The Men Who Would Not Wank

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NoFap Panic ButtonIt has to be one of the strangest offshoots of the already strange web forum Reddit—an enormous virtual club dedicated to denouncing the evils of masturbation and porn and supporting those in recovery from their thrall. It’s an Internet message board that replaces the bathroom-stall tangle of negativity, sarcasm, and outright trolling endemic to the social web with a strenuous earnestness that you don’t often see outside of a church revival or an AA meeting. A place where self-love—prurient, sure, but long considered benign—is treated as a malignant force. Where thousands of strangers from all over the world congregate every day to talk about their most intimate feelings and darkest failings in the pursuit of one simple goal: Don’t jerk off.

This is NoFap, a three-and-a-half-year-old, 140,000-member Internet community, made up of mostly young, mostly sexually inexperienced men (for the uninitiated, “fap” is onomatopoeic Internet slang for the sound of male masturbation). As is true of any good web forum or self-help group, its beating heart is its testimonials, which follow the trajectory of the average 12-step confessional: innocent curiosity that curdled into consumptive addiction, sporadic indulgence that became a near-constant obsession.

“It didn’t get really bad til I got a smartphone in high school,” one young man, who goes by the screen name Final Fight, confesses to me. “Then it would be, like, as soon as I woke up. Then I would come back from school, maybe spend like three hours fapping. Six or seven times a day wasn’t unheard of.”

“I would touch myself not just if I was alone, but if no one was watching,” a married man in his 40s tells me in a private chat. “I’d have my hand in my pants at work, at church, at home, anywhere nobody could see. I masturbated on the freeway driving 80 miles per hour.”

“I jerk off and wind up being late for work or other functions,” reveals another of the site’s self-described fapstronauts. “I jerk off while I’m at work. I jerk off while my fiancée is in the same room with me. If she knew,” he continues, “it’d destroy my relationship with her. I’ve chatted with other guys from the Internet to share porn and chat about it. Afterwards, I feel like the slimiest, weirdest person on earth.”

For Alexander Rhodes, the group’s founder, the trouble with masturbation started at age 12, “just Googling ‘boobies’ and showing my friends.” and then, he says, “it just escalated from there. that’s the path. Eventually you start treating it like brushing your teeth.... You trick your body with biological shortcuts, and when you finally quit porn, your body’s like, ‘Holy shit. We haven’t had sex in six years! We should do something about this.’”

Rhodes was clearly not alone in his struggle against the temptations of porn and masturbation, and men from across the globe quickly joined his crusade. NoFap now stands as the 227th most popular page of the more than 500,000 on Reddit’s vast and disparate social network, ranking just above those for celebs and world politics (though, to be clear, still well below “girlsinyogapants” and “Legalteens”—this is, after all, Reddit, inventor of the nonconsensual cleavage photo known as the “creepshot”). Its users have more than tripled in number in the past two years, leading Rhodes to build an off-Reddit forum atnofap.com and begin planning language-specific sites to serve the movement’s fast-growing factions in Brazil, Germany, and China.

The advent and proliferation of Internet smut has meant that the need for a forum of this kind is huge, and only growing. Every second, nearly 30,000 Internet users are looking at porn, with 40 million Americans being regular porn users, 70 percent of men ages 18 to 34 admitting to monthly porn viewing, and 18 percent of men claiming addiction or “unsure dependence.” Among NoFap’s user base, the latter problem is worse: a 2012 study of nearly 1,500 fapstronauts revealed that 59 percent spend between 4 and 15 hours a week consuming porn. That same study concluded that nearly 90 percent of NoFap’s user base are in their teens and 20s: their generation was the first to come of age in an era of widespread home access to high-speed Internet—and the unlimited fire hose of porn that comes with it.

“High-speed Internet porn is a supernormal version of sexuality,” says Gary Wilson, a physiology lecturer who has become something of an online porn watchdog since his 2012 TED talk, “the Great Porn experiment,” went viral. In it, Wilson argues that “today’s young men can see more hot babes in 10 minutes than their ancestors could see in a lifetime.” he elaborates further now: “this endless sexual novelty—the clicking and clicking and clicking—you simply can’t compare it to a once-a-month Playboy.”

Wilson is but one of many academics and clinicians who are increasingly turning their attention toward the effects of Internet porn. Though there’s no clinical consensus that masturbation in and of itself is connected to negative health effects (including NoFap’s major bogeyman, erectile dysfunction), Wilson argues that the particular reward pathway activated by porn—sexual pleasure free of human interaction or effort—becomes available to men at an age when the human brain is most plastic, providing fertile ground for the seeds of addiction. “Researchers correlated average porn use with brain changes, and they found the more porn these guys used, the less gray matter they had in their reward circuitry. This implies that porn wears out your reward system.” He goes on to say, however, that little clinical research in this area supporting his theory is available, because researchers have struggled to find an adequate control group. that is: “We can’t find any college-age males who don’t watch porn.”

Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo has coined the term “arousal addiction” to describe a slightly different phenomenon: “Men are developing their sense of sexuality around porn, and it doesn’t include real people,” he explained in a recent forum on, naturally, Reddit. “so when they encounter a real live woman down the road, it will be a very foreign and anxiety-provoking experience. Instead of just watching a screen, now their communication skills and whole body have to be engaged, and there is another person there with her own sexual needs.” Or, as NoFapper Final Fight puts it, “Why think about real girls when I’m so busy looking at fake ones? It desensitized me.”

