In a previous article, I mentioned that having sex dreams is associated with feelings of love and intimacy with romantic partners on the following day. This finding begs the question: What else do we know about sex dreams? Much has been theorized (beginning with some wacky ideas from Freud1 and psychoanalysis, which I won’t go into here) but when you examine the research that has used modern scientific methods, it becomes clear that we don’t know very much. Sex dreams have been documented worldwide, but the frequency of sexual content in dreams is really tough to estimate (some early studies estimated 5-10%,2 while others peg the frequency around 80%3). In addition, some studies have found gender differences (men having more frequent sex dreams than women2), but that has not been replicated in all samples; for example, in a sample of Brazilian participants, sex dreams appeared roughly 10% of the time in both men and women.4 Some of these discrepancies in the research could be due to inconsistent frequency of dreaming in general, or less willingness to report sex dreams in some samples.
Researchers in Europe assessed young adults’ dream content and asked them to think about how much time they spent doing various activities (e.g., studying/schoolwork, hanging out with friends, having sex).5 The authors found that the more people fantasized about sex while awake, the more their dreams contained erotic content while asleep. However, a person’s amount of actual sexual behavior was unrelated to dream content. This suggests that there is continuity between how much people have sex on their minds and their dreams’ erotic content, but actually having lots of sex while awake doesn’t make you a more sexually active person in slumber-land. These results held up even after accounting for gender and general dream frequency. Masturbation while awake was also not associated with erotic dream content.
In terms of more specific content in erotic dreams, young men commonly report sex dreams involving female teachers. According to researchers in Asia,6 approximately 35% of male participants reported being “hot for teacher” (in their dreams, anyway). Another study7 found that viewing nude photos of female celebrities or watching pornography with scenarios depicting women of authority (e.g., police, flight attendants, doctors/nurses) was associated with dreams about sex with female teachers. The same study found that watching pornography that contained oral sex was associated with dreams about kissing and dreams about oral sex.
So what does all this mean? According to the continuity hypothesis of dreaming,8 people’s dreams reflect their activity while awake. Research on sex dreams supports this connection, although with a few important caveats. People’s sexual dreams seem to reflect (to some extent) the amount of sexual fantasy they engage in while awake, and the dream content is somewhat similar to the images/media they consume. However, most of these studies did not employ diary methods; in other words, participants did not record their dreams as they experienced them in real time. Instead, participants were invited to the laboratory and instructed to recall their recent dreams from memory. This is important because other research shows that people’s retrospective memory for dreams in the past is not always 100% accurate; memories about dreams can be biased by individuals’ current emotional state (in other words, being in a bad mood today can cause people to falsely remember their dreams from a week ago as being more negative than they actually were).9 So, in the future, researchers who want to study sex dreams should use diary methods for more accurate responses.
Another side note: Many people have disclosed their dreams to me over the years, some of which contain taboo or disturbing content (e.g., rape, incest). For those of you who have experienced these dreams, do not be alarmed—you are not alone and many others have had similar experiences. Some studies indicate that more than 1 in 4 people report having sexual dreams about family members,7 and some people (about 5%) even report having sexual dreams with inanimate objects or ghosts.6 These stats are probably an underestimate of the true percentage, since many people may not feel comfortable admitting these types of dreams to researchers. So I would not jump to the conclusion that there is something “wrong” with you if you have dreams like those. However, if you feel extremely distressed or experience intense negative emotions as a result of your dreams, it might be wise to seek professional help from a clinical or counseling psychologist. Otherwise, feel free to celebrate your sexy dreaming, especially when they’re about your current romantic partner(s). Sweet dreams!
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1Freud, S. (1950). The interpretation of dreams. (A.A. Brill, Trans.). New York: Modem-Random House. (Original work published in 1900)
2Hall, C.S., & Van de Castle, R.L. (1966). The content analysis of dreams. New York: Appleton Century Crofts.
3Nielsen, T. A., Zadra, A. L., Simard, V., Saucier, S., Stenstrom, P., Smith, C., & Kuiken, D. (2003). The typical dreams of Canadian university students. Dreaming, 13(4), 211-235.
4Krippner, S., & Weinhold, J. (2001). Gender differences in the content analysis of 240 dream reports from Brazilian participants in dream seminars. Dreaming, 11(1), 35-42.
5Schredl, M., Desch, S., Roming, F., & Spachmann, A. (2009). Erotic dreams and their relationship to waking-life sexuality. Sexologies, 18, 38-43.
6Yu, C., & Fu, W. (2011). Sex dreams, wet dreams, and nocturnal emissions. Dreaming, 21(3), 197-212.
7Yu, C. (2012). Pornography consumption and sexual behaviors as correlates of erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions. Dreaming, 22(4), 230-239.
8Schredl, M., & Hofmann, F. (2003). Continuity between waking activities and dream activities. Consciousness and Cognition, 12, 298-308.
9Beaulieu-Prévost, D., & Zadra, A. (2005). How dream recall frequency shapes people’s beliefs about the content of their dreams. North American Journal Of Psychology, 7(2), 253-264.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.