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Bering in Mind


A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior
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Sex, Sleep and the Law: When Nocturnal Genitals Pose a Moral Dilemma

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It may seem to you that, much like their barnyard animal namesake, men’s reproductive organs the world over participate in a mindless synchrony of stiffened salutes to the rising sun. In fact, however, such "morning wood" is an autonomic leftover from a series of nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) episodes that occur like clockwork during the night for all healthy human males—most frequently in the dream-filled rapid eye movement (REM) periods of sleep from which we’re so often rudely awakened in the A.M. by buzzers, mothers, or others.

For those with penises, you may be surprised to learn how frequently your member stands up while the rest of your body is rendered catatonic by the muscular paralysis that keeps you from acting out your dreams. (And thank goodness for that. Carlos Schenck and his colleagues [pdf] from the University of Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center describe the case of a 19-year-old with sleep-related dissociative disorder crawling around his house on all fours, growling, and chewing on a piece of bacon—he was ‘dreaming’ of being a jungle cat and pouncing on a slab of raw meat held by a female zookeeper.) Scientists have determined that the average 13- to 79-year-old penis is erect for about 90 minutes each night, or 20 percent of overall sleep time. With your brain cycling between the four sleep stages, your "sleep-related erections" appear at 85-minute intervals lasting, on average, 25 minutes. (It’s true; they used a stopwatch.) I didn’t come upon any evolutionary theories or a proposed "adaptive function" of NPT, but we do know that it’s not related to daytime sexual activity, it declines (no pun intended) with age, and it’s correlated positively with testosterone levels. Females similarly exhibit vaginal lubrication during their REM-sleep, presumably with many dreaming of erect penises.

Now, you may not think that such tedious biological details would be fodder for a moral quandary, but you underestimate our species’ massive confusion when it comes to understanding how its coveted free will articulates with its genitalia. Consider the case of a young Frenchman whose sleep-related erection was interpreted by another man as a sign of sexual interest but, swore the former, was nothing of the kind. As described by a group of investigators at the Annual Meeting of the French Sleep Research Society in 2001, the 24-year-old heterosexual male awoke to his horror with painful anal lesions. Although he had no conscious recollection of any such incident occurring, this led him to deduce that he must have been raped during the night. "The legal medical examination indeed reported on visibly recent tears of the anal margin," confirmed the researchers.

Then comes the sobering whodunit. What was especially disquieting is that the man’s boss had slept over the night before. The two had earlier been lounging in the pool and roasting together in the sauna. There was absolutely no evidence of date rape drugs, but alcohol, as it so often does in the south of France, flowed with relatively gay abandon that evening, and so the straight employee, being a gentleman, had invited his employer to sleep it off on his sofa while he retired to the mezzanine. Apparently, however, it was the employee that slept particularly hard that night, not the inebriated boss. The older man admitted readily that of course they’d had sex overnight, and he could only assume that his colleague’s erection, combined with the fact that the other didn’t resist as he mounted him, suggested that he was a consensual partner. (You thought you were a deep sleeper—imagine the somnambulistic fortitude required to snooze through your first anal penetration.) While the courts tried to sort it all out, the alleged rapist was imprisoned for two years, until finally a judge decided that both men were more or less right and the accused should be set free.

This is but one of many curious examples of sex and law intertwining. In recent years, the related phenomenon of sexsomnia ("sleep sex") has witnessed periodic public interest through a spate of high-profile cases, stories that have in turn motivated intriguing academic research on this little-known subject. Even Alfred Kinsey, the grand archivist of carnal facts, while spending a considerable deal of time on the subject of "wet dreams" and nocturnal orgasms in both sexes, didn’t mention how some people act out sexually during their sleep.

Unlike the aforementioned case of the sleeping employee being the passive, immobilized recipient in unwanted intercourse, it’s the sleeper that instigates the trouble in bouts of sexsomnia. Although researchers don’t yet have an exact figure on the frequency of this parasomnia, most specialists believe that it’s probably fairly common. Nearly all people who exhibit recurrent sexual acts while sleeping have a history of sleepwalking. In fact, many experts believe that sexsomnia is simply a variant of sleepwalking, which affects 1 to 2% of adults, and this is how it’s presently classified in the main diagnostic manual, the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Revised. Most people do not seek out clinical treatment due to either their ignorance of the condition or embarrassment, and oftentimes their sexual ‘automatisms’ are innocuous enough—such as fugue-state masturbation, weak pelvic thrusts or steamy pillow talk. (More on the concept of automatism in a moment.)

