It’s 3 a.m. and suddenly you bolt awake after experiencing a highly erotic sexual dream about your female best friend. You are straight, or so you thought, but you just had a vivid dream about someone of your same gender. Now you can’t go back to sleep. You lie in bed, tossing and turning because your brain is stuck in a loop.
One second it’s telling you, “Maybe this means I have always been suppressing homosexual desires?” and then it’s saying, “No, no, I’ve always been attracted to men!” Back and forth the game goes, wanting a winner, needing an answer. You feel the urge to figure it out, right there at 3 a.m., sleeping next to your fiance, whom you will be marrying next month.
You feel highly anxious now, as the minutes turn into hours. You look at the clock at 5 a.m. and your chest feels tight—you’re still thinking about this sex dream with your best friend, your maid of honor. You tell yourself something like, “maybe this is a sign that I’m not ready to get married” and find yourself mentally reviewing your past, all of your relationships, and wondering if this dream really means something major about your identity and your sexuality.
You can’t stop trying to figure out this dream. You feel fearful and worried. You even ignore a call from your best friend later that morning because you can’t imagine talking to her right now. It is very apparent to you that you have to get to the bottom of this dream. What does it all mean?
What same-sex dreams DON’T mean
First things first: there’s nothing wrong, of course, with finding out that you’re not straight, feeling doubts about your identity, or questioning your sexuality. But if you’re finding dreams and doubts distressing, you should know that a same-sex dream is very unlikely to be the indicator of your sexual orientation.
Many clinicians in the mental health field agree. In a Woman’s Health article, Gayle Delaney, PhD—a dream specialist, clinical psychologist, and founding president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams—said that “women are often anxious about their lesbian dreams, and they needn’t be.” She goes on to say that it’s “the rarest of possibilities” that simply having same-sex dreams means that you are actually a lesbian.
And if you’re a heterosexual guy reading this? The same applies to you. Very rarely does a same-sex dream mean that you are in fact gay. And the flip side is also true. If you’re in fact gay, a couple heterosexual dreams that you may have been worrying about most likely mean nothing whatsoever about your identity.
It’s worth repeating again: There is certainly nothing wrong or unusual about learning new things about your identity and sexuality, even well into adulthood. However, if you’re worrying that these dreams mean you need to reevaluate your entire sexual identity, that’s probably not the case.
As a therapist, I have worked with many people who needed help stepping away from the meaning of their dreams. They needed to take a break from figuring it out. It was important to learn how to live with the uncertainty that their dreams created—an uncertainty that’s simply a part of life, including sexuality—while at the same time not giving the dreams the attention they tend to demand.
What it means to have a same-sex dream if you’re straight
Dreams are a hot topic, even in the field of therapy, and one that can cause much distress. We, in our modern-day lives, are not the only ones trying to figure out the hidden meaning in our dreams. Everyone has them, and no one can ever be quite sure about what they mean. Throughout history, there have been many ways of thinking about dreams. Ancient Greeks believed that dreams had the ability to foretell the future. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, used dream interpretation to uncover unconscious wants and desires. Now, there are various scientific explanations for our dreams. For instance, there’s the theory of dreaming called the “activation-synthesis hypothesis,” which posits that dreams don’t mean anything in particular about us; they’re simply electrical brain impulses that take in thoughts and imagery from our memories.
When you are straight and you are having same-sex dreams, there could be many explanations based on who you ask. Let’s go back for a minute to the example at the beginning of the article — the woman who fears a same-sex dream is an indicator that she is gay and that she should promptly cancel her wedding. What are some more possible explanations?
- This woman is feeling grateful to have her lifelong friend beside her when she exchanges her wedding vows. At night her brain is processing that friendship and the closeness between them. In her dream, however, this closeness might be interpreted and played out sexually, because sex is an act of intimacy. While intimacy can also be non-sexual, the brain may just lump it all together before it gets stored somewhere.
- Imagery from multiple memories is being fired at the same time. Maybe this woman had sex with her fiance before falling asleep, on the same night as having drinks with her friend. Her brain is simply firing signals about all of these events, and it just looks different than what she’d expect.
- The dream is symbolic or metaphorical, and doesn’t mean what it appears to mean literally. Maybe the “bonding” with a best friend signals a desire for her friend’s approval.
