I was 14 when I first orgasmed in my sleep. I was motionless, hands by my side, until in the midst of my sleepy haze, I started to feel something building and the movement of my shuddering legs plunged me into consciousness.
I had to google it to be sure it was physically possible – but yes, I really had just orgasmed in my sleep. And it would be another year until I lost my virginity (in a remarkably short-lived, orgasm-free way).
Now, over 12 years later, I’d estimate that I still have sleep orgasms (or ‘nocturnal emissions’, to give them their proper name) at least once a month. Sometimes it’s the result of a sexual dream, sometimes there’s no dream at all. But they’re always deep, intense and a very welcome alternative to an alarm clock.
Statistically, sleep orgasms in women are relatively rare. In contrast to the 83% of men who have ‘wet dreams’ (which is an expression I think we should claim for ourselves) at some point in their lives; one study found that just 37% of women have experienced a nocturnal orgasm.
“If I watch porn and masturbate before bed, I’ll often orgasm in my sleep, too,” says Harriet, 28. “I almost mentally replay the masturbation, then as I come in my dream, I’ll wake up orgasming. I can’t orgasm during sex without touching myself, so it’s pretty crazy that my body can orgasm with no stimulation at all.”
In The Science of Orgasm, in which sleep orgasms are described as atypical 'nongenital orgasms' because they occur without stimulation, the authors write that "evidence demonstrates that the brain can generate an orgasm independent of genital sensory activity in both men and women." In The Orgasm Answer Guide, the authors point to women with spinal cord injuries – "with no nerve connections between their external genitals and their brain, who are known to experience orgasms while asleep."
Like Harriet, Naomi, 25, experiences sleep orgasms – yet has never reached climax during real-life sex. “I’ve never orgasmed during sex, but it happens in my sleep almost every other week,” she says. “But usually there are no sexy dreams, so I have no idea what causes it. I get quite anxious during real-life sex, so maybe it’s something to do with being relaxed.”
Psychologically, Naomi is right, according to aesthetic technician and former GP, Dr. Shirin Lakhani. “There is a strong psychological component to female orgasms,” she says. “It may be that many women experience sleep orgasms because they are in a full state of relaxation and not bound by the many factors that can affect orgasm during intercourse such as pain, embarrassment, fear of rejection and more.”
But ‘sleepgasms’ have been far easier to study on a physical level. “Studies have shown that the areas of the brain that get activated during physical contact can also get activated during sleep, or from intense mental focus,” says Vanessa Marin, sex therapist and creator of Finishing School, an online orgasm course. “It triggers the same physiological responses that we experience during waking orgasms.”
In one study, vaginal blood flow, heart rate and respiration rate were measured in a sleeping woman while she had an orgasm. Her heart rate increased from 50 to 100 beats per minute, her respiration from 12 to 22 breaths per minute, and she had a "very marked" increase in vaginal blood flow. And her orgasm wasn’t a response to stimulation, but was generated in her brain.
This is summed up in The Orgasm Answer Guide: "It seems that during sleep, the brain can behave in a way that turns on all the systems involved in the experience of orgasm."
So sleep orgasms are essentially our brain’s gift to our body. But why? “There is no clear explanation as to why this happens,” says Dr. Lakhani; Marin and the orgasm literature agree. The aforementioned study concludes that it is "worthy of neurophysiological research."
“Genital blood flow often increases during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep, as this is the stage associated with dreaming,” says Dr. Lakhani. “But this doesn’t account for those who orgasm in their sleep without an erotic dream. It could be that, for some, even the light pressure of bedding against their genitals is enough to trigger orgasm.” It may sound far-fetched, but research backs Dr. Lakhani up. One 2012 study speculated that those who sleep on their stomach have the highest frequency of erotic dreams because of the increased stimulation from the bed and sheets.
Aysha, 31 – who tells me she’s only had four or five sleep orgasms during her life –understands where they’re coming from. “Thinking about it, they were all during the summer months, when I was likely sleeping naked and not totally covered in the duvet,” she says. “I do remember waking up on my side mid-orgasm, with the duvet tucked between my legs – maybe that’s what triggered it.”
So if you fancy increasing your chances of ‘sleepgasming’ tonight (and I really wouldn’t blame you), we have a few good places to start. Try thinking sexy thoughts, like Harriet, and sleep with more bedding on top of your vagina – by tucking the sheets between your legs, for example – so that the pressure on your clitoris is greater. Alternatively, you could try sleeping on your front. And psychologically, make sure you’re as relaxed as possible before going to sleep. We all know that stress – and other mental barriers that can so often hold us back from real-life orgasm – can infiltrate our subconscious and affect how we sleep.
And lastly, don’t be afraid to talk about it. “As women, we’re taught to be ‘polite’ about sex, so many of us probably feel too embarrassed to discuss sleep orgasms,” says Aysha. “But just like how men openly chat about wet dreams, we shouldn’t be afraid to shout about the amazing things our bodies can do, too.”
So let’s spread the word far and wide, and maybe we can help change that 37% to something more like 83%. Don’t throw out your alarm clock quite yet, though.