How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend and I are both in our mid-20s. After being together for three years, and after surviving the worst of the pandemic together—including job loss, family illness, and the loss of his aunt—we made the decision to move in together about four months ago. We have a great relationship, connecting intellectually, emotionally, and physically from the start. We even discussed marriage and kids down the road.
Of course, I would not be writing into this column if there was no problem, so I will get straight to it. Our problem is that since I’ve moved in, my boyfriend has experienced a condition that we’ve learned through online resources is referred to as “sexsomnia,” or sleep sex. As a survivor of sexual assault, I didn’t feel comfortable with him initiating sexual encounters that he wouldn’t remember, and at first, I told him I would reject any advances he made toward me in the middle of the night unless he was able to use our safe word. But his “sleep self” seemed willing to do anything to get sex, including lying about being asleep and using our safe word, which I (possibly naively) thought he would need to be conscious to remember. He would fall asleep quickly, and then his sexsomnia would kick in. Eventually, after several of these instances where we did end up having sex, I had enough and told him I could not have sex with him unless one of us initiated it prior to going to bed. He apologized and said he wished he had control over this part of himself. He promised to set up a doctor’s appointment to deal with this issue.
His “sleep self” continued to initiate sex, and eventually, I found that the only way to deal with it was to leave the room—any attempts to wake him up failed. However, this resulted in another uncomfortable situation: him having vigorous masturbation sessions instead, which could be heard throughout our house. After expressing concern again and again for this condition and urging him to follow through with his promise to see a doctor, he admitted that he felt ashamed of this condition and didn’t want to tell a doctor what had been going on. I still continued to urge him to see a doctor, but after reading online, we did try a few other things to correct the issue (changing diet, drinking habits, managing stress, etc.). None of it seemed to help. After a particularly bad night, I snapped and told him I couldn’t do this anymore and I needed him to see a doctor or I needed to remove myself from the situation.
Then, suddenly, it stopped. It’s been two weeks since this conversation, and we haven’t had another sexsomnia incident. (It was four to five times a week previously.) I know I should be happy, but instead I’m just left wondering what happened. On my worst days, I wonder if he faked the disorder altogether. I know this sounds terrible, and I hate that I’m even having these thoughts. But I have noticed some “sexsomnia” behaviors have trickled over to awake sex. After the few sexsomnia encounters we’ve had where the focus was solely on his pleasure and his climax, now, in our waking sex, my pleasure has started to take a backseat. I no longer receive reciprocal oral, and my once very generous boyfriend (who would make me orgasm multiple times in one session) frequently finishes quickly instead of switching positions or to oral to give me at least one orgasm before he finishes. I have expressed how much this hurts me, and he’s promised to work on it, but we haven’t been able to make much progress on this front.
Still, I’m really struggling the intrusive thoughts that the man I love deeply could have possibly lied to me and faked a sleep disorder in order to avoid having reciprocal sex with me. The fact it stopped so suddenly after I threatened to leave, the increased aggression carrying over to waking sex, even the lack of reciprocity in both waking and sleep sex bother me. To top it off, this is also the first time I’ve felt like I haven’t been able to talk to him about something both because I feel bad for having these thoughts and because I don’t want to accuse him of faking a disorder. I am talking to a sex-positive therapist about my trauma and how this has triggered it, but she has no expertise on sexsomnia. What do you think is going on? I’m wondering if you have any resources or advice on dealing with this disorder that could help me. Is my boyfriend’s experience normal? Is there a reason it would have started now, as opposed to when we were sleeping over at each other’s places prior to us moving in together? (Should we expect it to reoccur? Are there any techniques I can use to wake him up before an incident occurs?) Is there anything beyond gaining knowledge on the disorder, as my therapist suggested, to help me cope with my intrusive thoughts about this disorder? I know these questions are probably best answered by a medical professional, but short of forcing my boyfriend to go to a doctor against his will, I’m not sure where else to turn. Any information or advice would be helpful.
