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Dreams of Sex and the Sex of Dreams

Sexual dreams. Most people have experienced them. Some people welcome them for their intensity and excitement; some people fear them as they induce guilt and shame. But, perhaps more so than any other type of dream, they always intrigue.

August J. Cwik, Psy. D., Jungian Analyst

Sexual dreams. Most people have experienced them. Some people welcome them for their intensity and excitement; some people fear them as they induce guilt and shame. But, perhaps more so than any other type of dream, they always intrigue. They get our attention and "seduce" us into taking notice of our inner world.

In Freudian theory the libido, or life force, is conceived of as sexual in nature. The purpose of dreams is to allow the disguised fulfillment of a repressed wish, often sexual in nature, which must not be gratified directly. Freud posited the presence of a psychic censor which does the work of disguising the sexual content so that the dreamer will not be awakened by the rawness of his or her own impulses and desires. This is how the dream functions as the "guardian of sleep." So, in a paradoxical way, the overt sexual dream poses a special problem in the classical Freudian approach because, by theory, it should not happen. Freud himself sought to explain sexual dreams—those dreams which have sexual content at the manifest level, that is, the dream as remembered—as the result of a break-down of the dream mechanisms. In other words, because sexual dreams did not fit the theory, they must be aberrations. The theory could not be wrong; nature must be defective. Even today, the Freudian analyst might argue that we see more overt sexual content in dreams because there is less repression of sexuality in modern society than in Freud's day. There is less repression precisely because Freud had such an impact on our attitudes toward sexuality. Sometimes it all seems a little too circular.

Jung, on the other hand, did not approach dreams as being the result of distortion or disguise. He saw them as natural products which seek to communicate not conceal. If they sometimes seem strange and incomprehensible it is because they speak the old forgotten language of metaphor and symbol.

Jung's notion of psychic energy is also broader than Freud's. Libido is an energy that oscillates between instinct and what he called archetype—between body and spirit—two sides of the same coin. So the image of sex in a dream could represent the basic instinct of sexual desire itself or, at the other end of the spectrum, the ultimate image of connectedness and a union of opposites. Jungian's speak of "big dreams," meaning dreams filled with a sense of the numinous. These are psychologically powerful dreams that lift the dreamer into a deeply felt sense of the spiritual. We might think of strong sexual dreams, especially the so called wet dream, as the "big dreams of the body." Instead of lifting the dreamer into the spirit they serve to embody the dreamer. Their strong effect is precisely in their ability to bring the body into "play."

Sexuality is an instinct which carries the force of attraction, connectedness, Eros. It functions biologically to assure the preservation of the species. In adolescence it erupts onto the scene and serves to pull the individual out of the family constellation and into relationships with others. There exists an unusual connection between dreaming and sexuality. Most dreams occur during the REM (rapid-eye-movement) state of sleep. During this period muscular control is lost from the neck on down—a type of natural paralysis. It is biological protection against acting out our dreams while we are having them. Imagine what it would be like to be in bed with a partner who was dreaming of fighting if they enacted the dream! But in this paralysis, interestingly enough, the genital region is activated: erections in the male and vaginal stimulation in the female. It is as if sexual energy provides the subtle backdrop for all dreams and overt sexual dreams emphasize this general dynamic. Certainly a strong corroboration of Freud's view of the sexual underpinnings to dreams.

If we look at this situation metaphorically, the individual is in a psychic position where he or she may have the feelings but not act on them at the motoric level. This illustrates a push to containment of feelings and not acting them out—in other words, a move to the symbolic. The sex dream may function in a way similar to sexuality itself in the outer world: It draws the dreamer into relationship. But this time into a relationship with the inner world, the world of images and symbols.

When we approach the content of sexual dreams we must remember to take Jung's compensatory function of dreams into account. So the first question that should be asked when a sexual dream occurs is "What is the conscious situation of the dreamer regarding sexuality?" If the dreamer is not sexual in waking life is the dream simply compensating for this lack of sexuality. Here sexuality may have fallen into the unconscious because it has been frustrated in outer life. Since it is an important drive some relation to it will be important.

