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Dear How to Do It,
I am a cis het female, and I find it difficult to orgasm. I was late to the party, with my first orgasm coming via vibrator in my mid-20s, and since then, I have found that I need quite intense vibrators to get the job done. I’ve had my share of sexual partners over the years, and despite their best efforts, and my own lo-fi attempts, I still find that the only way that I can come is with very specific vibrators. I’ve come to accept this, and found ways to incorporate vibrators into partnered sex, and am generally OK with the situation.
But then, something unexpected happened.
The other day I woke up from a dream having a lovely, intense orgasm. Obviously there were no vibrators involved, and though this is rare, it’s also not the first time that it’s happened. How come my subconscious knows how to orgasm, but I can’t get there while awake, except with intense vibrators? I feel like I’m pretty comfortable sexually, at the moment I’m in a long-term relationship with someone I love, and whom I trust, and I really enjoy our sex life.
I’ve always thought that my difficulty in achieving orgasm without a vibrator was a physiological thing, not a psychological one. But these dream orgasms have thrown me off. Is it a psychological thing? Is there something I should do to have easier, non-vibrator–induced orgasms?
— Coming in My Dreams
Stoya: I have this, like, mad scientist urge to ask them to experiment. But do you have a better idea?
Rich: Well, maybe. I haven’t answered this exact question, but I have talked about parasomnias with neurologist Guy Leschziner. He wrote a book called The Nocturnal Brain that I loved, and he talks about parasomnias in that book. And he’s since been gracious enough to me to talk multiple times for this column, which is among things flattering because he’s a busy guy who is kind of at the forefront of his field of research.
The last time that I talked to him, I had received a question about sexsomnia, which is sexual activity that occurs during sleep that doesn’t seem to be at all consciously triggered. And it was from somebody whose boyfriend was doing this, and he was way more aggressive in his sleep than he was in waking life. It was a multi-pronged question, but one of the questions was like, “Is this who he really is without the inhibitions of conscious life?”? And Leschziner actually, very interestingly, said to me: “The way that I would view the sexual behavior that this chap exhibits is probably not as an illustration of some deep-rooted desire to have sexual activity in that way, but as a function of the fact that his brain is not working normally.”
The way that parasomnias work is that certain parts of your brain are awake and certain parts of your brain are asleep. Now, your waking life is such that all of these parts of your brain are awake, so that if you have some kind of reflexive sort of impulse, another part of your brain can inhibit that. And Leschziner’s argument is that that is the full you. If part of your brain is turned on and part of your brain is turned off, while you might think, ‘Oh, I’m exhibiting this behavior that must be the real me, it must have been buried in there,’ it’s actually like, no, your brain works in concert and when it’s not working in concert, that actually is not your true self.
The reason I bring this up, even though it seems a little bit tangential, is because nocturnal orgasms are considered a parasomnia. There’s very little known about them, but my thinking is, if this is in fact a parasomnia, it may have something to do with parts of your brain being turned on and turned off. And so the philosophical idea of, ‘Is my subconscious somehow better in touch with my sexuality?’ is sort of a false premise. It’s actually physiological because it’s coming from your brain, where your psychology also happens to be seated. So there’s a lot going on. It’s simultaneous, et cetera.
But I’m not confident that we can say this person’s brain knows how to orgasm and she doesn’t. I think it’s more like certain things are being turned on and turned off and that’s producing this surprising result.
That’s my speech.
Stoya: That was awesome.
So, if it happens again and her partner happens to be sleeping next to her, I think it’s worth telling her partner what happened and asking if it’s OK, should it happen again, to wake them up and have sex and see what happens. I think this would be an incredible piece of information. I don’t think we can count on the opportunity presenting itself, but like, please tell your partner. And if it happens again, try some stuff and see what happens. For the data, right?
Rich: Yes. And speaking of which, there is always the option to undergo a sleep study. There are sleep specialists who deal with this, and this question is essentially like, what’s up with me? But it sounds like this is sporadic and so this might not be a viable option, but it’s something to consider.
It is very hard for us to evaluate this from over here, based on a description. You’re much better off going to a facility that will hook you up and examine you and let you know, because I can only theorize, you know, based on the little I know about parasomnias. You might actually want to get that checked out.
And also the reason I know about nocturnal orgasms is because I received a question previously about painful nocturnal orgasms that felt like a clenching or something like that. It’s nice to hear that this person is actually enjoying them. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about per se, but there is more information available potentially if you would like to undergo some kind of study.
Stoya: And meanwhile, the vibrator works and that’s great. I am wary of being like, it could be worse, but you’re having orgasms through some means and that is not guaranteed in life. So that’s pretty good.
Rich: Yes, exactly. It’s not a very common occurrence, so it’s very hard to say here’s what’s up with you. We can just kind of only put the pieces together, because even people who’ve experienced this previously are experiencing it differently just in terms of what we’ve received in the column. So if you’re that curious, you hit the pavement. Go find out, go talk to or have somebody look at you.
Stoya: And if they decide to go that route, they could help provide more data for the scientists that we can then understand more from.
Rich: Exactly. I don’t know how amenable Leschziner would be to discussing this directly (again, he’s very busy!), but he was very responsive when I reached out. His contact form is on his website. He might find this potential data useful. So even if you want to do something as passive as sending another person an email, in addition to the one that you sent to us, he may respond if you write to him. He’s a super down-to-earth, nice, smart guy. So there’s that possibility as well.
More From How to Do It
I recently got out of a long-term relationship and am really looking forward to getting back into the just-have-fun casual sex thing for a while. However, I’ve had trouble in the past dealing with boundaries with guys I’m just sleeping with (I’m prone to the repeat-hookup-buddies scenario) and was wondering if you might have some advice.