Joshua Davidson doesn’t remember exactly the first time he stumbled across the anti-masturbation community. He thinks he was 17, maybe 18 – definitely during his time as a sixth-form student. Like many teenagers, he had been masturbating pretty much every day since puberty, but had become increasingly worried about his own escalation from watching soft porn on TV to more hardcore material on the internet, often with abusive and misogynistic themes. Lately, he had been finding he could only get off on violent pornography.
“That was when I knew I had a problem,” says the 21-year-old, who lives in Chester-le-Street, between Durham and Newcastle. “I became numb to the world around me, I had brain fog [when you can’t think straight and forget things], was depressed, anxious and couldn’t hold a simple conversation.”
He was also spending more time in social isolation – tied to his laptop. As well as attributing these mental and physical issues to masturbation, Davidson was concerned about his porn tastes. “[My] brain had become desensitised to the softer stuff but I didn’t know why.” He started looking for answers.
A Google search led Davidson to the NoFap forum on Reddit, which now has 458,000 members. Back in 2015 it was about half that size. This forum is the most visible meeting place of the anti-masturbation community online. NoFap itself is a trademarked commercial website and app, founded in 2011 by a Pittsburgh web developer Alexander Rhodes, who also made the first Reddit post on the topic, It takes its name from a 1999 Japanese comic strip where ‘fap’ was used as an onomatopoeic synonym for masturbating.
The NoFap website describes itself as “a comprehensive sexual health platform” focusing on “porn addiction recovery” with the tagline: “Get a new grip on life”. People can join a paid-for programme, which included guidelines and motivational material for quitting porn and controlling “compulsive sexual behaviours”, plus access to online support meetings. The site also sells merch: mugs and mouse mats bearing the NoFap logo and t-shirts with slogans like ‘People Over Porn’.
Davidson was inspired to join the NoFap site, becoming one of its half a million registered users worldwide. The first time he tried to quit wanking he didn’t last even 24 hours without in his words “choking the chicken”. Then two days. Then three. His best streak, he says, was 16 days. Today, he has gone longer than a year without masturbating – something he considers a healthier lifestyle than his previous diet of daily masturbation.
When I log into Reddit’s NoFap forum on a Wednesday evening in July there are 1,700 men online and reportedly a handful of women – some have spoken publicly about their experiences of NoFap, although I don’t encounter any). Most of the online discussion is taken up with people asking for support and resources to continue in their own individual no-masturbation pledges.
Clearly this isn’t a small number of people – the community is interconnected with global reach, particularly across North America and the UK. But why has it got so big? Is this, as some academics have claimed, a millennial backlash against technology infiltrating every part of our lives? A return to more puritanical values? Or a push back against the growing influence and impact of online pornography?
Paula Hall, a psychotherapist who specialises in treating porn addiction at the Laurel Centre in London says she is not surprised about these numbers because so many men in the UK are increasingly worried about their relationship with porn and masturbation. In fact, the numbers of men seeking professional help to treat porn addiction grows year on year in Britain.
“I’ve been in this business a decade but every year the numbers double. We’re needing to train more and more staff to cope with demand,” she says. “And this has all grown directly in correlation with the rise in free internet pornography”.
The problematic impact of porn isn’t news – a 2018 survey by relationship charity Relate found 47% of therapists had seen an increase in the number of clients saying pornography is causing problems in their sex lives. And 24% of these issues are directly related to erectile dysfunction or other male performance issues during sex they attributed to the influence of porn.
And some young men are starting to do something about it. “The younger generation who have grown up with online porn are the ones who these forums appeal to most in my experience,” says Hall. “They’re turning to these communities and social sites as a way of trying to solve something that has become an addiction.”
The first time Tom Pothers’ wife* mentioned how much his masturbation and porn consumption was damaging their sex life, he was surprised. Not least because it was out of the blue while they were taking their dog for a walk. She said his daily habit was damaging her self-esteem so much if he didn’t stop watching porn she would divorce him: “I could see how frightened she was. Even after so many years together she thought I would choose porn over her.”
