Wet dreams: Not nearly as common as you think.

Pubescent Boys Hear a Lot About Wet Dreams. But They’re Not As Common As You Think.

Pubescent Boys Hear a Lot About Wet Dreams. But They’re Not As Common As You Think.

The Drift
A blog about sleep.
Nov. 19 2015 10:00 AM

Pubescent Boys Hear a Lot About Wet Dreams. But They’re Not As Common As You Think.

Nocturnal Emission

Photo by Thomas Northcut/Thinkstock, with additional illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

I remember the moment in vivid detail. Our middle school principal, a stoic woman with warm eyes and steely nerves, had called all seventh-graders to an assembly to discuss our impending school trip to Washington, D.C. As she broached the topic of sleeping arrangements—sex-segregated, of course, with four kids to each two-bed room—a nervous hush fell over the crowd.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers the law and LGBTQ issues.

“Ladies,” the principal said, “if you have your time of the month, just tell your chaperone and she’ll have the bedding changed.” A nervous titter rippled through the audience as students eager to demonstrate their worldliness made known their amused discomfort.

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“And boys,” she continued, arching one eyebrow slightly, “if you have a certain dream that causes an accident in your sheets, just tell your chaperone and he’ll help you out.”

This was it—the moment we’d all been both dreading and eagerly anticipating. For two years, our burgeoning sexuality had been hushed up and hidden away, discouraged and dismissed. Now an adult—the principal!—had acknowledged something we all took to be a universal truth: Pubescent boys’ ingress into adulthood invariably involves spontaneous orgasms during slumber. Nighttime ejaculations. Nocturnal emissions. Wet dreams.

Like my classmates, I was impatient for wet dreams to begin. When I was 11, my mother had informed me of their impending arrival, then never spoke of them again. Our health instructor had mentioned them for about 40 seconds that same year, implying that virtually all boys got them. The message was clear: Wet dreams are normal, healthy, and ubiquitous. They might even be pleasurable—though you really had to read between the lines to get at that bit. I waited eagerly and enthusiastic to wake up to a wet, sticky spot in my sheets: proof, finally, that I had become a man.

I turned 13: No wet dreams. Fourteen, 15: No wet dreams. By the time I turned 16, I assumed I had a defective reproductive system. I despaired that the window of possibility had closed—wet dreams, after all, are said to be a young man’s game. By the time I turned 17, I had begun blaming myself, theorizing that my discovery of masturbation at age 12 had somehow forestalled this literally seminal moment of adolescence.

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As it turns out, I wasn’t defective: I was simply receiving bad intel. We don’t know much about nocturnal emissions, but we do know that their prevalence is vastly overstated. (We know even less about female wet dreams, a distinct biological phenomenon that I must leave for another day.) Many men—perhaps a majority—never have a wet dream in their lives. Many others have only a handful. In fact, the few men who do experience frequent oneiric ejaculations appear to be the real outliers.

You should take my conclusions here with a grain of salt. Nocturnal emissions aren’t well-studied, largely because researchers are skittish about talking to young boys about sexual pleasure—and vice versa. Even if some phlegmatic scientist did undertake to measure the commonness of wet dreams, he’d probably fail: Researchers infamously struggle to extract honest information from adolescents about their sexuality.

So, in researching this post, I interviewed as many men as I could—friends, acquaintances, family members, colleagues—without violating norms of decency or HR policies. Of my 30 respondents, only one said he’d had wet dreams regularly as a teen. (He noted that virtually none of his friends ever got them.) Another said he’d had a few during young adulthood, calling them “all mess and no joy.” Several others speculated that they might have had one or two but weren’t sure. The great majority were certain they had never experienced the phenomenon. Yet almost every respondent was told in health class that most boys get wet dreams routinely, at least at the cusp of puberty.

What gives? Why are so many boys being told to expect wet dreams when so few will ever actually have one? I have two theories. The first is that health instructors use wet dreams as an analog to menarche, or first menstruation. Instructors have to talk about periods, since all girls get them, and they’re often pitched as girls’ entrance into adulthood. Wet dreams serve as a convenient (if false) equivalent for boys.

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My second theory, and perhaps the likelier one, is that health instructors feel compelled to teach boys a little about their sex organs. Masturbation, however, remains a fraught topic, especially in schools. (In 1994, Republicans forced Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders to resign after she suggested that masturbation be taught to mature schoolchildren.) Informing kids about wet dreams allowed instructors to teach the basic mechanisms of ejaculation, without wading into the freighted subject of intentional pleasure.

I ran my theories by David Reitman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Georgetown University Hospital and the medical director for the American University Student Health Center. He found them both amusing and probably correct.

“What you’re looking at,” Reitman told me, “is sex being taught as a function of biology versus sex being taught as a normal human experience. These instructors aren’t teaching girls how to have an orgasm. They’re teaching them about menstruation. Similarly, they’re not teaching boys about masturbation. They’re teaching them about wet dreams, because wet dreams are something that the body just does on its own, whereas masturbation is a volitional act.”

Were my survey results accurate? “There is no data on this,” Reitman said. “There are no cold hard facts here.” But in his practice, he’s found that masturbation is much more common than wet dreams. “The questions I get from kids are always about masturbation, almost never about wet dreams. I’ve never had a kid say to me, ‘What’s normal in terms of wet dreams?’ Masturbation is the big release that these kids get. Most kids are doing it with enough frequency that they’re not having wet dreams.”

Does that mean that—as is often hypothesized—the more you masturbate, the lower your odds of getting a wet dream? Reitman laughed. “That connection has never been borne out scientifically,” he said. “Let’s get that straight right now.” But “anecdotally speaking,” that certainly is his suspicion.

I asked Reitman whether he thought the newer generation of doctors, parents, and instructors would be more candid in discussing the full range of sexual experiences with adolescents. Will they dare to move beyond wet dreams? “Nobody likes to think about 13-year-olds as sexual beings,” he told me. “But the younger generation of doctors that I’m working with and training are much more comfortable talking about this stuff. The culture has changed.”

My middle school still sends its seventh-graders on a yearly trip to Washington. I couldn’t quite bring myself to call the principal for this story and ask whether she still delivers the wet-dream spiel. But even if she does, I’m not too worried about the kids there now. When I was in seventh grade, my main source of sex education came from a CD-ROM of Encarta 95. Today, kids have a much savvier sex ed instructor, one more candid than the frankest middle school principal. It’s called Google.

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