Trigger warning: This piece mentions sexual assault and PTSD.
Sometimes I wake up having an orgasm if I haven’t had sex in a while. And about once a month, despite being in a happy relationship, I get it on in my dreams with my celebrity crush. Perhaps most disturbingly, as a sexual assault survivor, I too often wake up from a sexual nightmare, sweating and in need of reassurance that it was just a dream. Even though we logically understand that they’re “not real,” sexual dreams can have a profound effect on our psyche, causing us to feel arousal, guilt, or fear.
According to clinical psychologist and sleep expert Michael Breus, sex dreams are perfectly normal and even healthy. “Sexual dreams appear to start when a child is going through puberty. This is when testosterone kicks into high gear for boys and estrogen for girls and the attraction to a sexual partner begin to occur,” Breus tells Allure.
While Breus says most people have fewer sexual dreams after puberty, they don’t end there. In fact, somatic psychologist and sex therapist Holly Richmond says that 80 percent of her clients talk to her about their sex dreams. To better understand why we have sex dreams, the different types, and what they mean, Allure spoke with several experts to break it down. Spoiler alert: The brain loves to dream about the forbidden.
Sex Dreams About Your Boss
Often we have sex dreams about those who are off-limits, such as our boss or a coworker. These dreams are very common, says Richmond, but rather than indicating that you’re actually lusting after your boss, the dream is likely about office power dynamics. “There’s a relationship dynamic in which you need to control more, and it’s getting played out sexually. There’s so rarely a real sexual component to this. If you feel yucky when you wake up, trust that. You don’t want to have sex with this person, and there’s some other dynamic,” Richmond says.
So don’t be embarrassed — office-related sex dreams are quite normal. Additionally, don’t waste time wondering if you should sleep with your boss when the answer is clearly no. However, do take the time to assess how you feel at work. Do you feel stifled? Perhaps you want more freedom, trust, and control? Get organized and suggest a meeting to discuss ways to achieve this (and don’t bring up the sex dream).
Sex Dreams About Someone You Hate
Why would our mind waste our precious sleep by having sex with someone we don’t even like? Well, let’s think about actual “hate fucking.” What comes to mind? You probably think of hot sex with someone you don’t like or are mad at, and during sex, you get to expend that energy sexually. Richmond says that like with our bosses, when we have sex dreams about someone we dislike, it’s likely much more about power dynamics rather than actual sex. “Dreams can communicate a lot — it’s just not always a direct connection,” Richmond says.
Sex Dreams About a Celebrity
Sex dreams about celebrities are very common, according to the experts. So what do they mean? Well, the answer here is pretty simple: They likely mean that we are attracted to that celebrity. “These can range from crushes to sexual prowess and agency and feeling like we can get someone who is out of reach. Those are really common, too, and they’re usually an ego boost,” Richmond says. So what should we do about them? Have fun with them; it’s unlikely you’ll ever bang this celebrity in real life (sorry). And no, having sex with a celebrity in your dreams does not count as cheating.
Sometimes sex dreams can feel so real it’s like we really did cheat on our partner. “Another iteration of dreams is fantasy. What we fantasize about is not really what we want to do. There’s probably more context around it,” says Richmond. “Are you fantasizing about that sexual freedom? Or is there something in your life that’s missing? I don’t think you want to leave your partner.” So while you may be craving sex with your middle-school punk idol, ask yourself if you are actually interested in seeking them out or if you’d rather explore ways to try new things in bed with your partner to tap into that part of yourself.
Sex Dreams About an Ex
Sex dreams that involve exes are one of the most complicated to wake up from. Unlike celebrity sex dreams, exes are people we usually have a very complicated history with, and as a result, complicated feelings. It’s these unresolved emotions that give us ex sex dreams. Ex-sex dreams don’t directly translate to wanting to have sex with our ex, but we do usually dream about an ex about whom we have unresolved emotions. “There is some relational dynamic that needs to be worked out. What were you trying to communicate through sex? Do you want a new understanding? Did you want to take your power back? There’s usually unfinished business, and it’s not sexual,” Richmond says.
Unfortunately, as many of us have learned the hard way, contacting an ex for closure rarely works out as seamlessly as we’d like, with perfect apologies and an easy transition to friendship. Use your head, consult your friends and therapist (if you have one), and then decide if these nagging dreams mean you should contact your ex to work out lingering resentment. Please also remember why you broke up, and that the real way closure works is by you realizing your power and that you are OK without this person, rather than anything they have to say. If it’s best that you don’t contact your ex, know that the dreams will subside with time.
