Why We’re Scared of Masturbation

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Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Tim Ferriss, the productivity guru best known for The 4-Hour Workweek (and slightly less well known for his claim that he can induce 15-minute orgasms in women), has issued his readers a 30-day challenge called NOBNOM, which stands for “no booze, no masturbating.”

“If you’ve been feeling less than super-productive, slightly lethargic, or mildly depressed, do this 30-day challenge,” he writes. “If you simply want to level-up your life, do this 30-day challenge.” Ferriss claims that his own booze-and-masturbation break kicked up his sex drive, made it easier for him to focus, and increased his productivity by “50-100%.” Those who complete NOBNOM, writes Ferriss, will say to themselves, “Holy shit, my baseline for the last 10 years [or 5 or 15 or whatever] has been fucked! I totally forgot what it feels like to live clean.”

This notion, that masturbation is a productivity-sapping distraction, is popular and much discussed in some quarters: A Google search for “masturbation and productivity” reveals a virtual army of mostly young-sounding males (yes, they’re almost all males) fretting and/or preaching about how masturbation can divert one’s focus from the things that matter. A post about the “mediocrity of masturbation” on a site called getgirlsnotgame.com should give you a sense of the tone of the discussion, as should a quick perusal of the “NoFap” subreddit, which Ferriss cites approvingly and is rife with posts like this one, in which young men engage in self-flagellation over the fact that they’ve only been able to cut down their masturbation habit to once a week or so.

With the exception of people whose masturbation interferes directly with their work or social lives — these people should probably talk to a professional — there’s simply no hard scientific evidence to back up any of this. While it doesn’t appear researchers have empirically examined possible links between masturbation and productivity, there is significant evidence debunking the most common sex and productivity notion: that sex before playing sports inhibits performance. Since arguments about masturbation are often couched in similar terms — that it drains away a certain edge or drive, leading to apathy — there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of them. Plus, there’s no evidence to suggest masturbation is a harmful activity in any broader sense, and it’s been linked to health benefits in both men and women.

Yes, yes — it’s 2014. For many people, none of this is news. And Ferriss, after all, is a bit hard to take seriously, not least because his website features a picture of a scantily clad woman holding a beer with the caption “Both of these things are very distracting” — the woman is apparently a thing. But still: It’s striking that despite the dearth of evidence, so many young men are convinced, or at least worried, that they are jerking away their best ideas and ambitions. What can account for this?

The short answer is that Ferriss’s anti-masturbation crusade, and the many smaller, less-well-publicized iterations of it you can easily find poking around online, are a 2014-friendly version of a notion that can be traced to a very specific publication 300 years ago.

Most people associate anti-masturbation views with religious fundamentalism, and there are, of course, somewhat ambiguous passages in the Bible that can be read as denouncing masturbation, as well as religious communities that view masturbation as a sin to this day. But according to Thomas Laqueur, a historian at UC Berkeley and the author of Solitary Sex : A Cultural History of Masturbation, it would be a mistake to view Western fears about masturbation as an ancient line of thought stemming from Judeo-Christian religious texts.

That’s because for the vast majority of recorded Western history, Laqueur writes, masturbation was not seen as a serious problem — the subject of the occasional joke, maybe, or mild concern about sexual energy being misspent on a non-procreative activity, but by no means a major concern. This all changed around 1712, when a tract with a mouthful for a title was published in London: 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. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES…

You can check out a PDF with excerpts from the tenth edition of the pamphlet here — it’s the equivalent of the longest, coldest shower in the universe (I cleaned up some janky spacing a bit):

THIS Practice is so frequent, and so crying an Offense, especially among the MALE YOUTH of this Nation , that I have Reason to imagine, a great many Offenders would never have been Guilty of it, if they had been thoroughly acquainted with the Heinousness of the Crime, and the sad Consequences to the BODY as well as the SOUL, which may, and often do ensue upon it. This was the chief Motive that induc’d me to write on this Subject.

According to the author of Onania (“a surgeon of sorts who wrote soft-core medical pornography,” according to Solitary Sex), masturbation can bring great tragedy upon those whom it seduces — among other symptoms, it can stunt growth, cause epilepsy, and, perhaps most alarming, lead to the contraction of “Gonorrhea’s, more difficult to be cur’d, than those contracted from Women actually labouring under foul Diseases.”

It’s hard to overstate the tract’s impact. As Stephen Greenblatt wrote in a New York Review of Books essay on Solitary Sex, despite its utter reliance on quackery, Onania “served as the foundation stone of a serious medical tradition that transformed cultural assumptions that had been securely in place for thousands of years.” (The reasons why the tract hit such a nerve are complicated, but Greenblatt sums them up nicely in his essay.) In the decades and centuries that followed, masturbation went from being mostly ignored to being highly pathologized — suddenly, it was an extremely dangerous, corrupting activity, and all sorts of treatments and punishments and laws emerged as a result of this belief.

Laqueur writes that while masturbation has since gone through a number of cultural transformations — and by around 1920 was in general no longer seen as a medically dangerous act — we’re still standing in the shadow of Onania. Masturbation jokes in Seinfeld and American Pie, he writes, are “steeped in an ironic view of past prejudices and persistent transgressions. But for all their jaded sophistication these gags do not fully exorcise the demons of guilt and obsession that the eighteenth century let loose.”

Ferris and his NOBNOM challenge aren’t claiming masturbation will cause gonorrhea, of course. Instead, he’s offering up a version of anti-masturbation worries that has been tailored for an age in which productivity is the sort of buzzword piety or purity were back when this panic first emerged. It’s a mutated strain of an old legend, and it still contains some of that legend's original DNA: Modernize the language, and the tract's claim that “many Young Men who were strong and lusty before they gave themselves over to this vice, have been worn out by it” sounds a lot like Ferriss.

So what does Laqueur think of Ferriss and his NOBNOM challenge? “This guy is straight out of nineteenth century America,” he said in an email. “It warms a historian’s heart.”