I’ll get to the dubiousness of your boyfriend’s sexsomnia presentation in a sec. First, I want to examine the situation hypothetically, taking him at his word: He has an unwanted condition that directly triggers your trauma but won’t get it treated because he’s ashamed. He can’t get over himself for your sake. He’s not taking care of you as a partner, and you’re not asking for much—just an investigation into his claimed rare condition that results in nonconsensual sexual contact. His refusal to see a doctor for your sake alone is grounds for a breakup. At the very least, you should be rethinking this relationship. Do you want to stay with someone who is content to retraumatize you repeatedly?
And the scenario in which your truth-telling boyfriend is paralyzed by shame is the best-case scenario, unfortunately. To determine whether or not your boyfriend’s presentation of sexsomnia passed the smell test, I sent your question to Guy Leschziner, a neurologist, clinical lead for the Sleep Disorders Centre, Guy’s Hospital in London, and author of the fascinating 2019 book The Nocturnal Brain: Nightmares, Neuroscience, and the Secret World of Sleep, which I referenced in a previous column regarding sexsomnia. Leschziner said that while much of what you’ve shared is consistent with sexsomnia, which he has observed and diagnosed in his clinical work, there are red flags in your description of your boyfriend’s behavior. A major one is the rapid onset of sexsomnia that you indicate. “Normally, we consider sexsomnia to be arising from very deep sleep, a stage of sleep called Stage 3 sleep. We tend not to enter into Stage 3 sleep for at least a half hour or so after sleep onset,” Leschziner told me.
Other things in your letter that don’t fit the usual model of sexsomnia cases include your boyfriend’s remembering your safe word during his supposed sleep, his “vigorous” masturbation sessions, and the spontaneous cessation of his supposed condition. “She is quite right that all of a sudden it stopping without anything happening—unless, for example he’s done something to regulate it, like he was drinking alcohol on a regular basis and has stopped, or if he’s had some kind of treatment for snoring—to go from this happening four or five times a week, which is actually very frequent for sexsomnia, to nothing is very unusual,” Leschziner said.
The only way sexsomnia can be diagnosed is via a sleep study conducted by a specialist. But even then, Leschziner explained, ambiguity is common. “Even if somebody has sexsomnia, and they commit an act, the only way to be certain that they did have sexsomnia when they committed the act was to have the electrodes on them at the time, which of course never happens.” In addition to observing the potential sexsomniac’s sleep, the studies also include obtaining a history from previous bed partners to see if the subject’s past matches the current claims. There have been instances of people accused of assault or rape using sexsomnia as their defense and being convicted anyway. Sexsomnia isn’t the oldest excuse in the book, but it’s an old one in an old book.
Even if you give your boyfriend the benefit of the doubt, I don’t see a path forward unless he actually gets this checked out by experts. That said, there are some things that could help mitigate the sexsomnia he may have. Treating snoring is one. Making sure his sleep environment is undisturbed is another. “These conditions are quite often precipitated by noise or light in the environment—somebody switching on a light or a plane flying overhead. Simple things like making sure there is nothing in the environment that’s disrupting his sleep are important as well,” Leschziner said. There are meds prescribed for general parasomnias (that’s the umbrella term for sleep disorders that include sexsomnia), but of course those would require a doctor’s visit to procure.
In sum, according to Leschziner: “There are no red flags that say this is definitely not a sexsomnia, but there are enough little things that are unusual that would make me question or at least want to seek more evidence to determine if this really represents sexsomnia.” I think it’s time for an ultimatum: Your boyfriend gets this checked out right away, or you check out of the relationship.
Dear How to Do It,
My long-term partner has gained some weight and is now distinctly overweight. He doesn’t seem to mind it; he says he likes the way he looks, even though he knows he has gained weight, and he doesn’t want to change his indulgent eating habits. This has raised a lot of really critical feelings for me, on a few different levels, and I’d appreciate your perspective. The first feeling is that this is selfish of him (doesn’t he care if I’m less attracted to him?) and that if he were a woman, he wouldn’t feel so complacent. The second feeling is that, actually, my sexual desire for him is not greatly affected. What is affected is the pride I take in introducing him as my partner. I feel ashamed of myself for having such internalized fatphobia. But I also sometimes resent what I see as a lack of effort on his part to control his anxious eating, and the wasteful spending on snacks and takeout. What do you think? Am I being too shallow? I feel like as a woman I’m always having to minimize my own desire. And I know from my parent’s relationship (overweight father, critical mother), that asking someone to lose weight doesn’t work in the long run.
