By Joen Marklund

In a Seinfeld-episode from 1996, George Costanza discovers he can’t have sex with his girlfriend due to her mononucleosis. Initially disappointed, the absence of sex takes an unexpected turn for him: he begins to study intensely and develop intellectually as never before. In a couple of days, he confidently answers every Jeopardy-question from the couch – while solving a Rubik’s Cube. He also learns Portuguese and develops an interest in Euclidian Geometry. Was this, as one user put it in the comment-section on Youtube, the start of the NoFap-movement?

As the term suggests, NoFap refers to abstaining from masturbation and pornography. Mostly present on Reddit where it gathers almost 600k members, different sites offering a space of community in the otherwise solitary activity of simply not masturbating exist all over the internet. But why NoFap? Reasons vary, but the will to overcome a self-diagnosed porn-addiction is very common, as are ambitions to increase one’s sense of self-control and to be a better man – these communities are almost completely masculine. A blogger confidently claims that NoFap will result in ‘limitless motivation and crystal clear thinking’ – adding that it might also work as an antidote to hair loss. Ignoring the scientific validity of such claims, the question this text seeks to answer is rather how to situate them in a historical context. When and why did all of this originate? Let’s trace the intellectual history of NoFap.  

One might easily imagine that masturbation has been an activity ridden with shame and disdain since time immemorial – however, as Thomas W. Laqueur explores in his Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, stigmatizing attitudes concerning masturbation is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before the 18th century, masturbation was not something that concerned moral authorities, and even if it was not innocent, ‘[i]t did not matter a great deal’. One can consequently draw a unifying thread from the classical world – where masturbation mainly was considered a joke – to the English politician and diarist Samuel Pepys, who in the 1660s vividly and nonchalantly wrote about his habits of jerking off in all kinds of places. Masturbation did not seem to constitute a moral question of any significant gravity – although, that was all about to change. In 1716, the anonymously published tract Onania entered the world stage, and it became a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Warning about the “frightful consequences” of touching oneself, this text more or less invents masturbation as “[a] disease, a source of guilt, anxiety, and shame”. 

Why, then, after centuries of considerable neglect, did masturbation in 1716 suddenly become a widely discussed question?

Laqueur explains this by pointing to a society that is becoming increasingly secular, something which seems to have bolstered anti-masturbation discourses – this might appear counterintuitive, since secularization is often associated with positively connotated values, such as progress, rationality and modernity. However, as religion partly retreated from its position as the authoritative voice of reason in sexual questions, it was not replaced by any progressive ideals. No, in the wake of early 18th-century secularization, it was rather the slippery concept of nature that came to be seen as the standard expression for sexual behaviour. Nature, rather than God, became the norm against which value and meaning could be assigned to different sexual behaviours – behaviours subsequently deemed natural or unnatural – and one thing understood to be especially unnatural was masturbation. Laqueur suggests some reasons for this: masturbation has as its object of desire something imaginative and not physically real; one does it alone – most often – and this secrecy and privacy was deemed unsociable; it was also unnatural in the sense that it was excessive and going beyond the limits of normal sexual activity. The battle against masturbation is being waged by moralists – but also by the medical profession, who’s trying to increase their professional standing by suitably blaming it for a whole range of thus far unexplainable conditions. 

During the 19th century, the medical argument against masturbation becomes more pronounced; it is no longer generally considered a sin, it is rather something that  “could rob boys of their vital life force” – an opinion ferociously forwarded by, among others, John Harvey Kellogg of your breakfast-cereal. It is also under this era French post-revolutionaries proclaim that it can make you mentally inept – a theory that Seinfeld seems to have caught up on. However, it is Kellogg’s argument that seems to be the most prevalent today, as shown by a recent study. In analysing discourses of masculinity in the NoFap-page on Reddit, Kris Taylor and Sue Jackson found that abstinence often was framed as something which would increase users’ masculinity as well as connect them to a more ‘real’ masculinity, hitherto obscured by porn and masturbation, which had made them lesser men. What is also interesting, as Taylor and Jackson notes, is that no sign of the well-established tradition of feminist criticisms of pornography seems to be found in this community; abstinence was most often justified in relation to different desirable notions of masculinity, and ultimately as a way of becoming more attractive to women. Quit masturbation and porn, then, and regain the vital life force of your pure masculinity. Kellogg’s anyone? 

Such notions of masculinity are more than doubtful, and the recrudescence of Kellogg’s moral conservatism in the midst of it all should make us sceptical. One could, consequently, see NoFap as an anachronistic expression of an anti-masturbation campaign that was always wrong and misguided, based on notions of sexuality we now know simply are not true. That’s enough to put it on the garbage heap of history, right? I don’t know. Its historical roots notwithstanding, it’s hard not to sympathize with someone choosing not to masturbate who reaches out to others on the main online forums available for support in his endeavour. Additionally, rewards loom on the horizon for those who wish to try. On one site, one day of abstinence (from masturbation, porn, nail-biting – you choose your specialization) makes you a soldier, two weeks a sergeant – and four years a legend. I’m currently a master corporal – but not for long.

Illustration: Erik Torefeldt

Joen Marklund is interested in the politics of the Anthropocene, literature and Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the BBC. After recently having finished How I Met Your Mother, admittedly a bit late, a friend recommended him Friends. However, he remains very reluctant, as he also was, in fact, before watching How I Met Your Mother—a show he came to love. When asked why, though, he can’t give a straight answer.

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