In a perfect world, dreams would always depict our lives at their very best. We’d be wildly rich and successful, have magic powers, and sleep with the hottest people anytime we wanted. Instead, we often dream of nudity in public, paralysis in the face of danger, and having sex with people we don’t even look twice at in real life. The latter is especially disconcerting, since it makes us wonder if there’s actual desire lurking somewhere in our unconscious minds. (Thanks a lot, Freud.) And then we feel flustered and slightly shamed when we encounter the subjects of our erotic dreams in real life, as if they know of their leading-role status in our nighttime fantasies. But if we’re so disgusted by the idea of having sex dreams about these people, to the extent that we’re uncomfortable in our waking hours, it begs the question: why do we have sex dreams about people we’d never do—or want to do—the deed with?
Hidden desire’s just one possibility.
Theories abound as to why certain people, places, and things appear in our dreams. Freud believed that dreams are forms of wish fulfillment—in other words, indicative of our repressed desires. Jung focused more on the collective unconscious, maintaining that our dreams draw from shared archetypes and symbols. Psychologist and psychiatrist Fritz Perls saw dreams and everything within them as extensions of the self. Since dream analysis can vary significantly based on which school of thought you follow, sex dreams are often interpreted differently.
Some believe they really are about desire for that particular person. In The Sex of Your Dreams: Erotic Dreams and Their Hidden Meanings, author Carol L. Cummings states that erotic dreams “tend to be, as Freud says, based on wish fulfillment.” She believes that they’re healthy ways to release sexual energy that we can’t act on in real life because doing so would be inappropriate for one reason or another (hence the need for repression). But others, like Gillian Holloway, PhD, think that there are a few factors besides unconscious desire that inspire sex dreams.
In The Complete Dream Book, she offers three potential reasons (other than repressed sexual feelings) why we have dreams about people we find unattractive. The first is that the person we dream about could represent characteristics we’re trying to develop in our own personalities. For example, say you have a sleep rendezvous with Jim from Accounting, a guy you find hilarious in real life but definitely not attractive. It’s possible you’re envious of his sharp sense of humor. A second possibility—and this is if the person you bed in dream life makes your skin crawl in real life—is that you’re making a choice that’s not good for you. “You may be getting into bed in the metaphorical sense with something else … that is also not in your normal style or taste,” Holloway writes. The last reason she offers is that you’re entering into another kind of partnership with your dream subject, such as a business affiliation.
Connections of all kinds, even the nonsexual ones, can be symbolized through sexual relationships in the dream world. In her book, Holloway also goes into sex dreams about relatives, and the possible reasons behind them. While you might worry it has something to do with Freud’s wish fulfillment theory, what’s likelier is one of two things: either you’re involved with someone who reminds you of your relative in some way, or you might be having emotional-boundary issues with that relative.
I have a (sex) dream … and so does everyone else.
It might not make that next-day encounter with your sleep-sex partner any less awkward, but there’s some comfort in knowing that these dreams aren’t always about sex. They might be about some intangible quality you wish you had, or about a connection that’s strictly emotional or professional. They could represent aspects of ourselves that we’ve been ignoring or neglecting. Or they might just stem from the fact that we haven’t had sex in a while and our libidos are giving us a nighttime reminder.
Regardless, we’re not alone in our nighttime escapades and subsequent morning embarrassment. Everyone we know, from the barista who fills our travel mugs to our coworkers to our next-door neighbors, has sex dreams. They can vary by age and gender (men experience them at a higher frequency in their twenties, whereas women peak around their forties), but we all get them at some point. If you want to figure out why you have these kinds of dreams about the random people in your life, you need to view them without the disgust and discomfort of reality that can cloud your analysis. Because until you learn whatever lesson that dream’s trying to teach you, you’re bound to keep seeing Jim from Accounting (or your second cousin Sue, or whoever’s invading your sleep fantasies) in ways your waking self would rather not know about.