—Weight on My Shoulders
Questions from people whose partners have gained a substantial amount of weight since the start of their relationship are tough, and we have received quite a few of them. They are typically from the perspective of people who report that they find themselves no longer attracted to their larger partners, and desire is an unforgiving ruler. Even though it is demonstrably shaped in part by external forces like culture, it still feels innate, and altering it often seems impossible. I say it all the time: People like what they like. The best I can do is humanize and interrogate, with the hope that if you love your partner, are unsparing with compassion, and committed to the relationship, you can begin to see that same person with fresh eyes.
But your case isn’t that! Your desire for him is not greatly affected! Your issues are largely based on principle. Compassion urges you toward the practical. Imagine saying this stuff to him—a lot of it would come off as needlessly cruel, right? Refraining from needless cruelty is, as you are probably aware, a cornerstone of getting along with your partner. I’m not at all receiving what you wrote about how the situation would be different if he were a woman. Women gain weight, too, and yes, they undoubtedly get more shit for it than men, but I don’t believe that the solution to that is giving men more shit. I don’t think more misery will solve our problems. Your husband likes the way that he looks. His eating may be “anxious,” but it’s also enjoyable because food tastes good. Your concerns over wasteful spending I’ll grant you, especially if takeout is creating a financial burden. But I’m not giving you more than that: The stress of the pandemic that is still happening has contributed to a lot of weight gain, and I think the clearest moral imperative is to give people a collective break on that which is helping them cope and not directly hurting others.
I don’t think that I’m asking you to minimize your desire, because I think what you desire—a svelte boyfriend who doesn’t embarrass you with his fat—is unreasonable. Are we minimizing Cruella de Vil’s desire when we root for the lives of the puppies she’d gladly turn into fashion? Are we minimizing the desire of someone who wants to have a frivolous affair that will require lying to her husband and risk throwing her family into turmoil? I don’t think so! You’re allowed you have your desire (which again, I’ll remind you, you say hasn’t been much affected, at least in sexual terms). You can break up with him. It’ll probably hurt and be messy, but it’s absolutely your right to do so when you find yourself in a relationship that is no longer serving your needs. Otherwise, hang in there, humanize, and interrogate. Your task is easier than a lot of other people’s.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been married for 12 years and have three children, ages 10 and younger. I do well professionally and my wife stays at home with the kids. We had a very close relationship with another couple with children of similar ages. My wife was best friends with—we will say “Sue”— who was married to “Dave.” We went to Disney World, shared homes at holidays, took international vacations together. In April, after suspecting that my wife was having an affair with Dave, I searched my wife’s computer to find graphic descriptions of sex and an affair of over six months. All this super hot dirty talk. These people were like family. Now I’m in therapy, as is my wife , and we are in joint therapy. Before the affair, our sex life had dwindled to nothin’, and obviously we had some problems. I want to use this as an opportunity to shake things up and explore. She says she feels uncomfortable—she needs more time to be intimate again. That certainly is fine with me. But beyond the infidelity, I can’t shake the fact that she and this “friend” did all this exploration. What are reasonable expectations? Or should I just run?
It’s going to be important to get to the root of what she was thinking about your sex life with her when she started the affair with Dave. Was it a matter of craving novelty, or did she feel the need to stray from the relationship because of dwindling desire for you? And in the latter case, did she have reasons in her head for said dwindling, or was it just one of those consequences of long-term relationships that we see pop up again and again? Was there a reason she felt like she couldn’t or didn’t want to explore with you? There might be! It might irreconcilable. I have to give you credit for attempting to press on and not letting infidelity blow up your relationship. Cheating is so common that it seems to me that monogamy is a standard that many people are simply unable to live up to; I think that’s the standard’s failing, more than humanity’s. However, you can’t work with someone who won’t work with you. If she’s not interested in a sexual relationship with you—and her behavior is suggesting that—you have you ask yourself if you can be in a sexless marriage. And if you decide you can’t, that’s when you run, though by that I mean crawl, as you will be saddled with responsibility and the arduous process of divorce. Good luck!
