Why some women orgasm in their sleep

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A few months ago, in the midst of an erotic dream with a Jennifer Lawrence lookalike, whose details are now (sadly) blurry, I felt a familiar sensation: a buildup of pleasure in my nether-regions, followed by an intense release — so intense, apparently, that it woke me up. Did I literally just climax? I thought as my eyes blinked open. I don’t remember if I was wet down there or not, so I had my doubts. But something spectacular definitely happened, mid-snooze. Since then, I’ve wondered: Can you orgasm in your sleep?

According to the experts I interviewed, you absolutely can, although the "how" isn’t well understood. “Yes, people of all genitals and genders may experience orgasm in their sleep,” also known as nocturnal, or sleep orgasms, Debby Herbenick, human sexuality scholar, professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, and author of The Coregasm Workout, tells Mic.

An estimated 37% of woman (more accurately, people with vaginas) reported having at least one, according to a 1986 study, while 83% of men (penis havers) in the U.S. experienced them, per sex scholar Alfred Kinsey’s book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. In fact, there are descriptions dating back more than a century of people across genders seeking help for their sleep orgasms, due to sexuality’s connection to religious guilt and shame in some cultures, Herbenick says.

Before we delve into what causes sleep orgasms, let’s walk through what happens in your body during sleep. Every night, you cycle through four stages of sleep a handful of times, per Michigan Medicine: stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, and rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, when you tend to have vivid dreams.

We also know that REM sleep is associated with genital arousal, including penile erections and vaginal lubrication, Herbenick says. When someone with a penis has an erotic dream while in REM sleep, they can ejaculate, the phenomenon most of us know as a “wet dream." Many people who report sleep orgasms also recall having erotic dreams, but you don’t necessarily need to have them to orgasm, according to Herbenick.

People with vaginas can climax in their sleep, too, even if they don’t leave the same physical trace, but although they report them, the laboratory research evidence is scant; sleep orgasms don’t happen with much frequency or predictability, making them hard to study, says Leah Millheiser, director of the Stanford Female Sexual Medicine Program. A 1983 study that included looking at the physiological changes in a woman during a sleep orgasm found that her breathing rate jumped from 12 to 22 breaths a minute, and her heart rate from 50 to 100 beats a minute, Splinter reports. She also had more blood flow to her vagina.

It’s possible that vagina havers are simply physically stimulating themselves to orgasm in their sleep, the experts I spoke to say. For all I know, during my Jennifer Lawrence doppelgänger dream, I might have actually just been humping my bed.

But there’s evidence that vagina havers can climax even without any physical stimulation, as shown in a 1992 small study of 10 cis women who claimed they could bring themselves to orgasm with just their imaginations, according to Splinter. (I don’t know about you, but I, for one, am jealous.)

Scientists at Rutgers University measured physiological changes in each participant, such as increases in blood pressure and pain tolerance, while they had a mental orgasm, and also while they had a regular physical orgasm through masturbation. The researchers saw similar changes in both types of orgasms.

When a vagina haver is awake, a stimulus, usually physical, in their genital region signals to a region of the brain called the genital sensory cortex, which then signals back to the genital region, triggering pleasure and eventually, orgasm, says Millheiser: “It’s a loop.” But if they’re asleep, imagery in the brain during a dream might also act as a stimulus. This is consistent with a small 2016 brain imaging study conducted by the same Rutgers researchers who compared mental and physical orgasms, Splinter reports. They found that simply imagining touching the nipple or clitoris activated cis women’s genital sensory cortex, as if they’d physically stimulated these body parts.

There don't appear to be any studies of whether humans with penises can also have sleep orgasms sans actual physical stimulation, says Amin Herati, an assistant professor of urology and ob/gyn at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Those who climax in their sleep might do so because of hypersensitivity of the sensory nerves of the penis, he tells me. As a result, the slightest touch — say, from something brushing against their penis in their sleep — sends a signal to the spinal cord and genital sensory cortex, which perceive it as potential sexual activity, starting a feedback loop similar to that seen in humans with vaginas. This process may be analogous to that of premature ejaculation during wakefulness.

Whether certain factors increase your likelihood of having a sleep orgasm is unclear, Millheiser says. A lot of humans with vaginas describe having experienced them more when they were younger, suggesting “there’s probably a hormonal influence.” Likewise, wet dreams tend to occur in penis havers most often during the teen years and young adulthood.

Millheiser points out that some vagina havers report that they can climax only in their sleep. That’s probably because “when you’re sleeping, all those barriers, whether it’s a partner, a lack of mindfulness, or other inhibitions typically holding you back, are not there,” she says. And in fact, it’s a promising sign that you really are physically capable of orgasm — you're just inhibited.

Other patients have also approached Millheiser feeling guilty about having sleep orgasms with a partner who isn’t their own IRL. She reassures them that their sleep life isn’t related to their waking life. After all, there are no scientifically-backed methods of dream interpretation. In other words, my last sleep orgasm doesn’t mean I want to cheat on my S.O. with Jennifer Lawrence.

Basically, sleep orgasms are common, and they’re typically not a sign of something amiss. If anything, the phenomenon “really points to how the brain is such an important organ when it comes to sexual function,” Millheiser says. Now if only I could climax in my sleep more often — I've never been more motivated to give lucid dreaming a whirl.