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I was told recently by a colleague that her boyfriend is afraid to go to the saunas because he might get an erection. I responded the way I always respond to men being afraid of that happening when they take off their clothes in public – it won’t happen. “But what if it does?” Well, then you use the towel to cover it up, lie down, and calm down.

But before I get to the point where I talk about what to do when you have one, I’d like to talk about erections in general. Every man capable of having one knows that most erections are caused by completely non-sexual reasons. Morning erection is something all men in their best years live with (almost) every day. This is just one of multiple erections which may happen during sleep (nocturnal penile tumescence, or NPT – in medical terms).

Another type of non-sexual erection is caused by a full bladder. There is evidence that a full bladder may also cause NPT’s. This reflex erection doesn’t always happen, but it may, as the full bladder can mildly stimulate nerves in the sacral nerves region. This region contains nerves which control a man’s ability to have a reflex erection (among other things). This kind of erection helps inhibit urination overnight, and it’s what you may get for “holding it in”.

The same nerve region is also responsible for erections caused by being nervous, scared, angry, or stressed, although these states of mind may also have the opposite effect. An enlarged prostate can also cause them, as well as some recreational drugs. Physical activity which sends the blood in the lower parts of the body may also trigger an erection.

Aside from staving off urination, there is now evidence that non-sexual erections are beneficial to the tissues of the penis, as the presence of blood feeds the individual cells and thus prevents them from dying. Too many dead cells in any tissue may result in tissue necrosis. That’s dead tissue – it’s usually resolved by being chopped off after treating the underlying condition, if there is one.

On average, a man has 11 erections during the day, and 9 more during the night, with younger men having even more. I haven’t found data which separates between erections caused by sexual stimulation and those with non-sexual causes, but from my personal experience I can say that most erections aren’t caused by sexual stimulation. (Then again, I don’t watch porn.)

However, any erection, no matter what its cause, can easily be sexually exploited, although it may not always lead to sexual gratification as erections occur far more frequently than a man can enjoy an orgasm. The world record for the number of ejaculations in an hour is 16. I didn’t find any explanation of this record, so I think this is some pathological case like that of Dale Decker who with a whopping 100 orgasms a day has “only” 4.17 orgasms per hour (or 6.25 per hour if we only count waking hours, assuming he sleeps 8 hours a day, which is still less than half of the “world record”). From personal accounts of presumably healthy males I could find on-line, the most orgasms during the day is 8, and even that is from a teen forum. Personally, I get headaches after the 4th.

When it comes to social nudism, different places have different stances towards erections. While erections are mainly frowned upon in the US, France’s Cap d’Agde is quite permissive with its nonchalance towards them. There is, unfortunately, no data about how erections are viewed in cultures where nudity is the norm, as anthropologists who study those societies routinely ignore the issue.

Certain age groups might be treated differently if they sport an erection than others. For example, in teens going through puberty it may not be considered a problem or a threat for a number of reasons, while men in their 20’s through 40’s may be asked to leave. In other places, though, it may not be tolerated at all. This lack of standard etiquette and the general norm that erections are something to be ashamed or embarrassed about may be an obstacle to potential younger nudists who wish to try social nudism, but fail to do so because nobody is able to give a satisfactory answer to their number one question “What if I get an erection?”

Most of the nudist bloggers I read say something along the lines of what I said to my colleague. But what I parroted to my colleague really makes no sense! If erections don’t happen in nudist settings, then why have a backup plan? I think it’s time to stop fooling ourselves. Erections do happen in nudist settings, but we nudists have found ways to hide them efficiently – from wearing a towel, lying on our belly, jumping into the pool or the sea, taking a cold shower, going to the loo, or simply withdrawing from a social setting under any excuse. Indeed, the Wikipedia article “Issues in social nudity” lists a number of reasons why erections may be tolerated among younger males. If they really never happen, then who made up the list and why, and am I the only one to whom they did happen? I mean, of course I know I’m not the only one, but we need to stop spreading the lie.

Let me now get back to the crux of the matter. We’ve established that erections in settings of social nudity do happen, but what then? One answer is hide it in any way you can. I’ve read about a case where a guy fell asleep on the beach and had an NVP (that’s nocturnal erection) while lying on his back. It was visible to everyone. Clearly this is nothing sexual and is absolutely natural. The people there must have known this because someone patted the guy on the shoulder and when he realized why, he turned over and continued sleeping.

Regarding this, a number of questions arises. We often say that nudity is natural and that we should not be ashamed of our bodies. We pride ourselves by our realization that we need not hide our bodies under layers of cloth, because our bodies are natural and beautiful. But erection is perfectly natural as well, so by what standard are we required to hide it, but not flaccidness? Furthermore, if men ought to hide their erections, shouldn’t women then also hide their hardened nipples? And yet, even if we agree that these are natural and should not be hidden, we can further argue that sex is natural as well, so why do we hide it? We nudists go out of our way to explain how we practice sexual activity behind closed doors (“like all civilized people (who wear clothes)!”), but if “it’s natural, therefore beautiful” is a valid argument, then the same goes for erections and sex and we should proudly display them in social settings, like we do our genitals and nipples and buttocks and belly-buttons and toes and biceps and (body) hair and faces. Or shouldn’t we? Why?

By asking these questions, I don’t mean to aggravate, but rather to entice thought on these issues. How much of our behavior regarding social nudity and all the natural things which may happen while practicing it is painted by the prevalent social mores about the human body? How much of it is genuine concern for our well-being and the well-being of others and how much of it are our fears in disguise? If children are exposed to these natural things are they really going to be confused about it, or will the actual cause of confusion be the stunted way in which our minds constricted by the aforementioned social mores try to put these natural things in context for the children (and fail)? When we shield their eyes from view of these natural things, do we shield them from this confusion, or do we shield ourselves from having to explain what’s going on to the child? To what extent are these issues real issues, and do we – and to what extent – make them bigger issues than they actually are?