Written by Jordi Borràs García
When I was a teenager, I dreamt I was having sex with a girl in my high school. I woke up deeply confused, since she wasn’t someone who had ever been at all attractive to me. In fact, she was probably the last person I would have had such an adventure with at that time. But the worst was yet to come. To my surprise, the impression that the sexual encounter left me with was stronger than I had expected and, when I got to class and saw the partner “of my dreams,” I felt totally in love with her! Dreams have the ability to drive our emotions, and this is especially true of sex dreams (even when they are as unexpected as this one was). I’ll explain how my little affair ended, and what I learned from this experience. But first, let’s get a few things straight about wet dreams.
When we enter the REM cycle—the time when we have most of our dreams—blood flows to our genitals, resulting in penile or clitoral arousal. Perhaps this is why, at any moment and with little introduction, our dreams sometimes take a racy turn. Perhaps you’re someone who believes that sexuality is overrated and that, in the end, it is a dimension of the human experience whose importance is rooted in its relationship with other aspects of existence. But you don’t need to believe—as Freud would insinuate—that we are totally subject to our basic sexual impulses to recognize how remarkably present they are in many people’s dreams. There is no doubt that sex dreams sometimes channel a desire and that, if we didn’t have them, that desire would be so powerful that we’d get ourselves into undesirable circumstances.
I remember the case of Clara, a girl from one of my workshops, who self-assuredly talked about erotic dreams where she slept with other women. She was entirely aware of how it related to a desire she never expressed in her wakefulness. In the prevailing carpe diem of this day and age, she would probably be advised to explore her bisexuality just as it emerged in her dreams, to indulge that desire, rather than repress it. But Clara was happy with her situation. She said that she and her significant other had firmly decided that they would have a sexually exclusive relationship, and she wished to honor that agreement. That said, both partners understood dreams as a space in which one could have encounters with unfettered liberty.
Tell me who you sleep with and I’ll tell you who you are
But though Clara experienced these dreams with calm, and even appreciation, this isn’t the case for everyone. Like me, when I had my dream as a teenager, many people wake up extraordinarily troubled after certain dreams. At times, we can even doubt for a few instants that what we experienced in our dreams was just a dream. This gets especially tricky when the situation we’ve experienced in our sleep doesn’t square with the waking image that we have of ourselves. In our dreams, our natural curiosity leads us to imagine, in a safe environment, the different possibilities that open before us as humans who are exploring what Freud called polymorphous perversity: the tendency to seek sexual gratification from a diversity of sources, which are often socially unacceptable.
Clara, for example, was quite relaxed in the way in which she adopted her bisexuality, but there are some people who consider themselves homosexual who nevertheless have heterosexual dreams (and vice-verse), and when this happens, they get confused. “Does this mean that I’ve been fooling myself all this time, and that I don’t want to recognize my true sexual orientation?” Pau asked me one day. “That’s not very likely!” I responded. There are other reasons one might have this sort of dream. At one point in her therapy, Pau repeatedly dreamt that he was having satisfying relations with muscly men. They took the initiative and he let himself be taken… until he awoke aroused, ashamed, confused and, most of all, worried that he was denying his own homosexuality. “Maybe I’ve always been gay without realizing it,” he said. Though we never wrote off this possibility, I invited him to explore his feelings of shame and confusion and, shortly thereafter, he told me, “there’s just one thing I’ve been fooling myself about all these years: the belief that I couldn’t decide for myself.” Pau had low self-esteem and had learned to act submissively, as he did in his dreams. But something else was happening: as his parents were openly homophobic, he understood that having relations with those men was a way of transgressing parental limits. “Those men,” he said, “had a strength that I’ve never dared to recognize in myself.” Later in his therapy, Pau was able to recognize his own strength and power, and the athletic, resolute, bold men of his dreams (who represented aspects of Pau himself) vanished.
An erotic dream shows your parts
So, even though—we insist—sex dreams can be the product of an inescapable libidinous energy, that needn’t always be the case. For example, sex dreams can be a sort of release valve for the strain we feel as we try to behave as sensitive, courteous people in society. They can be a chance to give free reign to the savage that, like it or not, we’ve all got inside of us. At the end of the day, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, depending on how you look at it, they could even be a source of pride, since they express a deep impulse to embrace those aspects of ourselves that we have a tough time recognizing, making us more complete people. Thus, sex dreams—especially the more troubling ones—could be inviting us to explore disregarded aspects of our personality. Have you had relations with a minor in your dreams? There’s no reason to assume that’s the symptom of a potentially perverse personality. To the contrary, you may be expressing the desire to connect with childhood joy (or your capacity for playfulness, or innocence, or any number of things). Did you have relations with an animal in your dream? Perhaps it’s an invitation to regain your strength or reconcile with your instincts; perhaps you need to relax from the frenetic rhythm of your daily responsibilities and the excessive use of technology so that you can reconnect with nature. Did you dream that an alien was abusing you? That night you might think that they had abducted you, but it would seem more reasonable to think, for example, that your dream was preparing you to connect with the strangest, most bizarre, most peculiar part of your personality, that aspect of you that makes you someone unique and special.
