A sleep orgasm can take a good dream and turn it into an incredible one.
If you’ve never experienced the toe-curling pleasure of a nocturnal orgasm, the concept of climaxing while you’re fast asleep ― when no one (or no, er, thing) is touching you down there ― may seem far-fetched. But don’t underestimate the importance of psychological factors when it comes to the Big O.
“Although we experience the physical effects of having an orgasm in our body, orgasm is actually a process that happens in the brain,” Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and creator of Finishing School, an online orgasm course for women, told HuffPost. “We don’t need any physical stimulation for it to happen.”
We talked to sex experts to learn more about the elusive sleep orgasm, how it happens and if there’s anything you can do when you’re awake to trigger one during sleep. Here’s what they told us:
(Oh) Yes, it’s possible
People of any gender are capable of having orgasms in their sleep. As you may recall from middle school sex ed, it’s not unusual for adolescent boys to have “wet dreams” during the puberty years; a smaller number of men (or people possessing genitalia understood as male) may even have them into early adulthood.
While men wake up to semen on their pajamas or sheets after a wet dream, a woman (or a person with female genitalia) probably won’t find the same type of physical “evidence” of a sleep orgasm. But that doesn’t mean they’re not happening. In fact, it’s estimated that 80% of men and 40% of women have had at least one sleep orgasm, according to The Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex.
How orgasms happen when you’re asleep
First, it’s important to note that orgasms in general are difficult to study in a laboratory setting. So a lot of the data that’s out there is based on older studies and small sample sizes; the other information we have is anecdotal in nature.
What we do know about the science of orgasms is thanks in large part to the work of Barry Komisaruk and Beverly Whipple, two preeminent scientists in the field. Some of their research findings may help explain how nocturnal orgasms happen.
In a small study, Komisaruk and Whipple looked at women who said they were capable of “thinking themselves off” — in other words, they could have an orgasm from thoughts alone, no physical stimulation necessary. The researchers measured the changes in the women’s physiological responses — like heart rate, blood pressure, pupil dilation and pain tolerance — during a mental orgasm and during a physical orgasm from self-stimulation. They found that the magnitude of the increases in these responses was about the same, whether it was a thought-induced or masturbation-induced climax.
In a later study, Komisaruk and his team looked at functional MRIs of women’s brains and found that when the subjects thought about touching their nipples or clitoris, the sensory cortex lit up, as if that part of the body had actually been touched. But researchers observed a marked difference between the imagined touch and the physical touch in another area of the brain.
“What we found, to my great surprise, is that when [the women] thought about stimulation of a body region, the corresponding region of the sensory cortex map was activated as if they were physically stimulating that body region,” Komisaruk told Fusion in 2015. “But there was a much greater activation in the prefrontal cortex when the women thought about stimulating a particular body region than when they actually physically stimulated that body region.”
Experts believe these findings may offer insight into how you’re able to have a full-blown orgasm while asleep, even in the absence of physical touch. But other bodily factors may be at work too, said Laurie Mintz, a psychology professor at the University of Florida and the author of “Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters — And How to Get It.”
“Since orgasm involves increased blood flow to your erectile tissue — and then the release of that blood flow — it’s important to know that during REM sleep, blood flow to your erectile tissue, including your clitoral complex, occurs,” she said. “The brain can recognize this and it can lead to sexual arousal and then, orgasm.”
Some people can only orgasm when they’re asleep
You can find first-person accounts online from women, in particular, who say they are unable to have an orgasm during sex, yet have experienced one while sleeping. What gives?
“There is a major psychological component to orgasming,” said Jesse Kahn, a sex therapist and director of the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York. “So, if the reasons someone is unable to have an orgasm during sex are connected to anxiety, depression, stress, shame, internal or external cultural or relational pressures, it’s likely having an orgasm during sleep means those reasons cannot interfere.”
“Basically, sleep is a wonderful environment that can facilitate orgasms,” he added.
Often when you’re in a sexual situation in your waking life, your thoughts run wild: “Do I look chubby in this position?”; “Does she notice how sweaty I am?”; “What if he thinks I’m a terrible kisser?” But when you’re in the midst of a sex dream, you’re more capable of immersing yourself in the sensation of the experience, even if it’s imagined, without letting all of your real-world hang-ups get in the way.
“When one is asleep, there are no distractions or anything to be worried or self-conscious about,” Mintz said. “So, if a woman can orgasm in their sleep but not in their real life, it could indicate that they are having difficulty keeping distracting and self-conscious thoughts at bay during sexual encounters.”
Can you make yourself climax during sleep?
Unfortunately, you can’t do anything that will coax your brain into giving you a guaranteed sleep orgasm — as wonderful as that would be. That said, we asked our experts to share some tips, and they did — with the caveat that these suggestions are not research-based. (But hey, they’re worth a try.)
Sleep on your stomach — or any position “that puts some pressure on your external genitals,” Mintz said.
Think about, watch or read something sexy before bed. “You could always try to get yourself aroused during the day and before bed, since we tend to work out things in our sleep that we were dealing with during the day,” Marin said.
Aim to have more orgasms in your waking life. “While this seems counterintuitive ― i.e., you’d be ‘orgasmed out’ by bedtime ― we know that the more sex women have, the more they want,” Mintz said.
If you end up having a sleep orgasm, that’s amazing. And if it doesn’t pan out for you, don’t sweat it — really. This applies especially to women, who often feel pressured to climax during sexual experiences.
“We have a long history of setting women up to have specific types of orgasms,” Mintz said. “While sleep orgasms are awesome, some women have them and some don’t. It’s important, of course, to not pressure women to try to achieve yet another kind of ‘ideal’ orgasm.”
Sex Ed for Grown-Ups is a series tackling everything you didn’t learn about sex in school — beyond the birds and the bees. Keep checking back for more expert-based articles and personal stories.