’s terrifying accounts the morning after. By his own admission, he was selfish and refused to acknowledge he could behave in such a violent, unpredictable and unremembered way. But Betty continued to document the episodes in a diary. As the violence escalated Betty, realizing she was in great danger, refused to sleep in the same bed as Jim and contemplated leaving him. Their relationship reached a breaking point. Finally Jim began to believe his wife and the thought terrified him. He believed he was losing his mind and worse still, might become a risk to others—a sexual predator.
With their relationship hanging in the balance, they sought the help of sleep therapist Doctor Irshaad Ebrahim. Doctor Ebrahim recognized the symptoms and sent Jim to a sleep lab. Tests that measured electrical activity in the brain showed abnormal brain activity occurring during Jim’s sleeping hours. The tests showed that a part of his brain was waking up during these episodes. Further investigation by Doctor Ebrahim revealed that Jim would actually stop breathing an abnormal amount of times in his sleep. Finally Jim was diagnosed with sleep apnea, a condition whereby you stop breathing in your sleep. The condition deprives the brain of needed oxygen and in Jim’s case, according to Doctor Ebrahim, created a state of confusion that induced the episodes of sexsomnia. In Jim’s case the sleep apnea was traced to a blockage in his trachea that required surgery. The doctor also prescribed clonazepam, which prevented Jim from entering a deep sleep, necessary for the episodes to occur.
Three weeks later, the treatment seemed to work and Jim says he has a whole new lease on life. “The biggest thing is we’re now on the road to getting our life back… getting the relationship back to how it was.”
But sexsomnia doesn’t always manifest itself into violent and unpredictable behavior. UK resident Nathan says it has added a new and exciting dimension to his sex life, with many of his past girlfriends enjoying what he calls his “midnight mitten invasions” or “sleep-shagging” sessions. Nathan says his sleep sex persona is likable, not violent or aggressive. If his partners aren’t in the mood, he says, they just gently push him away, tell him to go back to sleep, and he obediently complies. Nathan doesn’t view it as a disorder. On the contrary, as long as the behavior doesn’t escalate into nonconsensual sex, Nathan considers it an added bonus to his sex life.
United States resident Elizabeth wouldn’t be in a position to agree. Her sexsomnia has escalated to the point where she masturbates in her sleep every night, sometimes all night long. It often prevents her husband Rick from getting a good night’s sleep, and also creates feelings of inadequacy in him. Elizabeth has been to numerous doctors, tried various medications and “all known treatments.” None of them have been successful and she’s at the point where she believes there is no solution and she’s ready to give up hope. Her condition has caused several fights and much acrimony in her relationship.
“It’s really depressing to see how much it’s affected our marriage,” she says.
I’ve never met Elizabeth and probably never will. I hope someday modern medicine catches up with the disorder and finds a cure for her. Since her case is a few years old, with any luck she’s already been cured.
According to sleep specialists, since sexsomnia is a relatively new phenomenon, it’s impossible to know how many people are afflicted with it. It’s likely that many, from shame, guilt, revulsion, denial or embarrassment, would not be willing to seek medical help. Sexsomnia causes represent the biggest problems for sleep experts, says Doctor Shapiro. He doesn’t believe, as of now, the medical community can clearly define a typical profile for sexsomniacs. But at least certain patterns are emerging, many of them linked to a family history of sleepwalking.
I once believed nothing could be more terrifying than my frequent nightmares. Nothing could be further from the truth.