Sleep walking, sleep talking, and even sleep driving are all types of sleep disorders you may have heard of before. You may have even experienced one or more yourself.

One sleep disorder you might not be as familiar with is sleep sex, or sexsomnia. Sexsomnia, like sleepwalking, is a type of parasomnia. Parasomnia is the result of your brain being caught between sleep stages. This in-between phase may make you act like you’re awake when you’re still asleep.

People with sexsomnia experience sleep-related sexual behavior. These behaviors range from masturbation to sexual intercourse. Treatment for underlying sleep disorders or behavioral issues may treat sleep sex, too.

Sexsomnia is different from sex dreams. Sex-themed dreams are not unusual for teenagers and adults. These experiences are quite different from sexsomnia. People with this disorder engage in sexual behaviors while asleep, often with other people.

The difficulty with a parasomnia like sleep sex is that the person with the disorder may not realize they have it. Partners, parents, roommates, or friends may first notice the behaviors. The person with the condition may not know it’s occurring until someone else brings it to their attention.

Common behaviors with sexsomnia include:

  • fondling or inducing foreplay with bed partner
  • pelvic thrusting
  • behaviors that mimic sexual intercourse
  • masturbation
  • sexual intercourse
  • spontaneous orgasm
  • glassy, vacant look in eyes during these behaviors
  • being unaware of behavior later

If the person isn’t aware of the behavior after they wake up, this could be a sign of a parasomnia. The individual experiencing sexsomnia may have their eyes open and act awake. However, they’re experiencing an amnesic episode and won’t remember anything.

Likewise, subtle changes in sexual behavior may be a sign of the sleep disorder. People with sexsomnia may be more assertive during episodes of sleep sex than they would be otherwise. Inhibitions may be lower because they’re asleep, so behavior may seem different to partners.

It’s not clear what causes some people to develop sexsomnia, but doctors do know of several factors that can contribute to it. These include:

  • sleep deprivation
  • increased stress
  • anxiety
  • fatigue
  • certain medications
  • drinking alcohol
  • using recreational drugs or prescription drugs you weren’t prescribed
  • irregular sleep patterns

Underlying medical conditions may trigger sexsomnia, too. These conditions often interfere with sleep. They include:

It’s not clear how common sexsomnia is, but it’s considered rare. One study found that 8 percent of people at a Canadian sleep disorder clinic showed symptoms of sexsomnia. Men were almost three times more likely than women to have the disorder. Women with sexsomnia were more likely to masturbate.

Keep in mind the study results only included people at a specific sleep disorder clinic. The condition is likely much less common in the general population.

People experiencing the disorder may not report their symptoms because they may feel embarrassed or ashamed or be unaware of their condition. That could mean more cases occur than are known. Of the 832 participants in the Canadian study, only four expressed concerns about sexsomnia during consultations with sleep specialists.

Doing things you can’t recall doing while you were asleep can be alarming. Some sexsomnia behaviors may be harmless, such as masturbating. For others, they can also be quite serious. In fact, sexsomnia has been used as a defense in rape cases.

Partners of people with sexsomnia may also be concerned the behavior is a sign of displeasure in the relationship. This can lead to a growing rift between you and your loved one.

These are all valid reasons to seek help for your sleep disorder. If a partner or loved one reports unusual sleep behaviors to you over the course of a few weeks or months, make an appointment with a sleep specialist. If you don’t know one, ask for a recommendation from your family doctor.

Before seeing your doctor, ask anyone who has observed your sleep sex behaviors to write down what they’ve seen. You should also keep a journal of your sleep patterns.

A record of these sleep sex episodes may be enough for your doctor to diagnose the condition. If it isn’t, they may request that you undergo a sleep study.

Sleep studies are typically conducted at specialized medical facilities. The test, also called polysomnography, records the following during sleep:

  • brain waves
  • heart rate
  • breathing pattern
  • eye and leg movement

One night in the sleep center may be enough. Your doctor may also request you stay multiple nights so they can get a broader understanding of your sleep patterns. If the behaviors occur while you’re in the sleep center, this can confirm your doctor’s diagnosis.

If a sexsomnia episode doesn’t occur while you’re in the study center, your doctor may request additional studies later. They may also try other tests to rule out possible causes.

Treatment for sexsomnia is often very successful. These include:

Dealing with underlying sleep disorders

If sexsomnia is possibly the result of another sleep disorder, like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, treating the underlying disorder may also stop the unintended sexual behaviors. Sleep apnea, for example, is most often treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.

Changes in medication

If you started a new prescription soon before the sexsomnia behaviors began, switching medicines may stop the disorder. Sleep medications, including over-the-counter ones, may cause episodes of parasomnia

Medications for underlying causes

Conditions like depression, anxiety, and stress can contribute to sexsomnia and disordered sleep. Medication or talk therapy may be treatment options that can end the sexual behaviors.

New medications

While some medications can lead to sexsomnia, others may help stop it. Antidepressants and anti-seizure medicines may be prescribed.

Treating the underlying causes successfully treats sexsomnia in most cases. You may occasionally experience sexsomnia episodes again, especially if your sleep patterns change or you develop additional sleep disorders. Most people will find relief with treatment.

These lifestyle changes can reduce your risk for sexsomnia and possibly prevent future episodes:

Talk with your partner and family

Sexsomnia can put people in your life at risk. It may also affect personal relationships. It’s important you let your loved ones know of the diagnosis, how you’re treating it, and what they can do to help you. Honesty is the best policy.

Create a protective environment

Until treatments are working, set up a safe environment for you and loved ones.

  • sleep in separate bedrooms
  • put yourself in a room with a locked door
  • set up alarms that can alert people when you are moving around

Avoid triggers

Drinking alcohol and taking recreational drugs can lead to sleep sex. Identifying those triggers can help you prevent sexsomnia episodes.

Practice good sleep hygiene

Getting regular sleep every night is very important to prevent sexsomnia. Sleep deprivation and changes in sleep pattern can lead to episodes of the disorder. Set a bedtime, and stick to it.

Learn more: Tips to sleep better »