In a 2007 issue of Brain Research Reviews, however, psychobiologist Monica Andersen and her co-authors [pdf] investigated all case studies that had, at that point, been published in the literature, and they attempted to piece together some common denominators underlying sexsomnia. They found that the most common precipitating factors of sleepsex are sleep deprivation, stress, alcohol or drug consumption, excessive fatigue, and physical overactivity in the evening. Being male and under the age of 35 is also a major factor; furthermore, when women do lapse into this altered nocturnal state, their actions tend to be comparatively innocent, moaning and masturbating rather than, like male sexsomniacs, fondling and grinding whatever is unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of their bed that night.

One of the most extraordinary things about sexsomnia is that the sleeping person’s inappropriate behaviors are sometimes directed at people that, during their waking lives, are not particularly arousing to them. In a 1996 issue of Medicine, Science and the Law, psychiatrist Peter Fenwick describes the case of an allegedly heterosexual male cadet who was court-martialed for homosexual assault after he’d crawled into bed with another soldier and caressed that private’s privates. The case was dismissed after the court accepted that the absence of an erection in the accused—sexsomnia may or may not involve erections—meant that it was unlikely that the episode was "purposeful," but instead just a bizarre sleepwalking incident. (I’ll refrain, but there’s a clever Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell joke just waiting for you.) Another example of atypical homosexuality in sexsomnia involved a 16-year-old who walked into his aunt and uncle’s bedroom one night and began molesting his adult uncle.

Erections, as I hinted at earlier, complicate matters for the judicial system. One notorious case garnering international media attention, and as reviewed recently [pdf] in Current Psychiatry by a group of sleep researchers from The Cleveland Clinic, centered on a 30-year-old landscaper named Jan Luedecke, who drank far too much at a wild croquet party in the Toronto suburbs one night back in 2003 and fell asleep on a couch. "Some time later," explain the authors, "he approached a woman who was sleeping on an adjacent couch, put on a condom, and began sexual intercourse with her." From her terrified perspective, the woman awoke to discover that her underwear had been removed and a glassy-eyed Luedecke was trying to rape her. She pushed him off, ran to the washroom, and returned to find him standing there bewildered. Luedeke, who had an established history of sleepwalking behaviors, was acquitted after University of Toronto psychiatrist Colin Shapiro testified for the defense that the accused was in a dissociative state when the incident occurred and therefore he was not consciously aware of his actions.

Difficult legal cases such as these hinge entirely on the demonstrability (or at least strong probability) of an automatism—a crime committed during sleep. This is a concept for which Fenwick provided one of the clearest definitions:

An automatism is an involuntary piece of behavior over which an individual has no control. The behavior is usually inappropriate to the circumstances, and may be out of character for the individual. It can be complex, co-ordinated and apparently purposeful and directed, though lacking in judgment. Afterwards the individual may have no recollection or only a partial and confused memory for his actions.

In other words, sexsomniacs are basically lascivious zombies. There’s presently no way to determine with absolute certainty if the phenomenon, when invoked as a defense, was really the cause or just a really convenient alibi. Still, certain criteria (detailed sleep pattern data from a nocturnal polysomnography, or PSG; sleepwalking and sleep-related sex in the past; known trigger factors, such as intoxication, fatigue, and stress; timeline of the alleged assault, since episodes typically occur within two hours of sleep onset during non-REM sleep; amnesia for the event; no attempt to conceal or "cover up" the incident, but instead confusion) can at least aid a jury in its decision-making. It’s tempting, to say the least, to be skeptical that a sleepwalker could act so purposefully as to fiddle successfully with a condom wrapper yet be conscious as an orthopteron, but London sleep researcher Irshaad Ebrahim reminds us that sleepwalking behaviors are highly variable and can be very detail-oriented, citing people preparing meals and eating, driving motorbikes and cars, even riding horses, all while getting a good night’s sleep.