Although Zimbardo hastens to point out that plenty of—if not most—men have a healthy relationship with pornography and that masturbation is a normal biological urge, anyone with an Internet connection can agree that at the very least, the web has a way of seducing the susceptible away from the real world. So while some of NoFap’s posters seem to regard all masturbation as unhealthy, the site’s real enemy is more specific and, in some ways, more pernicious: the jackoff superhighway presented by Internet porn. Viewed in that light, NoFap is more than just a Reddit in-joke—more, even, than the largest anti-masturbation support group in the world: It’s an Internet solution to an Internet problem, a rare example of the digital circle-jerk attempting to correct itself.

 

Like so many Internet phenomena, NoFap started, in 2011, as a goof, or at least a lark. “I thought it was just gonna be a one-time thing,” explains Rhodes, a 25-year-old web developer from Pittsburgh. “It was an experiment based off this study from China that said less masturbation led to higher testosterone. I started this ‘challenge’ with about a hundred people. ‘One week of not fapping,’ we said. Then we went one month. And we started noticing our lives improving in amazing ways.”

Rhodes and his fellow fapstronauts believe that abstaining from porn, masturbation, and, in some cases, orgasms altogether (including those achieved with a partner) causes the body to “reboot to factory settings,” like a computer wiped of a virus. The successful fapstronaut supposedly has more willpower, an improved relationship with women (90 percent are straight men), and a host of other positive health effects: as NoFap’s tagline promises, they “Get a New Grip on Life.”

Of course, Rhodes is not the first sex-obsessed young man to realize that masturbating dozens of times a day may not be entirely productive, and NoFap is just one in a long line of anti-masturbation, pro–male purity crusades dating back centuries. But unlike fundamentalist Christians, conservative Muslims, and other groups that preach the ills of masturbation and porn consumption, NoFap isn’t religious in the slightest: Its ideology is purely practical, its scripture more likely to include Lil Wayne lyrics and Game of Thrones memes than Genesis verses.

In fact, the movement bears an uncanny resemblance to another bastion of unrelentingly positive, mostly secular self-help: Alcoholics Anonymous. NoFap employs a day-counter badge system that tracks a user’s number of “days clean” and displays it next to his user name. A participant may choose to pair with an “accountability partner” who can monitor his Internet history with software in order to keep him honest. Fapstronauts in need of immediate bolstering can turn to the emergency button, an Internet and android app (coming soon to iPhone) that displays big, color-block tiles labeled “Rejection,” “Depression,” “Relapsed,” and “Emergency” (with a tiny option for “Religion” in the upper right corner). Press a button—whatever applies to your particular strand of masturbatory angst—and the app generates an inspirational quote, Youtube video, or cleverly repurposed meme to instantaneously put you on track. It’s self-help clickbait—the methadone to porn’s heroin.

There’s even a subforum called NoFapWar, which transforms the quest to avoid masturbating into a war game of fapstinence attrition in which platoon leaders are selected, soldiers are recruited, and the team with the most men standing at the end wins. (If it seems juvenile, then so be it—whatever it takes to forgo porn and masturbation, one day at a time.) Though the forum is imbued with the nerdy humor and half-ironic jokiness that you’d expect from its membership, the occasional dark confession (one poster writes desperately about hoarding multiple terabytes of pornographic photos) is met with the kind of heartfelt support you’d expect at a group therapy session: It’s OK. Do the right thing. Delete the stash. You’ll get through this. We’re here for you.

 

Of course, some experts question the premise of porn addiction altogether. David Ley, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, argues that the very concept is little more than an easy-way-out, media-hyped reaction to larger problems. “the term ‘addiction’ has lost its clinical usefulness,” he tells me. “It’s been hijacked by people pushing agendas: the media exploit our fear of sex to make money, religious groups use pseudoscience to gain followers”—and even decidedly nonreligious nonprofit groups like NoFap are driven to “use the porn addiction concept as a glossing over of more complex problems. they’re saying, ‘Porn is the problem. Not you.’ But of course, that isn’t true.” Ley argues that many obsessive masturbators may really be struggling with pathological obsession. “The porn was never the problem. The problem was their obsessive personality in the first place.”

Maybe so. but on a forum where a daily three-hour masturbation session is considered tame, clinical distinctions may not matter much. at his worst, Rhodes says, he was fapping 10 times a day. “I don’t really care what the science says. My experience says that Internet porn is a drug. It numbs your emotions. It’s a form of escapism, of running from your problems.” Many of NoFap’s adherents, he adds, fit a predictable profile: “A lot of young males who have never been in a sexual relationship.” More precisely, according to the 2012 study, 31 percent are in their teens; 58 percent are in their 20s; and 11 percent are 30 or older. Three-quarters are single, and nearly half are virgins.

As a 19-year-old who describes himself as “awkward” and traces a fraught and limited history with women, Final Fight fits that bill. “I’d trade all the porn I’ve ever seen for just one kiss,” he says. And for people like him, sex addicts anonymous or a regular therapy session may be overkill. In such cases, it’s hard to argue that reorienting excessive behavior into a positive life philosophy is a bad thing. If many of these so-called porn addicts are just run-of-the-mill nerds with limited contact with the opposite sex and what they deem to be an unhealthy relationship to porn, why shouldn’t they have a place where they can all come together in the interest of, ah, not coming?

NoFap is filled with success stories—tales of self-improvement ranging from weight loss to increased social confidence to finally getting a girlfriend. Cause and effect are hard to measure, of course, but when you come down to it, the overwhelmingly positive message of the movement may have a power of its own: Fapstronauts believe that they’re learning how to suppress their urges, respect and pursue tangible goals, and climb out of the depths of self-doubt to figure out who they are and form meaningful relationships. And maybe they’re right—maybe we’re in for a surge of young male productivity, a new era of sexually confident and iron-willed go-getters. Maybe NoFap really will usher in a golden age of male mindfulness.

At the very least, we’d have far fewer missing socks.

Original article