Sex Dreams About a Platonic Friend
Apparently, sex dreams run on the forbidden. Michael Friedman, a sleep specialist and otolaryngologist, says this is why we are more likely to have sex dreams about exes, bosses, celebrities, and even platonic friends than the person we are actually sleeping with. You may be attracted to this friend, or perhaps the sex dream is simply happening because this is someone you can’t have sex with. Either way, don’t worry about being a perv or about cheating if you’re in a committed relationship. “It’s very normal, and it’s just human nature. It doesn’t imply anything wrong or a conscious desire to be unfaithful; it’s just part of being human,” Friedman says. “Subconsciously there may be some thoughts, but I would consider it very normal and common.”
If you’re in a relationship, don’t assume it means it’s time to end things. “There has been an unfounded interpretation of a sexual dream outside of a person’s committed relationship. In that if you dream about being intimate with someone other than your partner, it ‘means’ that you want to be with someone else. There is absolutely no evidence that this is true,” says Breus. And no, you don’t have to tell your friend about the kinky sex you’re having while you’re dreaming.
Embarrassing Sex Dreams
Other times, we have dreams that feel like a sexual version of being back at school, except instead of forgetting your homework, you are totally naked and everyone is laughing at you. Richmond says two examples are people waking up from a dream in which they engaged in sexual activities that they never would want to in real life, such as a gang bang or bukkake.
While for some people, such sexual fantasies are totally normal (and others engage in them consensually), with this type of dream, the one doing the dreaming does not have any desire to engage in such scenarios. When they wake up, they are absolutely horrified.
If you’re having sex dreams that leave you feeling shameful or embarrassed, just remind yourself that it was only a dream.
“There very much is a shame piece to such dreams,” explains Richmond. “If you choose to be gang-banged or engage in bukkake, that’s fine, but these are not the people who would want that.” So these are not sex dreams that you wake up turned on from, but sex dreams that leave you feeling embarrassed and humiliated. When clients come to her with tales of such dreams, Richmond says, “I just completely normalize, normalize, normalize.”
“It’s such a common experience to wake up from a dream, and you do feel guilty because you’re like, ‘Oh shit, that was so real, what did I just do?'” she adds. “But nothing happened; it’s an expression of our imagination.” Our imaginations can think up a slew of scenarios, so if you’re having sex dreams that leave you feeling shameful or embarrassed, just remind yourself that it was only a dream.
Sex Dreams About a Gender You’re Not Attracted to
Richmond says her office is filled with clients who have sex dreams involving a gender they aren’t normally attracted to. She says it’s mostly straight women who have dreams about lesbian sex, even if they don’t actually want to be with a woman in real life. “There can be a sensual component to it. I tell them to add some more sensuality to your life, slow things down, have sex without having intercourse.”
Many people enjoy porn with genders they don’t date, and it’s OK to be turned on by sexual acts or sexualities that don’t match up exactly with your existing sex life. However, if you are unfulfilled, as Richmond suggests, assess what about the fantasy turns you on and then find ways to integrate it into your relationship.
Sex Dreams About Your Partner
Yes, some people actually have sex dreams about the person they are with, rather than a celebrity or the one who got away. However, Friedman says that as many sex dreams contain a forbidden aspect, dreams about your partner usually take place early in the relationship or in situations in which you are separated. “Sex dreams are more common when the relationship is not as readily available,” Friedman says. “They are definitely more common early in the relationship or when the relationship is not readily available than for couples who have been together for longer periods of time.” What should you do if you’re experiencing sex dreams about your partner? Well, enjoy them, of course.
Sex Dreams in New Places
A public bathroom, your childhood home, a sex party: Sometimes sex dreams take place in locations we don’t normally go to get it on. As we’ve established, sex dreams thrive on the forbidden. “There’s usually an element of freedom, of wanting, of longing for whatever the situation is,” explains Richmond.
Is there a kink you want to try but haven’t yet explored, such as exhibitionism and having people watch, or getting it on somewhere you risk getting caught? Use these sexual fantasy dreams to gauge what you want and then apply it to your sex life in a manner that’s comfortable for you. Richmond suggests starting small. For instance, if you’re dreaming about a sex party, find a kink demo or sexy dance night to attend before you dive into the sex-party scene. While dreams don’t always translate literally, they can help us understand our desires.
