The Impact of Sexism on Women's Sleep and Dreams

Jessica Valenti began her essay "What Does a Lifetime of Leers Do to Us?" (in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times, 6/4/16) by sharing a bad dream from her earliest years of life:

"When I was a child, I had recurring nightmares about wolves--beasts the size of skyscrapers that walked on their hind legs around New York City blocks, chasing and eventually devouring me. My mother says she made the mistake of bringing me to see a live performance of 'Little Red Ridinghood' when I was a toddler, and that the man dressed as the wolf terrified me. I started having the dreams almost immediately after I saw the play, and they lasted into high school; I don't remember when they stopped. It was just a play, just a scary man, yet my young brain was indelibly affected by that one moment."

Valenti went on to explore the cumulative emotional impact of living in a society plagued by the sexually objectifying treatment of women. Looking not just at individual incidents of abuse or trauma but at a whole lifetime of enduring sexist behavior, Valenti asked, "What does it do to us?"

From a dream studies perspective, she answered the question, at least in part, with her opening vignette. Women, particularly younger women, tend to have worse sleep and more nightmares than men. Women's dreams on average have many more references to fear than do men's dreams, and women are more likely to be victims of physical aggression in their dreams.

Women also seem to dream of wolves more often than men do.

Researchers continue to debate the nature vs. nurture dynamics of these gender differences in sleep and dreaming. But one thing we do know with a high degree of confidence is that dreams tend to reflect people's most pressing emotional concerns in waking life. This is known as the "continuity hypothesis," and it applies most clearly in the case of nightmares, where a frightening experience in waking often has the effect of prompting a frightening dream during sleep--just as Valenti found after watching "Little Red Ridinghood." That experience may have triggered the initial nightmare, but it seems that over time the dream became a kind of symbolic template for expressing her broader fears of other dangerous encounters with masculine aggression.

If a group of people is repeatedly threatened, harassed, and mistreated, it's highly likely those people will also suffer from disturbed sleep and frightening dreams that revolve around the given threat. If the harassment never ends, if it becomes woven into the unquestioned fabric of daily life and social reality, then the anxiety-ridden dream patterns might come to seem normal and natural. Dream researchers need to be careful not to collaborate in the mystification of socially-determined factors (like pervasive sexism) that selectively disrupt the emotional quality of people's dreaming.

Sources:

Sleep patterns: Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion, chapter 4, tables 4.1-4.3.

Nightmare recall: These results come from 2010 Demographic Survey in the Sleep and Dream Database.

Fear in dreams: Big Dreams, Chapter 6, table 6.1.

Victims of physical aggression: Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach, table E5.

Frequency of wolf references for women and men come from the Sleep and Dream Database.