Comparing the body to a computer is a common analogy among those in the anti-masturbation community, a subset of which includes the self-proclaimed “biohackers” and “quantified self” enthusiasts who collect data regarding the input and output of their bodies. If the body is a series of systems, the thinking seems to be, then whatever problems exist can be repaired like a piece of hardware. Wilson, the guru of “Your Brain on Porn,” suggests that dopamine receptors will regenerate and dopamine levels increase after a withdrawal period of “flatlining”—total uninterest in sex. Some anti-masturbators even use video-gamespeak when they talk about abstaining on “hard mode,” which means declining sex with a partner as well as with oneself.
There’s also the particularly poignant demographic whose sexual lives are so inextricable from their computers that giving up masturbation is a way of unplugging and reentering the world. “I never really had to get out there,” says a 24-year-old law student in California whose longest streak of not masturbating was 105 days (he did have sex with his girlfriend during this time). Though he started limiting masturbation because it fixed the erectile problems he experienced during sex with his partner, it was also about trying to more actively engage with life. “I was not a troll who lived in my room and played World of Warcraft all the time, but I didn’t really develop fully socially,” he says.
The goals for all these men, regardless of their personal lives or relationship statuses, seemed to be similar: to return to a more charged, natural self. It’s a throwback notion—virility as integral to manhood—but many of these anti-masturbators regard it as truth. “I feel like a man again” is a common refrain. One NoFapper referred to his 90 days without masturbation as “a passage into manhood.” They see masturbation as a failure of masculinity—not because it’s shameful or forever associated with adolescence, but because, on a fundamental, even chemical level, it’s draining their true potential.
The medical profession isn’t convinced. Every doctor and psychologist I spoke with informed me that “there’s no evidence” to link masturbation to sexual performance, and that it’s an oversimplification to think that frequent masturbation is the cause of delayed ejaculation. According to Stephen Snyder, a sex therapist in Manhattan, it’s “most often not the case.” Darius Paduch, a professor of urology and reproductive medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, went so far as to say that ejaculation leads to greater fertility. “In our practice, we pretty much make men achieve an erection at least three to four times a week,” he says. Paduch also cited studies that found that men who ejaculated multiple times a week faced less risk of erectile dysfunction later in life. There’s also the body’s natural process of elimination: Many anti-masturbators start having wet dreams.
But none of that matters to the abstainers, including Matt, whose longest stretch without masturbation was 280 days. He has also encouraged a friend to join the experiment (and is keeping a spreadsheet to chart their progress). “Maybe part of it’s placebo,” he says. “But I’ve become more articulate and more confident. People can even understand what I’m saying better. I’ve become a very different person in a lot of ways.”
Henry went out to California. For two months, he lived with his girlfriend. Their relationship felt strong, the sex was great, and everything seemed to be on track. Then work and family compelled him to return to New York. They remained a couple, and Henry maintained his efforts. He says that his abstention, along with daily meditation and no porn, made him feel confident and grounded. He recorded his voice on his iPhone and claims it had deepened. Perhaps it was all in his mind, but he noticed other benefits, “like when you walk down the street and you make eye contact with a woman, and she smiles. And there’s no darting with the eyes, or no staring creepily, just a more natural exchange.”
He compares the feeling to being on antidepressants: “It was like a buffer, little things didn’t bother me.” He also began feeling more alert. And younger. And he found himself far more attracted to women—not in a furtive or uncomfortable way, but in the sense that the world around him felt more charged. Something totally banal—the before and after pictures of a Weight Watchers commercial, for example—suddenly had meaning.
“It felt like it did when you were in puberty or in college,” he says. “Women became more salient.” For 54 days, he did not masturbate. Then, over the phone, the relationship ended, and so did Henry’s campaign. “I didn’t have any desire,” he says. “I could totally not have done it, but I was like, ‘Fuck it.’ ”