Masturbation abstinence is popular, and doctors are worried : Consider This from NPR More than two decades of growing internet use has surfaced fears about the social and psychological impacts of nearly unfettered access to pornography. But many researchers and sex therapists worry that the online communities that have formed in response to these fears often endorse inaccurate medical information, exacerbate mental health problems and, in some cases, overlap with extremist and hate groups.

NPR's Lisa Hagen speaks about her reporting with NPR's Ayesha Rascoe.

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Masturbation abstinence is popular online. Doctors and therapists are worried

Masturbation abstinence is popular online. Doctors and therapists are worried

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There is a thriving landscape of social media content, online forums and entrepreneurs dedicated to helping men suppress the urge to masturbate to pornography. Joe Gough for NPR hide caption

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Joe Gough for NPR

There is a thriving landscape of social media content, online forums and entrepreneurs dedicated to helping men suppress the urge to masturbate to pornography.

Joe Gough for NPR

"Nothing scares me. Nothing hurts me anymore," a young YouTuber tells the camera as snowflakes cut across the frame. He is shirtless in a Michigan January, he tells viewers, to make a point about embracing discomfort in order to become a great, powerful man.

The YouTuber, who goes by the handle iamLucid, tells the camera he can stand the below-freezing temperature because he has been taking cold showers every day and, crucially, hasn't masturbated to pornography in a year.

"That's the most beta thing you can do. That's the weakest thing any man can do," he says.

The video is part of a thriving online landscape dedicated to helping men suppress the urge to masturbate.

More than two decades of growing internet use has surfaced fears about the social and psychological impacts of nearly unfettered access to pornography. But many researchers and sex therapists worry that the online communities that have formed in response to these fears often endorse inaccurate medical information, exacerbate mental health problems and, in some cases, overlap with extremist and hate groups.

There are many variations on how and why members of these communities choose to abstain from masturbation. One of the central concepts in these communities is known as "nofap," a play on an onomatopoeic word for masturbation popularized on the notorious 4chan message boards.

The term "nofap" has come to encompass a set of unproven claims that not masturbating confers social and health benefits.

There's a large and active forum on Reddit that uses the name, as well as a company called NoFap LLC, which offers support groups for a fee and runs a popular forum on its website. But that company is just one part of a far larger community. Others, including self-styled coaches, also use the term. They offer advice, services and sometimes treatment programs to those struggling to reach their goal of not masturbating. While some figures in this space are religious, most frame their advice as science-based forms of self-improvement or as a cure for pornography addiction, a popular concept that's disputed by scientists and researchers who study sexuality.

Measuring the online and offline influence of nofap content is difficult. A 2022 study in the International Journal of Impotence Research by a group of urologists who studied social media content found "semen retention" and its related hashtags to be the most popular men's health topic on TikTok and Instagram. Unlike every other men's health topic they studied, none of the semen retention posts were coming from doctors.

For those who believe they may be addicted to porn, the official NoFap LLC website suggests no masturbation for 90 days, during which the brain supposedly reboots like a computer. Other claimed benefits of avoiding masturbation may include "superpowers," like more confidence and more romantic interest from women. NoFap LLC says it is not anti-masturbation and it's not anti-porn, and today, its creator says it is a peer-support group for people with problematic pornography use.

"I have seen claims on social media saying that semen retention can boost your testosterone levels, cure erectile dysfunction, make you more manly, make you stronger, cure depression, make you more successful, clear your skin," says Ashley Winter, a urologist who has been publicly critical of nofap ideas.

"And there is no medical evidence that it does any of those things," she says, adding that in many male adults, abstaining from ejaculation will merely result in "nocturnal emissions," or wet dreams. NoFap.com itself does not endorse every claim Winter says she has seen on social media.

To her, the popularity of nofap ideas indicates a failure by the traditional medical establishment to serve the many people experiencing real concerns around sexual health, performance and desire.

From "a joke" to an existential battle

Myths and spiritual practices related to masturbation have been around for centuries, including the notion that ejaculation is somehow tied to strength.

