Traditionally, people undergo a bit of self-examination when faced with a potentially fatal rupture in their long-term relationship. Thirty-two-year-old Henry* admits that what he did was a little more extreme. “If you’d told me that I wasn’t going to masturbate for 54 days, I would have told you to fuck off,” he says.
Masturbation had been part of Henry’s daily routine since childhood. Although he remembered a scandalized babysitter who “found me trying to have sex with a chair” at age 5, Henry says he never felt shame about his habit. While he was of the opinion that a man who has a committed sexual relationship with porn was probably not going to have as successful a relationship with a woman, he had no qualms about watching it. Which he did most days.
Then, early last year and shortly before his girlfriend of two years moved to Los Angeles, Henry happened to watch a TED talk by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo called “The Demise of Guys.” It described males who “prefer the asynchronistic Internet world to the spontaneous interactions in social relationships” and therefore fail to succeed in school, work, and with women. When his girlfriend left, Henry went on to watch a TEDX talk by Gary Wilson, an anatomist and physiologist, whose lecture series, “Your Brain on Porn,” claims, among other things, that porn conditions men to want constant variety—an endless set of images and fantasies—and requires them to experience increasingly heightened stimuli to feel aroused. A related link led Henry to a community of people engaged in attempts to quit masturbation on the social news site Reddit. After reading the enthusiastic posts claiming improved virility, Henry began frequenting the site.
“The main thing was seeing people who said, ‘I feel awesome,’ ” he says. Henry did not feel awesome. He felt burned out from work and physically exhausted, and his girlfriend had just moved across the country. He had a few sexual concerns, too, though nothing serious, he insists. In his twenties, he sometimes had difficulty ejaculating during one-night stands if he had been drinking. On two separate occasions, he had not been able to get an erection. He wasn’t sure that forswearing masturbation would solve any of this, but stopping for a while seemed like “a not-difficult experiment”—far easier than giving up other things people try to quit, like caffeine or alcohol.
He also felt some responsibility for what had happened to his relationship. “When a guy feels like he’s failed with respect to a woman, that’s one of the things that causes you to examine yourself.” If he had been a better boyfriend or even a better man, he thought, perhaps his girlfriend wouldn’t have left New York.
So a month after his girlfriend moved away, and a few weeks before taking a trip to visit her, Henry went to the gym a lot. He had meditated for years, but he began to do so with more discipline and intention. He researched strategies to relieve insomnia, to avoid procrastination, and to be more conscious of his daily habits. These changes were not only for his girlfriend. “It was about cultivating a masculine energy that I wanted to apply in other parts of my life and with her,” he says.
And to help cultivate that masculine energy, he decided to quit masturbating. He erased a corner of the white board in his home office and started a tally of days, always using Roman numerals. “That way,” he says, “it would mean more.”
For those who seek fulfillment in the renunciation of benign habits, masturbation isn’t usually high on the list. It’s variously a privilege, a right, an act of political assertion, or one of the purest and most inconsequential pleasures that exist. Doctors assert that it’s healthy. Therapists recommend it. (Henry once talked to his therapist after a bad sexual encounter; she told him to masturbate. “Love yourself,” she said.)
And despite a century passing since Freud declared autoeroticism a healthy phase of childhood sexual development and Egon Schiele drew pictures of people touching themselves, masturbation has become the latest frontier in the school of self-improvement. Today’s anti-masturbation advocates deviate from anti-onanists past—that superannuated medley of Catholic ascetics, boxers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Norman Mailer. Instead, the members of the current generation tend to be young, self-aware, and secular. They bolster their convictions online by quoting studies indicating that ejaculation leads to decreased testosterone and vitamin levels (a drop in zinc, specifically). They cull evidence implying that excessive porn-viewing can reduce the number of dopamine receptors. Even the occasional woman can be found quitting (although some women partake of a culture of encouragement around masturbation, everything from a direct-sales sex-toy party at a friend’s house to classes with sex educator Betty Dodson, author of Sex for One).