Sexplain It: My Partner's Disorder Makes Them Want to Have Sex While They're Asleep

"More recently, their advances have been more forceful, and last week, I had to leave the room."

young couple relaxing on cushions
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I'm Zachary Zane, a sex writer and ethical manwhore (a fancy way of saying I sleep with a lot of people, and I'm very, very open about it). Over the years, I've had my fair share of sexual experiences, dating and sleeping with hundreds of people of all genders and orientations. In doing so, I've learned a thing or two about navigating issues in the bedroom (and a bunch of other places, TBH). I'm here to answer your most pressing sex questions with thorough, actionable advice that isn't just "communicate with your partner," because you know that already. Ask me anything—literally, anything—and I will gladly Sexplain It.

To submit a question for a future column, fill out this form.

Dear Sexplain It,

My partner and I have been together for nearly eight years and have lived together for three. In the last year, they've been waking me in the middle of the night with strong sexual advances. At first, it was kind of hot, and I engaged with it, but the next morning, they wouldn't remember we had sex.

This happened a few times, so I started a conversation about it because it was making me really uncomfortable. They laughed it off, and we decided on a code word for me to use so I'd know if they were actually awake, but given that I'm always half-asleep, this wasn't helpful. So I'd just fend them off. More recently, their advances have been more forceful, and last week, I had to leave the room.

Since then, I've been sleeping in another room or creating a pillow barrier between us at night, as I'm now feeling anxious about sharing a bed with them. However, they don't seem to be taking my concerns seriously. Their solution is to have more conscious sex to prevent attempts at unconscious sex, and they're pushing me to share a bed and go back to normal because they miss the intimacy.

I miss the intimacy too. I love them completely, and I want this to work. I'm open to more sex. I just need more sleep. Any advice?

—Sexed Up Sleeper

sexplain it graphic

Dear Sexed Up Sleeper,

I can't diagnose your partner, but it sounds like they might be experiencing sexsomnia, a disorder that causes a sleeping person to “engage in sexual behaviors such as masturbation, sexual movements, sexual aggression, or initiating sex with another person,” according to the National Sleep Foundation. “Though their eyes may be open and they may make sexual noises, they are asleep during these activities and unaware of their behavior once they are awake.”

The good news is that sexsomnia can be treated with medication, a CPAP machine, and/or lifestyle changes, according to the National Sleep Foundation, so my first piece of advice is to get your partner to a sleep specialist or to a doctor who can refer them to one.

I realize this could be easier said than done. Between laughing you off and trying to come up with their own half-baked solutions—FYI: I saw nothing on the National Sleep Foundation about how having more sex while awake treats sexsomnia—your partner seems to have downplayed your concerns about their behavior in the past. They need to understand how seriously the situation is harming you and your relationship: You don't feel safe in your own bed, and you miss being intimate with them. Plus, things get murky around consent and boundaries when one partner is half-asleep and the other is fully asleep.

I showed your question to Gigi Engle, ACS, sex expert at 3Fun and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: a guide to sex, love, and life. “Your partner’s reluctance may come from a fundamental misunderstanding as a result of memory lapse," she says. "It seems to me they don't find the events ‘real’ or [your] concerns important because it is so outside of their understanding of themselves as a sexual being.”

Your partner might be sweeping aside your concerns because it's easier than having to confront their own scary behavior. “Dismissing a partner's concerns can often be a coping mechanism when we are truly, fundamentally worried we don't have control over ourselves,” Engle says.

Talk to your partner and make it clear that this isn’t something funny or strange. This is a huge issue, and if they ever want to sleep in the same bed again, they need to address their sexsomnia.

I would say to them very clearly: "Honey, I was just reading an article on sexsomnia, and it sounds incredibly similar to what you're experiencing. I'd like you to see a sleep specialist so we can figure out if you have it, and either way, get your situation under control. I know you’re not conscious of what you’re doing, but we have to take this seriously, otherwise I will never be able to sleep in the same bed as you again." Don't feel guilty about pursuing different sleeping arrangements while your partner gets their condition under control. I can tell you have a little guilt, and your partner may be contributing to it, but you should not feel guilty for wanting to sleep safely!

“You need to figure out a way to stop the behavior or, at the very least, control it to the point of allowing you both to feel safe,” Engle says.

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