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What is OCDOCD SubtypesDreams about sexual assault: Do they mean anything?

Dreams about sexual assault: Do they mean anything?

8 min read
Elle Warren

By Elle Warren

Reviewed by April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

Nov 30, 2023

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I know how it feels to want to feel 100% certain of what everything that happens in your brain means. Thoughts, dreams, those random images that pop in our heads—I, too, crave certainty. 

Like most of us, I care about being a values-driven human who is empathetic and considerate of other humans. When I have thoughts, or dreams, that I perceive to threaten those key values, it’s my instinct to worry over them—but in my case, it’s also a core feature of a mental health struggle. And maybe it is for you, too.

Sexual assault is among the most immoral, harmful, and disturbing behaviors many of us can think of, and for very good reasons. So if you, like me, feel uncomfortable with uncertainty about what goes on in your mind, it’s hardly surprising that you’d be shocked and disturbed by having unwanted dreams involving sexual assault or violence—your worries might feel impossible to dismiss: Why did I have that dream? Do I actually want that? What’s wrong with me? What else could it possibly mean?

Keep reading for what we know (and don’t know) about the meaning of dreams, why you might be so worried about them, and how you can get help if your disturbing dreams are causing you excessive distress.

What do dreams really mean?

There is little consensus in the field of psychology about what dreams really mean. April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, a licensed therapist who specializes in OCD and anxiety disorders, explains that there are several different schools of thought.

“There are people that say dreams do mean things and get very mystical about it, such as, ‘if you dream about a black cat, that’s bad luck.’’’ She says there’s far less interest in theories like these among mental health or psychology professionals than in the general population, though. 

The second school of thought? “There are people who would say dreams are your brain working out things that happened that day or stress that you’re dealing with, and it might come out in certain ways, whether obvious or unexpected,” she says.

And then, there’s a third camp: “There are also people who look at dreams as just a ‘mental event’ that happens when you’re sleeping. Essentially, you can dream about anything, and it pretty much means nothing about you, or about anything you may or may not do, think, or believe.”

At the end of the day, there are no definitive answers. However, it does seem to be universal that we all have dreams that make us uncomfortable, in various ways, from time to time. This is clear from the Reddit threads and a multitude of articles that populate with a Google search of “inappropriate sexual dreams.”

So why, then, are you so worried about them?

Why am I so worried about my dreams?

Dreams can be thought of as similar to intrusive thoughts, which are unwanted thoughts that are typically out of alignment with one’s values. Like intrusive thoughts, everyone has dreams. They’re a universal experience. Not everyone spends much time worrying about them—but some do.

More specifically, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) feel as if they’re unable to dismiss their intrusive thoughts as meaningless or unimportant. While people without OCD can recognize these thoughts as strange and move on with their lives, those with OCD become fixated on “solving” the intrusive thoughts, avoiding them, or getting rid of them. They view the thoughts as real threats. 

Similarly, people with OCD often feel unable to dismiss uncomfortable dreams as random, meaningless products of their brains. Instead, they might worry that dreams carry weighty significance that hold secrets about who they are (or aren’t). Kilduff says it’s “not uncommon” for dreams to be a trigger for obsessions—those persistent, distressing thoughts and fears. 

There is a specific theme, or subtype, of OCD called harm OCD. It focuses on either causing harm to someone else or being harmed themselves. If you’re feeling intensely worried about dreams involving sexual assault, in which you are either the perpetrator or the victim, you might be experiencing harm OCD. 

What is harm OCD?

All themes of OCD are characterized by repetitive, unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, urges, feelings or sensations called obsessions; extreme distress over those intrusions; and mental or physical compulsions performed in attempt to relieve the distress or keep something bad from happening. 

In harm OCD, one experiences obsessions involving violence. Their fears often focus on being the perpetrator of violence, but they can focus on being the victim, too. Kilduff says that the core fears of this theme can include “losing control,” “acting on impulse,” or “being a violent person deep down,” as well as fears that “the world isn’t safe.” 

