Love & Sex

No Fap: Reddit’s Anti-Masturbation Movement

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How the internet spawned an orgasm-free self-help movement

Brian Stark* is on the verge of breaking a record. It’s not for the 100-meter sprint, or the number of hot dogs eaten a minute, nor is it an academic pursuit capable of changing our notions of science forever. It’s not much more than a personal record for a personal goal, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. At the time of publication, he has gone 985 days without masturbating.

Stark grew up (is growing up, in fact—he’s 18) in what he describes as a “very conservative” town in the southern United States. He’s gay, in the closet (excluding a few friends and one cousin) and isn’t having sex. He’s also one of the what seems like thousands of people (mostly men) taking part in what has come to be known simply as “No Fap,” an online community and personal improvement movement focused on the benefits of not masturbating. Stark’s motives for continuing his No Fap lifestyle have changed over the years, “When I started No Fap, I was under the impression that it would make God ‘happy.’ Now I realize I do it much more to make me happy than my God.” But his reasons aren’t just a product of socio-political ideals or an experiment influenced by the reddit community. Brian considers himself something of a trailblazer, “I started No Fap as a challenge to myself about a year before the No Fap subreddit was even created. I'm a No Fapping hipster, if you want to call me that.”

In March of 2003, a study completed by researchers in China linked testosterone levels in men to the frequency with which they ejaculated. The researchers found that on the seventh day of ejaculation “abstinence,” there was a clear peak in testosterone levels of the participants, reaching 145.7% of the baseline testosterone levels.

A Reddit user posted the study’s abstract to the "Today I Learned" subreddit, earning over 5,000 upvotes and more than 2,000 comments. Intrigued by this manhood-boosting revelation, the fearless pioneers over at Reddit decided to try it out first hand, and the No Fap subreddit was created. The ejaculate-free revolution had begun. 

The benefits were (supposedly) numerous: increased confidence, clearer skin, more energy. Some even claimed No Fap lead to a streak of good luck, or was guaranteed to get you laid. People already in committed relationships claimed No Fap revived their slowly decaying sex lives. Memes were created. Calls for motivations and advice popped up, pleading, “Why couldn’t I have found No Fap sooner?!” I even found a few redditors who claimed No Fap completely got rid of their stutters. In the No Fap subreddit, everyone is on the same team, and the goal is a sum total of zero masturbatory emissions.  

Benjamin George* is also on a No Fap diet, but he’s more of a newcomer to the game. He’s just three weeks in but already is reaping the benefits of not beating: he says work is better, he’s lost weight, and says, “with girls, it's made me do some things that I probably wouldn't have done in normal circumstances.” This includes “jumping on the opportunity” for a sexual connection with a woman he’s known for awhile, and scoring high points in the sexually charged mating ritual of eye contact. His No Fap discovery happened serendipitously.

George says the connection between No Fap and increased social confidence come to him one week when he was at the US Open and didn’t have time to masturbate. “The week before I [officially] started No Fap, I had this incredible week, and I was noticing a lot of weird things, especially in social settings, like extra attention. I play the "eyeball game" a lot I guess–just making eye contact with women I find attractive–and it's usually a good gauge of where I'm at in terms of confidence. For some reason I was on fire that week.”

Masturbatory fasting is nothing new: in 1716 the term “onanism” was coined to described masturbation (in a medically sterile way) by Dutch theologian Balthazar Bekker, who, in his succinctly-titled essay, “Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice," lists among the side effects of masturbation: “lack of libido, back pain, disorders of the eye and ear, total diminution of bodily powers, paleness, thinness, attacks of rage, madness, idiocy, epilepsy and fever.”

Thus, masturbation became something that not only made you a sexually perverse heathen, but could also make you lose your mind. Thanks to the work of sexual science pioneers like Alfred Kinsey who, in the 1940s, insisted that masturbation was an instinctive and natural practice for both males and females, the taboo of masturbation in the developed world has greatly subsided. But that’s not really relevant to people like George and Stark; it’s not the taboo they’re trying to lose, it’s the social confidence they’re trying to gain.

“I think the deeper aspect of all of this is,” George says, “that post No Fap I’ve started to look at things in my life as either ‘sweating’ or ‘jerking off’ and so I've just felt l more inclined to sweat.” He describes “sweating” as putting himself into situations where he’s actively working towards something bigger, something with risk, rather than just scoring an easy, safe win. For Stark, the benefits of No Fap are also framed as freedom from an addiction. “Before I stopped,” he said, “I was usually masturbating twice a day—sometimes more. I used to have an actual problem, and it felt amazing for it to be alleviated.” Though some members of this community feel they had a “problem” with masturbating too often, it isn’t framed as a space for those with sexual addiction. 