First, let’s make something abundantly clear: Sexual assault is not sex, and including PTSD dreams in this article is in no way meant to suggest such. However, considering that one in every six women has been the survivor of a completed or attempted sexual assault, and PTSD dreams stemming from a sexual assault are common, we asked the experts about them.
“PTSD is an entirely different animal altogether,” says Breus. If you have a dream stemming from a sexual assault, perhaps “nightmare” is the better word. It’s important to understand that you aren’t alone. Richmond says she has clients who have PTSD dreams frequently right after the assault occurred, and others who still have them every now and then even if the assault took place years ago. “It’s the body processing something,” says Richmond. “Typically there is a little bit of difference in the dream, or the dream doesn’t get far enough to its conclusion. It will be ‘I was about to be raped by my perpetrator, and then I woke up,'” she says.
If you are experiencing PTSD dreams, you can call the RAINN hotline, and someone will talk to you or refer you to a therapist. You can also call your insurance company to find an in-network therapist, or do a quick Google search to see who is available in your area. “I remind them that at some point they got away. They’ve changed, they’re a survivor, and what happened to them is not their fault,” says Richmond.
Orgasmic Sex Dreams
Let’s talk about the most infamous sex dream: the wet dream. Breus says these begin in puberty. “Within sexual dreams are ‘wet’ dreams, also called nocturnal emissions,” he says. “These dreams involve ejaculation during sleep, usually accompanied by a sexual dream. Wet dreams happen to boys during puberty — and some girls — when testosterone starts to be produced in the body. Not all boys have wet dreams, but many do, and they are a normal part of healthy development.”
Wet dreams don’t stop at puberty, and as the doctor said, they don’t just happen to people with penises. People with vaginas may wake up in the middle of the night having an orgasm. Hormones may play a role, depending on where you are in your cycle, and Richmond says pregnancy can also induce them. “I had those so much when I was pregnant, it’s crazy. I was coming in my sleep,” she says.
While people with penises can experience nocturnal emission without a sexual dream attached, for those with vaginas, Richmond says there usually is an active dream involved. “Men have wet dreams, but sometimes they just have a nocturnal ejaculation without even having a dream. Women, from what I’ve heard, there’s almost always a narrative,” she adds. What should you do if you wake up orgasming? Well, why not just enjoy it?
Dreams That Your Partner Cheated
Eek, a dream in which your partner cheated is not a pleasant experience, no matter how many times you tell yourself it was just a dream. But is your subconscious trying to tell you something? Yes, but don’t panic just yet. “It definitely does not mean that your partner is cheating, but it does mean you should talk,” Richmond says. “I want people to trust their gut, but sometimes we overthink it.”
Cheating dreams can indicate that you’re worried, or that you’re not entirely comfortable, but that could mean a number of things that manifest as cheating while you sleep. Richmond suggests having an open and honest conversation with your partner in which you tell them about your dreams, and that you know it may not be a literal translation, but that you are feeling anxious and want to check in to see how they’re doing and how you both feel about the relationship.
“Anxious dreams are much more common than positive dreams. If anxiety creates a dream, and it’s not the dream that’s real, would I recommend to talk about it? Yeah. Discussing it is the best way to deal with it,” agrees Friedman.
Sex Dreams That Lead to Sleep Sex
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night to find your partner initiating sex, only to not remember doing so in the morning? Or have you been the sleep-sex initiator? Friedman says that these sex dreams mean someone is in R.E.M. sleep. In some cases, this indicates a R.E.M.-stage sleep disorder. “There are situations where people act out their dreams, which is not normal. People sleep-walk, sleep-talk, and other sleep activities while they’re sleeping. They are acting out a dream yet totally unaware of it. That is a R.E.M-state sleep disorder. All kinds of things can happen,” he says.
Depending on your unique situation, you may assume your partner is awake and welcome the sex. If you’re uninterested, the R.E.M. come-on may be upsetting and open complicated questions about consent between you and your partner. If you or someone you know is experiencing this, seek out a sleep specialist.
If you’re a survivor of sexual assault and looking for resources, you can call RAINN at (800) 656-HOPE (4673). You’ll be connected with a trained staff member from a local sexual-assault service provider and given access to a wide range of free services. You’re not alone.