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Confessions of a Sexsomniac

Confessions of a Sexsomniac

A very private disorder can quickly turn traumatic.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire.

I am a sleep fucker. Like everything else I'm self-conscious about, I first heard about my disorder from my girlfriend. We had just moved in together and, of course, I didn't believe her at first. My girlfriend, after all, exhibits all the hallmarks of paranoid personality disorder. Sure, I left the toilet seat up. Sure, I left my dirty socks on the floor. Sure, I felt you up in the wee hours of the morning and then turned over as if nothing happened.

Couldn't it be, I thought, that she was just dreaming about me initiating sex in the middle of night? Or maybe, I theorized, she was sleepwalking. "I wasn't sleepwalking," she insisted, looking at me like she regretted our entire living situation.

A few nights later, I woke up to find myself fondling my girlfriend's breasts. "It's 4 am," she said. "What are you doing?" For once, I didn't have an answer.

Simon is one of those rare people who seem completely content with life. Quick to smile, he and his wife are a typical suburban couple, the kind you can imagine cheering from the stands of a kids' hockey game. All of which makes it strange to hear him say, "I would be in the middle of sex, like some sort of fiend, when she would wake me up. I would be in the act—sometimes even on my knees in bed—but not all there."

Simon has a sleep disorder called sexsomnia, or sleep sex. It was first identified in the mid-nineties, when a team of Canadian researchers led by Dr. Colin Shapiro noticed unusual sexual activity in patients they were examining for other sleep-related problems. The scientists ended up defining a new form of parasomnia, a category of sleep disorders involving abnormal movements, behaviours and perceptions. Sexsomniacs like Simon become stuck between sleep and wakefulness, acting automatically without control or consciousness.

"Unlike what a lot of people think, the brain is not all awake or asleep at the same time," says Dr. Mark Mahowald, a medical director at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center. "You can generate very complex behaviours, and yet the part of the brain that normally monitors what we're doing and lays down memories is asleep." Sex, he says, is "hardwired in our brains, and if that part is awake, and the monitoring part is asleep, we have sleep sex."

In 2007, Dr. Mahowald published a review of sleep-sex research, with case histories that read like a mix between The Exorcist and letters to Penthouse magazine. They range from the humorous (a thirty-four-year-old man who masturbates a few hours after falling asleep) to the violent (men and women who force themselves on their partners and tear off their clothes).

It's unknown what triggers sexsomnia, though stress, sleep deprivation and the use of drugs and alcohol have all been linked to the condition. Research indicates that some 11 percent of men and 4 percent of women engage in sleep sex, though if you have a hard time believing that number, join the club. "Anything that has to do with sex—particularly if it's a male trying to explain what appears to be misconduct—seems a bit fishy," says Dr. Michael Mangan, a psychologist at the University of New Hampshire and the author of the first book on the subject, Sleepsex: Uncovered. "But when you bring up the fact that women do it too, then people start saying, 'Wait a second.'"

Alfred Kinsey once wrote that "human sexual behavior represents one of the least explored segments of biology, psychology, and sociology." That remains true of sexsomnia; it's still awaiting proper classification, and scientists can't agree on how to treat it. Part of the trouble is that it isn't entirely an internal or biological problem. There may be abnormalities in the brain process that predispose people to the condition, but it's external factors—sounds or contact at night—that usually trigger sleep-sex episodes.

One reason for the lack of information about sexsomnia is that its sufferers are too embarrassed to bring it up. I understand why. Before I could see a sleep specialist, I needed to get a referral from a clinic, and when I described my problem to the young, attractive resident on duty, she burst out laughing.

"I've heard of that," she said, once she'd recovered. "Maybe you're just stressed out? Sex is a form of stress release." Then she added, "I don't know, have you Googled it?"

I had, and I'd read a series of articles treating sexsomniacs like psychos who needed sterilization, an attitude fuelled by the notion that a "true" or "repressed" self is coming out in these moments. The theory of unfulfilled sexual desires—with the body acting "automatically" to get what it wants—troubles Dr. Mahowald. "If sleep sex is a variant of sleepwalking—which many think it is—then there's no reason to believe that unfulfilled sexual desires play a part," he says.

The theory also troubles a lot of sexsomniacs, since the implication is that they're unsatisfied with their partners. But there's another, more disturbing undercurrent: that sexsomniacs are dangerous, since sleep sex occurs outside the realm of conscious control. "It has crossed her mind that maybe one day she won't be able to wake me up or make me stop," Simon says of his wife. "She always wakes me up, though. Otherwise it would be rape."
On July 6, 2003, a Toronto woman fell asleep on a couch at a house party and woke up to find a stranger lying on top of her. They were in the middle of intercourse.

