Sex Dreams Are Made of This: Your Mid-Sleep Hookups Explained

You’re at a bar with your friends. You’re a little tipsy, just the right amount for things to be a kind of hazy but a lot of fun. Someone keeps eyeing you from across the room. You feel like you recognize them. After some from-a-distance flirting, you finally get the guts to approach. You must be a little more than tipsy because you still can’t tell what your mystery crush looks like. Nevertheless, you start hooking up and all of the sudden you’re not in the bar anymore, but their bed. It’s only after things get hot and heavy that you realize, it’s your ex.

Or your teacher. Or your boss. Or a platonic friend, stranger, cousin, worst enemy or your favorite morning barista.

And then you wake up (perhaps next to your IRL significant other), asking yourself what the hell did my brain just do?

Most of us have had at least one WTF sexy dream, and if you’ve ever tried Googling an interpretation for one of yours, you might’ve been left dissatisfied. For most of us, these dreams don’t happen everyday. According to our own study, nearly half of our respondents only have sex dreams a few times a year.

Despite their commonality, there aren’t many in-depth studies on the phenomenon. At the end of the day, we only know so much about our dreams in general, let alone our most risqué ones.

There are, however, a few theories that may alleviate some of your sex dream-related worries and questions.

Carrot on the String Theory

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an intense hook-up and your partner disappears? Has your dream-lover ever transformed into someone else in the middle of a liaison? Do you always wake up right before orgasm?

Some of our survey participants have dealt with this:

I get them really rarely and they're never the same. The only thing typical is that I immediately wake up upon reaching orgasm.

Most times, I get delayed from being able to get together with her until the end of the dream, and the dream usually (but not always) ends before we actually have sex.

Turns out this isn’t just bad luck, but a way of self-limiting—yes, you can deprive yourself of fun even while you’re sleeping! Right when it seems like you can grab the carrot, your brain yanks the string away. Your mind (or rather your subconscious) keeps you from going with the flow.  

Men Spread Their Seed, Women Want Providers

A study done at the University of Montreal asked both men and women about their sex dreams. Men were more likely to have erotic dreams that take place in public or unknown locations, and to feature unknown characters or multiple partners.

Though both 4 percent of men and women orgasm in their dreams, only women had dreams that their partners had orgasms. In other words, no men reported that their partners climaxed in their dream. 20 percent of women had dreams of current or past lovers, versus only 14 percent of men.

Suzie Heumann, founder of Tantra.com, understands this distinction to support the biological instinct for men to spread their “seed” while women search for a more permanent partner who will support children.

Take this response describing this woman’s typical sex dream:

The dream is very real, from flirting to foreplay through intercourse and even often the morning after. I usually wake up thinking that I'm in an actual relationship with that person!

Children and “spreading seed” aside, sex dreams can feel very concrete (which may be why nearly 60 percent of our survey participants said they love having them).

Continuity Hypothesis of Dreaming

In a 2003 study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, researchers found that people’s dreams are reflections of what they experience while awake. This might explain why you have dreams about familiar people in familiar settings:

The setting was in an alternate universe of my high school; it was with my best friend at the time who I had feelings for, I was chasing her around the high school playing a song on my phone trying to get her to listen to it and when I would finally catch her, we would start making out and touching.

When you apply this idea to sex dreams, it typically rings true. Sex dreams typically reflect the amount of sexual day dreaming a person engages in IRL. So if you’ve been missing your IRL bae in a dirty way all day long, you might be able to conjure up a freaky-realistic dream:

During a nap I was taking with my significant other, I dreamt that I woke up (in the same position I was IRLone of those weird dreams) and we had sex. I actually woke up from my nap because I orgasmed and wanted to tell him that he finally made it happenha!

Interestingly enough, having lots of sex (or even masturbating a lot) doesn’t make you a more sexually active dreamer. Continuity includes sexy media, too: a Turkish study published in the journal Dreaming determined that participants were six times more likely to have erotic dreams if they’d consumed sexual media before bed.