In a bid to save his marriage he decided to stop – with the masturbation and the porn. “I assumed it would be easy but it was far from,” he tells me, nine years after that first conversation with his wife. When Pothers discovered NoFap, he decided it was the best place to focus his efforts, but never intended to give up masturbating forever. He just wanted to “reboot” – a term used by the NoFap programme to describe an abstinence challenge of a set duration of days.
“My initial goal was 30 days, then 60, 90, 180, 365,” says Pothers. “Each time I reached a milestone I realised I was not yet free of the psychological tug to go back so each time extended the goal. Today I am on day 1,014 of porn sobriety and 1,005 days without masturbating.”
NoFap does not consider itself anti-porn – or even anti-masturbation, but aims to return people to their “pre-porn self”. Adherents cite as inspiration celebrities including boxers Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali (who would abstain from masturbating in the run up to big matches) and Apple founder and former CEO Steve Jobs, who reportedly didn’t ejaculate because he wanted to “save energy” for work. A belief in the physical health benefits of ‘semen retention’ isn’t something all NoFappers hold, but it’s often referenced in the forums.
Other physical health benefits mentioned including renewed energy, greater focus, concentration, and better sleep. But Paula Hall says there is little medical evidence for any of these changes. Carolina Are, a lecturer at City University of London, who studies online communities and subcultures, agrees: “The practices discussed on anti-masturbation and anti-porn forums aren’t grounded in medical experience,” she says.
A press document supplied to HuffPost UK by NoFap’s community manager Matthew Plummer says: “NoFap does not encourage lifelong abstinence from masturbation or sexual behavior. Rather, we encourage our users to abstain for a period of time for the duration of their reboots – typically around 30 to a maximum of 90 days. While some abstain for longer periods of time, many of our users return to masturbation having freed themselves of the need to use pornography. Our users choose their own sexual health goals.”
The organisation says it approaches sexual health from a “secular, science-based, and sex-positive” viewpoint. “There is a growing body of scientific, statistical, and anecdotal evidence that pornography use can be addictive and harms many consumers. We rely on that evidence to form our opinions rather than on religious or moral doctrine,” the press document reads.
But Dr Thaddeus Birchard, founder of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Addiction says of those advocating abstaining from masturbation: “I have very little time for this movement – the internet is full of nonsense.”
One dubious claim, that not masturbating gives men “superpowers” when talking to women is common among some incel (involuntary celibate) communities, which have been criticised for their promotion of a ‘red pill’ mentality and for using violent misogynist rhetoric that encourages men to “strike back” at women for depriving them of sex.
Although none of the men HuffPost UK spoke to mentioned incel forums, Carolina Are is concerned about an overlap: “While the NoFap community seems to act more as a self-help group than as a political, polarised collective, it’s easy to notice some common underlying traits with more worrying online ‘bad activists’ like incels, who often praise NoFap practices. Themes like abstaining from masturbation and, even more, contempt towards and fighting of porn have been a key characteristic of the incel community of late.”
As well as the risk of young men encountering factually inaccurate science or darker, anti-female rhetoric in a bid to address their porn habits, some experts worry these forums mark a wider societal shift back to more conservative values – values that thrive on shame. “In the past few years, certain online fringe groups seem to have been reacting to feelings of powerlessness and distrust towards elites by becoming more conservative and advocating for a return to conservative moral beliefs,” says Are.
In 1760 Swiss physician, Samuel-Auguste Tissot, wrote about the “disease” of masturbation. He argued semen was an “essential oil” and when lost from the body in large amounts caused a reduction in male strength, memory and reason (similar to the symptoms Davidson described some 250 years later). Later, Tissot’s ideas were reinforced by doctors like American Benjamin Rush who believed wanking caused blindness.