No matter what theory is used to interpret a dream, the fact remains that some people are more bothered by troublesome dreams than others. And when dreams feel especially real, threatening, or meaningful, theories alone aren’t often enough to make you feel better.
What does it mean if you’re troubled by a same-sex dream?
While dreams certainly don’t need to be analyzed, some of you reading this may feel that your preoccupation with your dreams is unhealthy, takes up too much time and energy, and is starting to affect your life in many different ways. When a dream becomes more than a curiosity that you forget the next day, what’s going on?
While it may be a surprise, there can actually be a connection between dreams and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Some people with OCD have very vivid, intrusive dreams that are related to the obsessions that they have in their waking life. For example, a person with Relationship OCD—a subtype of OCD focused on relationship doubts—may have a dream in which they cheat on their spouse with someone of the same sex and their partner leaves them. When they are tied to a person’s OCD obsessions, dreams can be extremely distressing and often lead to further anxiety and compulsions.
How do I know if my unwanted same-sex dream is related to OCD?
A person who meets the criteria for OCD will have both obsessions and compulsions. When a person without OCD wakes up after an unwanted same-sex dream, they may feel distressed and anxious, but they do not regularly engage in compulsive behaviors to find relief. However, if a person feels the need to do or think something in order to feel safe or reassured after experiencing a same-sex dream, then it’s worth exploring whether OCD is at play.
Here are some obsessions and compulsions that may be present for a person experiencing same-sex dreams that are linked to their OCD.
- If I’m dreaming about my same-sex best friend, it must mean I’ve repressed that I’m gay.
- I shouldn’t be in my current relationship because I’m having these same sex dreams.
- What if I let my partner down because I’m gay?
- What if my family finds out about these dreams?
- What if the person in my dreams finds out I’m dreaming about them?
- What if I’m living a lie?
When obsessions like these ones happen, people with OCD are flooded with anxiety or other types of distressing feelings. Doubt and worry about one’s sexuality—and security in their relationships—often run rampant. As a result, they turn to mental or physical actions called compulsions to feel better. Here are some examples.
- Avoiding the person in the dreams
- Replaying or reviewing the dream to check for arousal
- Ruminating over the meaning of the dream and trying to figure out why it occurred
- Engaging in activities to ensure that you are straight, such as masturbating to straight porn
- Seeking reassurance by asking others what they think about their dreams
- Avoiding sleep out of a fear of unwanted dreams
How to cope with unwanted same-sex dreams
First of all, if you have happened upon this article in the middle of the night because you just awoke from a same-sex dream that left you distressed, don’t jump to the conclusion that you have OCD. OCD is a diagnosis that should be made with a trained professional—not a spur-of-the-moment self-diagnosis.
That said, it’s worth noting that everyone, whether or not they have OCD, might benefit from drawing on the techniques used to treat OCD. OCD is treated with a specific kind of therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. While people with OCD should always do ERP with a trained specialist, some ERP tricks may help you reduce nighttime anxiety about your sexuality, even if you don’t have OCD.
The idea behind ERP is to learn to accept uncertainty, rather than running away from it in fear or doing something like compulsively watch straight porn to reassure yourself. You can tell yourself something like, “Yep, I might be gay—oh well, I’m not going to figure that out now.” The important thing is to not ruminate about the dream. Don’t give that dream the attention it wants. Allowing your discomfort to be there is actually what helps your unrest about your dreams eventually go away.
If you find yourself continually struggling and unable to unhook from your dreams, then an evaluation might be necessary to further assess for OCD or other mental health conditions.
By doing ERP with a specially-trained ERP therapist, over time your tolerance for uncertainty and discomfort will increase. Eventually, you’ll be able to wake from an intrusive same-sex dream in the middle of the night and simply brush it off, because the anxiety doesn’t linger.
Remember, dreams are a normal part of how all of our brains function. Weird dreams, bizarre plotlines, and yes, dreams that call our sexuality into question may show up. You aren’t alone, and dreams don’t have to take over your life—or define who you are.
Where to get the help you need
If you’re struggling with OCD—or think you might be—I strongly encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based, accessible approach to treatment for OCD, as well as related conditions like depression and anxiety. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training, just like myself. But above all, have hope: you don’t have to continue living a life dominated by OCD or anxiety, and there are qualified professionals who can put you on the path to recovery starting today.