The term "nofap" originally began popping up in bodybuilding forums in the mid-2000s. But its popularity escalated when an official NoFap Reddit forum, or subreddit, was founded in 2011 by then-college student Alexander Rhodes. In a 2012 radio interview, Rhodes said he'd seen a study on Reddit claiming that men's testosterone levels increased after a week of not masturbating.

Masturbation abstinence communities emerged alongside the "manosphere," a collection of online spaces dedicated to the idea that men are under threat from feminism. Joe Gough for NPR hide caption

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Joe Gough for NPR

Masturbation abstinence communities emerged alongside the "manosphere," a collection of online spaces dedicated to the idea that men are under threat from feminism.

Joe Gough for NPR

"It was just, like, kind of a joke, you know," said Rhodes during that radio interview. He and other Reddit users posted about wanting to re-create the experiment at home. "And this, this was all occurring in the comments. So then really what was necessary in my eyes was just a place, a centralized location where everybody could kind of try this technique out."

Rhodes also created NoFap.com, trademarked the terms "NoFap" and "Fapstronaut" for certain uses and started a company.

NPR has reached out to Rhodes and his company multiple times, but they never accepted an interview or responded to specific requests for comment.

Scholars who study the nofap world note that it emerged alongside what's called the manosphere, a collection of online spaces devoted to the idea that men are under threat from feminism and modern life. That view thrives offline as well.

A national poll conducted in late 2022 found that 4 out of 10 Americans believe society has become too "soft and feminine." Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson did a special for Fox in 2022 called The End of Men, drawing attention to "the decline of manhood, of virility, of physical health, all of which together threaten to doom our civilization."

In masturbation abstinence groups, the ubiquity of internet porn is often framed as a major factor in this alleged decline, and abstaining from masturbation is held up as the cure.

Pornography is a complicated topic, not least because access to it is virtually ubiquitous today. While many people consume it, many also hold strong objections to it. Some oppose it on religious grounds; others' opposition is based on its use of sexist or racist tropes or their concerns about working conditions in the industry. Others still, including many in masturbation abstinence communities, say they worry about the impact of porn on human relationships or psychology.

While some consumers of nofap content believe they are waging an existential battle against porn, plenty of others experiment with abstinence as a form of self-improvement. Advice on the forums often includes commonplace suggestions such as better diet, exercise and sleep.

Online abstinence forums are not limited to men, though past surveys of the NoFap subreddit have found that the vast majority of users are male. Some users say they're under 18 and share intimate personal details with adult users. Mixed in alongside ringing anecdotal endorsements of abstinence, many posters write about loneliness, insecurity and a lack of sexual experience.

Ideas about masturbation abstinence got a big boost from the man who interviewed Rhodes on the radio in 2012 — Gary Wilson. Wilson, a former massage therapy instructor in Oregon who died in 2021, ran a website called yourbrainonporn.com. While he was neither a medical doctor nor a Ph.D. scientist (he was an adjunct biology instructor at Southern Oregon University for a combined four months in 2005 and 2010), he had given a viral TEDx talk arguing that internet porn is a hazard for men's brains.

"With internet porn, a guy can see more hot babes in 10 minutes than his ancestors could see in several lifetimes. The problem is he has a hunter-gatherer brain. A heavy user's brain rewires itself to this genetic bonanza," Wilson told the audience in a video that has received more than 16 million views. The video now includes a warning that states several of Wilson's assertions aren't supported by medical or psychological research.

NoFap's message today is strongly aligned with Wilson's arguments that watching porn is addictive, causes conditions such as erectile dysfunction and brain fog, and can even involuntarily change one's sexual desires.

Within a few years, major media outlets were running profiles of Rhodes and his touted approach to pornography addiction, including The New York Times, CNN, the BBC and NPR's Here & Now, co-produced with Boston member station WBUR. Many of those stories didn't include comments from scientists or doctors.

A "magic pill"?