Intrusive thoughts and other sensations will vary widely, but some examples include:

It must be noted that those with OCD are no more likely to commit violent acts than the general population. One could argue that they are actually less likely due to the fear they feel about it. Remember, intrusive thoughts are unwanted. They are what is called “ego-dystonic,” meaning they directly oppose someone’s values, morals, or beliefs. 

Because they’re ego-dystonic and the OCD sufferer is interpreting them as having meaning, they cause feelings of intense distress—anxiety, panic, guilt, shame. Moreover, since this theme is particularly “taboo” in nature, people with harm OCD tend to have a hard time telling anyone about their thoughts. They may even feel too scared or ashamed to tell a mental health professional, continuing to suffer without feeling like they can get any support.

These intense feelings of distress lead to compulsions—the “C” in OCD. While compulsions can be just about anything, here are some common examples:

  • Mental review. For example, let’s say your dreams about sexual assault are causing you to obsessively question if you’re capable of sexually assaulting someone, you might look back on your prior relationships to prove to yourself that you never acted inappropriately, look for moments you may have misinterpreted, and so on. 
  • Mental tracking. This is a similar concept to mental review, except it focuses on the present. If your dreams about sexual assault cause you to worry that you want to commit assault, you may take note of every time you experience sexual attraction or desire, closely analyzing each feeling.
  • Self-reassurance. For example, every time you think “do I want to sexually assault someone?” you might “neutralize” it with a thought like “I respect the autonomy of all people. I would never do that.”
  • Reassurance-seeking. For example, if you went to a bar with a friend where you struck up a conversation with a stranger, you might later ask your friend, “Did I seem aggressive toward them?” or “Was I being creepy or disrespectful?”
  • Avoidance. For example, if you’re afraid that “deep down” you want to commit sexual assault, you may try to avoid anyone of the gender(s) you’re attracted to. 

Compulsions talk a big game, but unfortunately, they can’t deliver on their promise to reduce your distress long-term or keep you and others safe. In the end, they only reinforce the obsessive-compulsive cycle and make your fears seem more and more real. Thus, the focus of OCD treatment is reducing, and ultimately eliminating, compulsions. 

How is OCD treated?

All forms of OCD, however terrifying, confusing, and isolating, are highly treatable. There are evidence-based treatments that can help you live a life that isn’t ruled by obsessions and compulsions. The first-line treatment is called exposure and response-prevention (ERP) therapy. 

ERP works by gradually introducing you to your fears and worries, teaching you to resist compulsions along the way. You and your therapist will work together to understand the intricacies of your experience—what your intrusive thoughts (or other intrusions) sound like, when they pop up, and what compulsions you engage in. 

Therapy will be highly tailored to your experience, targeting your specific triggers and fears. You may be asked to read or watch media that portrays perpetrators of sexual assault, read stories from victims of assault, write down “worst case scenarios,” write down uncertain statements and read them back to yourself (Maybe I will experience sexual assault—there’s no way to be 100% sure), and many other possibilities. 

Moving toward anxiety is actually what helps alleviate it in the long-run. By doing this, you learn that your thoughts are not dangerous, and that even though uncertainty is uncomfortable, you are capable of dealing with it and living with confidence in your values. 

You can take the power away from disturbing dreams

The road of OCD recovery is not without bumps and jostles, but at the end of it is a richer, fuller, more present life. It might be hard to imagine right now, but you can learn to take the power away from upsetting and taboo dreams, learning to accept that they don’t define you, your values, or your identity.

If you think you may be struggling with OCD, I encourage you to read about NOCD’s evidence-based, accessible approach to treatment. You can overcome your disturbing dreams, just as thousands of others have before you.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault and think your dreams may stem from a place of trauma, there are resources for you. Check out this national resource list for survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones.

Learn more about ERP
April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

April Kilduff is a NOCD therapist who has exclusively treated OCD and anxiety disorders, as well as their intersection with the Autism spectrum, for over a decade. Her path to this career started with her own journey dealing with panic attacks, perfectionism and a couple phobias. When not working on exposures with members, you can find her at home reading books and hanging out with her two cats or out taking pictures and traveling the world.