In his 1899 masterwork The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud laid out his theory of dreams. Freud argued that dreams consisted of two layers. On top was the "manifest content" of images and storylines that we recall when we awake. Underneath, he maintained, lay the "latent content" that held the hidden meaning of each dream.
Freud believed that dreams represent wish fulfillment, that is, things we want to do but dare not in real life—many of which are sexual in nature. Because our sexual desires often contradict social norms, they have to be disguised in symbols, which he believed he had learned to interpret.
Few psychologists today buy into Freud’s theory of dreams. But one thing that Freud got right is that many of our dreams are about sex—and not in terms of symbols and hidden meanings, either. Rather, people around the world commonly report dreams that are explicitly sexual.
How common are erotic dreams?
Early research found that around 85 percent of men and 75 percent of women reported having had an erotic dream at some point in their life. Other studies showed that up to 12 percent of men’s dreams and 8 percent of women’s dreams were sexual. In other words, erotic dreams are commonplace.
Other research has shown that the frequency of erotic dreams parallels an individual’s sexual experiences in waking life. For example, those who have more sex, frequently masturbate to orgasm, or spend more time fantasizing about sex tend to report more erotic dreams. This suggests that people with high sex drives also tend to dream more about sex.
This parallel between waking and dreaming sex lives has led University of Quebec psychologist Marie-Pier Vaillancourt-Morel and her colleagues to speculate that erotic dreams are a reflection of the individual’s daily sexual concerns and experiences. This assertion is in line with the currently most accepted theory of dreams. According to the continuity hypothesis, people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a given day are reflected in the dreams they have that night.
We’ve all had these kinds of experiences: We’re worrying we won’t finish a big project in time, and we dream about it as we toss and turn in bed. Or we spent the whole day on a road trip, and we dream about driving that night. According to the continuity hypothesis, then, erotic dreams simply reflect our sexual concerns or activities of the previous day.
Who do we dream about having sex with?
Sex dreams aren’t just for singles, as the mind’s compensation for a lack of sex life. While wet dreams are common in adolescent males, they tend to go away as these men become sexually active. Nevertheless, even people in committed relationships continue having dreams that are sexual, even if they don’t lead to orgasm.
To learn more about how the various aspects of intimate relationships are related to erotic dreams, Vaillancourt-Morel and colleagues recruited over a thousand individuals with committed sex partners to respond to a survey. First, they were asked whether they had ever had an erotic dream. If they answered yes, which 96 percent of them did, they were then asked to indicate whether they’d ever had a dream in which they’d had sex with any of the six following types of people: their current partner, an ex-partner, an acquaintance, a famous person, an imaginary person, and a stranger. Finally, they responded to questions about their sexual and relationship satisfaction, frequency of sex, sexual desire, and whether they’d recently had any sort of sexual exchange—from intercourse to flirting—with someone other than their partner.
Although the researchers found a few differences between men and women, for the most part, their experiences with erotic dreams were remarkably similar. More than three-quarters of the respondents indicated that they “sometimes” had erotic dreams, and 17 percent said they “often” or “very often” did.
However, men and women did differ in who they most frequently dreamed about having sex with. Women most frequently dreamed of having sex with their current partner, while men’s erotic dreams most often involved an acquaintance. This pattern is consistent with the notion that men desire more sex partners and more novelty than women do.
These two types of people—current partner and acquaintance—were also the second most common sex partner in the erotic dreams of men and women, respectively. It was the rankings of these two that were the only differences between women and men, and the frequency of the other four types was the same for both. These were, in descending frequency: stranger, ex-partner, imaginary person, and famous person.
How does our relationship influence our erotic dreams?
Issues in their relationship can influence who men and women dream about having sex with. For instance, those who are highly satisfied with their relationship are more likely to dream about their current partner and less likely to dream about an ex-partner or stranger. In contrast, those who have been sexually involved outside the relationship are less likely to dream about their current partner and more likely to dream about an ex-partner or stranger.
Even when people are highly satisfied with their relationship, erotic dreams involving someone other than their current partner are common. In fact, only 14 percent of the respondents reported that they dreamed about having sex solely with their current partner and no one else. This result is clearly in line with the fact that people continue to feel sexual attraction to other people even when they’re fully committed to their relationship and highly satisfied with it.
It’s important to note that lifetime reports of erotic dreams were much higher in this study than what was found in previous research. The researchers point out that this survey was part of a larger research project on sexuality, so it could be that these participants were more open to discussing sexual issues. Furthermore, society, in general, is becoming more sex-positive in its attitudes.
In sum, the results of this study show that erotic dreams are very common among both men and women, and they frequently involve sex with someone other than our romantic partner. Perhaps Freud was right in one respect. That is, dreams may very well represent a form of wish fulfillment of the kinds of sexual encounters we’d like to have, whether we can act these out in real life or not.