I woke up in the middle of the night because something was pushing into the small of my back. No prizes for guessing what. My boyfriend's hands were all over me and no matter how many times I said, "Not now, I'm tired" he just kept on trying.
It wasn't distressing. I didn't really mind. The truth was, I was into the idea of middle-of-the-night-sex, I was just tired. Eventually, I woke up sufficiently, we had sex and he pulled me in close, a super-tight hug, and we both went back to sleep.
Or so I thought.
The next morning he woke me up again, this time less insistently, but still wanting exactly the same thing. I rolled over and looked him in the eyes and said, "I'm kinda exhausted from the last time, can I just sleep a little longer?"
He looked confused.
"What are you talking about? We haven't had sex for days."
Now I was confused.
"We had sex last night. You woke me up in the middle of the night and wouldn't leave me alone until we'd had sex."
He looked horrified. And then I thought about what I already knew about my boyfriend. That sometimes he would sit bolt upright in bed and talk at the top of his lungs, remembering none of it the next day.
That once, I had woken up to see him trying to get dressed and leave the house because he needed to see his granddad, at 3 a.m.
That we often had complete conversations in bed that the next morning he wouldn't remember at all—because he'd actually been asleep throughout.
I wondered, was it possible he had initiated sex with me without actually being awake?
Neither of us said anything for a little while. Then he started apologizing.
"Don't apologize," I told him. "I know you didn't mean to."
We lay there saying nothing for a while, and then I made some jokes about how good the sex had been, and how I never thought I'd enjoy "zombie sex." He saw I was okay with what happened, and relaxed a bit. We napped a little longer, and then we had completely awake and very consensual sex.
Later that day, I did some Googling. Sexsomnia, the official term for having sex while asleep, is a newer field when it comes to all things sleep disorder. It was first classified as a type of "parasomnia" in 1996, and in 1998, research suggested it was a variant of sleepwalking.
It's not something scientists have found easy to study, possibly because many people are embarrassed by it. (I would never write this story if I had to publish it under my own name or identify my boyfriend. I'm not embarrassed, but I know he would be.)
From what I saw with my partner, it certainly shares plenty of the traits of sleepwalking. He never remembers it, is never in control of what his mind and body are doing at the time, and often can't be dissuaded from his goal.
After a few months of occasionally being woken in the middle of the night by an unsolicited boner, I figured out a way to manage the sexsomnia—the same way I had figured out to manage the sleepwalking.
I would talk to the sleeping him about what he was trying to do, and eventually, with some circular arguing, convince him to lie down, give me a hug, and "Go back to sleep."
Those hugs were stifling, like a child grasping onto their bear for fear it might be taken away, but I was lucky, and he was lucky. Because for some people, sexsomnia isn't something you joke about in the morning. It can be forced, violent, non-consensual sex. And actually, because the person forcing it is asleep, no one is consenting.
My boyfriend took a long time to adjust to the knowledge he sometimes initiated sex while he was asleep. He struggled with the fact that I was often put in a position where I had to try to dissuade him—or sometimes, let him because it was the fastest way for me to get back to sleep.
There's the murky legal question of what happens when someone with sexsomnia forces sex. I can't speak to that. My experience was in the context of a loving, trusting relationship where, honestly, my sex drive was generally higher than his so the occasional late-night bonus sex really didn't bother me.
We established basic rules. I would always tell him what had happened the next day. I would always try to talk him out of it in the moment. If he ever forced me to do anything I didn't want to, he would get help.
That never happened.
Having said all that, sexsomnia puts a strain on relationships. Because it takes the open communication out of sex. It creates barriers and breeds mistrust. A few times when he tried to do things I didn't like during sleep sex, I wondered if he was really asleep. Sometimes I'd be so exhausted when I fell into bed, I wouldn't wake up until the act was underway and there was no chance I could stop it.
Those moments made things harder for us. But overall, navigating this issue brought us closer together. And when we did break up, after years together, the sexsomnia wasn't even a minor factor.
How we dealt with it worked for us, but it might not work for everyone.
That's something everyone needs to work out for themselves.