Sexy dreams and spandrels of San Marco

Sex and dreams–hardly words we think of in connection to science. Sex has been one of the greatest social taboos across different historical times and human cultures. Dreams have always had magical, occult connotations and we are more likely to think of astrology and the like in connection with dreams than of, say, biology. However, the beauty of scientific method is that it can be applied to almost anything.

Earlier this year, Antonio Zadra, a researcher at University of Montreal, Canada, has published results of his research on how much and what kind of sex men and women dream of in the journal of Sleep. He asked 109 adult women and 62 adult men to keep diaries of their dreams for a few weeks. This amounted to 3564 deams, 292 of which included sexual content.

8% of dreams from both genders contained sexual content. Most common sexual content of dreams was intercourse followed by sexual propositions, kissing, fantasies and masturbation. Both genders experienced orgasm in only 4% of their sexual dreams. Men never dreamt of others having orgasm while 4% of the women’s orgasms were dreamt of as being experienced by someone else. Men dreamt of multiple sex partners (often unknown characters) twice as often, but women dream of celebrities or other public figures twice as often. Women dream more of sex with current or past partners (20% of dreams compared to 14% for men).

We can also look at these findings through the lens of evolutionary biology and see if what we dream fits in with how we think our sexuality evolved. Dreams might be the reflections of our daily lives in that they reflect our subconscious emotions and worries. To quote Zadra: Observed gender differences may be indicative of different waking needs, experiences, desires and attitudes with respect to sexuality…This is consistent with the continuity hypothesis of dreaming which postulates that the content of everyday dreams reflects the dreamer’s waking states and concerns — that is, that dream and waking thought contents are continuous. Does, then, what we dream conform to this idea that we evolved under polygamous, promiscuous sexual lives as some researchers would want us believe?

The results are easy to interpret from the evolutionary perspective. Both genders dream of sex equally since it is just as important for both genders to reproduce. Men profit by having as many children as possible with as many different partners, hence the higher proportion of dreams with unknown characters and with multiple partners. Women can profit by having sex with men with best genes, i.e. successful, powerful men such as the public figures and celebrities. These are also men with ability to protect them and provide with lots of resource so they can not only raise genetically fit children but also provide them with protection and resources in the struggle for existence. Also, women profit by confusing paternity of their children so more than one man thinks he might be the father. This would have resulted in more men providing for the children and less danger of aggression from past partners.

Perhaps this explains why women dream more of having sex with past partners. At the same time it is important for woman to keep her partner thinking he is the only father of her children to keep his interest, investment, protection and love. This may account for higher proportion of dreams with women’s current partners. Woman needs to play the field, keep her partner happy but stay alerted for good genes passing by. Intriguingly, women dream that some of their orgasms are experienced by others while men don’t. Perhaps this corroborates the idea of female orgasm as cryptic female choice; women are subconsciously aware of the importance of orgasms while men are still lagging behind on this one in the evolutionary race of the sexual conflict.

Or is this explanation too easy; is this pure adaptationalist fallacy sensu Gould and Lewontin? Are we too quick to see how new findings fit into our evolutionary worldview?

Mićo Tatalović

Science journalist at New Scientist
Mićo Tatalović is environment and life science news editor at New Scientist magazine. He is also the chair of the board of the Association of British Science Writers and is actively involved in promoting science journalism in South-East Europe.
He runs the EuroScientist blog Balkan Science Beat.
Mićo Tatalović

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