Sex Dreams Survey of Men is Sexy, Dreamy, Manly

by Thomas Roche on September 18, 2011

Patrick McNamara, a Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, has a great short piece on his blog at Psychology Today about a recent survey in Hong Kong where male college students were asked about their sexual dreams. The survey was only of 58 students, but the results, for what it’s worth, are pretty cool. Sex dreams are a case where social sciences/psychology research has almost (almost!) no choice but to rely on user-reported data on the human brain, because even physiologic or neurologic studies of sleeping people don’t get at what they’re actually dreaming. And what are these guys dreaming, at least as they self-reported? Interesting stuff:

Yu and Fu’s study was simple in design. They gave a questionnaire on sex dreams to 58 young male college students but unlike previous studies the questionnaire included a fairly extensive list of sexual activities that respondents could indicate they had dreamed about. The list included such activities as kissing lips, foreplay, vaginal intercourse, oral intercourse, and anal intercourse. Finally the authors asked respondents to indicate if they had ejaculated during a dream whether or not the ejaculation was in response to a dream image.

Results showed that 95% of respondents (all of whom were male remember) had dreamed about sex with a woman, with the most common forms of sexual interaction being foreplay and vaginal intercourse. Most respondents reported that they dreamed of vaginal intercourse with a woman about 9 times a year. Approximately 80% of respondents reported having had a wet dream at least once. Interestingly, the women these young men dreamed about were most often complete strangers. In about a third of the sample the objects were female teachers. In about 10% of cases the objects were mothers of the dreamers. Almost 12% of heterosexual participants had dreamed about engaging in various types of homosexual activities.

[Link.]

Keep in mind that this was an absurdly small number of men to survey, so I question whether it’s worth drawing any conclusions about what is “typical” to dream about. But what I do like a lot in Dr. McNamara’s commentary is how frankly sex-neutral (and hence, in context, sex-positive) he is; the metadata on his article, visible in Google, says:

Sex dreams are relatively rare joys. By Patrick McNamara…

Thank Whoever for a neurologist/popular writer willing to put a statement like that out there with his name in it. Regardless of the value of the study, seeing it discussed in non-dictatorial terms warms the cockles of my…cockles.

Unfortunately, I do have to point out that McNamara completely misses an almost agonizingly obvious fact when he observes the following:

What should we make of these intriguing findings? Can they tell us anything about the functions or meaning of dreams? On the one hand the findings are banal. Should we be surprised that young men have sex dreams that involve fantasy objects or women they see on a daily basis? I am more surprised that sex dreams in these young men are not more frequent than 9 times a year. Can this negative result (the relative infrequency of sex dreams) be attributed to a social desirability effect? Were respondents just giving the researchers a watered down sanitized version of their dream lives? I do not think so. Yu and Fu’s results are consistent with other studies and responses were anonymous. They could have responded anyway they wished and no-one would have guessed who they were.

[Link.]

I only vaguely question his logic about the bias of respondents to downplay the frequency of their sex dreams; I’m not 100% sure it’s true that someone who dreamed about sex every night would always admit that, even anonymously. But I have to admit it seems pretty logical, given that 5.6 of them (that is, 10% of 56) copped to having dreamt about sex with their mothers.

But far more important than potential under-reporting of sex dreams is a fact that, I believe, innocently slipped McNamara’s mind. Y’see, I wrote down my dreams obsessively for about 10 years. The more dreams I wrote them down, the more I remembered. I would write and write and write; it got so I had to wake up an hour early just to jot down ten pages of hand-scrawled notes about my dreams, and even so I found myself sprinting for the shower so as not to be late for work.

There were still many dreams I just couldn’t recall. I’d awaken grasping after straws: “Something about Angelina Jolie, but she was really Fran Tarkenton crossed with Stalin, in Angelina’s body but with only one arm, no wait…”

Many of these dreams, for me, are sexual. As soon as I stopped writing them down, I stopped remembering quite so damn many of them. Now, after years of not writing down my dreams, I’m lucky to remember a dream a night, and oftentimes if I remember it when I awaken, I’ve forgotten it by the time I’m done with my shower. Studies of REM sleep repeatedly seem to indicate that most people only remember the dreams they’re having when they awaken. We could be having sex dreams every hour on the hour and most of us would never be the wiser.

Therefore, I find it far more likely that the students in the Hong Kong study only remember having sexual dreams nine times a year.

As to how many sex dreams they really have? You’d probably have to hook them up to an EEG and hit an airhorn every time they start to dream…every night for a year. I’d lay odds you’d find people having a lot more than nine sex dreams annually, regardless of gender.

Meanwhile, McNamara’s post has a really great, and really accessible, summary of some of the current thinking around Freud and dreams. The neurochemistry gets slightly complicated for the layperson. But it’s far more comprehensible than most length, confused treatises on the subject of neurotransmitters in the pop press.

McNamara also seems to reject Freud’s (oft-criticized) notion that non-sexual dreams are in fact reflections of buried sexual impulses:

Given that sex is a central desire or concern for most people, particularly young people, it cannot be that dreams are primarily reflections of everyday desires, affairs or concerns. Dreams have no consistent continuity with everyday life and therefore the continuity hypothesis of dreams (an all too popular theory of dreams these days) must be false.

What about Freud’s claims concerning the disguise of libidinal wishes in dreams? Yu and Fu find some evidence for this idea in their data but I confess I see no such evidence for Freud’s position in any dataset on dreams that I have seen. Instead sex dreams are pretty explicit simulations of sexual interactions. Likewise dreams not involving sex appear to be about whatever themes they are about–not some buried libidinal drive.

Although we can conclude that we know what dreams are NOT about (everyday life), we still unfortunately do not really understand what dreams are about.

[Link.]

Sex dreams: fascinating. Now here’s hoping I have some.

Photo: Todd Sanfield in by Joe Lally for HommeStar, via YVYMag.com

 

Thomas Roche

Thomas Roche's first novel, The Panama Laugh, is a gonzo military science fiction zombie apocalypse that has been compared to the writings of Jim Thompson and Hunter S. Thompson. He is also a widely published author of sex-positive erotica and the occasional purveyor of horror and crime-noir short stories, and a commentator on sex, crime, culture and politics.

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