Imagine it's your first night with a new roommate, and they drop this warning on you: "Hey, you should know I'm kind of a sleepwalker, only instead of walking, I have nasty unconscious sex with whoever is near. Well, goodnight!" Incredibly, that is a real thing. It's called sexsomnia, and it is totally recognized by the International Classification of Sleep Disorders. We talked to "James," who has suffered from this for most of his adult life.
"That first experience was with the girl I was dating at the time," says James. "I was 17. That was the first girl I was dating who I was sleeping over regularly with, and also, probably not coincidentally, around this time, I had started drinking. That's a big factor in sexsomnia. I woke up mid-sex without any memory of how or why the girl was on top of me. I don't know if this was the first time it happened, but it was certainly the first time it happened and progressed to the stage where there was enough physical activity and noise happening that I then woke up a bit, toward the end."
He froze. He was confused and frightened, because he assumed his partner had violated him while he was sound asleep. She finished; he never slept with her again, and ultimately ghosted. It wasn't until years later that James realized he probably initiated it.
"My next serious girlfriend made an offhand comment a few times. The next morning, she'd be saying, 'You tried to do such and such last night, but I think you were sleeping because you weren't really speaking to me,' that kind of thing. I'd apologize for it and we'd talk about it. And maybe the second or third time, I thought there might be a connection."
Science isn't totally sure what causes sexsomnia. It's not exactly the easiest thing to study. James doesn't believe he has a higher than average libido in waking life. And even weirder, his sexual preferences change dramatically when he's asleep. He'll find out he, uh, did things he wouldn't normally be aroused by. OK, we'll just say it: During sleep sex, he's suddenly super into butt stuff.
"Sometimes it'll be accompanied by a kind of vague sex dream. Again, it's hard to tell if it's a dream or if it's me coming in and out of consciousness and being sort of partially aware of what's actually happening. I've had it happen a few times where my wife will say, 'Oh, you did such and such in your sleep last night,' and I'll say, 'You know, I thought that was a dream that time!' There was a time where I was just kissing my wife's butt cheeks repeatedly for a long, long time. And I thought it was just some sort of weird fever dream, because whether I'm sleeping or awake, why would I just do that for a long time? Why wouldn't there be some sort of escalation of it? I was sure that was a strange dream I had. Nope."
So, big deal, right? He's simply sleepily initiating sex with women he already has an intimate relationship with, who always assume he's awake and go along with it. Really, how could this ever possibly go wrong?
Most of us have at least one embarrassing drunk moment in our lives. Maybe you puked in a friend's car, or peed your pants, or accidentally ate dish detergent packets. Whatever you did, you probably still feel kind of embarrassed when you think about it or when people bring it up. Now amplify that shame and embarrassment by a factor of "all the numbers," and you'll understand where James is coming from.
"After drinking way too much wine, I fell asleep on the floor at a party. A room full of people -- some friends, but most strangers and acquaintances -- were then treated to the sight of me thrusting vigorously into the wooden floorboards, complete with sex moans. When I woke up from my drunken slumber, the men in the room took great delight in telling me what they'd witnessed, while the women all glared at me like I was a creep ..."
After all, would any of them assume "sexsomnia" as the cause? How many of you had even heard that word before today? They probably thought he was putting on a show. "Still to this day ... there are certain women who were there who definitely look at me in a really disgusting and strange way."
Now think of the implications. James had found out that no, in fact, this condition isn't magically confined to situations where he's cuddled up against a consenting sex partner. It can happen any time he falls asleep.
James started taking precautions. He made sure he had his own room, he didn't crash with friends, and he avoided alcohol when possible. But he still had normal human desires, like not being desperately alone on a tiny rock hurtling through the infinite void toward oblivion. Plus he wanted sex of the non-sleeping variety. So he started to date again, and holy shit, was that a can of worms.
"There was all the normal anxiety that goes with a first date, but then I had to reckon with, 'If she wants to come back to my place or I want to go back to her place, how do I have this conversation in a way that isn't going to completely ruin the night?'"
He then he decided to see a doctor. Hoping to avoid an awkward night in a sleep clinic, he kept a journal of his abnormal nighttime behaviors, aided by his then-girlfriend. It was enough for an initial diagnosis of sexsomnia. After finding out alcohol exacerbates the condition, he stopped drinking entirely. It helped, but was by no means a cure. After his diagnosis, he realized he'd have to disclose his condition to any potential partners before things went very far. It's easy to make glib jokes about this because, you know, he started humping a floor at a party. But for all he knew, he was fully capable of committing sexual assault in his sleep, complete with trauma for the victim and a felony conviction for him.