Once this is established, the details of the dream itself will give the clues to its interpretation. The action of the dream may suggest which pole of the instinct/archetype continuum is being expressed. Some dreams clearly point to the instinctual side of the equation by expressing intensity, feeling and passion as the primary ingredient. Here it is the animal aspect that is being addressed and its role in the dreamers life. Some dreams speak to the archetypal side of the equation by emphasizing union or a matching and harmony between two individuals. At its deepest level this type of dream expresses the alchemical coniunctio, the premier image of the union of opposites. The dream may then be heralding a reconciliation of a pair of warring opposites. One almost feels that these dreams are not really sexual at all, but simply use sex as an activity in which two people are engaged. Other more subtle images pointing to this symbolic understanding of the dream may be that of a dance or marriage. Of course most dreams portray a combination of the two poles and so the interpretation should take into account both aspects: sex as sex itself, and sex as union and connectedness. It should be remembered that at the broadest level sexuality in dreams refers to attraction and union with what may be felt as a polar opposite to the dreamer. This may be positive as it points to the need for or the presence of some type of psychic completion in the individual. But it may also have negative connotations by pointing towards an involvement with or attraction to dynamics that block or hinder psychological growth and true relatedness. Similarly the visual pun of "getting screwed" may reflect an aggressive act—just as rape is not sexual but hostile. Again it is the details of and associations to the dream which determine its positive or warning message to the dreamer.

Are the people of the dream identifiable as actual people in the dreamer's life? If so, then one moves to a more objective interpretation of the dream. At this level, the dream may be telling the dreamer something about the actual outer relationship. Since dreams always attempt to tell us something new, is the dreamer aware of sexual feelings toward the person in the dream or vice versa? If not, then the dream may be compensating for this lack of awareness. If the individual is aware of such feelings, then it may be important to ask why this information is being emphasized at the time of the dream. Is it a warning that the feelings may be acted upon or even an encouragement to act on them? Once again the conscious situation is all important in determining the message of the dream.

If the dream figures are not recognizable or if there are some differences between the dream figure and the outer world person, then we move to a more subjective interpretation of the dream. At this level the figures represent aspects and attitudes of the dreamer's own psyche. The associations to the figure may reveal just what feelings or components of the dreamers personality are being emphasized.

The type of sexuality expressed is important. For example, oral sexual motifs may express: a "forbidden" sexual activity that has been repressed on the instinctual side; or, an impulse to "take in" and incorporate aspects of phallic masculine energy or feminine yin energy on the archetypal side. Perversions may also reflect a severely damaged instinctual element in the dreamer's personality, or be a passionate attempt to integrate something symbolized by the image. For example, dreams of sexual bondage may demonstrate a dream-ego which is desperately attempting to be in touch with sexuality without having to accept responsibility for it. Homosexuality may either: reflect a latent instinctual impulse or desire , generally a frightening notion to the consciously heterosexual individual, yet one that must be taken very seriously in order to hold the tension of the opposites; or express an important need to bridge to qualities possessed by someone of the same sex as the dreamer. These dreams often express the genuine emotional response of what it is like to integrate aspects of one's own shadow.

In analysis, either the analyst or the analysand may have sexual dreams about one another. This would not be surprising since sexual feelings are often elicited in any relationship that has a modicum of emotional depth. In this most vulnerable of relationships care must be taken so as not to overly sexualize the relationship. One must attend to the reality of the feelings if they exist, but they must also be contained and not acted out so as to find the deeper aspects of what is being sought. Jung suggested that sexual dreams about the analyst by the patient are always an attempt to bridge an emotional gap between them. So, just as emphasized above, the sexual attraction hints at some unknown value in the area of relationship which is attempting to become conscious. At the subjective level the patient may be trying to unite with the "therapist within" or the healing energy of his or her own psyche. The sexual dream thus may announce the presence of a transformative process in the unconscious paralleling the alchemical drawings that were used by Jung to illustrate the various phases of the transference.

All in all, sexuality is but one aspect of the whole personality. We cannot make sexual dreams happen any more than we can make them disappear. They may be the "royal road" to observing the vicissitudes of this sometimes wily instinct. And yet, we must always stay aware that the unconscious is quite capable of using sexual imagery to symbolize the non-physical processes of union, connectedness, and integration. So, as should be remembered with all dreams, the key to the analysis of the sex dream lies in keeping it in perspective with the uniqueness of the total personality—in all of its many facets, feelings, and forms.

August J. Cwik, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist, hypnotherapist and Jungian analyst in private practice in the Chicago area. He is a member of the Chicago Society of Jungian Analysts and the Interregional Society of Jungian Analysts. He is Co-Director of Clinical Training Program in Analytical Psychotherapy at the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago and an Assistant Editor of the Journal of Analytical Psychology. He has published articles on alchemy, supervision, dreams, active imagination and numerous reviews.


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