Dear How to Do It,
My 14-year-old son is neuroatypical, on the autism spectrum. He’s not the best with boundaries and is pretty dreadful with social cues. He didn’t seem to have developed an obvious sexuality or sexual consciousness for a while (we know many spectrum young people can be late bloomers), but now it’s coming. He seems to have a major crush on a staff member at school (woman, 20s), and is evidently making inappropriate comments on her body, following her around, etc. She and other adults have told him to stop, of course.
We’ve had all of the talks about consent, personal space, sexism, and objectification. In theory, he gets all of it and wants to be a good person and a good feminist. But he doesn’t seem to really grasp how weighty this is (and also stigmatizing to his relationships!), and his existing tendencies toward impulsiveness and obsessiveness are winning. He’s also not great at self-reflection, and hovers between denial and shame (definitely not how we want him to experience his sexuality!). What are the best practices about navigating sexuality for a neuroatypical person? Are there any autistic folks who might have some “guest writer” guidance? What can a parent do?
Dear Kid Troubles,
To get you some expert guidance, I reached out to Dr. Eileen Crehan, a clinical psychologist, who runs Tufts University’s Crehan Lab, which runs studies that focus on social development in the context of autism. Crehan’s own research has focused on dissemination of health information, including sex ed, for autistic people.
In an email response to your letter, Crehan said in part:
“In this case, asking out the teacher is obviously not appropriate. Having a clear conversation about legal implications is really important for all kids. Stated clearly: “No one under the age of 18 can [insert whatever behavior you are addressing here, such as having sex, dating] with someone 18 or over.” Rules about age of consent and sexting vary by state (a great state-by-state summary is here), but I leave it as a black and white rule, especially for a younger teen such as your son.
For thinking through implications, keep things visual: “If I follow around my teacher, she feels angry/sad/hurt.” Have this written up in a few places, or have the teacher have a copy of this to show when the behavior starts to occur. This could be a quiet way for her to share that she is uncomfortable and to help your son self-monitor (a tall order for any 14-year-old, neurotypical or not!). What would work instead? Could they high five?”
More broadly, Crehan commended you for already having conversations about sex with your son. “Sex and autism, or more broadly, sex and disability, is an area that gets hit with an extra dose of stigma,” she explained. She said that it’s important to be extremely specific in these kinds of conversations. “Much of sex education focuses on mechanics and facts (e.g., what are the types of STIs?) but not the social aspects or the ‘why,’” she reasoned. “So an appropriate physical boundary with a teacher, for example, would be an arm’s length (clear definition). Otherwise, they will feel really uncomfortable and might not want to be friends/spend time with you (the ‘why’ behind the rule/guideline, or making the implicit, explicit).” The next step, she said, would be to discuss appropriate behavior—in this case, regarding what to do about a crush: “Providing examples or scripts can be really useful (‘Hey, I really enjoy spending time with you, do you want to go get coffee sometime?’). Then, picture a decision tree (or I often draw these out with patients). If they say no or that they are busy, you can ask one more time. If they still say no, you cannot ask again. Having a concrete rule like that can help.” It might also be good to talk about masturbation and the appropriateness of when/where. “Then it’s not, ‘You cannot have sexual thoughts!,’ but rather you can, and here is a safe space to think about sexual things that won’t get you into trouble,” she wrote.
Crehan also shared some resources that you may want to check out for more conversation guidance: The Organization for Autism Research’s Sex Ed for Self-Advocates is made by and for autistic people. And the Crehan Lab also has an extensive list of links for people on the spectrum and their caretakers, alike. There are even more resources at Crehan Lab’s Instagram. And for the next few months, Crehan Lab is running a virtual sex ed program for autistic adolescents in the U.S. ages 13-17. If your son is interested, you can write to the lab to start off with a phone screener. You can find other such programs via your local autism center or state’s advocacy groups.
And since you asked for guest-writerly advice, I’m going to share with you as a bonus a response to your letter from a member of a working group of autistic adults who advise on Crehan Lab’s research. He asked not to be named, but offered a thoughtful response that I think is worth taking in:
Not to be painfully obvious, but has anyone told the kid he can masturbate?