NPR spoke to five former or current users of the NoFap subreddit or website. Those who agreed to be quoted all asked NPR not to use their last names in order for them to discuss their intimate sexual histories without fear of negative reactions from families and colleagues or backlash from supporters of masturbation abstinence. They all turned to online forums to connect with other people struggling with similar problems. Initially they all felt a sense of relief after finding these online communities.

Tim, in his 60s, described his relationship with porn as pretty average until his wife came to him and said his porn use was destroying her self-esteem. She threatened to end the marriage if he didn't stop watching porn.

When Tim tried to stop, he struggled, a sign to him that he was addicted.

After years of finding only religious resources for quitting porn, Tim welcomed the NoFap company's secular approach. He said the idea of quitting masturbation seemed insane to him at first, but it worked.

When Tim felt tempted to watch porn, he'd post in the forum. People would chime in with support and offer suggestions like taking a walk. Tim is one of many users who say they've extended their abstinence indefinitely. He says he last masturbated in October 2016.

"For me, it would be dangerous, and I don't want to risk it," he said. "It threatens my sobriety [from porn], which would threaten my marriage."

NoFap.com, Tim says, saved his life.

Derrick had a different experience. As a teenager growing up in Kentucky, he watched porn for a couple of hours after school every day. In church, he was told that masturbation was a sin.

"There's all these magic pill promises of 'porn's an addiction that causes all these problems. If you just quit it, it'll fix all these problems,'" said one former user of the NoFap subreddit. Joe Gough for NPR hide caption

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Joe Gough for NPR

"There's all these magic pill promises of 'porn's an addiction that causes all these problems. If you just quit it, it'll fix all these problems,'" said one former user of the NoFap subreddit.

Joe Gough for NPR

Finding the NoFap website, he said, felt like striking gold. He found advice that his pornography use and masturbation were connected to the erectile dysfunction he struggled with. NoFap.com refers to this as "PIED," porn-induced erectile dysfunction.

"I felt like I had found all of my answers, pretty much. And it was like a weight off my shoulders for, you know, for the time," said Derrick.

Derrick tried the 90-day masturbation abstinence reboots but says he could never make it that long, which made him feel awful.

"Every single time that I would fail, it was just a constant loop of, 'Oh, we're doing so well, and then, oh, I messed up,'" said Derrick. "I would beat myself up throughout the entire process."

Besides the reboots, he picked up other ideas from the nofap world. "If you masturbate, all your testosterone is going to go down the toilet and you're going to be like a raisin, you know? Oh, scary," said Derrick.

He doesn't look at nofap content anymore, and he feels comfortable with the amount of porn he watches. More recently, he got off his ADHD medication and realized it had been causing his erectile dysfunction, not pornography. Now 24, he looks back at his time with these ideas and wishes he hadn't spent so much of high school stressed out about masturbation.

Jack, now 26, said he was an insecure teenager when he found the NoFap subreddit. He said it seemed to be everywhere in men's self-help spheres online.

"There's all these magic pill promises of 'porn's an addiction that causes all these problems. If you just quit it, it'll fix all these problems,'" said Jack.

He says he now believes his porn use was normal, not out of control. After an early success with a reboot challenge, Jack says he tried to abstain from porn probably more than a hundred times. He says he would spend hours every day thinking about how to avoid masturbating, often losing sleep.

In the meantime, Jack said he became interested in dressing as a woman. (Jack does not identify as transgender and uses he/him pronouns.) He interpreted this change as something porn was doing to him, based on what he'd seen on the NoFap subreddit.

"The common themes were 'porn is turning me gay' or 'porn is making me cross-dress' or 'porn is making me want to be dominated' or 'porn is making me like transgenders [sic],'" Jack said.

The NoFap website's page about pornography addiction says using porn will drive people to more and more extreme fetishes or kinks.

Jack has since abandoned the NoFap subreddit but worries about others there struggling with gender and sexual identity.