For those for whom sexsomnia has become a serious problem, in a legalistic sense or otherwise, the good news is that it responds well to pharmaceutical intervention. Just a small dose of benzodiazepines—most notably clonazepam—before bedtime seems to do the trick for most. You might want to consider this if you’ve shown a history of sexual violence during sleep or, say, you’re a frequent sleepwalker and there are children in the home. (Several cases have, in fact, involved very unsettling child abuse charges being filed against alleged sexsomniacs.) But sexsomnia can be a problem even for those who live and sleep alone. After five years of waking up several nights a week with ejaculate mysteriously between his fingers, one 27-year-old was distressed to realize that he was a somnambulistic masturbator. The poor man broke two fingers when his nocturnal alter ego tore off the restraints he’d used to avoid moving in bed.

There are also those, I should point out, whose sex lives have actually benefited courtesy of their sexsomnia. Schenck and his coauthors review several such cases, including a woman who "reported infrequent and hurried sex with her [awake] husband, whom she described as distant and reluctant during wakefulness." This lady found that "nocturnal sex was more satisfactory, even if associated with bruises at times."

So, in closing, how do you determine if your partner’s overnight prurient poking is thoughtless or thoughtful? This is the very question that prompted me, several nights ago, to write this article. Apparently, snoring during sex is a good sign, and something that the partners of many sexsomniacs mention as occurring, quite out of the blue, during even the most complicated sex acts. It occurred to me also that zombified nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) episodes may be distinguished from actual conscious sexual arousal by the presence or absence of, oh what to call it, "penile flicking." (That’s not a technical term, but since I dredged the depths of the literature in vain trying to find the proper term for this voluntary lateral, up-and-down movement of the erect penis through the clenching of the cremaster muscle [Ed. correction: as a reader noted, this movement is effected by the pubococcygeus (PC) muscle, not the cremaster. Thank you.]—oh c’mon, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about—please permit me a little poetic license.) I always thought such penile flicking responses must serve some communicative signalling function in our species, but apparently nobody has thought to study it from an adaptive perspective. Imagine that.

Anyway, could a sexsomniac use his social cognition to deliberately communicate a message of sexual interest by flicking his penis at his partner? It’s probably not a failsafe NPT detector, but I suspect not. And bear that helpful hint in mind in the days to follow, since God only knows the coming apocalypse will deliver its share of sex-crazed male zombies—a lot of randy gay ones too, according to Family Radio.

Image: Paul Delvaux: The ‘Sleepwalker of Saint-Idesbald’ (1897-1994) (from)

About The Author: Want more Bering in Mind? Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBering, visit www.jessebering.com, or friend Jesse on Facebook. Jesse is the author of newly released book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton).





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  1. 1. JamesDavis 7:30 am 05/21/2011

    90 minutes – it seemed more like 9 hours. I found that it occurs more often when there is stress put on your lower back around your kidney area by pressure from your mattress or laying on your side on a hard mattress and your spine curving. The best ones are the ones that you have to run outside to pee because you can’t get it bent down to use the commode…I love those ones, they are very impressive.

    As always, a great article Jesse.

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  2. 2. Archimedes 10:04 am 05/21/2011

    Although the topic of sexual arousal and it’s associated psychological stress may provide some humorous relief, it’s psychiatric manifestations, as the article implies, may mimic more serious problems emotionally, physically, and socially, especially in young men.
    Manic depressive disorder, criminal behavior,hysteria, and explosive disorder may have, at least in part, their impetus in the aforementioned.
    As a result, I believe that it is important for the medical community to address this issue by asserting that young men should be taught how to masterbate to orgasm at an early age thus relieving the stresses of sexual arousal.
    The opposition to this proposal based upon ecclesiastical, social, and cultural norms lack those ethical norms and principles of individual freedom that would give the same credibility.

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  3. 3. Coyote68 1:01 pm 05/21/2011

    You had a bit too much fun with this article. 8-) Really, though, the legal issues in this had never occurred to me and it could turn into a rather sticky situation. Sorry; couldn’t resist.

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  4. 4. lcp1138 4:28 pm 05/21/2011

    If "An automatism is an involuntary piece of behavior over which an individual has no control. The behavior is usually inappropriate to the circumstances, and may be out of character for the individual. It can be complex, co-ordinated and apparently purposeful and directed, though lacking in judgment. Afterwards the individual may have no recollection or only a partial and confused memory for his actions."

