Women often assume that an erection is an erection and it means a man is sexually aroused. Yet there are two different kinds of erections: the kind that result from feeling sexually aroused, and the not-aroused kind that occur during REM sleep and can also happen during the day, especially during the morning hours.
For several months, I included a question on my sex survey asking men if their early-morning (waking) erections feel the same or different than the erections they get when they are sexually aroused. Their responses have been a reminder of how important it is to listen carefully when it comes to a person’s experience of his or her own body. As you’ll see, some of the responses contradict others.
Men’s early-morning erections can be confusing for female partners because most women assume that erections are a result of sexual arousal. Otherwise, why would a guy have one?* Yet there are at least two different kinds of erections: the usual kind that results from feeling turned on, and the kind that occurs during REM or dream sleep. REM erections are triggered by a different part of the brain than erections that result from sexual arousal. Psychologically, these two different types of erection have little, if anything, in common.
When a man is in REM sleep, he frequently has an erection, whether he’s dreaming about being chased by wolves or about the love of his life. When he wakes up early in the morning, he is often waking from REM sleep, so he may wake up with a REM-related erection.
Here are some of the responses from men regarding their perception of what a morning (waking) erection feels like versus erections that result from sexual arousal:
“Morning erections almost never feel sexy. More like ‘in the way’. Even if I have sex in the morning with a pre-existing erection, I still need to get some emotion into it.” —Male, age 39
“Oddly enough, my morning erections are WAY harder and more persistent than my arousal erections. I have no idea why, but it basically always results in me giving in and beating the devil out of it or having sex if my partner is so gracious and willing in the morning.” —Male, age 21
“Morning erections are different—more of a nuisance. Unwanted morning boners are almost a buzzkill since you know they are not leading to anything.” —Male, age 23
“Real arousal will always result in a much harder erection than the ones I have when I wake.” —Male, age 25
“Different. Morning wood feels much more intense than regular arousal, and my penis is much more sensitive as well.” —Male, age 22
“Arousal erections feel like total erections; they are much more firm than morning erections.” —Male, age 42
“Erections when aroused seem to be the source of an indescribable feeling that causes me to act. I can almost feel arousal in my gut (if that makes sense). Morning wood doesn’t have that. Morning erections aren’t typically accompanied by a sense of drive.” —Male age 34
“Different. Morning erections are slightly uncomfortable, and I am usually not aroused initially. An erection when I am aroused is only uncomfortable because I feel like I need relief, but in a good way.” —Male, age 27
“Morning erections are a lot harder. I think too much when I’m flirting or getting aroused, so erections that come when I’m turned on are not crazy hard.” —Male, age 23
“The erections I get from feeling aroused are stronger and firmer, sometimes even slightly painful, while a morning erection can sometimes go unnoticed at first. Morning erections are rarely sexual for me, and it is not often that I feel compelled to do something about them.” —Male, age 18
“My morning erections are sometimes harder to the point of pain, and are a lot less sensitive.” —Male, age 18
“In the morning they tend to be softer and more relaxed but very sensitive.” —Male, age 53
“Erections in the morning are usually hard as can be, along with the urge to urinate. However, the heat from it and sensitivity to touch are much less in the morning than when I am aroused.” —Male, age 35
“They start off different, just like my body is working out the muscles in my penis, but if I begin thinking about it and my wife or I touch it, it quickly changes into an aroused erection.” —Male, age 25
“It is all a matter of how I am thinking and how I choose to handle it. Otherwise one feels the same as the next typically.” —Male, age 24
“Well, morning erections feel more awkward, because there’s not really sexual desire compared to when I’m aroused. So basically it’s just blood down there making sure everything is right.” —Male, age 20
“I’d say I just have minor erections in the morning, without much feel to it and mostly they’re down before I get up.” —Male, age 24
“Different feeling. Morning erections are uncomfortable.” —Male, age 47
“They are often extremely hard when I wake up, and not quite as rock-solid when I’m aroused, though it depends on the stimuli of course.” —Male, age 23
“When I have an arousal erection, my penis feels ‘plugged in’ to the rest of me. It’s much more of a lightning rod for sensations so that any attention it receives is immediately very pleasurable. My morning erections are kind of just there.” —Male, age 35
“Different, because I’m not wanting anything from the morning erections, it’s more of just an inconvenience.” —Male, age 21
“Morning erections are awesome! It’s what all my erections used to feel like! As I have aged, erections in arousal require more focus.” —Male, age 51
“Morning erections are often a nuisance as I am getting to old too stand on my head to pee.” —Male, age 58
“Morning wood feels different. It’s usually harder and seems thicker.” —Male, age 20
“Morning wood is different ’cause when I’m aroused I wanna ejaculate.” —Male, age 25
The third type of erection is the kind that teenage boys and young adult males tend to have during the morning hours. These are anything but wanted, and they seem to have a life of their own. A male usually can’t think the thing down to save his soul. If he has to walk in front of people, he’ll do the best he can with “a waistband tuck” and by grabbing something to put in front of his pants. I suspect these unwanted erections are caused by peaking testosterone levels and other things we’re probably not sure of.
*Morning erections are not nature’s way of keeping a man from wetting his bed due to a full bladder. Plenty of men wake up with a full bladder and no erection and are able to make it to the bathroom just fine.