These days, there’s no shortage of life coaches telling us that the secret key to success lies in giving up one particular thing. Maybe it’s caffeine, aspirin, alcohol, cigarettes, gluten, wheat, carbs or sugar. The list goes on and on. It’s easy to see why it’s such an enticing fantasy: it’s so much easier to give up one thing, rather than making a whole series of changes to our lifestyle. But recently, a new type of abstinence movement has sprung up online; a bizarre fad which many men claim has made them more confident, energetic, and has dramatically improved their sex life. I'm talking about the "no fap challenge".
Followers of the NoFap movement voluntarily give up masturbation. “Fap” of course is an internet colloquialism which refers to masturbation, usually using online porn. You might think that the concept was actually some kind of prank, made by internet trolls who want to lampoon religious and spiritual prudishness.
You can imagine my shock when I learned that they were wholly sincere. Most people who engage with NoFap really do want to stop jerking off. They’re not messing around. They really do think that masturbation is ruining their life, and they’re genuinely determined to do something about it and have something of a vow of celibacy.
You can even check out the official website, or the subreddit which has sprung up (their motto is “get a new grip on life”, by the way). These forums offer NoFappers a place where they can share their experiences, much like a rehab clinic or addiction support group like alcoholics anonymous. The anti-fappers provide personal testimonies, telling others how quitting changed them for the better. They offer advice and backup for those attempting to give it up, and share articles or studies that seemingly prove that masturbating does more harm than good. The community that's sprung up is actually weirdly touching, precisely because these men and women aren’t touching themselves.
As the official NoFap homepage states: “NoFap helps our users overcome their sexual addictions so they can heal from porn-induced sexual dysfunctions, improve their relationships, and ultimately live their most fulfilling lives. We refer to the process of recovering from porn addiction as 'rebooting.' Research has shown that heavy porn use can change the neural pathways of the brain causing addiction, hormonal changes, and sexual dysfunction. The rebooting process is intended to restore these neural pathways to factory settings, so to speak.”
It adds: “Rebooting is a personal process with no single correct approach. We challenge our users to abstain from pornography, masturbation, or even sex altogether for a period of time. Rebooting the brain by abstaining from these behaviors has freed many users from porn addiction and porn-induced sexual dysfunction.”
The subreddit and official homepage was first founded back in June 2011 by Alexander Rhodes after a thread on Reddit about a 2003 Chinese study found that men who purposefully abstained from masturbating for a week experienced more than a 47 percent increase in testosterone levels. Rhodes himself was 23 at the time, and had been an internet porn user since what he characterised as a “hyper-sexualised” adolescence. As sexually active adult, Rhodes had experienced a profound disillusionment with sexual intercourse and suffered from delayed ejaculation. Could a break from porn ultimately resuscitate his sex life?
Intrigued, Rhodes decided to put the theory to the test, and created the NoFap community on Reddit. Initially, the NoFap page ran weekly challenges, before the admins created a day counter system so users could track. Reading the testaments, it’s hard not to attribute at least some health benefits to this “Fapstiance” trend … even if it is only evidence of the placebo effect.
One self-confessed Fapstronaut, who has successfully relinquished smut, stated, “Nofap is doing incredible things for me ... Ever since I started this run, My girlfriend has looked 10X more attractive and every other girl has become 10X less attractive ... I have more confidence, my workouts are getting better and more frequent, and I actually have the drive to read more. What's even better, is that my mind is zero percent occupied by porn. I'm really feeling the effects of NoFap. I'm taking cold showers and loving every moment of being alive.”
All this is hardly a new phenomenon. Since the beginning, various groups have espoused curtailing masturbatory urges, citing a whole host of religious and metabolic justifications in support. In the 18th century, Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot claimed that semen was an essential oil produced in abundance by the body, and that chronic masturbation expelling it would produce "a perceptible reduction of strength, of memory and even of reason; blurred vision, all the nervous disorders, all types of gout and rheumatism, weakening of the organs of generation, blood in the urine, disturbance of the appetite, headaches and a great number of other disorders."
But is all this abstinence really legit? Can something as simple as giving up masturbation give you superpowers? The science has been contested. Writing in Psychology Today, psychologist David J Ley writes “The past hundred years of advance in sexual medicine tells us that masturbation is very, very healthy … The NoFap folks regurgitate a lot of old myths about how refraining from masturbation helps them to be more energetic, more sexual, more virile, and more manly. That’s a little sad.”
Ley is also skeptical about the role that curtailing masturbation plays in curing erectile dysfunctions, and states that scientists are not completely certain what causes them, and it typically varies from person to person. Some people experience delayed ejaculation as a result of anxiety, others through intoxicants or depression. But to claim that one’s sexual performance will automatically be boosted from forgoing masturbation is a little naive.
Ley adds, “Porn is never, ever a cause of problems, and when there are problems, porn is a symptom. Diagnosing porn addiction is like telling a person with a cold that they have a sneezing disorder … These guys reporting that they are able to ‘get laid’ when they stop using porn has little to do with the porn, and everything to do with the fact that they are making conscious choices about their lives, their sexuality, their relationships and their needs. I encourage that, for all people.”
Personally, I think Ley is very astute here. I would never prescribe giving up masturbation - it should be up to the person indulging in it - but I do think it’s important that men and women have found a newfound confidence and are candidly talking about their sexuality. We could spend forever debating whether or not giving up touching yourself really is the solution to all life’s problems, but there’s no harm in giving it a go and seeing if it works for you. At any rate, things will probably be a lot less messy that way.