    Then since Free Will (cited early in the article) doesn’t exist than any crime that is ever committed could be an "automatism". How many murders are committed by otherwise "sane" individuals, who later have difficulty recounting what exactly occurred? How can we punish anyone with a harsh sentence for living out their genetic code and whatever bits floated in during their early childhood? We need to accept that whether or not you believe in the Fairy Tales in the Bible God or no there is not and cannot be Free Will.

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  5. 5. lenbehr 5:13 pm 05/21/2011

    Sorry Dave but not quite right about Radio Shack. Our local Radio Shack in Hudson, NY refuses to take ANY electronic materials of any kind for recycling except for batteries which they take grudgingly. I’d love to find someplace to take my old computer stuff, discs, drives, etc. Nothing in Columbia County, NY that I or friends can find. Seems we are froced to pay to dump it in landfills or save it for someday, maybe?!

    All the best,

    Len Behr

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  6. 6. Jeffreytaos 8:59 pm 05/22/2011

    I didn’t know about this penis flicking and wish you had included photos or illustrations. I always thought hard, with or without clothes was a pretty good sign of interest coupled, no pun intended, with eye contact, feelings of excitement, hope, interest, tingles, etc.

    Penis flicking is cool though it sounds kind of primitive. I assume a good grunt in the direction of the re ipient helps to attract attention. In any case, a good story. Nocturnal boners are the strongest I would say. not surprised the woman took advantage of her husband at those times, his mind was not in doubt or fear, the most likely cause for some impotence.

    I have my doubts this article is throughly scientific. I would love to see the measuring divides and equipment the researchers used. I would want to see more reports on nighttime mating during REM.

    With torn anal tissues, coupled with drinking before bed, and probably the usual stresses of life, this first time penetration must have been pretty good. A lie detector test might help determine how comfortable the person was during penetration and if he knew he had been penetrated.

    It’s a shame the military would try to kick somebody out for grabbing somebody’s penis or arse. They teach hand to hand combat, and you could always roll over, take all the blankets, or scream.

    Keep up the good research. There is more to be learned. I wonder if your researchers have any studies that show what people are dreming about during these nocturnal boner periods. I suspect it is not sex. We are seemingly very alive in our dreams, talking things out and settling things. What is about sexuality that makes people feel so vibrant and alive, allowing them to be the person they really are, not the one they are dressed up to be?

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  7. 7. Jeffreytaos 9:11 pm 05/22/2011

    Awesome, but what would be wrong with letting semen build up naturally. We don’t need to promote masturbation as an exercise like push ups. it should be a healthy and enjoyable, guilt free release at an appropriate place and time.

    I don’t recall being told much about masturbation in sex ed. And that would be one place to tell young men and women about it. While I agree with you that it would be a healthy practice, many people are taught to restrain themselves, and to never touch one another in a sexual way. The result is that people over react. "Don’t touch my junk.". They may not masturbate in a way that explores their feelings and bodies.

    I feel if masturbation is tied up with repression or guilt, the release is unsubstantial emotionally and not healthy. It’s the untouchable subject. you are right that the religions of the world do their best to teach masturbation is unnecessary, but the results of repression are hardly encouraging.

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  8. 8. Jeffreytaos 9:18 pm 05/22/2011

    I disagree. it is a small number who claim to lack any awareness of these nighttime arousals and dream like actions. My sleep seems more important than my hard on. I have always felt somewhat aware when it comes to be aroused and can’t really imagine being penetrated or penetrating without some awareness that the physical action is more than a dream.

    It is a very interesting subject that hints at knowledge awaiting to be awakened. We have free will. We choose who we would like to sleep with, be with, live with, eat with, walk with, and have intercourse with. Hopefully it is a two way street. If DSK could use sexsomnia as an excuse for his alleged affair in NYC, what would be the test of truth?

