The Boys' Growing Up in the Lord

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I know that nocturnal emissions are normal and healthy, but I'm confused about their specific nature.  At least once a week I go to sleep and within an hour find myself waking up because I am stimulating myself in my sleep.  I'm not awake, sometimes I'm in the hazy half in - half out state, but I always become fully awake after ejaculation.  Fully awake, I find myself with my pants down and semen everywhere.  Is that masturbation?  I'm not even conscious.  Sometimes I just wake up to find my pants off or at my ankles.  This has been going on for two years.  Is this normal?  Can I do anything to prevent or stop it?  Is this wrong?

Greg (age 17)

Sleep takes place in cycles. During a normal night's sleep you will go through four or five cycles which people who study sleep have broken down into various stages. Those cycles are important for our well being. For instance, at certain points in our sleep we will move or roll over. This keeps the blood circulating properly through all points of our bodies. Even though we are moving around, we don't always notice or remember it when we wake up.

Some people move around more than others. We call this sleepwalking. People can do complex actions in their sleep -- get up, change clothing, turn on lights, and even talk -- and rarely recall it when they awake the next morning. One estimate says about ten percent of people sleepwalk at times.

Understanding that complex actions can take place in sleep, then what happens during nocturnal emissions is not so hard. As you start to fall asleep, you enter the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) portion of sleep. During this time, various autonomic systems become active. These are your body's activities that occur without thought, such as breathing, heart rate, eye movements and even erections. Men have erections during this phase of sleep. This phase is also the one in which you have dreams and the phase when people move around the most while asleep.

When your seminal vesicles are full, you become extra sensitive to sexual stimulation. The erection you have as you fall asleep starts a chain of events. The brain joins in by providing a scenario to along with what your body is doing. As embarrassing as it may be to think about, you literally do masturbate in your sleep. Some men sleep completely through this, but others are aware or semi-aware of what is happening. Your awareness is heightened because your ejaculation wakes you up. While most men who have night wettings end up ejaculating in whatever they are wear, removing clothing in your sleep during the process is still normal. The reason why it is happening about once a week is because that is how long your body takes to refill your seminal vesicles (the rate of semen production varies from man to man).

I suspect that men were designed to have nocturnal emissions so that your body can "train" itself in regards to sexual stimulation, so that when the time comes for marriage and the "real thing" your body knows which switches and levers to pull to bring about the correct response. The down side is that it can be messy, but it is a part of the male experience. When you get married and have sex regularly, nocturnal emissions disappear since regular sexual intercourse gives you another outlet for the semen that builds up.

In regards to whether it is wrong, the short answer is "no." You can read "Is masturbation unacceptable?" for a detailed answer. But nocturnal emissions is not something you control, it is how God made you, even when you manage to undress in your sleep during the process.

Some men, in order to avoid the mess of nocturnal emissions, will masturbate when they notice that semen is building up. You notice because you feel "sexier" as the seminal vesicles start to get full and the lest little thing arouses you. While I can find no evidence that the act of masturbation is sinful in itself, if you use lustful thoughts, such as thoughts of sex outside of marriage, to stimulate yourself so you can masturbate, then it becomes sinful because the thoughts are wrong. Some men want to know how you can masturbate without lustful thoughts. They had been doing it so long accompanied by lustful thoughts that they can't imagine any other way. The fact is that when the seminal vesicles are full, it doesn't take much of anything to cause arousal, orgasm, and ejaculation. Done during times when your seminal vesicles are full and you are hypersensitive, it becomes just a mechanical response, like urinating but less frequent and more pleasurable.

That all makes sense, and I appreciate your answer so much.  Thank you for being willing and able to help me understand.  I guess I'm still slightly confused.  I tend to think there is a clear difference between nocturnal emissions and masturbation.  The first is a bodily function, much like urination, as you mentioned and will happen no matter what.  When this happens to me, I always find semen in my underwear and I do dislike it and find it very messy.  The latter, masturbation, is active, requiring the person to stimulate themselves.  I feel guilty because I believe masturbation to be wrong and yet find myself frequently waking up in the night nude, after having gone to bed clothed, and stimulating myself or on the verge of ejaculation or in the act, or the very aftermath.  To me this seems very much like masturbation and yet I don't know what to do to prevent it or stop it or countermand it.  I guess I don't know where to turn and would appreciate your insight very much.

