You’re reading How To Get Off, our series celebrating bodies, pleasure and fantasy.
Sex dreams can be fun, thrilling and occasionally mortifying – particularly if you wake up and realise you dreamt about someone off limits. But, as BACP-accredited counsellor Deshara Pariag says, “it’s completely normal to dream about sex, because sex is a normal part of life”.
There’s also science behind it. The neural firings in the brain – which happen when we sleep – can fire up our libido, says therapist Pam Custers, prompting various bodily responses: wet dreams, sleep orgasms or, as Sex Education’s Dr Jean Milburn (Otis’ mum) calls them, nocturnal emissions. “Because our brain is firing, we can get aroused in our dreams,” says Custers.
Studies have shown men and women experience increased blood flow to their genitals during REM sleep. A healthy man has up to five erections per night, with each one lasting 25 to 35 minutes. And a study found women could orgasm in their sleep simply by thinking about touching their clitoris – one woman’s heart rate increased from 50 to 100 beats per minute, respiration from 12 to 22 breaths per minute, and she had a “marked” increase in vaginal blood flow.
When we’re dreaming, the emotional (limbic) part of the brain goes into overdrive, while the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex – which controls executive functions like working memory and cognitive flexibility – is under-activated.
As a result, the cognitions we experience during dreams are “highly emotional, visually vivid, but often illogical, disconnected and sometimes bizarre,” Patrick McNamara, a neurologist at Boston University School of Medicine, told Time. Chances are, many of us have had some truly baffling sex dreams.
So, should we pay attention to them? They’re very rarely a reflection of our awake state, says Custers. In fact, we may dream about someone we don’t want to dream about in that way at all – a study of 3,500 people found 20% of women and 14% of men had sex dreams about a person who was off limits.
Just because you’ve dreamt about having sex with your boss or next door neighbour, it doesn’t mean you suddenly fancy them. “It simply means that part of a snippet of your experience is being integrated into this REM sleep, which is like a soup of hormones and psychological processing,” explains Custers, who is a member of Counselling Directory.
“Because our brain is firing, we can get aroused in our dreams and that’s perfectly normal.”
A lot of the time, sex dreams generally mean nothing at all, and many people will wake up, laugh it off, and take it with a pinch of salt. But that’s not to say people never read into them – it varies from person to person.
Some believe there can be underlying meanings to these dreams – if you know where to look. Dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg believes if you have a sex dream about someone, it’s not necessarily because you desire them, but more that you want to be like them. “Sex in a dream isn’t as much about a physical union you want, as it is about a psychological union you need,” she told Bustle. “When you dream of someone in that way, there is likely [to be] something about them you need to incorporate into your own life or into your own behaviour.”
Counsellor Deshara Pariag acknowledges there may be times you might want to reflect on your sex dreams a little more – when you feel deeply impacted by the dream, perhaps. For example, you might be dreaming about having sex with a stranger if you’re not satisfied with your sex life, or sex with an ex if you have unresolved issues. You may also keep having a recurring sex dream.
If this is the case, it might be useful to unpack what’s going on in your dream. One way to do this, says Pariag, is to write an email to the person you had sex with in your dream, not to send it to them, but to express what’s going on for you in the dream. This can be a good way to get things out of your brain and help you push forward with why you might feel this way.
Dreams about sex might leave some people feeling vulnerable. This can especially be the case for those who’ve experienced abuse – disturbing dreams or flashbacks can be a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ammanda Major, from the charity Relate, says if your dreams become disturbing, it may be helpful to explore why with a therapist or counsellor.
Ultimately, though, your sex dream could mean anything – and it could mean nothing. “For the vast majority of people, sex dreams aren’t anything to worry about,” Major adds, suggesting there’s a tendency for people to “overanalyse” what their dreams mean. “They’re a healthy expression of something – and what that something is might be quite hard to determine.”
Moral of the story? Enjoy those sex dreams, and stop stressing.
How To Get Off is our answer to Valentine’s Day, celebrating bodies, pleasure and fantasy – whatever your relationship status. We’ll be exploring what really gets us off in 2020, looking at sexual awakenings, toys and erotica, and real-life experience.