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  9. 9. Jeffreytaos 9:24 pm 05/22/2011

    Our town of Taos, New Mexico has started recycling computers. they use a. Third party and get a cut at the recycling center. If you have the energy, you can call the town. Of Taos and ask for the person who can provide more details about the program. Patience in this sleepy southwest town is a plus when seeking info by phone. Don’t bother with email. You could then share the information with your county in NY. Our town would have never done it were it not for repeated request and the fact that they found some company to buy this stuff. Money will motivate them if they have a drop off. Otherwise, you might want to reconsider who is being voted on that gives out the positions that allow lazy short sighted managers to run something at a loss. it is a loss not to take those pennies or nickels for the task and use them. To build a better village. Well, good luck.

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  10. 10. BobNSF 2:03 pm 05/24/2011

    I’ve never been able to pee with one of those — just have to wait it out. As for "needing" go to outside, use the shower.

    Thanks,

    Your Neighbor

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  11. 11. BobNSF 2:09 pm 05/24/2011

    I’m not sure penis flicking would be a reliable indicator of intent or wakefulness. Obviously, one can "flick" ones penis, but sometimes, especially when really, really aroused, it flicks itself.

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  12. 12. anomynous3924 8:15 am 05/25/2011

    this is a really interesting article to read since my boyfriend and I have both had this exprience with one of us being asleep. He only woke up afterwards and had no idea what happened, while I would have no clue what happened til the morning. Needless to say we both make sure we’re awake now, since its a bit awkward being alseep and not being aware of what your body is doing. I can definitely understand how confusing it can be, since the person asleep is fully responsive and can initiate it too. Although now I am paranoid to sleep over friend’s houses haha.

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  13. 13. irlsanders 12:17 am 05/26/2011

    I was going to take a quick glans at the article, but ended up reading the whole thing. It wasn’t that hard after all. I think that’s a real testicle to his writing ability. The scientific conclusion was a real Urethra moment, and I think I came away from the article with some helpful tips. I’d really like to be frenulums with someone that smart, or is that nuts? He might turn out the be a real dick. Even if I do get shafted, I’ll go rummage through my change purse and see if I can afford to fund some more probing research into this topic.

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  14. 14. scilo 1:56 am 05/26/2011

    I find it astonishing to think someone needs to teach a kid how to masterbate.
    Country folk bundle, group sleeping, any uninvited flicking got cut off and outed.

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  15. 15. scilo 2:06 am 05/26/2011

    I find it astonishing to think a kid should be taught to masterbate.
    Country folk bundle, group sleep, any univited flicking gets ‘cut off’ and outed.
    The intellectual boner might not be ‘oxy’, but it sure is a moron.

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  16. 16. jgrosay 6:40 am 05/26/2011

    Ian Dury (Drugs and sex and rock’n roll) had an anthem for this: "I wake up every morning with a gift for womankind" (Wake up and make love with me), Georges Brassens (La mauvaise reputation) had another: "Quand je pense a Fernande, je bande, je bande, quand je pense a Felicie, je bande aussi" (Fernande). Salut les copains !

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  17. 17. rwstutler 5:04 pm 05/26/2011

    ‘Free will’ is a philosophical concept, not a scientific one. What, exactly is the will sopposedly free of? Neurologicaly, our intent to act occurs before our awareness of the intent to act. Yet, we have the ability to veto such intentions and to not act. While there may be no such thing as ‘free will’, when we are conscious, we have ‘free won’t', or the ability to choose not to follow thru on an intended act.

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  18. 18. rwstutler 5:09 pm 05/26/2011

    Subjectivity, self image and a lack of imagination are not good ingredients for making an argument.

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  19. 19. rwstutler 5:14 pm 05/26/2011

    (ba da bing!) Thank you folks for cumming out tonight, irlsanders will be here all weak, try the veal and please be kind to your waiters.

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  20. 20. YvesNY 7:02 pm 05/26/2011

    why don’t you all go back to school while sleepwalking and learn to write correct English: i.e. "its" instead of "it’s" for a possessive case

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  21. 21. Elderlybloke 7:33 am 05/28/2011

    A correction to this story, these events do not stop at 79,I can assure you that they persist at 80.

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  22. 22. mmmmm 7:24 am 10/15/2011

    “Females similarly exhibit vaginal lubrication during their REM-sleep, presumably with many dreaming of erect penises.”

    Why in the world would you presume that?

    Link to this

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