One of the most frequently discussed benefits of No Fap is an increased interest from potential sexual partners. One redditor even claims No Fap is “guaranteed” to get you laid. Maybe it’s biological: if you choose to forgo the “easy” route for ejaculation (doing it yourself), then your body must find some other way to ejaculate, and you’ll magically find your penis nestled between someone’s thighs. The term “no pmo” which stands for porn/masturbation/orgasm, is thrown about in the No Fap community, but the “no orgasm” part of it doesn’t seem to apply to sex with a partner. Some “fapstronauts” (the title many no-fappers claim) seem to being doing it—or not doing it—with the end goal of getting laid, even though the higher ups in the No Fap community advise against it. 

The “loophole” in No Fap seems to be partnered sex, and it seems that could be problematic. If you already have a significant other when you start No Fap, or if you get one in the process, sex is A-OK. I can only imagine why there would be the temptation to make sex the main goal in a relationship. When you eliminate alternative ways to achieving orgasm, that puts more pressure on your partner. Neither Stark nor George has consummated a relationship in the No Fap zone, but it’s due to a lack of opportunity rather than a conscious effort to avoid it.

Maybe the pros of No Fap (like sexual success) are just products of increased energy and motivation. There seems to be a general idea that No Fap is really about taking your sexual energy and channeling it elsewhere. Perhaps masturbation is kind of "the easy way out" and once you realize that, with regard to sex, you can then channel that same mindset towards other things you do. Benjamin puts it this way: When you aren’t masturbating all the time, he says, “You sort of aren't putting out this fire all the time.” If you think of testosterone as some kind of internally produced Red Bull (or if you believe there’s such a thing as “sex energy”) then No Fap could perhaps increase and redistribute that energy.

All these possible benefits of No Fap don’t discount the positives that can come from masturbation (i.e., sexual exploration, comfort with your body, awareness of what gets you off), but no one is claiming that they do. Some claim regular ejaculation is essential for prostate and testicular health. Some claim the two aren’t related.

It’s also possible our rapidly changing technologies and shifting culture are actually leading to an increase in time spent masturbating. Although there is no way to know how frequently cavemen dabbled in self-love, we know they did—there are depictions of male masturbation in cave paintings from as far back as the 6th century BC. Sexuality counselor Ian Kerner posits on CNN that men are masturbating 50 to 500% more than they did before the rise of internet porn. George also notes the large amount of highly accessible porn available on the internet is making frequent masturbation much more difficult to combat: “These days, it's just ridiculous. We are so inundated with choice and accessibility that it’s like all the walls are broken down. If you need instant stimulation it's there.” That’s the thing about masturbation—it’s always right there.

So the internet is making us masturbate more. But the internet is also what’s encouraging people to stop. Without web-based communities like the No Fap subreddit, the support group that many men have found to be instrumental in their self-love celibacies, the awareness of such a trend would likely to relegated to a few isolated communities around the world: a group of friends in Iowa, two brothers in Argentina, a few scientists in China. It’s really just another example of what we’ve known for awhile now: the internet plays a large part in both the problem and the solution.

The internet makes possible (and encourages) these sort of strict, regimented self-help programs via various support groups (like the No Fap subreddit), but it also makes such rigidity seem essential. Obviously it comes to treating addiction, moderation often isn’t really an option. But No Fap doesn’t give moderation as an option to anyone. It’s not enough just to limit your frequency of masturbation—you have to cut it out of your life completely, and most times, never look back.

No Fap could be categorized as just another fringe self-improvement movement, like juice fasts, oxygen bars and Saran Wrap sweat detoxes, but it could be more than that. In some instances, it seems like necessary support group for a masturbation addiction. At the same time, the question presents itself almost instantly: Are men like Brian Spark really addicted to masturbation, or does No Fap merely provide a wall to hide behind? The decision to not jerk it is a relatively benign life decision, but—for at least a few No Fappers—there has to be an element of repressed sexuality there. A in-the-closet gay teenager growing up in a very conservative southern town who hasn’t jerked it in almost three years? And the only reason for that is that it makes him feel better?

Women are also a rarity on the No Fap subreddit. Sure, the study that sparked the movement measured testosterone levels, but it’s possible the benefits could cross genders. And when a woman does post about her difficulty to quit masturbating, male members frequently call “trigger” on her, claiming that can’t possibly read about a woman even thinking about masturbating, and so the post must be flagged. It’s not the most welcoming community if you are a woman with a sex drive. 

There’s a wealth of information on ejaculation and orgasm, but when weeding through the jungle of the internet, it’s easy to find conflicting opinions. Even within the No Fap subreddit, there are no conflicting opinions—at least when it comes to whether or not a masturbation-free stint is a good idea. But No Fap is just another direction of sexual and personal exploration: No Fap is all about masturbation, without being about masturbation at all. Brian Stark is quickly coming up on 1,000 consecutive days of No Fap. Once he’s reached that milestone, he says he’s got no idea what he’ll do.

*names have been changed