One of the unintentional pioneers of the current wave of anti-masturbators is Alexander Rhodes, a 23-year-old college student and actor who lives in Pittsburgh. On June 20, 2011, after coming across a study conducted by Hangzhou Normal University in China that found that testosterone levels peak after seven days without ejaculation, Rhodes started a “NoFap” forum on Reddit, where he announced various challenges for those who wanted to abstain. (Fap is onomatopoeic Internet slang for masturbation.)
When it first launched, the forum received 20,000 visitors a month. There was no shortage of mutual encouragement, with badges awarded for milestones like going a week, a month, or a year without fapping, and a counter tracking exactly how many days a person has abstained. NoFap’s popularity has now ballooned to nearly 400,000 unique visitors per month, and posts have grown in diversity. Some threads tout the perceived benefits of no-fapping (“found my first girlfriend”). Others recommend self-improvement books or revel in a newfound sense of perspective (“I was able to notice birds chirping, which I haven’t done in years”), or engage in what can best be described as penis monologues (“Today I was sitting on the toilet and I looked down and I saw my penis and I kinda just stared at it, then I asked him ‘What is your purpose penis?’ To which he replied ‘I dunno lol’”).
But perhaps the most noticeable shift within the forum is how NoFappers have begun to characterize their short-term challenges as long-term lifestyle choices—one discussion is literally titled “NoFap isn’t a challenge. It’s a way of life.” In the thread, Aterazideme posted: “I desire to be a person in control of his desires. Each day of NoFap brings me close to that ideal.”
And that “ideal” is defined pretty consistently, at least to “fapstronauts,” as they call themselves. In short, it means being more masculine, which in turn leads to success in other aspects of life. Take the example of 19-year-old Redditor Ojdidit123. After 70 days without masturbating, he wrote, he went from being a virgin to meeting a woman on his flight, getting a “raging boner,” and having sex with her in both the plane and an airport hotel. The confidence he got from that encounter, he said, not only helped him perform well at a job interview later, and secure a job at a hedge fund for the summer, but also enabled him to call a long-simmering crush and ask her out. “All that shit happened in the span of 48 hours,” he posted. “It was pretty fucking crazy.”
The vehemence with which some users espouse the benefits of anti-masturbation surprises Rhodes, who says that he never intended the forum as a self-help initiative. “I saw it as a fun challenge to test your willpower, to put yourself against your instincts and see if you could do it,” he says. Rhodes is also quick to clarify that he thinks masturbation is a normal and healthy human activity.
“I’m less extremist than a lot of NoFap members,” he says. “There are a lot who blame every problem they have on masturbation,” echoing a disclaimer on the NoFap board: “Please do not look to fapstinence to cure all your social and physical ills. If you have other problems that have nothing to do with your sexual habits, they’re still going to be there when you’re done with a NoFap challenge.” I ask if his counter, which reads 40 days, is accurate. He laughs and says no. “My girlfriend’s away in a different state for a few more days. I might have even masturbated before you called me.”
Last August, comedian Greg Barris began talking about his masturbation hiatus in his stand-up routines. He started with a regime not unlike that of a pregnant woman, giving up booze, weed, and caffeine. He also gave up porn. A year later, when a woman he was seeing left town, “like gone, forever,” he decided he would give up sex. “But not trying to have sex, you know?” he says. “Not accidental celibacy.” Masturbation came next. He set a goal of 60 days. As the days passed, he made jokes about his progress online:
“30 days celibate. Hot on Tesla’s tracks. Have created wireless energy out of my humidifier and now my whole apt is off the grid.”
“43 days totally celibate. If you see me and hug me don’t squeeze me too hard.”
“60 celibate today. 60 days no masturbation today. Anyone else?”
Halfway through his experiment, he felt more energy and mental clarity. Throughout the process, “I kept saying, ‘I’m resetting my dick and my brain,’ ” he says. “If you’re on sex mode, then your brain is probably running like a couple of hundred programs, where it’s like looking for sex somehow.”