A nascent men's movement eschews orgasms for health reasons. Experts say the science doesn't add up

How an online community became obsessed with the idea that ejaculation was hurting their mental and physical health

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published February 26, 2023 10:00AM (EST)

 Back view of shirtless man (Getty Images/Jonathan Knowles)
Back view of shirtless man (Getty Images/Jonathan Knowles)

Never before in the history of humanity has so much pornography been so accessible to anyone with an internet connection. While one can debate whether this is socially healthy, a growing number of men contend that it isn't physically healthy. This belief, which (naturally) has spread online, consists of men who are convinced that ejaculation — especially when coupled with pornography — is causing them major health issues. The only solution, they say, is to abstain from both.

Their internet circles include the million-plus members of Reddit's "NoFap" community. There, you will find porn and masturbation blamed for everything from deficient penis size to low energy to lack of mental clarity. Above all, this self-pleasure is accused of causing erectile dysfunction, or the inability to sustain a satisfying erection.

A sort of cottage industry has sprouted around the idea of retaining semen and abstaining from masturbation and porn, despite a lack of evidence they work.

Sometimes self-describing as "fapstronauts," — "fap" being onomatopoeic slang for male self-pleasure — these self-pleasure abolitionists are convinced that cutting out porn and masturbation will lead to a more fulfilling, healthy life. They also believe that using porn — even at a rate many sex researchers would consider "normal" — constitutes "addiction," despite there being no scientific basis for porn addiction.

In the NoFap world, abstaining for long enough is called "rebooting," based on the belief that abstinence resets the body and brain, which has been "rewired" by porn or masturbation. This, too, is not supported by neuroscience, psychology or basic human biology.

It may be true that porn and masturbation are problematic for some people. It may also be true that some people personally benefit from this sort of abstinence. Online support groups, which offer the benefit of pseudo-anonymity, might be the type of community that helps someone out of such a rut, if they need it. But some people may use similar online tools to cut alcohol or sugar out of their life — it doesn't mean everyone has a problem with it or that it inherently destroys one's life.

Yet these forums are quite militant in their beliefs that porn is a scourge on society that is emasculating men, an activity for "cucks" or "beta males" — all of which is part of a larger conspiracy to control and subjugate the masses. NoFap and other communities claim to be secular, but nonetheless, much of the language is reminiscent of Christian moralizing about masturbation. They've also adopted militant, often violent language, self-describing as "warriors" who are waging a battle against lust.

"Semen retention has a history that's a lot longer than the internet, and still lingers today. Eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant considered masturbation morally worse than suicide," Cole wrote.

There are many different subgroups that have adopted various rules about porn and self-pleasure, so it can be hard to make generalizations about all of them, but subreddits like "SemenRetention" (which has 134,000 subscribers) and the online forum NoFap.com do have something in common in that they present warped scientific evidence and misrepresent the concept of addiction.

Indeed, there's no evidence that ejaculating makes one weaker, less intelligent or produces lower levels of testosterone, a hormone produced in both men and women. Low amounts of testosterone are implicated in reduced sex drive, but this is a bit of an oversimplification of a complex molecule our bodies uses for many processes.

Even though pornography has existed for thousands of years (just ask the ancient Egyptians), "porn addiction" is a relatively new category that arose in the '90s as the modern web emerged. Samantha Cole, a journalist that covers the intersection of sex and tech, traces this history in her 2022 book "How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex."

"There's a whole industry where people are going to, like, rehab for porn. And obviously, there's something else going on there with them."

"Semen retention has a history that's a lot longer than the internet, and still lingers today. Eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant considered masturbation morally worse than suicide," Cole wrote. "John Harvey Kellogg, the maker of Kellogg's cereal, and Rev. Sylvester Graham, the creator of graham crackers, invented corn flakes and graham crackers to be so boring they'd kill libido."

Even today, a sort of cottage industry has sprouted around the idea of retaining semen and abstaining from masturbation and porn, despite a lack of evidence they work.

