We Asked A Therapist To Interpret Our Sex Dreams

Ever woken up horrified after an intense sex dream involving someone you hate in real life? Me too. Which is why I asked Refinery29 readers to send me the sex dreams that still keep them up at night — so I could speak to a dream interpreter and find out what's really going on.
Before we get into the dreams themselves, it’s worth mentioning that there’s still a lot we don’t know about dreams. In one camp, we have experts claiming that they are nothing more than images randomly spat out at you for eight hours; that REM, the stage of sleep where you’re most likely to dream, runs off the ebb and flow of neurotransmitters, and that dreams are just the brain’s way of dealing with these random firings. And in the other camp, we have folks such as the interpreter I spoke to for this piece, Hilda Burke, a therapist and life coach in the U.K., who see them as operating one level below our consciousness.
“During our waking hours, we have the 'id' which says, ‘I want’, ‘I’m hungry’, ‘I want sex’, ‘I want comfort’, ‘I want warmth’ — it’s an animal drive,” Burke explains. "Then the 'ego' is what we think of ourselves: ‘I'm funny’, ‘I have a dark sense of humor’. And our 'superego' is the part of us that says ‘I should’ — such as ‘I should work hard’ or ‘I shouldn’t have dreams about having sex with that person.’ When we are asleep, it’s just the subconscious, it’s the bit that’s under all that and the id can be there: the desires and wants. It tends to be the level below.”
Burke still believes that some dreams are meaningless images being sorted out by your brain, and that figuring out whether or not your dreams are trying to tell you something is very much dependent on context. Same with sex dreams — if you’re dreaming about sex with your ex, that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to bone them in real life. But if you’re dreaming about sex with your ex and waking up with an urge to go back out with them or masturbate over them, then it’s clear what your brain is trying to tell you.
“Having sex [in a dream] can mean many things,” Burke tells me. “It can be an energy exchange whereby you want a quality that that person has. And it depends how you feel about sex; some people see it as pure pleasure, or wanting to feel desired. For others it can mean security and stability. Or it can mean love. There are so many reasons for people having sex, and it’s the same in dreams. That will all play out. The mind will throw metaphors up, and those metaphors are usually in their crudest form which, often, involves sex.”
Ahead, see Burke's take on the dreams of four R29 readers — plus one of my own.
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Having sex with the “wrong” person

“I always have sex dreams with people who, when I wake up, I’m like, 'Whaaaaat? I don’t [like] any of them!' But I feel real weird seeing them the next day because what if this is my brain saying I [like] them? I have a boyfriend!”

Whether it’s your boss, a colleague, that weirdo at the bus stop or — gasp — someone who is not your very nice boyfriend, waking up to find you’ve boned someone you don’t want to bone is alarming. Even if it’s just a dream.

“If that person was my client, I’d be interested in what the person they’re dreaming about represents to them,” says Burke. “If, say, it’s a boss who is a very confident person, who stands up for themselves and gets their point across, and you’re having sex with that boss, there could be an element of something you want about that person. You want an aspect of their personality.”

What a relief: You're not hot for your boss, after all. What’s more, you can examine how you feel when you wake up to figure out if this is a meaningful dream or just an example of your brain sorting through random images.

“If you’re obsessed by it in the waking hours, either disgusted or excited, then it’s awakening something,” says Burke. “But if it’s a case of ‘shove it off and have a laugh about it’ then it’s probably not that. The energy of what you wake up with, the feelings and emotions, are quite telling as well as to whether it has a deeper meaning.”
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Having sex with your parents

If you tell anyone who I am I will murder you, but I occasionally dream that I’m having sex and that person BECOMES MY PARENTS. I am scared of what this means.”

This really skeeves people out and deserves a category of its own, because dreaming you are having sex with your parents is, socially, a whole other kind of wrong.

“It’s interesting when it’s taboo like this. Dreams are separate from our superego, the part of your brain that says you shouldn’t do or think certain things,” explains Burke. “When we sleep, we don’t have those boundaries, so it can be interesting what emerges. Something like this is a powerful image, and the psyche will be serving this powerful metaphor up for a reason. It’s perhaps trying to draw attention to something to do with your parents, not sexual, but certainly something. Are your parents active parents? Are you dreaming about an estranged parent? Do you want to be closer to your parents, and your mind is just boiling that down to its crudest form?”

