Sex in Your Sleep? For Real!
Carlos Schenck, a psychiatrist at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center and the Hennepin County Medical Center, has been studying bizarre sleep-related disorders for the past 20 years. That includes people who eat while asleep and even drive a car. In the June issue of the journal Sleep, Schenck and his colleagues Isabelle Arnulf and Mark Mahowald reveal, after a review of the literature, that a range of unconscious behaviors they call "sleepsex" is occurring, too. U.S. News spoke with Schenck about his findings.
What sorts of sexual behaviors do people engage in while they're asleep?
We know that medical disorders like migraine headaches can trigger sleepwalking and other parasomnias. Now, we know that you can have a sexual behavior disorder during sleep. That includes sexual vocalizations, masturbation, fondling another person, intercourse, and assaultive sexual behaviors.
You say people absolutely don't remember the sexual activity. How would I know if I were engaging in sleep sex?
In most cases, unless your bed partner brought it up, you wouldn't know. There was one man who severely bruised his penis because of masturbation. Hopefully, he would get medical attention and figure it out. A lot of time with sleepwalkers who live alone, unless they see the furniture rearranged when they wake up in the morning, they wouldn't know they were sleepwalking. I tell sleepwalkers who live alone to put newspapers very neatly around the bed or put a door alarm on the door, so they'll wake up if they're sleepwalking.
Why haven't we heard about this before?
People are very embarrassed by this; it's very shameful, humiliating. I see a lot of people with sleep-related eating, and they're embarrassed, especially with the weight gain. But with sleep sex, they're really ashamed.
What do you do if you suspect you or a family member has a sleep disorder involving sleep sex?
It's important to know that it's treatable. A physician would do a family history, and a partner sleep history. Most of the patients in our review did have a very rich history of parasomnias, such as sleepwalking, sleeptalking. Most responded to standard therapy, which includes medication such as benzodiazepines and klonipin.
Some of what you describe is sexual assault. How do doctors find out about these cases?
We get calls from lawyers around the country who are dealing with these cases, asking for our opinion on whether someone could have actually been asleep while committing a crime. The typical story is the teenage daughter awakes to find her father doing something inappropriate. He may have had previous parasomnias, or he may have had something to drink, or it may be volitional. It's really so tricky; we don't know on the night in question what was going on.