Defining addiction

Many people in nofap spaces believe they are addicted to porn. But the word "addiction" means different things to different people.

As a student at the conservative evangelical Liberty University, Joshua Grubbs remembers hearing a lot about pornography addiction, including from a speaker who claimed it affected 50% of Christian men.

"He kept, you know, really hammering on this idea of pornography addiction. And I remember being 18, 19, myself at the time and thinking something about that doesn't make sense," said Grubbs, who now researches addiction and psychology at the University of New Mexico.

As he began studying these ideas more seriously, Grubbs kept finding one thing over and over again:

"We would basically ask people, 'Do you think that viewing pornography is morally wrong? Does it trouble your conscience? Do you think this is a bad thing to do?' And if they said yes but were still using, they were just dramatically more likely to say that they must have an addiction," said Grubbs.

In one study, Grubbs found that among people who self-identify as "pornography addicts," the average frequency of porn use was less than 10 times a year.

There is no official porn addiction diagnosis in the United States. A condition called "hypersexuality," which included a subsection for pornography, was considered and rejected by the psychiatrists who compile the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The proposed condition was not approved because the range of normal sexual behavior is so broad that it's hard to define what is outside that range, according to an official with the American Psychiatric Association.

Internationally, the World Health Organization did approve a condition called compulsive sexual behavior disorder. But it lists important caveats, including that it should not be diagnosed based on moral judgments about sex and masturbation or be assigned to adolescents with commonplace, high levels of sexual interest.

"In all of the years I've been seeing people who complain with compulsive sexual behavior, there's been so very few that actually met all the criteria of the disorder," says Silva Neves, a sex and relationship therapist in the U.K. and the author of a book for clinicians about compulsive sexual behavior. He says many people who report sexual behaviors that feel out of control are in fact able to delay an urge or impulse long enough to make it to a private place.

Neves worries that when it comes to sexual behavior, unlike with alcohol or drugs, abstinence-focused treatments can actually increase erotic excitement, inducing self-described relapse.

Grubbs says people who are troubled by their porn use should not be ignored. His research found that more than 1 in 10 American men say they have some level of concern that they're addicted to porn.

Researchers have found evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy can be very helpful. But Grubbs says what dominates internet abstinence forums and influencer videos is not that.

"Abstaining from masturbation is not a reasonable or, in my opinion, ethical treatment goal," says Grubbs.

It has, however, become an industry, he says.

The NoFap company, for example, offers accountability and support groups for $20 to $120 a month, while being careful to note it is not a source of therapy or medical care. Other influencers offer personal coaching or subscription content. There are therapists who feel masturbation abstinence groups are not problematic. There are also rehab centers and retreats offering pornography addiction recovery programs, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars.

Grubbs, a licensed therapist, is not suggesting that trained professionals should work for free.

"But I do think that anytime that we take money from clients, we need to be sure that we're providing evidence-based care and care that helps and not harms," he says.

"If you want to view pornography less, that's a reasonable goal. Identifying as an addict is not going to help with that."

Temptation and weakness

Beyond the potential psychological or financial harms, other scholars who've studied online masturbation abstinence communities often find they contain a lot of anger toward women.

Kelsy Burke, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the author of the book The Pornography Wars, says once someone is in nofap spaces online, it's a short leap from self-help to more extreme, misogynist messages.

"Undergirding arguments about porn addiction is that the sex industry, which is made up of mostly, you know, women who are sex workers, that they are the source of temptation and that they are, frankly, ruining men's lives," said Burke.

All five of the current or former NoFap users NPR spoke with talked about misogynist posts on the NoFap website or subreddit.

The NoFap company itself has rules banning hate speech and discrimination and says it tries to moderate offending posts. It is not hard to find posts about "cheap women" and "sluts" stealing energy and resources from men.

Social media researchers have found the NoFap subreddit to be similar to anti-feminist online spaces. In general, these communities focus on eliminating male weakness, which Burke says has long been an appealing philosophy for some extremist groups.