It’s an interesting exercise, whenever we have an enjoyable sexual encounter in our dreams, to think about the characteristics of the person, animal or thing that we had such a good time with. This way, we learn about parts of ourselves we should strengthen or integrate more fully. Notice how, from this perspective, dreams remind us that the first person with whom we need to be at peace is ourselves. Think back to my dream about my high school classmate. Why did I have such good sex with someone so different from me? What was I like back then? My main motivations were artistic (music, painting writing) and, despite doing well in my studies, a good part of my time was spent on my friends, going to parties, having romantic involvements and getting involved in strange or risky situations. I looked scruffy, with long, unkempt hair, worn-out pants, dirty t-shirts and earrings (which were unusual at that time). This classmate was just the opposite: she was well-adapted, respectful, smartly dressed, and studious. In fact, she was the best at math in the class, making her as different from me as possible.
Just as with waking romantic entanglements, a dream like that seemed to give me the chance to see what I didn’t want to see. As in waking life, the situation forced me to ask myself certain questions. What challenge does that other person pose? What does she have that I don’t see in myself, and that I want to develop? I suspected, then, that the dream was inviting me to develop that part of myself that I was rejecting out of laziness: my reflective, courteous, thoughtful side… But I still had something more to discover.
Sex in the family
If there’s any kind of dream that throws us for a total loop, it’s dreams where we have sex with a family member. I had this experience too, years ago, when I dreamt that, without any qualms, I was having sexual relations with my own grandmother. What was happening to me?
Some people who have been sexually abused in their childhood dream that they’re in that same situation, experiencing a new, similar abuse. Naturally, when this happens, it is important to get therapy. But lots of people tell me that they dream they’re having not-necessarily-unpleasant sex with an older family member, even though they’ve never experienced anything close to that in real life. This sort of dream can be troubling, so it’s interesting to observe that, in other cultures, such dreams aren’t considered disturbing, but are considered a sign that an individual is moving from one stage of life to another. I remember one woman, Tatiana, who was pregnant and dreamt that she had sex with her father, though she was positive that she had never been abused by her father or by anyone else. After fully exploring the dream, she saw that it reflected her changing condition, since, as she was preparing to have a child, she would soon occupy a role that, until that moment, had been represented by her own mother. Something similar happened to Patricia Garfield, co-founder of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), who, in her book, Pathway to Ecstasy, described a lucid dream in which she made love to her father. In her case, she said, it was a lucid dream (meaning that she was aware she was dreaming), so she decided to follow her impulse, remembering that in the act she was integrating some part of herself. Garfield describes in detail how she has had sex dreams with plants, animals (a sort of horse-goat with a beard and glasses like her friend) and even with herself.
Even though dreams make this and more possible, people often feel shame about certain experiences. That was certainly the case with my buddy who one day sent me a text and asked if we could grab a coffee. I was surprised, because we hadn’t seen each other in a while, but in his message, he said he wanted to tell me something important. I was very curious, but when we met, he told me that he didn’t know how to explain what had happened. In the end, he told me what this was all about: “It was just a dream. Since that’s your field, you know that not everything that happens in dreams is true.” He seemed to be protecting himself from what he was about to tell me. “Last night, I had sex with you,” he said with a nervous laugh. When we finished our coffee, my friend breathed easy. From what we were able to deduce, that dream seemed to express his desire to rebuild our relationship and the good times we’d had in the past. In waking life, we carried on as before, without any kind of sexuality between us.
I have to admit that I smiled when I learned that the sex dream I’d had involving my grandmother was about something innocent and pure. As other dreams had told me in a less conspicuous way, it was about my wish to spend time with her, a manifestation of a feeling of deep connection, gratitude, and sincere love. I declared it using the most obvious symbol for talking about a deep, intimate connection: sexual union. This explains why such dreams are so common after people have a nasty fight with a loved one. The dream is laying the groundwork for a later reconciliation.
A (sexy) move beyond selfishness
As we just saw, sex dreams—especially the troubling ones—often recognize our need to connect deeply with others. Thus, they could be understood as a call to recognize those people who seem like they’re so different from us—to make us see that, at the heart of it, we’re not so different.
In cultures like ours, which gleefully promote narcissism, it seems natural that we think dreams are the exclusive expression of different aspects of the dream’s inner person. But this can be a pretty limited way of looking at things. What if we thought of them as urging us to relate with others? Sex dreams could be preparing us, on an essential level, to be more affectionate, more curious and less prejudiced, to be readier to form deep and stimulating relationships with a different sort of person. Certainly, these dreams are urging all of us to create a more loving world.
Maybe the dream with the girl from high school was getting me ready to take a step outside my comfort zone, so that I would feel comfortable embracing something different, unlike myself. In this sense, dreams affect not only our psychological equilibrium, but also something more ambitious, which stems from our psychology: collective equilibrium. Building bridges with people who aren’t like us seems urgent at those moments, and our dreams—especially our sexually-charged dreams—might be reminding us of the importance of connecting with others. In these times, when some are urging us to build walls and imagine we see enemies left and right, disconcerting sex dreams could even be seen as a sort of psychological counterbalance that favors the continuance of the human family on the Earth.
About the Author:
Jordi Borràs García is a psychologist, Advisor for DreamsCloud, founder of the platform Mondesomnis for the study of dreams, and member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.