How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman with a new boyfriend who is very sweet and, frankly, very hot. We have sex constantly, and when we aren’t, I’m thinking about it. But we recently started staying over at each other’s places every weekend, and a problem is emerging. When we are both asleep, he will try to initiate sex with me. I’ll wake up and kind of brush him off, but he doesn’t seem to wake up and doesn’t always stop right away. Recently, he got fully on top of me before I nearly screamed at him and it seemed to break the spell. After that, I finally brought this up, and he seemed horrified and said he had no memory of it at all; he said this has never happened before. I believe him but I am a little unnerved. Does this happen to other people? What if I can’t get him to stop? I haven’t stayed with him for a couple weeks because of this, and I’m not sure what to do.
Stoya: So … I’m a sleep sex-er. I wear panties to bed to avoid actually having sex with people in the middle of the night, mostly because of pregnancy concerns.
Rich: I am not a sleep sex-er, but I am generally DTF, and I had a partner who was a sleep sex-er. In fact, we rarely had waking sex. I would wake up once a week in the middle of making out passionately. It was very interesting because he could be very uptight, but every seven days, he just wasn’t. During sleep. It was like partnering with a rather mild yet more frequently active werewolf.
Since this was practically my only outlet at the time, he had my total consent. No issues there. How does it generally go for you? Do you find partners are OK with your sleep-sexing?
Stoya: I warn people before I sleep over. They’re usually men, and they’re usually like, “I should be so lucky.” Generally, they’re fine but (prudently) worried about condoms and semen control. But considering the gender dynamics at play, they probably don’t feel they have room to complain.
Rich: Right. At any point, do you wake up during? I always felt like, by midway through, the sleep sex-er I was with would be totally conscious.
Stoya: I’ve been known to wake up and also to quietly roll over when denied.
Rich: Have you ever remained asleep the entire time?
Stoya: Probably? I’m currently wishing I’d collected better data.
Rich: It’s fascinating, especially when the power and gender dynamics are such that these tendencies are not generally traumatizing.
Our letter writer shows the potential flip side. To backtrack, and in case it’s not already obvious, this is a thing: “sexsomnia.” It officially made it into the DSM five or so years ago.
Stoya: I love that that’s a semi-scientific term.
Rich: We should be so lucky to have portmanteaus for all newly examined conditions going forward. I completely understand being unnerved by this like the letter writer, but for many it’s no convenient excuse: It’s a recognized disorder. (In extreme cases, it’s also been cited in rape trials, but the scenarios are very different and complicated, and media coverage has tended to sensationalize it.)
Stoya: I’m super focused on the practical: underpants for everyone. The more complicated, the better. It’s worked for me.
Rich: Bust out the straps, buttons, zippers, and padlocks. But for real, some experts recommend sleeping in separate rooms with locks on doors!
Stoya: Oh, wow. That certainly sounds effective.
Rich: It’s sometimes what it takes! This can be really serious for some people. There are some other treatments too: clonazepam, CPAP (one of those oxygen machines that people use to treat sleep apnea), and lifestyle changes to help mitigate stress.
Stoya: For sure. The guy in the letter will probably have an easier life if he can stop subconsciously covering the women in his bed, especially since he seems to have made at least one uncomfortable. He should see a doctor and talk about what happened. If this really is new, that could be concerning for a lot of reasons.
Rich: And it might just be that they can’t sleep together, in which case they’re already treating the condition.
Stoya: Not every happy romp must result in a sleepover. This is a different kind of case, but it’s helpful to keep in mind here.
Rich: Yeah, it just doesn’t always work like that for everybody, which doesn’t mean the relationship is any less worthy or real. It’s kind of an extreme version of moving to a different room when you can’t handle your partner’s snoring.
Stoya: Exactly. Sometimes sleepovers are just not functional. Medications, night guards, different sleep patterns. Sleep sex. It’s possible our writer should consider working out a sleep-proof signal. Like intense nipple squeezing.
Rich: Totally. And look, if he’s not willing to seek treatment or if it doesn’t work for him, this could be a sign of incompatibility. At least they realized this early?
Stoya: For sure. Better to notice these things earlier and see how the potential partner navigates them. There are plenty of sleep signal options—air horns, tactile pain, shouting. If one doesn’t work, it’s worth trying other options as well.
Rich: I love a felicitous air horn.