Uncomfortable to think about, yes. Burke also suggests that perhaps something is being suppressed in order to keep the relationship operating smoothly. Again, it’s not necessarily sex-based!

“Have a look at the dream as a whole, too, for clues. When did you have this dream, what was going on that day? The day before? Sometimes when you do that, you’ll realize, ‘Actually it was Saturday, and I had lunch with my mom!’ so there’s nothing unusual there, that’s why she popped up!”
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Sexual violence of any kind

Sometimes I dream that I’ve witnessed a sexual assault and I don’t do anything about it. It’s horrible.”

“The worst dream I ever had was when I had sex with someone against their will. I can’t remember who it was — the face kept changing — but I woke up feeling really ashamed."

As with the previous examples, dreaming about sexual assault or violence doesn’t mean you want to experience it. Or that if you saw someone being raped, you wouldn’t do anything to help.

“Witnessing sexual violence and not doing anything sounds like a standard anxiety dream,” says Burke. “You want to stop a disaster from happening, but you’re immobile. Sort of like when you try to run away from someone but you can’t in the dream. It’s less a sexual dream and more an anxiety dream.”

Being a sexual aggressor in a dream sounds awful, but again, it doesn't mean that's something you'd do in real life. It’s probably more about control, Burke says.

“Being an aggressor depends… it could be a power game, about feeling like you’re in control,” Burke explains. “Do you feel like you don’t have a voice at work? Are you being trodden down in any area of your life? A dream like that would make sense as a balancing dream, as in dream fantasies, people often turn the tables. It’s a crude image of taking control as, in real life, you don’t want to do that! It can challenge us, we can feel bad, we don’t see ourselves as being sexual aggressors, but, in the dream world, metaphors are crude. In the real world you may just want to start being a 'yes person', and start speaking up more. That dream is saying, 'Look, you can do it! You can take control!' Despite the disturbing nature of the image.”

This explanation may also apply if the situation is reversed — that is, if you’re dreaming about being sexually assaulted (without having experienced anything of the kind in the past). Feeling out of control or like you’re being taken advantage of in real life could manifest itself as a dream whereby you're subjected to some sort of sexual violence.
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You’re masturbating

I sometimes dream that I want to masturbate but I literally can’t find anything to help me, and I wake up incredibly frustrated.”

Just thinking about this makes me feel frustrated — but it’s pretty common. Whether you finish, don’t finish, or sort of half get there, this one is largely dependent on how you feel about masturbation generally.

“It goes back to our waking life,” Burke says. “Some people feel like they shouldn’t be sexual, that sex is dirty and masturbation isn’t something they should do. If, in a dream, you can get sexual satisfaction, and you can’t orgasm in the day, this shows there isn’t a problem physically, and that it’s the person having a problem with their own sexuality that stops them having sexual pleasure.

“If the dream is troubling a person, I’d be interested in their waking attitude towards masturbation versus sex with another person. What’s going on with them could also have been passed down to them; they might not have any obvious issues, but were told growing up that [masturbation] was bad or evil. That can sometimes be there. You think you’ve got one attitude, but there’s something older that you can’t see, that may still be lingering!”
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Having sex with an animal

"Last night I had a dream about shagging a fox, what does this mean?"

Okay, now me. I couldn't resist asking Burke why I had sex with a fox in a dream back in 2014 (June, to be precise; I know this because my diary entry opened with, 'Last night I dreamt I fucked a fox, what's wrong with me'). Bearing in mind I don’t have a thing for animals.

“It could be that you always thought the creature was elegant and calm and you love that particular species,” she says, somewhat kindly. “You’ve taboo-ified something, because it has an important meaning for you. Don’t worry about it! You’re not going to have sex with an animal. So I’d step back and look at the animal: What does it mean to you? Did you have a pet once that was taken away from you and it signified the end of your childhood, and you found the transition really difficult? Having sex with that animal just means you want to go back to that time.”

I’ve never had a pet fox. I did really enjoy The Animals of Farthing Wood, though, and I do look back on ages 4 through to 10 as my golden years.

Burke adds: “Having sex with an animal in a dream might make you a bit concerned, when actually you just want to get as close as you possibly can to a time, or a place, so your brain sorts that out as sex. Your dream presents it, again, in a crude and attention-grabbing way, so it’s done its job!”