"There's a whole industry where people are going to, like, rehab for porn. And obviously, there's something else going on there with them," Cole told Salon. "They think it's gonna be some kind of like magical fix for their lives and they feel better because it's something that they can control. But that's the thinking around a lot of different mental illnesses. Control some part of your physical self and maybe you can fix your emotional or your mental state. It's brilliant marketing if you want to control people, but obviously, it's so damaging in the long run."

To those following MGTOW, porn is just another way for women to "shamelessly" use their bodies to "take financial advantage of men's biological weakness."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these beliefs appeal to many right-wing figures, who perhaps see common cause in their puritanical nature. Hence, being anti-porn and anti-masturbation have become tenets of many misogynist groups, including the Proud Boys, an alt-right extremist group that forbids its members from ejaculating alone more than once a month. "If he needs to ejaculate it must be within one yard of a woman with her consent," one of their rules read. "The woman may not be a prostitute."

Not everyone on boards like NoFap are associated with misogynist groups, of course, but there is considerable overlap between the two.

"Whatever people want to do with their bodies is totally fine. It's just that a lot of the communities become so evangelical about it, they have to recruit more people into the idea to then justify the behavior," Cole says. "That's kind of how it ends up snowballing into incels [involuntary celibates] or Men Going Their Own Way, or some of these other communities that are really toxic and damaging."

Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) is just one anti-feminist, misogynistic realm of the broader "manosphere," the digital manifestation of the Men's Liberation Movement, which views women's rights as an affront to male dominance. MGTOW specifically believe feminism has ruined society and the only solution is for men to "mobilise against a supposed gynocratic conspiracy," as an article in The Guardian put it. To those following MGTOW, porn is just another way for women to "shamelessly" use their bodies to "take financial advantage of men's biological weakness."

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

Not everyone who dislikes porn or shuns masturbation has such extremist views. Regardless, there is not really much evidence to back up claims that porn or masturbation ruins one's mental or physical health. However, when Dr. Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist and sexual psychophysiologist who founded Liberos, a sexual biotech company in Los Angeles, published research pushing back against these groups, she says she received death threats and harassment.

"I didn't understand why you would threaten to kill someone over study results," Prause told Salon. "It does color the kind of research that's done. I've definitely had colleagues who don't ask certain questions because they don't want to get in their crosshairs. I do think scientists are fearful of getting involved in anything that might make them targets of these kinds of groups."

NoFap was founded by Alexander Rhodes, a Pittsburgh web developer, in 2011. It began with a Reddit thread posted by Rhodes linking to a 2002 Chinese study that found participants that abstained from masturbation for a week experienced a 45 percent increase in testosterone levels.

But when Prause contacted the study authors to request some of their data (a normal procedure in scientific circles), she was met with a series of angry emails refusing to disclose anything. The paper was later retracted when it was discovered only one of the four authors could be accounted for and that the study had already been published. Scientific communities generally frown on self-plagiarism. The original, which had a small sample size and was not blinded, also showed a return to baseline on the 8th day, so the spike in testosterone wasn't entirely significant, if it truly existed. Those are all some serious strikes against the conclusions drawn from this paper.

Masturbating doesn't seem to lower testosterone levels — and why would it? If the body and mind are engaged sexually, they will produce more of the hormones involved, including testosterone. Both semen and testosterone are produced for a reason, but our bodies also like homeostasis. If someone tries to retain their semen, it will likely be expelled eventually through a nocturnal emission or "wet dream." So much for trying to hold it in.

In fact, "long-term abstinence is more likely to decrease testosterone over time," Prause says. "So I always find it strange that that's one of their central claims. It's literally the opposite. But we can't get that myth dislodged."

Though testosterone is related to sexual desire or libido, its levels in the blood don't change much following orgasm. Instead, following climax, the brain releases many chemicals used for cellular signaling including dopamine, oxytocin and prolactin, which a 2019 study described as generating "a deep sense of well-being." It's not associated with brain damage, because obviously, humans evolved the ability to orgasm for a reason.

Stimulating this aspect of the brain artificially through pornography doesn't automatically mean it will ruin one's ability to enjoy sex, let alone permanently rewire the brain. This might go without saying, but porn will likely never be an adequate replacement for in person sex with other people, at least for the majority of folks. No amount of videos or virtual reality or silicon toys can replicate another person's touch.

