Humans are endlessly interested in sorting out what our dreams mean. I get it; after all, our unconscious minds can sometimes seem like unknowable things, and we therefore desperately, desperately want to make sense of it all. And hey, guess what? According to a recent survey, women have nightmares about being chased way more than men do — and honestly, it’s not really hard to come up with some likely reasons for why that might be. This is just a theory, but hint: It might have something to do with the expectations about and experiences of gender our culture constantly pushes on us.
Mattress Advisor, an online resource geared towards helping people find the best mattresses for them, recently surveyed more than 1,200 adults in the United States about their dreams and nightmares. The site recruited their participants via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program; participants ranged in age from 18 to 81, with a mean age of 57, while 57 percent of the participants identified as female and 43 percent identified as male. And interestingly, although the things the participants dreamed about that weren’t consider “bad dreams” tended to be pretty similar when analyzed according to gender, it turned out that when nightmares underwent that same analysis, some curious — and, perhaps, telling — patterns emerged.
Both men and women reported dreaming frequently about travel; 37.9 percent of men and 39.1 percent of women said that they “explored new places” while asleep. There are also some interesting connections between dreams of love and dreams of sex: For men, 15 percent reported dreaming of sexand 6.2 percent reported dreaming of falling in love; for women, however, the numbers were roughly reversed: 15.2 percent dreamed of falling in love, while 8.5 percent dreamed of sex.
But consider the figures about nightmares: For women, the most common nightmare was being chased; 19.6 percent reported having this kind of nightmare. For men, meanwhile, it was falling — 19.4 percent of men had nightmares about plummeting downward. And honestly — although yes, this is a theory only; correlation is not causation and all that — I can’t help but wonder if that might have something to do with how our culture deals with gender in our everyday lives.
If #MeToo, #TimesUp, and all of the other aspects of the ongoing conversations about sexual harassment and assault that are finally, finally occurring openly have shown anything, it’s that women deal with unwanted pursuit all the dang time — often figuratively, but also sometimes very, very literally.
We go to work; we deal with coworkers, bosses, or customers who get a little too “friendly” (by which I mean, “not friendly; absolutely awful”) and who won’t back off or take no for an answer. (Here’s your reminder that, according to a 2016 study conducted by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, “anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” Additionally, a poll published by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal in October of 2017 found that almost half of women surveyed reported having experienced sexual, verbal, or physical harassment at work.)
We go online; we deal with propositions and name calling and unsolicited dick pics. (Here’s your reminder that, in of 2017, 21 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 29 reported being sexually harassed online, according to the Pew Research Center; that’s more than twice the amount of sexual harassment faced by men online, who reported at a rate of about nine percent. Additionally, 53 percent of women in that age bracket said they’d received explicit photographs from someone that they hadn’t asked for.)
We simply walk down the street; we deal with catcalls and grabbing and demands for our attention and abuse if we don’t comply. (Here’s your reminder that 85 percent of women report having been harassed on the street by the age of 16, according to Hollaback! and Cornell University’s 2015 international survey on street harassment. The number shoots to 97.7 percent if the upper age limit is stretched to the ripe old age of 20.)
With all of this and more being a part of our daily experiences, it’s no wonder that when women have nightmares, it’s often about being chased. We are chased and threatened in all other aspects of our lives; it’s no surprise that this anxiety might manifest in our unconscious sleep state, too.
Meanwhile, consider the fact that, in our culture, to be masculine is considered the absolute best thing for men to be — and to somehow fail at that is to suffer the worst fall from grace possible. A growing body of research is studying the effects of the toxic masculinity perpetuated by patriarchal culture, and guess what? It’s finding that toxic masculinity is bad for men.
Research published by the American Psychological Association and reported on by The Guardian in 2016 found that, in a group of 19,000 men over an 11-year period, traits coded as traditionally “masculine” were linked with mental health issues. Said research lead Joel Wong of Indiana University Bloomington to The Guardian, “In general, individuals who conformed strongly to masculine norms tended to have poorer mental health and less favorable attitudes toward seeking psychological help, although the results differed depending on specific types of masculine norms.”
What’s more, research published by the Open University in March of 2017 focusing on men between the ages of 18 and 30 in London and the north of England found that the majority feel “pushed to live in the ‘man box,’” according to The Conversation. Despite stating that they supported gender equality, the men tended to see men as “breadwinners” and “protectors,” while they labeled women as “carers”; they felt pressure to “look good” and be “tough”; and they thought that admitting to emotional or mental health issues were “a sign of weakness.”
And consider the very language that’s commonly used to denote strength or weakness: We talk about “having the balls” to do something brave; we tell people to “man up”; we call those who express hesitance or reluctance “p*ssies”; we use “you throw like a girl” as an insult.
When things traditionally coded in our society as “masculine” are constantly held up and admired, while those coded as “feminine” are constantly looked down upon and devalued — well, just as it’s easy to see how women’s anxieties about unwanted pursuit experienced in their everyday lives might manifest in their dreams, so, too, is it easy to see how men’s anxieties about cultural expectations of masculinity might manifest in their dreams, as well. And it’s particularly easy to see how anxieties about what might happen if they fail to abide by these cultural expectations — that is, if they metaphorically fall from them — might appear in nightmares as a literal fall from a great height.
This isn’t to say that men don’t have nightmares about being chased, or that women don’t dream of falling; on the contrary, Mattress Advisor’s survey results found that 17.1 percent of men have had chase nightmares, while 9.9 percent of women have had nightmares about falling. What’s more, obviously not everyone dreams similar dreams for the exact same reasons — and while we’re on the subject, it’s also true that dream interpretation is inexact at best and possibly a load of nonsense at worst.
At the same time, though, we do know that “sleeping on it” can actually help us solve problems, according to research; additionally, we know that, in older adults at least, high rates of anxiety correlated with higher rates of nightmares and bad dreams. I’d be interested, therefore, in a study that looked specifically at the frequency of particular type of nightmares in conjunction with people’s thoughts about what they feel our culture expects of them and what their experiences have been in real life.
This hypothetical study, however, would have to address some of the flaws in this current survey. For starters, Mattress Advisor’s study isn’t a peer-reviewed study, which, as Jeannette M. Wing wrote at Communications of the ACM in 2010, “matters not just for scientific truth, but, in the broader context, for society’s perception of science.” According to Wing, peer review is both essential for “advancing our field to ensure we do high-quality work,” as well as maintaining the public’s trust in science. Surveys like Mattress Advisor’s are interesting, sure — but since they’re not peer-reviewed, we can’t rely on them as the be-all, end-all truth of any given matter.
Also — and just as important, particularly for analyses conducted according to gender — the Mattress Advisor survey includes responses from only two genders. It doesn’t include nonbinary people, which means there are many, many more genders in the population that simply are not represented within the survey’s participant and data pools. That matters. A lot.
But it would be an interesting avenue to explore all the same — and it might give us some insight into some of the more insidious effects sexism has on us all.
Time’s up, indeed — for all of it.