In a new video on her YouTube channel, urologist and sex educator Dr. Rena Malik shares some of the more surprising facts about erections that she has learned throughout her career which she thinks everybody should be aware of. (Did you know the penis isn’t a muscle?)
From baby boners to “angel lust,” here are 12 things you probably didn’t know about how your penis works.
Babies can be born with an erection.
“While the exact cause of foetal erections is not fully understood, it is believed to be related to the developing nervous system,” explains Malik. “Studies have shown that female foetuses can also experience clitoral erections in utero, and in some cases they have captured male foetuses on ultrasounds doing activity that resembles masturbation.”
The penis isn’t a muscle.
Contrary to popular belief, the penis is not a muscle, but rather comprised of spongey tissue structures called the corpus cavernosum and the corpus spongiosum, which fill with blood causing the penis to become erect. “You can’t ‘train’ the penis like you can a muscle,” says Malik.
But you can break it.
“Penile fracture is a rare but serious injury that can occur during vigorous sexual activity,” says Malik, citing the statistic that around 1 in 175,000 emergency room visits are caused by this.
Erections happen while you’re asleep.
Nocturnal penile tumescence, more commonly known as “morning wood,” is an involuntary erection that happens during REM sleep—and it’s a widespread occurrence. “Morning wood is completely normal,” says Malik.
Erections used to have spines.
That’s right; evidence suggests that our ancient human and simian ancestors had a bumpy surface to their penises, possibly to increase sensitivity, enabling more rapid ejaculation.
Big feet don’t always mean a big penis.
The size of your feet, along with your height, researchers have found, do not necessarily correspond to the size of your erect penis. Sorry, guys.
You can reach orgasm without an erection.
“It is possible to experience orgasm without having an erection, so if you’re suffering from erectile dysfunction, you can still have orgasms,” says Malik.
Some people are growers, not showers.
Just like shoe size isn’t always an accurate predictor of erect penile length, nor is the length of a penis in its flaccid state, as the difference can vary hugely depending on the person.
Cornflakes were originally invented to prevent masturbation.
No, really. John Harvey Kellogg was a health reformer who believed you should only have sex for the purpose of reproducing, and thought that sexual desire was a danger to society. He also believed that spicy, tasty foods were a cause of sexual desire, and so set about inventing the blandest breakfast food possible.
Smoking can make your penis shrink.
Among the many other health problems that can be caused or worsened by smoking, lighting up can also lead to erectile dysfunction and even shrinkage. “You’re not getting good blood flow to the penis, you’re damaging those blood vessels and nerves, which causes less elasticity in those tissues, and then fibrosis or scar tissue that can cause the penis to shrink,” says Malik. “The good news is, if you stop, particularly if you’re young… you can probably maintain normal, healthy erections.”
Half of your erection is inside your body.
“The erectile tissue extends from the tip of your penis deep inside, and turns down into the perineum,” says Malik. “This internal portion is actually attached to the pelvic bone… it’s also surrounded by muscle and other tissues.”
You can get an erection moments before you die.
“Death erections,” or “angel lust” as they are somehow known, are a rare phenomenon which happen at the moment of death, usually if the cause of death is choking or hanging, due to an accumulation of blood in the pelvic area.
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the United Kingdom covering pop culture, relationships and LGBTQ+ issues. His work has appeared in GQ, Teen Vogue, Man Repeller and MTV.