"The stimulus from porn cannot generalize to the partner context," Prause says. "For example, within the dermis of your skin, there are things called afferent fibers. These only become active when stroked at a moderate velocity — not slow or fast — by another human hand. Porn cannot do that."

Furthermore, porn is not addictive in the same way as drugs can be, though that doesn't mean it can't be problematic. Addiction is a very precise medical term defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as uncontrolled use of a drug despite negative consequences. The APA does not classify viewing porn, even compulsively, as an addiction or a mental disorder.

Last year, the World Health Organization added compulsive sexual behavior disorder, (defined as inability to control intense sexual urges), to its eleventh edition of the International Classification of Diseases. The condition includes "extensive use of pornography," but fits under a much broader umbrella of impulse control disorders related to sexual behavior and is still not classified as an addiction.

This might seem pedantic, but it's an important distinction. Addiction, technically known as substance use disorder, really only applies to drugs. Addiction is really far more complex than being horny and relieving oneself with a video. At a certain age, it's natural to have sexual urges and want to alleviate them. That's why it's so hard for some people to stop masturbating, because it's fighting an innate part of human physiology. And for most people, it's unlikely that porn will damage their sex lives or lead to less frequent sex with other people.

"We have decades of studies saying the opposite. That is, you view more porn, you have more partners, you want more sexual things in general," Prause says. "We call it a breadth of sexual stimuli."

Research suggests that porn isn't the cause of poor mental health, but depression and anxiety are, in and of themselves, causing problems with sexual satisfaction.

In other words, porn can be part of a healthy, satisfying sex life. But some people do experience problems with being unable to stop watching porn, even when they want to abstain. This may create feelings of distress, depression, shame and anxiety, which can translate into the bedroom as reduced sexual performance.

Yet dozens of studies have failed to find a link between porn and erectile dysfunction (ED), and some of Prause's research suggests that ED has more to do with poor mental health than viewing naked people online.

In a study published last October in the Journal of Psychosexual Health, Prause and her colleague James Binnie at London South Bank University's department of psychology surveyed 669 people who were familiar with "rebooting."

They found that those who participated in NoFap or Reboot treatments were more like to report ED, but also more likely to report anxiety. The worse their anxiety, the more they struggled with keeping it up, but this relationship was not influenced by how much porn was consumed.

In other words, this study and other research suggests that porn isn't the cause of poor mental health, but depression and anxiety are, in and of themselves, causing problems with sexual satisfaction.

"We and others have found a lot of evidence for depression in these populations," Prause says, referring to the anti-orgasm crowd. "You may really be struggling with something real, but it ain't porn. You have depression and you're trying to figure out how to feel better."

Masturbation is quite normal. Many animals do it, including primates, bats, walruses, dolphins, rodents and even some birds. However, just because there is no scientific evidence that porn will cause brain damage or ruin your sex life, it's never a bad thing to reevaluate your relationship with a behavior or habit. Ask yourself: Is this really serving me? Do I enjoy this? Is this harming my relationships or social responsibilities?

If porn or masturbation aren't causing you harm, why feel ashamed of it? But if they are, shame still won't help. No one is worthless or a pervert just for enjoying sexual content or self-pleasure, but self-control is key.

"I don't doubt that people struggle with their sexual behaviors, and that people view more pornography than they intend to sometimes. The question is, when someone comes in and presents with that, what do you do?" Prause says. She recommends talking to a therapist or looking into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a process-based intervention that incorporates mindfulness strategies and acceptance to open up more psychological flexibility.

Prause says it's fine to employ strategies that promote more self-control, "not because masturbation is an addiction or a pathology, it's just a behavior that's getting in the way of things you want to do that would be better for you."

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is a science and public health journalist whose reporting has appeared in Scientific American, STAT News, Undark, VICE, and others. He co-hosts the drug policy and science podcast Narcotica. His website is troyfarah.com and can be found on Twitter at @filth_filler

MORE FROM Troy Farah

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ejaculation Health Masturbation Neuroscience Nofap Orgasm Science Sex Testosterone