The sex last night was great!" I say to my husband, Leo.
"We didn't have sex last night!" he exclaims.
"Yes, we did!" I say. "Last night you woke me up at 2 a.m. Remember?"
This debate is familiar. No, I'm not cheating on my husband, nor did I slip him a roofie. He's the only man I have sex with, but half the time he doesn't remember it. That's because Leo suffers from a rare sleep condition called sexsomnia, which causes him to engage in sexual acts in his sleep.
Several times a week, since we first started dating two years ago, we've been unintentionally supplementing our sex life with strange, nocturnal trysts. In the middle of the night, my normally respectful and mild-mannered husband becomes a wild animal — I often awake to him pawing me and talking dirty in Italian, his native language. While he's sleeping, we have full-blown intercourse (seamlessly switching positions during the act) and give and receive oral sex, and when we're finished, Leo simply fades into a peaceful slumber. And the next morning, he has no recollection of our sexual encounter.
I don't wake him up during the act for fear of startling him, but on the rare occasion he does awaken, he's mortified. Leo rarely remembers what happens, so I fill him in the next morning.
Sexsomnia was first discovered in the mid-'90s and brought to public attention in 2002 by researchers at Stanford University. It won't be considered an official sleep disorder until more research is conducted, but that's only a matter of time, says Mike Mangan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. "Roughly 3 percent of the population instigates sleep sex, although it's more common in men," he says. Men's symptoms differ slightly from women's: While women usually moan and talk dirty, men tend to masturbate violently and aggressively initiate sex.
According to Mangan, there's an area of the brain called the subcortical that regulates basic biological impulses such as breathing, eating, aggression, and arousal. Policing these primal instincts is the cortex, the largest part of the brain, responsible for weighing the consequences of your potential actions. While you're sleeping, the cortex is not operating in the same way as when you're awake, but your primal impulses continue to fire off. Normally, this activity won't disturb a sleeping person, but if there are certain factors involved, such as fatigue, alcohol consumption before bed, a sexual dream, or accidentally brushing up against a bed partner, sexsomnia can occur. "We can't yet pinpoint a reason for why one person has sexsomnia and another doesn't, but these general factors make an episode more likely," says Mangan.
Most of the time, I prefer Leo's sexsomnia to the sex we have when he's awake, although I wouldn't tell him that. We can't re-create that degree of passion on demand, and I don't want to emasculate my husband by saying he's better in bed when he's sleeping. After two years together, our sex life is satisfying, but it's dwindling in passion and frequency. The lingerie I used to wear has been shoved to the back of my dresser, and Leo's started leaving the bathroom door ajar when he's on the toilet. We know each other's bodies so well by now that we rely on the same, comfortable sexual positions. But when he's sleeping, the sex is passionate, uninhibited, and primal. As a result, I feel like I'm harboring a fun little secret — like I have two sex lives.
HOWEVER, SEXSOMNIA does have a downside. Leo often wakes me up several times in one night when I've already rebuffed his advances, and disruptive sleep — combined with the frustration of being harangued for sex — can be exhausting. And there are other drawbacks: At times, I feel guilty that he gets shortchanged by our sex life — about a year ago, he drew a hot bath, dimmed the lights, then woke me up with a glass of Bordeaux while having a sleepy but coherent conversation with his eyes open. I was disappointed to discover mid-bath that he was actually sleeping. There have been unforgettable nights of sexual experimentation, tender words, and insightful conversations that he's not actually privy to. And who else would I share those moments with but my husband?
There's also something unsettling about it. During an episode, Leo morphs into another person with an unfamiliar subset of kinky sexual preferences that differ wildly from what he likes in his waking hours, making me wonder, Does he have a sexually repressed past? Are his true sexual tastes manifesting during sleep? And while I don't believe that he'd try to hurt me, I can't say that my guard is completely down as we fall asleep each night — who knows when a sexsomnia episode will occur?
"From what we understand, sleep sex occurs before the muscles are paralyzed by REM," says Mangan. This may explain why people can move around and have an orgasm — an intense brain explosion of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin — during this stage of sleep and not wake up.
One of the biggest roadblocks to treating sexsomnia is that sleep is an elusive field of study for which no one has all the answers, says Mangan. "Since the brain is never fully shut off, it makes sense that people can do complex things in their sleep, especially activities like sex that involve muscle memory," he says. "There have been cases of people driving, moving heavy objects, or cooking — why should having sex be any stranger?"
Mangan says Leo fits the basic profile of a sexsomniac. And short of sleeping with one eye open, there's not much I can do. The FDA hasn't approved treatment, though doctors have had limited success with antianxiety drugs like clonazepam. That's a step Leo and I don't feel is necessary to take, unless his condition worsens. Right now, we consider it his quirk, and another layer to our evolving sex life. The way I see it, more sex for a few sleepless nights is a pretty fair trade.