Men may not have periods or labor pains, but there is one unfair thing that comes with the territory of being biologically male: unexpected erections. The inconvenient boner coaxed by a buxom model on a pasta-sauce jar is a punch line in practically every coming-of-age movie. But deep in the subcategories of stiffies—somewhere between morning wood and immediate hard-ons for foreign accents—lies a very special thing called an emotional boner.
True to its name, the emotional boner is spurred by feelings, just not sexual ones. Matt, 30, says he got one when the subject of getting hitched came up with his then-new(ish) girlfriend. “We weren’t having a serious talk about it, but I got an erection just at the thought of marriage,” Matt recalls. “Even more confusing was that it happened
multiple times after that.”
On the other end of the spectrum, an emo boner can pop up when a guy sees that his significant other is upset. Carlos, 25, got one when his partner was particularly heated while talking about stress at work. And Tom*, 27, experienced his first one when his high school partner at the time broke up with him, then took it back moments later. “I felt sad but also happy because I didn’t want to break up,” says Tom. “I was self-conscious because I didn’t want it to look like I was trying to have sex after almost being broken up with.”
Sure, we expect erections to happen as a response to any kind of sensory input that is remotely sexual—be it a sight, sound, touch, taste, or even the smell of perfume, says David Shusterman, MD, a urologist at NY Urology. “If a man has a prior erotic memory attached to heels, for instance, he can get an emotional response just from the sight of them too,” he says. Even a whiff of sex at an inappropriate time makes some kind of sense. (Like seeing you naked when you two are in the middle of a fight—yes, most men are just that visually oriented.)
But the explanation for sentimental boners is way murkier. “There’s no perceived sexual stimuli,” says Holly Richmond, PhD, a somatic psychologist and certified sex therapist, “but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a subconscious one.” A prime example: Getting an enthusiastic Yes! to a marriage proposal can ignite the autonomic nervous system—the part of the brain that controls bodily functions like breathing and, you guessed it, getting hard. It’s why men can also experience “fear boners.” “Whether it’s good or not-so-good excitement, the body has a response,” explains Richmond.
Certain events can also trigger primal feelings, which may inadvertently lift his penis’s spirits. Seeing you cry could make him want to protect you, which can spark a sense of virility. It doesn’t always mean he wants to have sex right then and there—it’s just a (rather obvious) result of his strong feelings.
Rachel*, 25, recalls her long-distance boyfriend getting an emo boner during their last few hours together before he had to leave her again. “When I asked where it came from, he said, ‘I don’t know, I just love you,’” she recalls.
If your dude gets sprung when the mood definitely isn’t steamy, try to think of it as a hard-on from the heart. He’s not a monster! But if his Ron Burgundy–esque “pleat in the pants” moment is weirding you out, Richmond advises talking about it, because chances are, the explanation will be sweet as hell. Or make it an inside joke, like Christian, 25, and his girlfriend do about his ill-timed erections. “We’ve turned it into a routine,” Christian explains. “She asks, ‘Are my tears making you hard again?’ And I say, ‘It’s not what it looks like!’” Actually, when you put emotional boners into perspective, they can be a sign that your relationship is only going up.
BTW, women totally get them too
While arousal isn’t as visible in women as it is in men, emotional she-rections caused by increased blood flow to the genitals are def a thing too. In fact, women may experience emotional boners more often than men, since “the biggest sex organ, especially for women, is the brain,” says Holly Richmond, PhD. This makes sexual arousal in females much more closely tied to feels than, say, visual stimulation.
For many women, being secure, safe, and happy within their relationship can rev up their horniness. As Amber*, 20, explains: “When my partner gets upset over an issue between us, to me, he’s showing how much he cares, and it turns me on.”
Lady boners can feel so good at times that they can even rival sex itself. Alley, 28, specifically recalls feeling something similar to “the aftereffects of a really good orgasm” when her boyfriend proposed to her. “I felt very dazed—like my brain kind of exploded a little bit—for about two or three hours until I finally started to come off the high.” An emotional orgasm? Now that’s deep.