For the majority of men, an erection is a daily occurrence. Whether it happens naturally upon waking up, or simply because of sexual arousal, an erection is often something that is taken for granted.
But what exactly happens to the body during an erection? That’s not a question that most men can easily answer. Honestly, most men probably aren’t even aware of the penis’s underlying anatomy.
In this post, we’ll introduce the hidden anatomy of the penis. We’ll then discuss the five stages of getting an erection. We’ll also introduce ways for you to get a better, longer-lasting erection and what to do if erectile dysfunction is a part of your life.
So to learn more about the magically complex world of penile erections, read on.
The Anatomy of the Penis
There are six major structures within the penis. These all contribute to erection or ejaculation in some way.
- Corpora cavernosa, or erectile tissue. A two-chambered structure that runs the length of the penis. It contains a maze of blood vessels, along with muscles and collagen and fibers. During an erection, the blood vessels will fill while the vessels at the base of the penis constrict to keep the main structure erect.
- Corpus spongiosum. A line of tissue that is made up of a similar structure to the corpora cavernosa. It surrounds the urethra. It does not reach full engorgement as its main job is to maintain blood flow to the area and keep the urethra open.
- Urethra. An anatomical channel that allows for the flow of urine and ejaculatory fluids. It is beneath the corpora cavernosa and surrounded by the corpus spongiosum.
- Shaft. The body of the penis that runs from the base to the tip.
- Head (glans). The bulbous tip of the penis at the end of the shaft.
- Meatus. The urethral opening where urine and ejaculatory fluids are discharged.
Now that you understand the penis’s anatomy, it’s time to see how the anatomy works to get and maintain an erection.
Male Sexual Arousal
Before we get into the erection itself, let’s discuss male sexual arousal.
Arousal is the first stage of four in the sexual response cycle. This cycle is experienced by both men and women, though there are differences between the sexes.
The stages are:
- Arousal, or excitement
It’s the arousal stage of the cycle that we’re concerned with today.
The arousal stage can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. It begins with either physical or mental stimuli.
Arousal in Men and Women
In both sexes, this phase is characterized by:
- Increase in heart rate
- Increase in respiration (breathing rate)
- Rise in blood pressure
Arousal in Men
In males, the arousal phase is further characterized by the hardening of the penis, also known as an erection. One thing to note is that the penis may harden and soften numerous times during this phase.
Other physical characteristics of this stage are the rising of the testicles to accommodate erection and the tightening of the scrotum.
Now that you know when an erection happens, here’s how.
The 5 Stages of Getting Erect
When it comes to getting an erection, there are five stages the penis will go through.
Stage 1: Latency
This is the short period of time between sexual stimuli and erection.
The brain sends signals to the penis that sexual arousal is present. The tissues of the penis relax which allows the corpora cavernosa to fill with blood.
Stage 2: Partial Erection
It’s at this stage that the corpora cavernosa are largely filled with blood. The erection is only partial, however, until the penile arteries open (which they begin to do during this stage) to allow for more blood flow.
Stage 3: Full Erection
It is now that the entirety of the penis’s blood vessels and arteries are filled with blood. The blood vessels at the base of the penis constrict and the tissue surrounding the corpora cavernosa (tunica albuginea) stiffens. This makes it so blood flow cannot leave the penis.
Stage 4: Rigid Erection
For maximum hardness, the glans and corpus spongiosum tighten even further than they did in the previous stage. This increases blood pressure in the penis and it occurs just before orgasm.
Stage 5: Flaccidity
Following orgasm and ejaculation, the muscles will contract so blood flow is rapidly outflowing from the penis. This results in flaccidity.
How Do I Know if I Have a “Normal” Erection?
A question that many men have, especially teenagers and young adults, is how they can know if they’re getting hard enough.
There are so many factors that go into “hardness,” and these can vary by person.
So how can you know if you have a “normal” erection?
The answer is simple: If your penis is hard enough for penetrative sex, then your erection is “normal.”
That’s not to say that you can’t improve upon the hardness of your erection. Speaking of…
How to Get a Better Erection
Assuming you don’t suffer from erectile dysfunction (more on that below), there are a few tricks you can use for a “better” erection.
But first, what does better mean for you?
Maybe it’s an erection that gets harder before penetrative sex? Or maybe it’s an erection that stays harder for longer. Or perhaps it’s even an erection that’s harder than it’s ever been before.
Whatever the case may be, here are a few tips.
Include More Foreplay
Foreplay is often touted as the Most Important Thing Ever™ when it comes to female arousal. That’s not untrue. However, foreplay can also be important for men.
