Erotic dreams among women have been documented since the early Greek civilization; however, only in the past one hundred years have researchers begun to study the incidence and dynamics of sleep-related female orgasms (Kinsey et al. 1953, 191). While it is widely known that most men occasionally experience wet dreams, it appears that many adults in contemporary American culture are unaware that many women experience sleep-related orgasms. Given the prevalence of these responses (37 percent of women by age forty-five in Kinsey et al. 1953, and likely higher now), this lack of awareness is somewhat surprising. Realistically, however, this topic is rarely discussed. In addition, as will be shown, the dynamics and etiology of these female sleep-related orgasms are somewhat different than the nocturnal emissions of men.
Interest in this topic began while testing sample survey questions for a different topic. The issue of female sleep and dream-related orgasms kept surfacing. Two respondents reported that they mentioned these occurrences to their male therapists only to be told that the therapists had “never heard of such a thing.” Subsequent inquiries have revealed that this is not unusual. An informal survey by this writer suggests that in 2005, approximately 70 percent of men did not know that women can experience sleep-related orgasms. It is even more surprising that a significant percentage of women, in excess of 25 percent, lacked this information.
Informal inquiries also suggest that women, who do experience sleep-related orgasms, enjoy them. This writer recently spoke to a mixed-sex group, ages twenties through sixties, and mentioned that while Kinsey found that the active incidence of female sleep-related orgasms peaked in the forty and fifty age decades, the accumulated incidence continued to increase throughout the lifespan (Kinsey et al. 1953). The women in the group started cheering! Dream therapist Gayle Delaney reports that she has “never heard a woman tell about an orgasmic dream that was not pleasurable” (Delaney 1994, 26). Kinsey and others have also noted this favorable reaction.
Therefore, one question this paper will address is simply, “Why don’t more people know that women can, and do, experience sleep-related orgasms?” Obviously, lack of education plays a role. Contemporary sex education classes teach boys “such terms as ‘nocturnal emission’ . . . without a parallel terminology for girls’ own nighttime orgasm” (Sweeney 1999).
Although Kinsey found that 5 percent of his female respondents experienced their first orgasm as a sleep-generated orgasm (Kinsey et al. 1953, 193), this topic is not included in recommended sex education curriculums of any organization reviewed by this author for inclusion at any age level (i.e., American Academy of Pediatrics, 2001, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 1996, Kempner [SIECUS] 2003). Likewise, it is not included in literature from common public sex education forums such as Planned
Parenthood (www.plannedparenthood.org). Virtually all curriculums and information sources include commentary regarding male nocturnal emissions. One might conclude that women typically learn about sleep-related female orgasms through experience, although this hypothesis has not been tested. And there still is no accurate, standardized terminology for this experience in the research or educational literature.
A common initial response to the above-mentioned question is that this is another example of how attention to women’s health has been neglected by the culture and mainstream researchers. The field of sexology has not been immune from this charge, as pointed out by Janice Irvine in Disorders of Desire: Sex and Gender in Modern American Sexology:
Scientific sexology responds to feminism by minimizing it. The “ignore it and it’ll go away” approach characterizes an enormous cross-section of American sexology. This tactic, perhaps the most dangerous, is reflected in the virtual absence of feminist analysis and scholarship within sexual science . . . Structural aspects of sexology perpetuate male dominance and inhibit feminist intervention.” (Irvine 1990, 144-5)
There has been almost no research regarding this topic since the groundbreaking study by Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, and Gebhard (Kinsey et al. 1953), which will be explored in detail below. In 1970, Gebhard, Raboch, and Geise noted the lack of follow-up information regarding this topic; and more recently Dr. Arnall of the British Psychological Society called this a “shamefully under researched area” (in Martell 2003).
This topic lies clearly within the scope of sexology; yet, it interfaces and penetrates other fields of inquiry more deeply than many other sexological topics. While research is therefore more complex, it will ultimately provide greater sexological insight. In addition to the normal physiological, psychological, and cultural variables that relate to sexological research, the fields of sleep physiology, dreaming, consciousness, anthropology, and spirituality contribute to awareness and understanding of this phenomenon. The mind-body relationship comes to the forefront providing sharp contrast to the emphasis on “structural aspects of sexology” mentioned by Irvine above.
Yet, it would be misleading to attribute the lack of awareness of sleep-related female orgasms to research and educational neglect alone. This topic has commanded much attention during other periods of Western civilization. Unfortunately, as was the case for sleep, dreams, and sex in general, the attention was based largely on superstition, fear, and moral judgment. The most severe consequences came during the three hundred year witch-burning epoch, mandated by the 1486 publication of the Catholic Church-initiated document, the Malleus Maleficarum of Kramer and Sprenger (Stewart 2002, 17-19; Masters 1966).
By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sexual discourse had shifted more fully back into the medical model, its domain during the Greek and Roman periods, prior to the Christian church (Foucault, 1978, 1985). While the nature of the moral judgments and physical punishments changed, sleep-related female orgasms, like spermatorrhea (male emissions) and masturbation, were nonetheless viewed as both psychologically and physiologically pathological (Tissot 1758, and others including Freud 1900) until the 1920s, when they were then thought to be biologically compensatory for lack of other satisfactory sexual outlets (Kinsey et al. 1953, 207). To a great extent, Kinsey’s data dispelled the compensatory imperative as a primary causative factor, thus leaving confusion, mystery, and relative silence. The dominant theory since Kinsey’s time could be called the system maintenance model (Reinisch 1990, 89), which implies a randomness not really supported by the meager information at hand.
As Charles Stewart of the Royal Anthropological Institute points out:
Erotic dreams have raised perennial questions about the boundaries of the self and individual’s ability to control and produce this self. Do erotic dreams result from divine intercession, an immoral life, or recent memories? Are they products of the self for which the individual dreamer may be held responsible? Or are they determined by a force majeure such as original sin, or human physiology? (Stewart 2002, 2)
These questions and associated fears still exist today (see Appendix A). The current lack of discussion provides fertile ground for more fear and confusion. Nonetheless, one of the few surveys conducted since Kinsey suggests that the incidence of sleep-related female orgasms is increasing significantly, influenced strongly by attitudes, education, and other cultural factors (Wells 1986). While professional journals ignore this, the Internet blogs and advice columns do not.
This paper provides literature review research regarding Sleep-Related Female Orgasms (SRFOs) and factors associated with these responses, research regarding the dynamics of female sex dreams (which often precede SRFOs), the history of attitudes and cultural responses toward SRFOs, and possible reasons why knowledge of SRFOs is apparently withheld from both men and women. It will explore social, behavioral, physiological, psychological, spiritual, moral, and political factors that influence and relate to this response, and make recommendations regarding further research and educational initiatives.
June 13th, 2010