Plus, the theory that your brain scrambles your real life with your sexuality should comfort those who have dreams about incest and other startling themes (some studies show that over 1 in 4 people have dreams of incest).

Dreams Reflect Attachment Styles

Have you ever had a romantically dramatic dream like this?

The setting was at a party and I was with my girlfriend in real life at the time in a corner of the room; I saw my ex boyfriend across the room and went up to him [and] started crying. We both left upstairs and were suddenly wearing sweatpants in a large room; we started making out and I woke up right when we were about to have sex in the dream.

While there are no across-the-board analyses for dreams, dreams of infidelity, insecurity and jealousy may be directly connected to your attachment styles. A 2009 study on how attachment relates to romantic dreams showed that the more people defined as avoidant or anxious in terms of attachment, the more jealous and self-deprecating their romantic dreams were. In other words, if you’re insecure, you may be more likely to dream that your partner hates, betrays or cheats on you.

However, the more secure you are in your relationship, sex dreams about your SO or romantic partners may be more like this:

Usually involving my significant other, or the last person I've had sex with if I'm not dating anyone. Usually very realistic, fun sex. Lots of laughing and joy.

Conversely, a few of our surveyors expressed their concerns (or non-concerns) with cheating on their partners in their dreams themselves:

I wouldn't want to cheat on my SO just because of a dream. Those type of dreams are just fantasy and I wouldn't act on them.

I always feel guilty after since I have a bf and they're never about him. It doesn't change what I want in real life but sometimes it makes me think that it would be fun to try something new.

I really do NOT ever want to cheat on my boyfriend at all so I can't explain it!

Here’s the upside: cheating on your partner in a dream doesn’t necessarily mean you want to IRL. If you cheat with a stranger, it could mean you’re feeling self-betrayal (as though you compromised your beliefs), or you may just be exploring your sexuality. If it’s with someone you know, if could mean you’re “cheating” your partner out of quality time or attention.

We Dream-Sleep With Those We Care About—And Want To Be Like

Perhaps you’ve had sexy dreams about someone you look up to or admire...

I dreamt that I was in a relationship with Barack Obama and the sex was amazing. I woke up thinking that I was the mistress of the POTUS. And I was totally ok with that. P.S. This is a recurring dream.

...someone of the same sex even though you’re straight IRL

I made out with a coworker in her shower. It was really brief, but kinda freaked me out, because I'm not into women at all IRL. She was a super awesome person and I really admired her/wanted to be her.

...a platonic friend

The most typical one is usually with a random friend that doesn’t make much sense; at times when they aren't even that relevant in my daily life.

...a stranger

I usually think I'm having sex with my boyfriend and it turns into someone else (my boyfriend and I have an amazing relationship so idk why).

...or an authority figure

I had a dream that I had sex with my (married) boss who I never really considered attractive.

In the case that you’ve slept with one of these people though you’d never sleep with them IRL, there’s some theories regarding why. Lauri Loewenberg, a renowned dream expert, explains that most sex dreams aren’t even necessarily about sex, but rather a psychological union that you want, need or recently had.

If you can’t figure out why you slept with someone in your dreams, think about what that individual represents to you. For instance, hooking up with a random woman when you’re only attracted to men could mean you want or need to channel what you consider to be feminine traits (sensitivity, creativity, etc.). Likewise, sex with a boss or teacher could mean you’re craving more power or authority. The stranger you hook up with in your sleep could actually be a manifestation of part of your own personality; a random man you sleep with could represent the masculine qualities you possess, and the same for a woman.

All in all, your brain is trying to let you know what you want, what you need and sometimes who you are or can be.

Or maybe you just want to get busy in the bedroom for real. Odds are you know more about your own sleep-sex than you think. 

Art by Meagan Guild

Survey responses have been edited for clarity and length.