Sex and Dreams

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Depending on how one’s society regards sexual practices, dreams involving sex tend to reflect the beliefs instilled within us.

Sex and Dreams

(dreams)

Dreams tend to reflect whatever preoccupies us in our waking life, so it is natural that dreams often contain sexual themes. In societies in which sex is viewed as an instinctive part of life, such dreams are usually not regarded as particularly remarkable. The West, however, has been influenced by a dualistic outlook (originally imported into Christianity from Gnosticism) that views matter and spirit as being opposed to each other. Thus sex and sexual desire have often been regarded with suspicion and antagonism.

As Christianity developed, sexual desire came to be seen as a weak point where evil forces could subvert the most upright Christian. This was an especially crucial point for monastics, for whom celibacy was one of their most sacred vows. Given this general perspective, it was almost inevitable that sexual dreams should come to be viewed as the work of the Devil. Medieval folklore went so far as to populate the world of dreams with incubi and succubi—demons that, during the dreams of their “victims,” took the form of handsome men or beautiful women and seduced the dreamers.

In the early modern world of post-medieval Europe, this kind of folklore tended to be dismissed as superstition, but the old antagonism between the spirit and the flesh continued to shape perceptions of sexuality. In the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century, sexual desire was seen as a force that, if not controlled, could overwhelm rationality and civilization (a creation of the rational mind). It was during this era that Sigmund Freud formulated his groundbreaking theory of human nature, which holds that human beings are basically selfish animals driven by aggressive urges and the desire for pleasure. Although people learn how to repress their animal impulses in order to get along in society, they never completely conquer their primitive selves. Mental illness results from a denial of urges that people regard as socially unacceptable and do not admit are a part of themselves. Chief among these urges is the sexual drive, which is often repressed from consciousness so that it remains in the unconscious.

Freud came to feel that the analysis of dreams was a key avenue for uncovering repressed desires. In his view the purpose of dreams is to allow us to satisfy in fantasies the instinctual urges that society judges unacceptable. So that we do not awaken as a result of the strong emotions that would be evoked if we were to dream about the literal fulfillment of such desires, the part of the mind that Freud called the censor transforms the dream content so as to disguise its true meaning.

The process of dream interpretation in psychoanalysis involves “decoding” the surface content (the manifest dream) to discover the real meaning (the latent dream)—a meaning that is often sexual in nature. Given his view of our sexual nature and his belief that our real fantasies are disguised in our dreams, it was natural that Freud would attribute sexual meaning to almost anything that appeared in a dream. Anything long and straight could thus be interpreted to signify a male sexual organ, and almost any open receptacle could represent a female sexual organ. Gushing water in a dream landscape was seen as an orgasm. Even stabbing someone with a knife was interpreted as aggressive sexual activity. While Freud seemed to push his sexual theory of dreams to an absurd extreme, his notions were tremendously influential throughout the greater part of the twentieth century.

One contemporary criticism of Freud’s theory is that his notions may have been appropriate for the era in which he lived (an era that thoroughly distrusted the sexual impulse) but are less applicable to the contemporary world—a world in which sexual desire is accepted as a natural and healthy part of the human being. Because sex is now more socially acceptable, fewer sexual conflicts are repressed into the unconscious, and thus fewer dreams have hidden sexual meanings. In this emergent view, even overtly sexual dreams may have other, nonsexual meanings, such as symbolizing the creative impulse.