'Sleep Sex' Unromantic, Even Dangerous
What Is Sleep Sex?
"Parasomnias" are disorders that intrude into the sleep
process and create disruptive sleep events. They fall into several categories,
including arousal disorders, sleep-awake transition disorders, and parasomnias
related to REM (rapid eye movement or dreaming period) sleep.
Sleep sex, which is also known as SBS (sexual behaviors during
sleep), has yet to be formally categorized as a parasomnia, although that may
soon happen. The best-known parasomnia is sleepwalking, which is thought to
afflict as much as 18% of the population. As is well known, sleepwalkers can
venture out of the house into traffic and even walk through plate glass
windows, harming themselves.
In the Stanford study, all subjects were evaluated in sleep
labs and kept logs. Their medical records and medications and alcohol intake
also were charted. The sex was categorized by severity. "Annoying to bed
partner but not harmful" was one grouping, which consisted of sexually
related sounds that could be heard outside the bedroom. The second category,
"annoying to bed partner and at times harmful," referred to
masturbation activities. "Harmful to bed partners and others" was the
most serious category, which applied to seven cases. Force and brutality
characterized these encounters.
What Causes Sleep Sex?
Many times, people who engage in sleep sex have a history of
other sleep disorders such as REM behavior disorders, apnea, bed-wetting, and
sleepwalking, to name a few. Some have seizure disorders. All this suggests
neurochemical disorders in the brain.
We really don't understand this too well," says
Guilleminault. "What we are doing here is more neurology than
Researchers do know that during REM behavior disorders,
patients are in a different state of consciousness. "They are confused and
don't see reality," he says. All of these behaviors could come from
abnormal brain activity, though in some cases people may not experience the
muscle laxness that is supposed to come during REM sleep, which can lead to
forceful behavior they would otherwise be too weak to initiate. "These
people exhibit slower brain waves," he says, suggesting confusional
arousal. There can also be abnormal breathing, resulting in less oxygen and a
more confused mental state.
Mangan likens sleep sex to a dissociative state, similar to
multiple personalities. "Asleep, this is essentially a different
person," he says.
Fatigue and stress, as well as drug and alcohol use, can
precipitate incidents, Mangan says (which is borne out by a study done in
Canada). Apparently, sexual denial or frustration (or in the case of eating,
being on a diet) does not have much to do with these behaviors.
Treatment Is Available
Though lacking a complete explanation for sleep sex, doctors
can still treat it successfully. If a person has a seizure disorder that is
contributing to the behavior, that can be treated. Otherwise, clonazepam, in
the benzodiazepine family, has proved helpful. Consult a physician.
"We are at an interesting point in history," comments
Mangan. "We are watching a diagnosis emerge. Some people automatically
reject sleep sex as a possibility and think people are making excuses, but we
have to be careful of making snap judgments."