"We have historical evidence that white supremacist groups from 100 years ago were instructing men that they shouldn't masturbate in order to sort of maintain their virility and strength," said Burke. "And then we see these messages being repeated in the present day. Proud Boys tells its members that they should not look at pornography and discourages masturbation."

In 2016, NoFap company founder Alexander Rhodes made a guest appearance on a talk show hosted by Gavin McInnes, who would go on to found the far-right Proud Boys months later.

"Guys out there, go to NoFap.com. If you have a problem with porn, check out Alexander's program and participate in it," McInnes told his viewers.

Rhodes has said that at the time, he knew McInnes only as a comedian and co-founder of Vice Media. Rhodes has strongly denied that he has any ties with extremist groups and has sued people, including his own mother, who have alleged that he or his company has worked with or supported extremists. There is no evidence that Rhodes has worked with such groups.

McInnes also interviewed Wilson, who did the viral TEDx talk about porn addiction. White nationalist David Duke has recommended Wilson's presentation on his blog, where he made unfounded, antisemitic claims that pornography is a Jewish plot to undermine white men.

It's an idea that migrates onto the forums, according to another former user of NoFap.com who spoke with NPR. "On the message board, there would be people saying that the Jews are controlling the porn because they're having Black men have sex with white women and that's going to deplete the white race," said Chuck, a 39-year-old in Colorado.

NPR has not found these specific posts, but conspiracy theories recur on both NoFap.com and the subreddit. Some posts are explicitly antisemitic. Others use generalized language about a "global elite," or "Illuminati," narratives that echo the worldviews in some extremist spaces.

"Spokespeople of online forums like NoFap, for example, have been very concerned with distancing themselves from anything having to do with extremism," says Burke. "Alt-right, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, antisemitic — they are very clear to say we are not that. But they're not willing to recognize what I think is just an empirical reality, which is that some people who buy into porn addiction rhetoric also buy into these more extremist beliefs."

It's not fair to say there's cause and effect at work, Burke says. But, she worries about people who may be socially and emotionally vulnerable, potentially without access to mental health providers, finding themselves in nofap spaces and then ending up somewhere else. Those who have raised these and other issues about the nofap world have experienced a pattern of pushback.

Interviews with researchers, court documents and other reporting paint a picture of an established tendency of some supporters of masturbation abstinence to harass critics by calling employers or targeting them with misogynist or antisemitic slurs, and even violent threats. Some academics say this has a chilling effect on people wanting to do more research on the subject. There is no evidence that NoFap LLC or Alexander Rhodes has engaged in threats or hate speech.

In response to requests for comment, the NoFap account on X, formerly Twitter, falsely accused NPR of creating a hit piece on behalf of the porn industry, a recurring response to journalists or researchers taking a critical look at the group.

The NoFap website itself says it supports scientific research, and Rhodes' attorney once characterized him as "open and receptive of honest and fair criticism."

Burke thinks that acknowledging the risks of extremist beliefs finding new audiences in masturbation abstinence communities would be a more productive way to address the issue.

"But instead there's just a really clear shutting down," says Burke, citing, as an example, the NoFap X account's response to NPR.

People increasingly seek out health information and support on social media. Meanwhile nationally, young people receive less sex education on key topics than in the 1990s. Only 13 states mandate "medically accurate" sex education.

"We're not taught how to view sex as just something that's normal. And we're not being educated properly about anatomy and consent and pleasure like we should, and it just leaves people with empty hands," says former NoFap.com user Derrick.

As an adult, unlearning much of what he took in from masturbation abstinence forums has been a long process, sometimes even bringing him to tears. He's not angry, but thinking back, he just wants kids like he was to be cautious about whom they trust.

"I could have been happy during that time, rather than stressed out and anxious."

This podcast episode was produced by Ariana Lee. It was edited by Brett Neely and Jenny Schmidt with help from Liana Simstrom and Irene Noguchi. It was engineered by Valentina Rodríguez Sánchez. Music contributed by Ramtin Arablouei. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.