In certain schools of psychoanalysis, namely that of Sigmund Freud, dreams are considered to be a snapshot of our unconscious desires. As he saw it, while we sleep, we play a tape of things we cannot or, perhaps, would not do while we are awake. Freud saw dreams as the fulfilment of a repressed wish.
This, for anyone who has ever had a sex dream, can make for troubling reading. If you’ve ever woken up from one, particularly if you share a bed with your real life partner, still able to remember everything in vivid detail, you’ll know what a complex set of feelings it can provoke.
Not too long ago this came up while I having a weekend away with a friend. As we sat in a country pub, drinking lager shandies with cards on the table (that we had no intention of playing) and both confessed that recently we’d been having more sex dreams than we felt entirely comfortable with.
If a new study, published in the journal Psychology and Sexuality, is to be believed, there’s a reason why this is coming up so much in conversation. Young women today are reporting having more erotic dreams than they have ever done in previous studies (though still less than men).
The researchers defined an erotic dream as including “sexually motivated actions such as flirting, kissing, intercourse or masturbation as well as watching sexual actions.” They asked 2,907 16-92 year-olds about their dreams and found the highest frequency of erotic dreams among those aged 16-30.
There’s a pretty straightforward explanation for all of this, as the study itself points out. Young women, who have grown up in the wake of the feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s which brought about a sexual revolution, are more open about sex. As a result, they’re more likely to report erotic dreams than older generations would have been at their age.
Young women today are reporting having more erotic dreams than they have ever done in previous studies (though still less than men).
Back in that small, quiet country pub my friend (who for obvious reasons will remain anonymous) and I both expressed serious concern about what our dreams might mean and how they were influencing our relationships.
“In mine,” she had half-whispered, leaning in across the wobbling table and spilling beer in the process, “I’m always a younger version of myself and I’m getting off with men that age too.”
I confessed that my dreams always involved the same ex-boyfriend to the point where I now felt incredibly uncomfortable and, at several points, had even considered reaching out to him. The whole thing was causing me to reconsider my current, long-term relationship.
Since then, another friend (who also wished to stay anonymous), has told me that she had “started to look forward to turning the light out in bed” because she knew she could drift off into an erotic dream, despite being very much in love with her current partner.
Perhaps that’s because at some point in our lives we’ve all read - or at least heard of Freud - and absorbed the idea that our dreams are our subconscious trying to tell us something.
Sexual desire and guilt are often convergent parts of being human but when it comes to dreaming, about someone else, while lying next to your real life partner they become one and the same.
Dr Dylan Selterman is a senior lecturer at the University of Maryland’s psychology department. His work focuses on patterns of dreaming and how dreams influence our subsequent behaviour. I asked him what he makes of this latest research?
“To be clear, the study doesn’t actually show that young women (or men) are having more erotic dreams today,” he said, offering a word of caution. “The study simply shows that participants estimated a higher percentage of erotic dreams than in previous studies. This could be explained by a number of factors. The current study was recall-based, whereas previous studies used diaries. In general, diary studies are more accurate in terms of frequencies, but the recall-based studies can still be quite useful”.
In his own research, Selterman has found that the content of erotic dreams does affect how we interact with our romantic partners afterwards.
“Specifically,” he says, “socially negative dream content including jealousy and infidelity predicted more conflict and less intimacy the following day, especially for people who either scored high in insecurity or whose relationship was not going well.”
Meanwhile, for people whose relationship was going well he found “if they had a sex dream they felt more intimacy with their partners the next day.”
This reflects the experience of one of my friends. She found that having sex dreams actually made her feel more affectionate towards her partner. She said it made her “appreciate” him more and actually inspired her to have more sex with him in real life. (A colleague also told me she has had a sporadic but recurring sex dream about the same man for over a decade. That man is Eminem and she's harboured fond feelings for him ever since.)
However, for the other, the opposite was true. She and her partner had become disconnected, she was unsure about whether she wanted to stay in the relationship. Every morning, after one of the erotic dreams she so looked forward to she would feel “empty and guilt ridden.”
Selterman cautions that while there is growing research in this area there isn’t enough to draw concrete conclusions from. When is comes to psychology, he points out, have moved on a lot since Freud.
“I’m not sure that erotic dreams ‘mean’ anything in terms of symbolism or latent content because we don’t have evidence for that,” he adds. “Instead, we likely dream about sex because we think about sex while we’re awake. The continuity hypothesis (which is mentioned in the new research), suggests that dreams mirror our thoughts and behaviours while awake.”
So, I ask Selterman, should we pay attention to sex dreams when we have them or not? “Sure!” he says, “why not! Dreams can give a great insight into our minds and relationships.”
However, insight is not the same as a dream delivering us a veiled message from our subconscious. A sex dream is more likely to be a reflection of something you were already thinking about that day. If it comes as a surprise to you in the night, it might be worth being very honest with yourself about what you want and whether you’re getting what you need when you’re awake.