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Health & Sex

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'Sleep Sex' Unromantic, Even Dangerous

Sleep Sex

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 psychiatry."

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.

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