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1 August 2007
The Sleep Stiffy
by Paul Aitken

One of the funniest scenes from 40 Year Old Virgin was when Steve Carroll gets up in the morning and walks to the washroom with an enormous tent pole in his undershorts which he has to struggle to fold down so he can pee. The scene generated enormous guffaws because the morning piss-erection is something that almost every guy knows intimately. To my knowledge this was the first time that Hollywood has acknowledged what we know as: Morning Glory, Morning Wood, Morning Missile. Basically, any penis euphemism with "morning" in front of it.

This has been a perennial problem for every man growing up in a big family or living in a co-ed dorm. You can conceal an erection in a pair of belted jeans, but pajamas? Forget it. Getting that first flow on-target is also a problem. You've got a dick pointing towards Venus and the rim of the toilet bowl is at least ninety degrees in the wrong direction. For years I would lean against the wall and hold my body at a 45 degree angle, reverting to a more upright posture once the flow began. In my middle years I finally figured out it was much easier to piss into an upside down jug held over the toilet bowl. A quick rinse and your wife need never be the wiser, ahem.

Because the morning erection coincides with the need to pee, many men think the erection is related to the urine buildup in their bladder (and as any man can attest, the erection rapidly deflates upon urination). But this isn't actually the case. After all, for most conscious men, a full bladder is the last thing likely to initiate a hard-on.

What the morning erection seems to be, in fact, is the last instance of what are known colloquially as "night erections." Those in the scientific establishment prefer to use the scientific sounding moniker of Nocturnal Penile Tumescence. Or NPT for short.

Most healthy men have 3-5 episodes of NPT per night. Numerous EEG experiments have shown that during our prime reproductive years (13-50), these episodes strongly coincide with REM (dream) sleep. The NPT episodes begin very shortly after the onset of dream sleep and continue until the end.

I suppose one could conclude that, even when stripped of our waking inhibitions and distractions, the male is horny all the time. It's the unbridled male id running amok. But common experience suggests otherwise. We often remember our dreams and many, if not most of them are not at all sexual in nature. Yet we awake with this stiffy, where no stiffy is warranted. The raging erection, devoid of any desire to utilize it feels alien and puzzling. For most men the feeling is "What the hell are you doing here?"

So, what's going on? As is the case with most meat-stick mysteries, there is a deplorable lack of research into the subject. There are a number of theories about night erections, however. The accepted wisdom is that it is some kind of built-in mechanism to ensure that Ol' Glory stays fit and ready. Blood rushes in four-times a night to fully stretch and exercise the tissue (night erections are often harder than the waking variety).

But there doesn't seem to be any evidence that a penis that doesn't get its regular workout suffers any long-term effects. Men with erectile dysfunction caused by neurological or vascular blockage often achieve full tumescence once the plumbing allows for free flow. It doesn't seem to be a case of use it or lose it.

It may be more likely that night woodies are the collateral effect of REM sleep. Perhaps the sleep paralysis essential for dream sleep (without it we'd be leaping out windows because we can fly!) also results in the relaxation of blood vessels that allow blood to rush into the penis.

For all the annoyance they engender, night erections are not entirely useless. Because they are universal, they provide us with a no-miss method of determining whether a man's erectile difficulties are psychological or physiological in origin. In a famous sequence from Sex and the City, the character Charlotte applies the "stamp test" to determine if her husband's impotence is organic or psychological. She wraps postage stamps around his flaccid penis before she goes to sleep and happily discovers the stamps are broken in the morning. The stamp test was first devised in the sixties and for amateur erectile dysfunction diagnosticians it remains the gold standard.

Professionally, the standard is the Rigiscan. The RigiScan does what its name implies. It wraps around the penis like an electronic boa constrictor and registers changes in penis size and rigidity (two separate functions). Depending on the data received, doctors can sometimes determine if the erectile dysfunction is vascular, neurological, hormonal or psychological.

But the test is not always definitive. Clinically depressed men frequently do not get erections - sleeping or waking. A fact that underscores the connectivity of the psychological and the physical systems.

For the most part, men accept their nighttime woodies as a mild inconvenience. For those in recovery from adult circumcision, the problem is more acute. To put it bluntly, they wake screaming four-times a night for at least a week. Something to think about if you're considering going under the knife.

Related articles:
Asleep On The Job - Sexsomnia
The Virginity Trap
The Partying Penis And The Horny Hangover
Erection Problems May Be Early Warning Of Heart Attack
Violent 'Sleep Sex' Condition Examined

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