Greg (age 17)

The difference between nocturnal emissions and masturbating is the same as the difference between sleepwalking and taking a stroll -- one is done without conscience thought while you are sleeping and the other is purposely chosen. However, the mechanics of what takes place remains the same.

You had asked in both your letters if there was anyway to control nocturnal emissions. The problem becomes the same as other bodily functions, such as urinating. You could ignore the discomfort of your bladder becoming full, but eventually the body will take over and empty your bladder whether you are ready for it to do so or not. To avoid the embarrassment and the mess, we time our trips to the restroom to keep the bladder from getting full.

You have two seminal vesicles which are constantly producing semen. Eventually those vesicles are going to get full. The rate of production varies from man to man and the rate of production for an individual man, while somewhat steady, varies a bit by the amount of sexual stimulation he receives. Since your body, as a teenager, is still deciding exactly what constitutes sexual stimulation and since your hormones have not settled to a fixed level, the production of semen can be higher than an adult.

Unlike urinating, you can't just stand there and decide I'm going to ejaculate now. Even if you had an erection at the time, thought alone cannot produce an ejaculation. God did not make your body to work in that way.

Your body has two methods for getting rid of excess semen. One is that each time you are aroused (when you have an erection), the seals on the ejaculatory duct is not perfect and a small amount of semen may enter the urethra. The next time you urinate it is flushed out. For some men (not many), this is sufficient to keep ahead of their production of semen. The second method is nocturnal emissions. When the seminal vesicles get full, the body will do what is necessary to pleasure itself to create a full ejaculation of semen. It will happen whether you want it to happen or not because the seminal vesicles must be emptied.

In order to achieve an ejaculation, a series of events must take place in your body in the proper order. Arousal (having an erection) is the beginning of it. Sexual thoughts interacts with it, but a key factor is stimulation of certain key areas of the body through touch. The gentials is, of course, the primary key area that when touched in certain ways will cause the body to respond sexually and will eventually produce an ejaculation.

I mentioned masturbation because this is the method many men discover and choose to do to keep nocturnal emissions under control. I am not suggesting that it has to be done. If you have doubts about it, then it would be wrong to do it. Just as Paul said having doubts about the eating of certain foods can be wrong. "Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:22-23).

What Christians generally find upsetting about nocturnal emissions is not the mess of the semen so much (though it can be a pain because it needs cleaning up), it is the dreams that accompany them. We struggle hard to keep our thoughts under control and then our minds betray us in our dreams.

What we see as dreams in our sleep is the brain reorganizing information that it has gathered. It files the experiences and thoughts that you have away, making connections to past ideas and experiences so that they can be recalled. It is not always perfect. Some connections can be bizarre. Have you ever had a moment when you were reminded of something, but the event that triggered the memory had nothing to do with the memory? That is an example of a odd connection made by the brain. As you sleep you "see" the connections being made and that is why some of the dreams we recall seem so bizarre.

When our body demands that semen needs to be released, the brain helps matters along by dredging up things it has connected with sexual feelings and we dream of bits and pieces of things we have seen or read or heard, but pulled together in odd ways. Thus, things we would not normally think about haunts our dreams because we would immediately reject the conscience thought but we are not able to do so in a dream.

About the only thing you can do is not give the brain as much material to work with, but it won't stop the dreams and none of us can prevent ourselves from being exposed to things we would rather not have known about. But feeling guilty over what happens in our sleep is not productive. It makes as much sense as the woman who feels guilty for being raped or a child who feels guilty for being molested. It is not nearly as bad as those two situations because the guilt there comes because they were victims of sin. A lot of people feel guilty over nocturnal emissions and the Bible doesn't call it a sin. People just assume it is sinful because it is related to sex and they are not married yet. There is more than enough things that we are responsible for doing that is wrong and is reasonable to feel guilty over than to borrow additional things to feel guilty about.

Nor is it productive to feel guilty over the fact that you are touching yourself and stimulating yourself in your sleep. This is the way God made the male body to cause an ejaculation. Without such stimulation there would be no ejaculation, but you need ejaculations to get rid of your excess semen, so your body is acting by instinct to achieve an ejaculation.