The Truth About Unexpected Emotional Erections

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The Truth About How Your Mood Affects Your Arousal

The Truth About Unexpected Emotional Erections

The Truth About How Your Mood Affects Your Arousal

Two Valentine’s Days ago, when I popped the question to my wife, I also popped something else — a boner.

We were at a local bar and a folk-singing couple had just finished a cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” when I turned to deliver the fateful question. The second that “yes” left her lips, I started to feel it, that unmistakable sensation. You could say that my body was getting ready for the proposal after-party, but I knew even then that it wasn’t just that.

Distracted, I didn’t think much of it at the time. That is, until it happened again while we were talking about having kids. It makes sense, I suppose, since my body could’ve been saying, “Yep, we’re ready. Let’s get this going right now.” But again, it wasn’t just that. Both of these boners were a response to something other than sex. They were lifted by the idea of living my life with this woman, of growing old together, of extra-large size commitment. I could only conclude that I’d had a sentimental erection. And, as I have learned, I’m not the only one.

The conventional wisdom is that guys only get spontaneous stiffies when they see a sexy stranger on the street, so it’s not a surprise that a query I posted on Facebook initially invited a round of ribbing. “Has anyone else had an emotional boner?” I wondered. “Boners, no. Emotional wind-breaking, all the time,” wrote a British pal. From another: “Are there times when I’m not supposed to have an erection? I should see my GP.”

Finally, though, a couple of my male buddies confirmed that it has happened to them. Dustin, a guy in his late 30s, says he experienced it every single time he and his partner talked about having kids. “There’s a stirring in my loins,” he announced the first time it happened. She didn’t quite understand, so he had to put it more bluntly. “I’m getting a hard-on because you just said ‘baby,’” he told her.

Dustin’s newborn was crying in the background as he explained to me that the very fact his partner wanted to have kids with him was a profound and unexpected gift. The two of them had met later in life and she already had two teenagers. “I didn’t think it wasn’t going to happen, that I was ever going to have kids,” he said. In fact, she had to bring it up several times before it sunk in that she really meant it. “Each time, it was a surprise all over again.”

According to Dustin, his partner didn’t buy that his woody wasn’t sexually motivated. “She was pretty sure that I was getting revved up,” he explained. “I don’t think she understood the sentimental feeling about it, that [the boner] was very much tied to the idea of commitment and really loving someone.”

When my friend Roman was in his first year of university, he and his girlfriend were sitting across from each other on his couch and suddenly stopped talking at the same time. “We began looking into each other’s eyes, in silence, just holding the gaze,” he said. “I was 18 and had never been this intimate with someone. It was exciting to force the moment and we kept it up almost to the point of not needing sex.”

A couple years later, Roman was on a double date with a new girlfriend at some hot springs while living abroad. As night fell, he and his girl wandered off to their own corner and he took the plunge. “I told her I loved her for the first time,” he recounted. “She took my hand and said she loved me, too. Instant boner, even though sex would have been impractical and inappropriate. They say a stiff prick has no conscience, but when I was young and idealistic, I was discovering this to be untrue.”

As it turns out, there’s a scientific explanation for all of this. As with everything else, it starts in the head. (The mind, I mean.) According to Dr. John Aquino, primary physician at Ontario Men’s Health, along with hormones, vascular activity and the function of the penis itself, there are two main parts of the brain that have a role in the erectile process. There’s the part that takes in sensory stimulus — the temporal cortex — which is activated when you see something that turns you on. And then there’s another part — the frontal cortex and paralimbic area, roughly — which is the home to emotions and motivation.

“Sometimes a guy can’t get an erection if he has too much on his mind, even if he is looking at something sexual,” Dr. Aquino said, explaining that stress about the mortgage in the emotional part of the brain can hijack sexy signals from the sensory part. Interestingly, though, it doesn’t work that way in the other direction. “If the emotional center becomes very active for whatever reason or a man is in a very deep state of relaxation, the whole erectile process can get started from this area all by itself even without sexual stimulus. It’s not as common, and it can take a lot of guys by surprise.”

Don Carveth, director of the Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis and author of Still Small Voice: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Guilt and Conscience, considers boners to be fundamentally emotional — at least for humans. “As you go up the hierarchy from unicellular organisms to vertebrates to mammals, primates, and then the leap to man, the less biology regulates sex,” he said. “Most psychiatrists agree that human sexuality is 99% in the mind.”

As evidence, Dr. Carveth proposes that it is rarely the sex itself — the fact of the act — that causes an erection. “Human sexuality is thoroughly symbolically mediated. We’re more turned on by stories and images than anything else,” he said, explaining that for men, that may involve lingerie, garter belts, or role play. Or, even more commonly, it can involve the tale he tells about himself about his virility. “What turns a man on is feeling manly, however that is defined in a particular context,” he said, giving the example of one patient whose wife got pregnant the first time they tried to conceive. “For weeks, he felt like he should be wearing a spacesuit before shaking a woman’s hand. It makes a man hard, to feel that he’s potent.”

What about the stereotype that commitment is the least sexy thing? “Guys get married and guys father children,” Dr. Carveth retorted. “Obviously, not all men are crippled by fear of commitment. Some overcome these fears, and being ready to put a ring on that finger and have a baby may feel like a triumph.”

So there you have it. Male sexuality may be more complicated than we think. Call it an emotional boner or a sentimental erection. Call it what you will, but there seems to be no doubt — the hard-on has a soft spot.

Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks.

Source: AskMen


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