“Sexsomnia” could be a pretty good name for a ’70s sexploitation film, rivaling titles like “Nude for Satan” or “Vampyros Lesbos.” However, I’m not sure sexsomnia, in itself, would be so gloriously cinematic. In reality, sexsomnia is when a person participates in sexual acts while sleeping. According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine, “He or she might masturbate, fondle a bed partner, give oral sex, engage in intercourse.” And, because they are asleep, they will wake up completely unaware of what happened under the cover of night — or at least under the covers.
Sexsomnia is included in the DSM-5 (the American Psychiatric Association’s bible) with other psychiatric disorders like clinical depression or borderline personality disorder. It goes hand in hand with other parasomnias like sleepwalking. Yes, it is a real thing.
While everyone I know who had an overnight sleep study was diagnosed with apnea (or so they say…), a study conducted through Toronto Western Hospital found 11% of male and 4% of female sleep-center patients experience sexsomnia. W. Christopher Winter, M.D., president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and medical director of Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center, believes the number may be greater than that. Not everyone agrees to spend the night in an unfamiliar bed with electrodes glued to them, do they?
Just last week was the first time I’d ever heard of sexsomnia. I was flipping through The Sun’s showbiz section, and saw a headline that had something to do with booze, depression, and sexsomnia. I read the attached article, and now I’ll never be the same. Apparently, British reality show contestant John Whaite has the disorder, and explains, “In the night, I’ll be fast asleep… My boyfriend wakes up and I’ll be fondling him….He’s having the time of his life and I’m fast asleep.” Whaite quips, “You have night terrors, I have night pleasures….”
Some sexsomniacs, however, aren’t so glib. An anonymous GQ contributor refers to his sleeping self as an unwelcome alter-ego: “I began to lose control of myself. I spent my waking hours trying to come off as levelheaded; all the while, something — or someone — was growing inside me. I started having panic attacks….”
And the sexsomniac’s partner? Sometimes the initiation is welcome. Anonymous writes that his girlfriend thought the alter-ego had an “intensity in bed that I lacked in my waking hours … I began to wonder, with such passion bursting out of me at night, who was it behind the mask: me or him?”
Every time I read the phrase “passion bursting out,” I feel contaminated. I guess I can’t stop thinking about the person the passion is “bursting” into. I understand that, according to Anonymous, his girlfriend welcomed the adventure and innovation, but I also imagine that many times the recipient of the detached “burst-into-ness” feels violated. Who wouldn’t if they were sleeping and came to drowsily or abruptly to find a glaze-eyed robot in them, mechanically thrusting and grunting? I don’t think everyone would feel like they’re “having the time of their life” (like Whaite’s partner) if they awoke to an aggressive automaton blow job.
Sexsomnia may be like sleepwalking. But urinating in a trash can or eating a sandwich while unaware is not exactly the same as humping and pawing and whatever-else-ing, then not remembering in the morning. Some partners are a lot less titillated by nocturnal gropings than Anonymous’s. In fact “partner” is not always as apt a description as “victim.”
This is where the law comes in. BBC’s Sally Abrahams tells the story of a man who spent seven years in jail for raping his girlfriend. His current girlfriend, after a couple of odd and uncomfortable nighttime experiences (she once woke from a deep sleep to find him trying to penetrate her through her underwear), urged him to take a sleep study. He was diagnosed with sexsomnia. If this finding had been introduced in his criminal trial a decade beforehand, would he have been convicted of a sex crime he had no recollection of?
Defendants and their lawyers are newly claiming “innocence by sexsomnia” — and, more than once, this defense strategy has worked. The details are not important. The headlines say it all: “Man who raped teenager while asleep walks free”; “Sexsomnia case: Dad who molested young teen daughter found not criminally responsible”; “Man who raped his daughter, 4, walks free after claiming he suffered from ‘sexsomnia‘.”
How is it possible for anyone to read such sickening words and have one smidgeon of sympathy for the sexsomniac? Once I hear “molestation” or “rape” or “assault,” I want to gather likeminded vigilantes and administer some pitchfork justice.
When I daydream about retribution, though, it is often a sign that my emotional brain is working overtime; I need to take a minute to consult my rational mind. Mike Kopelman, emeritus professor of neuropsychiatry at King’s College London, makes a point that has me thinking. “Because defendants are never having their brainwaves measured when they carry out the attack,” he says, “it can be hard to know for sure whether they were conscious or not.”
What I am deducing from Kopelman: a person might have a history of sexsomnia, but this doesn’t mean every time they engage in sex acts (consensual or not) they are asleep. Can’t a sexsomniac, then, also be a rapist, very aware of the violence they are committing?
If we’re talking “reasonable doubt,” that’s enough for me. For once, my emotional and rational brain are in sync, and they’re both telling me the same thing: let’s grab the torch and pitchfork and angry mob and get to work.