Do so in private, fantasize about what you like, change up methods so when you finally get around to intimacy with another person you haven’t trained your body to only respond to your own hands yadda yadda, but, you know. Masturbate.
I feel like we don’t tell people your urges are great, and sometimes you can share them with another person, and sometimes you don’t have anyone’s permission to share them, and it isn’t as nice to take care of them by yourself, but you can, and that is OK.
What isn’t OK, is ignoring someone else and what makes them feel good.
Like … we have our nature. It isn’t particularly good or bad. What we do with it can be.
Like when you get a puppy, and it bites, you give it a stick or a bone to chew on. ‘Cause a dog needs to chew. Dogs gonna dog. Raging Hormone boy gonna raging hormone! That is great!
We don’t hit dogs. That isn’t a good way to train them. You give them things to chew on. So they can be good dogs. But someone expresses sexuality, and we sit around telling them how it isn’t appropriate blah blah blah. Tell them what they CAN do. How to appropriately focus their cravings. Teach them what is right and good and healthy.
I grew up super religious. By the time I was 13/14 I was fasting three to four days a week, washing my sheets and clothes all the time praying to God to help me be not so weak and unclean. Then comes the lessons about how you can’t be alone with a woman lest with your urges you overpower her, and what’s worse, she might like it outside of marriage. Those are the explicit lessons I was taught.
Teach him to masturbate, that that is OK. That it is wonderful when you can express those feelings with someone who wants them, but how to manage them when no one does. ‘Cause he is gonna get a ton of negative feedback, anyway.
And finally, as a bonus bonus, here’s another personal take on your question from Eric Garcia, author of the newly released book We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation and Washington correspondent at the Independent. Garcia relates directly to what you’ve witnessed in your son, and is such a good writer that I’m going to print what he sent to me in full. I realize that I’m including a lot of information in this response, but I believe that this is an under-examined topic in mainstream media and it deserves as much thinking on the page as I can provide:
Thanks for asking this question. This is really complicated but I can speak to this because I used to be this exact type of kid. I used to relentlessly pursue girls and later women, even they said they were not interested in me. I’d love bomb them or bombard them with messages. I am also incredibly impulsive as it seems your son is. At times, that has led me to some pretty bad roads. But, as I’ve written before, autism is never an excuse to violate someone’s personal space or ignore their consent. Everyone’s actions are still their own and just as autistic people should expect to be treated with respect, we should respect other people.
Just because we don’t understand social rules (which is real) doesn’t mean we should violate people’s personal space. There is a misconception that autistic people aren’t empathetic (which we are, we just don’t often know how people react). One of the best things to probably do is have your son think about how this might make the person on the receiving end feel. Let him know that it won’t lead to her liking him and it can in fact alienate a good person they admire and respect. I lost far too many female friends because I wouldn’t stop obsessing over them. But you can’t keep chalking it up to autism; at some point, autistic people also need to learn to leave other people alone, especially if they make them uncomfortable.
But more than that, you mention you don’t want your son to oscillate between denial and shame in his sexuality, which you don’t want. That’s a good start. Maybe ask him what does he want? For the longest time, I usually would obsess over girls and later women who showed me one ounce of kindness because was because I was afraid I was unlovable. Plenty of autistic people have internalized ableism, even if they come from loving households (and you seem to care about him). We’re told from Day One that we are a problem or a burden or a crisis for our families or the reason our parents will go bankrupt or get divorced and that we’ll never get divorced. But one of the things I have learned over time is it is possible to live a good and fulfilling life as an autistic person, date, get married and have sex (and contrary to popular belief, autistic people can have sex if they want and if not, that’s cool too). So get at the deeper issue there.
More How to Do It
I’m a woman recently out of an 18-year marriage that was never great for me in the sex department. I never felt real desire or lust for my ex-husband. I didn’t think much of it, having so little experience prior to marriage. Well, I am now with a man who turns me on in ways that are new and exciting. I am eager to be adventurous, and it has been a thrill to feel this way and learn things about myself. But there’s one area in which I’ve been coming up woefully short.