One of the most passionate anti-masturbation campaigners of the 18th century was a Michigan doctor by the name of John Harvey Kellogg, who dedicated his life to the cause. He even designed two cereals to hinder masturbators from the act: Corn Flakes and Grape Nuts. He believed these flavourless, starchy foods would successfully curb sexual impulses.
Birchard sees NoFap as a return to these values that thrive on feelings of shame: “Judeo-Christian tradition has always been pretty damning of masturbation as a misuse of sexuality and history has a way of repeating itself.
By the mid-20th century, medical science, such as the work of US biologist Alfred Kinsey, had laid to rest many historic concerns about the ill-effects of masturbation, debunking old wives tales of everything from hair growing on the palms to masturbation causing insanity. The best-selling 1972 manual, The Joy Of Sex, actively encouraged couples in the practice of ‘slow masturbation’.
And while both Hall and Birchard often recommend a period of abstinence from masturbation to people who present to their clinics with a porn addiction, they wouldn’t advocate a life without masturbation – as some ‘NoFappers’ do.
In the press document supplied to HuffPost UK, NoFap insists nothing in its programme materials says there is “anything inherently wrong” with masturbation. “A small number of our users may believe otherwise, perhaps due to moral or religious principles, but have found that NoFap’s approach works better for them than the moralistic focus of ‘chastity’ websites,” it says.
Certainly, the NoFap forums on site and on Reddit thrive on a sense of brotherhood, buttressed by a shared language (with users referring to each other as ‘fapstronauts’ or warriors on a crusade) and acronyms (PMO is shorthand for ‘porn, masturbation, orgasm’).
Badges are awarded for milestones completed, which fosters an openness about goals and successes. For those comfortable with this, it can feel very inclusive – a community where men can talk behind a curtain of anonymity, exposing their vulnerabilities. But when it comes to “failure” – ie. a return to masturbation – the shame can be all-encompassing.
Mark*, who has spent time on the forums for the past 12 years but doesn’t practise no-masturbation himself, tells HuffPost UK that he is worried about the changing landscape: “When it started it was simply about having a ‘reset’ for a while to break bad habits but now there are just a lot of people on there who say ‘masturbation is bad, end of’ at the mere mention of it,” he says.
And a 17-year-old from London, who wished to remain anonymous, tells us that he came across the anti-masturbation community at 13 but later dropped out because of the “delusional views” of some members on the Reddit forums. He says: “It makes promises which are likely to be unfulfilled.”
He felt preyed on for his youthful naivety, he says. “I considered myself a pervert for thinking of women in a sexual manner. And they gave these motivational speeches. One that stuck with me was ‘Do not be a sheep, like 99% of the population, be a lion!‘. At the time I thought ‘I’m a lion’, and was motivated to continue – as ridiculous as this may sound.”
He left the forums when he realised that the changes members promised were largely available to him through healthier lifestyle choices – more sleep, less time online, caring for your body instead of believing it should be punished.
“My fear is that they’re setting themselves up to fail,” says Birchard. “I work a lot with Catholic priests who struggle with feelings of shame around their sexuality and being unable to resist masturbation. And they’ve taken a vow of celibacy! These men on forums are triggering a cycle of guilt for themselves.”
Such scepticism isn’t going to stop the believers. though. Kev, 36, from the south-west of England has been in the NoFap Reddit community since September and says a 120-day streak of no masturbation turned his life around: helping him study for exams and finally secure his HGV license.
“After a session of watching porn I would feel dirty, grumpy, and my energy for the day would be gone,” he says. “Imagine someone slapping you around the face everyday. After a while you’d look pretty rough wouldn’t you? I was jerking off daily and my penis looked pretty worn out! My penis now looks healthier – thicker in shape and erections stronger than ever.” Kev argues “the proof is in the pudding” and being part of the anti-masturbation community has changed him “for the better” as a person. “I want it to carry on that way,” he says.
*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.