Q:So I’m in my mid-twenties and I’ve started waking up mid orgasm every week for the past month or so. And I don’t get it. I’ve never had this (I don’t want to say issue ’cause it’s kind of fun”¦) happen before. Not during puberty when that sort of thing is more common, so I’m curious as to why. Why do these things happen and what do you think could have changed that I’d start having them about a decade after puberty?
A: This is one of those topics that has a disappointing lack of scientific research behind it – disappointing but not surprising if you’re familiar with medical science’s track record with female sexuality. Evolutionary biologists remain largely hung up on figuring out why women have orgasms, with some still questioning whether the female orgasm even exists. (Which, uh, yes.) (Also, it should be assumed that these scientists are uniformly terrible in bed.) Even Wikipedia – and who can we trust if not them? – devotes four paragraphs to the frequency of nocturnal emissions in men and follows up with a single measly sentence on their frequency in women.
Which isn’t to say there’s no research out there at all; in Kinsey’s landmark survey of human sexuality, 37 percent of women reported having had orgasms in their sleep. And… that’s one of the only scholarly works we can offer (and it was published in 1953). More recently, a poll in a 2009 Glamour.com article on the subject showed nearly 80% of respondents experiencing sleepgasms, but then again, if Internet polls were reliable, Ron Paul would be president and your right to even have an orgasm would be dictated by the whims of the free market. So fair warning, most of what we have to offer you is going to come from anecdotal evidence and informed speculation.
When you get all hot and bothered in your waking life, one of the physical changes that takes place is increased blood flow to your bits (and to your nipples, too) – your labia may get a little swollen, you start getting wet, and your clitoris may get harder and more sensitive. During certain stages of sleep, blood flow to your muscles increases – and that includes your pelvic muscles.
It’s not just blood and your bits – your brain plays a big role in all this, too. According to The Guide to Getting It On by Paul Joannides, PET scans of people’s brains while they’re having orgasms reveal that multiple parts of the conscious brain, like the areas that process outside information or control motor activity, sort of shut down or temporarily turn off during orgasm. (How would you like to be involved in that study?) Various parts of your brain rest or stay active while you sleep, doing all sorts of things like helping you sort out your memories and giving you wacky dreams, and one post we found stated that sleep orgasms happen most often during REM sleep. So with bits of your brain shut down, blood flowing to some important places, and the possibility of having some very realistic sexy dreams (although not everyone who has sleep orgasms has sexy dreams), it’s easier to understand how your body might react during sleep the way it would to real stimulation when you’re awake.
But why now, you ask? Well…we don’t know. It does seem that most women who have orgasms in their sleep start having them during puberty; one study published in the Journal of Sex Research in 1986 found that 85% of women who’d had sleep orgasms had them before age 21 (and many before age 13), but it’s certainly not unheard of to begin having them at a later age, and many different factors could contribute to that.
One article we found mentioned that the occurrence of sleep orgasms may be related to a person’s testosterone levels, but it didn’t provide any additional details. Starting around age 13, I had sex dreams almost every night, but I don’t recall having orgasms in my sleep until the past few years, which was also when I began having partner sex and plenty of orgasms on a regular basis. (I’m kind of glad it didn’t start happening until after I no longer had roommates – I’ve woken up enthusiastically humping away at nothing, which is hilarious if no one’s watching but might have been a little embarrassing when I shared a dorm room with two friends.) I can also see the opposite making sense – having it happen more often if you feel like you’re going through a dry spell and aren’t getting that release when you’re awake. One study found that sleep orgasms were connected to feelings of “sexual liberalism,” which may be something you’ve acquired as you’ve gotten older, or it might not have anything to do with your sex life at all (see the Salon article we linked to in a previous paragraph).
We know this answer may not be terribly satisfying, but hopefully you continue to enjoy this baffling and delightful development!
Keep the great questions coming! (Hee.) Got a question to ask, subject you’d like us to discuss, or myth you’d like us to bust? You can e-mail us at FriskyFeminist@persephonemagazine.com or send us an anonymous message via the spiffy new Ask Us! feature here.