There are so many theories about why and how we dream, but we still lack a definitive answer as to the origin and purpose of dreaming. Whether it’s meant to help us process life events, practice our fight-or-flight reactions, or something else entirely, we’re all still left wondering what the hell these flickering images in our brain mean. Personally, I’d really love to decipher the dream where I had a threesome with Hermione from Harry Potter and a golem creature. Like, was I reading too many fantasy novels at the time? Am I just really attracted to Emma Watson? Was I yearning for a strong man in my life, and my brain decided to show me a guy who was literally made of stone?
Questions like these show why sex dreams are among the most perplexing dreams we can have. To learn more about common sex dreams and their meanings, we spoke to Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor or psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School, and dream experts Angela Grillo and Nicole Bowman (also known as Live the Light).
What do sex dreams typically mean?
If you just woke up from a sex dream and you’re totally weirded out, here’s some good news: experts say sex dreams are very normal and very common. And don’t freak out if you envisioned yourself having sex with someone you’d never want to hook up with in real life. Most of the time, sex dreams are about so much more than sex.
“A person in a dream does not necessarily represent that person,” Dr. Saltz says. “Dreams, like thoughts, are not actions or behaviors.” (And in case you were worried, she adds that having a sex dream does not constitute cheating in a relationship!)
Keep in mind that nobody can 100% tell you what your dream means. Dream experts typically operate from a common spirituality standpoint, so it’s not an exact science.
“[Sex dreams] are actually about intimacy and the need to connect and be understood by others,” Bowman says. “This is why we could have dreams about someone we are not sexually attracted to. The dream is not about the sexual act. It is about being validated, listened to, and accepted.”
It could also be about a desire to embody certain characteristics of the person you’re having sex with in the dream, according to Grillo. (For instance, having sex with a gorgeous stranger could mean there’s something you want to change about your own appearance—more on that shortly.)
That said, if your dreams are really worrying you, it may be a good idea to seek the advice of a professional. “If you are having dreams which are disturbing to you, are interrupting your ability to go to sleep and stay asleep, are intruding into your thoughts during the day and upsetting you… seeing a professional can help,” Dr. Saltz says.
What are some of the most common sex dreams, and what do they mean?
Sex With an Ex
Depending on the relationship that’s replaying during your REM cycle, these dreams can mean many different things, Grillo says. It could be that you’re still pining after your ex, but it could also be an indication that you’re trying to move past the relationship, but haven’t fully processed it. It could even mean there’s something about your ex you want to embody in your own life, even if you don’t want to be with them anymore.
“The dreamer may be wanting to grow from the past [or] let go of something,” Grillo says. “Or the opposite: [they may want to] integrate parts of the ex’s masculine/feminine energy.”
Sex With Your Boss
Uh oh, did you have a dream that’s making it hard to look your boss in the eye now? Sex dreams about your boss “[are] often about the need for acceptance,” Bowman says. “They are authority figures, and as such, they can determine how we advance. Dreams like this signify a need for their approval and a desire to get ahead.”
So, don’t worry that you might be subconsciously wanting to pull a Secretary on a perfectly fine working relationship. You probably just want to succeed in your field, and there’s nothing wrong with a little ambition.
Sex With a Stranger
If you dream of having sex with a partner you do not know, Grillo says that you may be searching for something internally that you’ve yet to fully realize. Maybe you want to be stronger or smarter or more attractive than you feel that you currently are—this is why you might dream about hooking up with a stranger that represents the traits you desire.
Sex With a Platonic Friend
Sex, in dreams, can be all about a need for connection. “We may need to be heard or understood by our friends,” Bowman says. “There may also be a desire to get to know them on a deeper level.” So, maybe hang out with your friend a bit more, and consider whether or not you feel as close to them as you want. If not, these conversation starters could help you get to know each other on a deeper level.
Bowman doesn’t exclude the possibility of what we’re all worried about: whether or not we actually want to sleep with that friend. “Sometimes, this [sex dream] can signal an attraction that we were not previously aware of,” she says. How can we determine if we actually have sexual attraction toward our friend? It can help to consider if you have these thoughts in your waking life. Do you think, if you weren’t just friends, you’d be open to dating or sleeping with this person? If you feel like it’s something you might want to explore in your waking life, check out our guide to dating a friend.
Cheating (Either by You or Your Partner)
Okay, this is a big one! I bet most of us have woken up from a dream about our partner cheating and been a liiiiiittle cranky about it for the rest of the morning. (Or is that just me?) Or, maybe we’ve actively had an affair in our sleep, knowing good and well that we have a partner.
Cheating dreams can signal there’s some form of dissatisfaction in your relationship: either with yourself; the physical or emotional parts of your relationship; or other factors. That doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed—only that you might have to work through something. “During the course of our lives, we may feel attraction to people outside our current relationship, but it doesn’t always mean we have to act on it,” Bowman says. “Sometimes, we just need to acknowledge the feeling, choose the relationship we are in, and move forward with life.” Think about your feelings and communicate any unhappiness with your partner.
Did your brain unravel a dungeon fantasy you didn’t know you had? That’s totally okay! “Dream content does not mean it is something you would actually want to do in waking life,” Dr. Saltz says.
Reminder: the sex in a dream is often not the point. It’s your relationship to the person you’re having sex with. If you’re having a dream where you’re the dominant partner, maybe there’s something you admire about submission that you’ve yet to dive into. On the flip side, if you’re having a dream where you’re the submissive partner, maybe you’re craving that kind of control and assertion in your life.
Sex With Someone That Doesn’t Represent Your Sexuality
Are you straight, but having dreams about gay sex? Or vice versa? It doesn’t mean you need to dive into an existential crisis about your sexuality. There are lots of reasons you may have dreams that don’t fit your idea of your sexuality. You could be unpacking gender roles in your subconscious, discovering insecurities about your masculinity/femininity, or discovering that you just really want to be close to your friend!
If you’re having sex with someone of the same sex, you may be simply reflecting yourself in that dream. Just like having sex with a stranger, you may be having sex with a version of yourself that you aspire to be, and that is why the act does not necessarily represent your sexuality. “Sex dreams reflect energy, drive, passions, deeper desires and sensuality, which [could be] missing in waking life,” Grillo says.
Dreams That May Be Disturbing (Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)
Research has shown that survivors of sexual assault may have recurring nightmares after instances of trauma. If that’s the case, the best way forward is to get support through therapy and loved ones.
However, if you are not a survivor of sexual assault and you’re having dreams in which you are assaulted, dream experts would say that can signal a sense of losing control in your waking life.
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