The chances are, the longer your foreplay sessions the harder your erection will be. This is because most men are ready to penetrate during the end of stage 2 (partial erection) and right before stage 3 (full erection).
By prolonging that gratification, you ensure that you penetrate her with the hardest version of your erection.
For an even harder erection for penetration, have your partner edge you a few times. This is best done during mutual masturbation so you’re both close to the climax just before penetration. The idea here is that you’ll be so close to climax when you finally penetrate her that you’ll be in stage 4 or maximum rigidity.
Avoid Depressants (like Alcohol)
Depressants are substances that reduce arousal and stimulation. They slow messages between the brain and the body.
Alcohol is a major depressant, and one of the most common. Other depressants include benzodiazepines, GHB, and kava.
If you want to get and maintain a strong erection, avoid depressants for at least two to three days prior. In some cases, you may want to avoid them for even longer as the half-life of long-acting benzos can be anywhere from 40 to 250 hours.
Mental stress can have physical effects on the body. Sometimes we don’t even realize how stressed we are until we recognize the physical effects.
One such effect of mental stress is a poor erection. This is likely due to the incompleteness of the sexual arousal (since your mind may be on other things).
While you can’t avoid stress completely, you can work to decrease it in your life. You can also lessen the impacts of stress with things like physical exercise, breathing exercises, and meditation.
Stay (or Get) Healthy
Speaking of exercise, another way to improve your erections is to ensure you’re at peak physical health.
Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help you to maintain a healthy weight. It can also reduce conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol which may impact overall sexual performance.
The more open you feel you can be with your partner, the more likely you’re to open up to your fullest erection potential. This is because being emotionally closed off can make you feel self-conscious and unwilling to express yourself physically and sexually.
So start to have open and vulnerable conversations with your partner. Talk about your sexual desires, your likes and dislikes, and your fears. This can also extend into other areas of your relationship which can overall make you a happier, more grounded couple.
Erectile Dysfunction: More Common Than You Think
Erectile dysfunction occurs in 5% to 10% of men under age 40, 22% of men at 40, and up to 49% of men by 70. Even with such a high incidence rate, erectile dysfunction is not often talked about or even addressed.
What Is It?
Erectile dysfunction, also known as impotence, is a condition in which a man is unable to get or maintain an erection. There are a variety of potential causes including:
- Physical health conditions (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, low testosterone)
- Tobacco use
- Substance abuse
- Surgeries or injuries to the penis, prostate, pelvic area, or spinal cord
- Psychological conditions (e.g. depression, anxiety)
- Relationship issues
Who Suffers From It?
While any man can suffer from erectile dysfunction at any age, there are certain risk factors that make it more likely.
Individuals with medical conditions or injuries are at risk of developing the condition. Other risk factors include substance abuse, obesity, and certain medications like antidepressants and antihypertensives.
The hardest (excuse the pun) step for most men with erectile dysfunction is seeking diagnosis and treatment. But treatment can make a world of difference for your sex life, so you really have nothing to lose!
How is erectile dysfunction diagnosed?
In most cases, a description of your physical symptoms is enough for diagnosis. However, your doctor will likely want to run tests to rule out underlying and serious health conditions.
This may include…
- Physical exam to rule out injury and nerve damage.
- Blood tests to check testosterone levels and rule out diabetes and heart disease.
- Urinalysis to rule out diabetes.
- Ultrasound to rule out structural issues with the blood vessels or prostate enlargement.
Just remember that while these tests may be invasive, they can also help to rule out serious conditions which may impact more than your sexual function.
How Is It Treated?
To treat erectile dysfunction, you must first identify the cause. Only by treating the cause can you treat erectile dysfunction at the source.
This means getting your medical conditions under control, losing weight, living a healthy lifestyle, and addressing any psychological or mental disorders properly. If medication is the cause, you can also speak with your doctor about alternative medications (if available).
In some cases, you can also use a medication like viagra to temporarily treat the condition. This is best used in individuals without a known cause (like a treatable medical condition or injury). It can also be used by men with varying levels of paralysis caused by a spinal cord injury.
Getting and maintaining an erection is just a foregone conclusion for the majority of men. You don’t have to know the physiological processes to enjoy the benefits.
However, knowing the underlying processes can teach you how to get a harder, longer-lasting erection. This can make for more pleasurable sex for yourself and your partner.
And if you struggle with erectile dysfunction, knowing the underlying processes can also help you to pinpoint the cause of your struggles and seek out the treatment you need.
Remember that there’s no shame in such a condition and treatment can mean the difference between frustration and satisfaction for yourself and your partner.
Please leave a comment below if you’ve got any questions.