As far as he knows, he's never forced himself on an unwilling partner in his sleep. But he's only so certain that's true. "In order for me to really know that, I would have to ask everyone I've ever shared a bed with if this is something that happened and they didn't want to tell me about it," James says. "Which is another thing that can get to you with this -- if someone seems a bit off the next day, the worry of, 'What have I done to them?'"
James is now married to a woman who's aware of his issues (and kind of into it, to be frank), and he estimates that he has no more than a dozen sexsomnia episodes a year. OK, that actually sounds like a lot. "[T]hat being a dozen times in a year where it's severe enough and sort of pressing enough that my wife actually wakes up and is aware of what's happening. That's another thing that's really strange about it: It's very hard to quantify and to figure out exactly what's happened, because the other person may not actually wake up if there's just a little bit of touching or kissing, and then you go back to sleep."
Even though he's not a sleepwalker, he has a lock on his bedroom door for when guests are in town, for peace of mind. After all ... who knows? Is this the kind of thing you take risks with? But that also means that basically the only person he can sleep in the same room with is his wife. "I can't share a room with a friend or family member. And I don't really tell them why; I just insist on having my own room, and it makes me look like a bit of an asshole ... It's not just about trying to initiate something with them, it's also about what I might do on my own.
"I had to go on a business trip with my boss six months ago, and then he booked a twin room, and I had to get my own room. I really don't want my boss to be sitting up at night reading a book, or to wake up in the middle of the night because I'm orgasming in the bed next to him."
So what's your cover story in that situation, if you don't want to have the "potential sleep rapist" conversation with your employer? If you say, "I snore really bad," they might be nice about it and say, "Oh, that's fine, I don't mind!" or "I have earplugs." Most people would rather put up with someone snoring or sleepwalking than pay the extra money for a hotel room.
This sort of thing comes up more than you'd think. Like, say, at music festivals -- the kind where everyone camps for the weekend. "Last-minute, someone didn't have a tent and wanted to stay in my tent, when they were already there and had no way of getting one. So I had to navigate that thing of, like, how do I get this person away from me and still be nice and accommodating and find them another place to sleep? Finally he got too drunk anyway and went home."
Another minefield? Travel. "[Episodes] are most common with people you would be sort of sexually attracted to anyway ... I can't fall asleep on any kind of transport at all ... if a woman that you find attractive sits next to you, there's this thing in your head like, 'If I fall asleep, I may sexually assault this person.'"
"My wife are at that point where we're talking about kids," says James. "I haven't really been able to figure out a way to have that conversation with her. It's such a crazy, scary topic. But it's definitely something that's weighed on my mind, and I think keep putting off the conversation of when we're going to start a family partially for that reason." And sweet sleep-fucking Jesus, it's not hard to understand why.
"I think the worst-case scenario is what I would do if my kid's in my bed with me. Or how do I get around that? How do I go about, if I am going to be a loving dad and the kid has a nightmare, like I used to have, how do I tell the kids to leave me alone and not come into my bed? Can I just go ahead and think, 'Well, it's probably not going to happen because they're my child and I'm not attracted to them?' Is that a risk I ever really want to take?"
Is that a risk you'd take? Is it a risk you can even imagine? We can't think of any other type of person who has to add "accidental child molestation" to their list of worries about parenthood. "It's not just that I would initiate something with a kid in the bed, it's that I would initiate something with my wife and then the kid's there to watch Mommy and Daddy do that, you know?"
When sexsomnia turns up in the news, you can bet the word "rape" is somewhere in the headline. As a criminal defense, sexsomnia has been both successful and not so much. The reality is that a sexsomniac could assault someone without consciously meaning to do so, and it would be virtually impossible to determine whether or not they're telling the truth about it. There was a famous case in the UK last year in which charges were dropped against a man who was accused of raping his partner hundreds of times, using sexsomnia as the excuse.
"The conversation around it on Twitter amongst friends, people I generally agree with ideologically, a lot of the conversation was like, 'This is a bullshit, unethical male excuse. This is rape, this isn't any kind of condition.'" James has mixed feelings about that, as you can imagine. "You can't be white-knighting for the guy who's accused of hundreds of counts of rape, but at the same time, I'm in this position where I understand the condition and I know this is entirely feasible that he has done this and not been aware of it." Still, he can't really make that argument without outing himself to some degree. After all, it's a weird cause for somebody to take up at random.
That said, James believes anyone with a ton of assault allegations against them who blames sexsomnia is full of shit, one way or the other. The issue is disclosure. Continuing to take on new partners without informing them is almost as bad as consciously assaulting someone. "There's only so much sympathy I can have for you at this stage when you know you've had this thing but you continued going to bed with new people and not letting them know what the deal is upfront. If something happens, it is kind of on you."
Sometimes people just want something to snuggle up to at night -- we'd recommend a body pillow.
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