Feature Archive

Sex While Asleep

It may sound far-fetched, but "sexsomnia" is a real disorder. And it can wreak havoc on the lives of those who have it.

By Susan Davis
WebMD The Magazine

Reviewed by Michael J. Breus, PhD

One night after lights out, a man sleeping next to his wife began doing something that troubled her deeply. After they had sex, he fell asleep -- and then masturbated. And when he awoke the next morning, he couldn't remember what he had done. This happened a few more times before the bewildered couple decided to seek help, says neurologist Michel Cramer Bornemann, MD, professor at the University of Minnesota.

The fallout from this startling episode was upsetting, he says; the woman feared she wasn't satisfying her husband sexually or emotionally. But her spouse's problem wasn't so much a relationship issue as a sleep disorder called sexsomnia.

Also called "sleep sex," sexsomnia is a type of parasomnia, where the brain is caught in transition between sleeping and waking states. As with other parasomnias -- including sleepwalking, sleep talking, and, yes, sleep driving -- someone who is sleep sexing can seem fully awake and aware, even as he or she is masturbating, or fondling, initiating intercourse with, or even sexually assaulting a bed partner. But he or she truly is asleep. In fact, a diagnosis of sexsomnia has been used as a defense in several rape and molestation cases in recent years.

What Causes Sexsomnia?