"Who the hell are you and what are you doing?" she asked, horrified.

"Jan," the man replied.

That man was Jan Luedecke, a Toronto landscaper who had fallen asleep on the same couch. He would become the first person acquitted of rape after using sexsomnia as a defence, and his case set off a wave of similar courtroom dramas around the world.

Before the incident, Luedecke had shown a predilection for sleep sex with four former girlfriends, and on the night in question had done things that seemed inconsistent with rape—like using a condom, which he was still wearing when he got home. But—understandably—not everybody bought the excuse. "I believe the floodgates have been opened," a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres said following the trial. "This case has set a precedent."

Just three weeks later, a similar case ended in Britain, with the same result. The media quickly pounced, and one newspaper article claimed the trial did not take women seriously. "This kind of opinion is very widespread and, in my view, fundamentally misguided," says Jonathan Dawe, a lawyer who worked on Luedecke's defence team. "People are only criminally responsible for their voluntary actions. Sleepwalking and other parasomnial behaviors are involuntary, and therefore, it is completely wrong to punish someone for something they did while asleep."

However, parasomnial behaviour can only be proven circumstantially, and even when there is evidence of sexsomnia—as in Luedecke's case—some believe that a rapist is a rapist, regardless of intent. "When I was told that he'd come forth with this sleepwalking defence, my jaw hit the floor," the Toronto woman, identified only as L.O., told the Globe and Mail. "I couldn't even believe that it was a legal defence."

Suspicion of the sleepwalking defence might stem from the first time it was successfully used. In 1846, a man named Albert Tirrell was charged with murdering a woman before setting fire to the brothel where she lived.  Tirrell's attorney was Rufus Choate, who had gained a reputation for unusual legal arguments. Choate focused on Tirrell's chronic sleepwalking, and suggested that his client was asleep at the time of the incident. Whether or not this was true, the silver-tongued Choate managed to create enough doubt: the jury came to an agreement on Tirrell's innocence in less than two hours. Nine years later, the New York Times deemed Tirrell "notorious" after he was arrested again, this time for robbing a group of sailors.

Dawe admits that suspects have an obvious motive to plead innocence via parasomnial behaviour. However, he says, "I think most people don't understand how extremely difficult the condition is to fake." Nevertheless, the first reaction to a sleepwalking defence will always be disbelief: of the system, of lawyers, of men. "Where did the last six years just go?" L.O. asked the Globe after Luedecke was acquitted. "There is no closure yet. I'm still waiting for it."

The Luedecke case starkly illustrated the dilemmas—and dangers—surrounding sexsomnia. What would I do, I asked myself, if I ever accidentally hurt somebody? What would happen if something so personal-something my girlfriend and I regularly laugh about-turned so public, and so ugly? There's no doubt that L.O. was raped. The question is whether that makes Luedecke a rapist.

Being told you could molest a child is a chilling experience. When it happened to me, I was in the office of a sleep specialist who, sitting before a backdrop of medical degrees, listened patiently until I mentioned in passing that I was a writer. He seemed to take that as evidence that I could be faking my condition. With a weary look that suggested he had seen a lot of crazy shit, he paused for a moment, looked me over and pulled out the heavy artillery. "It's good you're here," he said. "It provides documentation. Doctor's notes that will flag it."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Think of it as future protection. If, for example, you're in bed with your own—or someone else's—child one day..." He trailed off, letting us sit in eerie silence for a few seconds. "You shouldn't be camping in the same tent as kids," he continued. "And separate beds are good for when you travel with strangers. Remember, this is involuntary-something could go wrong that would horrify you."

On that note, the doctor asked me to return with my partner. Two sleepless weeks later, I was back with my girlfriend and listening to her tell him every detail of our personal life. I had imagined that she would hate me for this experience, reminding me about it, like socks left on the floor, at every chance she got. Instead, she looked empowered. "Have you ever had a dog?" he asked her, as if I wasn't there. "Controlling this behaviour is just like disciplining a pet. You need to be firm and confident. This is a vulnerability that needs to be controlled."

On my first visit, the doctor had said, "I can tell you want to write about this, but I would wait. You need to understand that it's a couple's situation above all else." At the time I had no idea what he meant, but it was clear now. We were in this together.

"Are you okay?" my girlfriend asked on the way back home, snapping me out of a daze.

"Yeah, I think so," I answered. "It's just the kid thing..."

"I wouldn't worry about that," she said, smiling. "Why would I have kids with someone who leaves the toilet seat up?"

See the rest of Issue 38 (Winter 2010).

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