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Everything you know about sleep orgasms is wrong. Here’s the truth.

Having trouble sleeping? Hit Snooze is Mashable’s deep dive into how we cope with our collective insomnia and the many ways we can achieve a more peaceful slumber.


Wet dreams were a staple of the “your body is changing” conversations we got as hormonal teens. If you were lucky, your school sex education program or parents taught you that it’s perfectly normal for pubescent boys to orgasm overnight, sometimes without even waking up.

But neither my formal nor informal sex education prepared me for when, as a fully adult woman, I started waking up cumming. Apparently, it’s totally normal, too, and probably happening way more often and to way more people than you think.

“Sleep orgasms are a common part of human existence.”

“It can happen to people of all genders and ages, though at least anecdotally, it does appear to be more common among adolescents,” said Indiana University Kinsey Institute professor Debby Herbenick, author of The Coregasm Workout.

Research into sleep (or nocturnal) orgasms is sorely lacking, with very few definitive answers to even the most basic questions about it. (Herbenick is currently working on a research article expected to publish soon, though.) But what experts can say for certain about the mysterious phenomenon is that there’s nothing to be ashamed or afraid of if it happens to you. 

Actually, it’s the exact opposite.

“Sleep orgasms are a common part of human existence, and perhaps your body’s way of relieving tension or experiencing pleasure and enjoyment,” Herbenick said.

“If anything, consider yourself blessed,” said psychiatrist Lea Lis, who’s working on an upcoming book about parenting that emphasizes shameless sex education. “It means that everything’s working right and exactly as it should.”

Again, while there’s a huge knowledge gap in up-to-date data and conclusive research on sleep orgasms, they’re understood to be climaxes that occur during REM sleep due to stimulation to the erectile tissue in both males and females. Don’t get thrown off by the term “erectile tissue” — that applies to both the penis and clitoris, which is far larger than just the exterior nub we’re all acquainted with. 

One 1986 study from The Journal of Sex Research found that 37% of the people with vaginas surveyed had experienced sleep orgasms, as opposed to 83% of the people with penises. But because it’s common for people to not even wake up from a sleep orgasm, it’s possible that those with vaginas simply don’t remember it. After all, penises leave more, uh, evidence behind after an orgasm. Another possibility for the biological discrepancy is that male sexual organs need to release seminal fluid, which may also explain why a time of hormonal flux like puberty could lead to more frequent occurrences.

Don't judge yourself for sleep orgasms. Take notes instead!

Don’t judge yourself for sleep orgasms. Take notes instead!

Image: bob al-green / mashable

When it comes to the question of why we have sleep orgasms, there are again only educated theories. According to Herbenick, scientists believe that genital arousal during sleep in general occurs in order to keep blood and oxygen flowing to genital tissues (similar to how our lungs know to keep breathing while unconscious). That’s supported by this 1983 study from the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which showed a marked increase in vaginal blood flow during REM arousal periods. Another 2011 study from Shue Yan University suggests that sleeping on your stomach might increase the likelihood of genital stimulation and frequency of erotic dreams during sleep.

However, that doesn’t mean that sexy thoughts are a prerequisite to sleep orgasms.

“Sometimes people recall erotic dreams in connection with their sleep orgasms but other times recall completely mundane, non-sexual things,” said Herbenick.

Psychological factors can play a role in understanding sleep orgasms too, according to Lis. interestingly, both men and women who have difficulty reaching climax while conscious can still experience orgasms during sleep. 

This is likely due to the fact that common psychological hangups (fear, shame, trauma, body image issues, anxiety, etc.) which can often cause sexual difficulties, like erectile dysfunction or vaginismus, in the conscious brain are less inhibiting to the unconscious brain. Your body overall is also in a state of deep relaxation during deep REM sleep, which is another key factor in climaxing.

“Our dreams are like a road map into our deepest fears.”

Lis spoke of one patient who was a survivor of sexual assault and disturbed by the violence of the erotic dreams that she would wake up climaxing to, including rape fantasies. But that’s totally normal, too.

“Our dreams are like a road map into our deepest fears, and it doesn’t mean we like or want those things to happen in real life.` It just means that we are trying to process them,” she said. So rather than judging yourself for whatever sex dreams you’re having, embrace what they might be trying to tell you about your fears, fantasies, or “day residue” (meaning what happened during the day that your sleeping brain is working through).

As a society, we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of sleep orgasms. But the fact that they can happen to most people at any time can help us understand a lot about the nature of sexuality in general.

“Sleep orgasms show that human sexuality is much bigger and broader than we often give it credit it for,” said Herbenick. “We are sexual beings, from birth to death. Our bodies are capable of genital or sexual response, whether or not we think of it as truly sexual, or intentionally sexual. And our bodies have a mind of their own, and that’s OK, too.”

Climaxing during sleep doesn’t make you a weirdo. It just means you’re human. And isn’t orgasming way better than having that recurring nightmare where all your teeth fall out?

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