I get asked about the NoFap movement often, as you might imagine. NoFap (that name is now trademarked) is an online group of men who promote abstinence from masturbation to porn. Reportedly, the group initially started as a joke, and a challenge to not masturbate. They have become a vocal, committed, and zealous group, whose strident cries and hyperbolic language get quite a bit of media attention. I’m not in opposition to them, but I do think their ideas are simplistic, and naïve, and promote a sad, reductionist, and distorted view of male sexuality and masculinity.
There’s nothing new about most of what they are saying. In the 18th century, a Swiss physician named Tissot promoted the idea that masturbation was a medical illness, which weakened the male spirit and created immorality and ill health. American physicians carried this idea for a long time, including Benjamin Rush, who believed that masturbation created blindness, and W.K. Kellogg, who invented corn flakes as part of an anti-masturbation campaign. The anecdotal problems these physicians were seeing were the untreated effects of STDs such as syphilis and gonorrhea. The past century of advances in sexual medicine tells us that masturbation is very healthy — people who masturbate more, on average, have healthier relationships, live longer, know more about their own bodies, and have better sex lives.
The NoFap folks regurgitate a lot of old myths about how refraining from masturbation helps them to be more energetic, more sexual, more virile, and more manly. They’ve now paired it with the new modern worship of brain science, making lots of extrapolations on weak science to argue that porn has a disproportionate effect on the brain. They are also now linked with moral groups who oppose porn on feminist and religious grounds, and use the same brain-based language to mask that these are actually moral arguments, not medical ones. No one in the movement is actually a scientist who researches neurophysiology and function. Instead, they are enthusiastic amateurs who've learned enough about brain science to be dangerous: They see what they expect to see, and interpret brain science to support their assumptions.
Sexual stimulation does work on the reward systems of the brain, but the NoFap arguments are based on very simplistic and reductionistic ideas of how the brain works, how sex works, and what porn is (such as videos vs images, written erotica vs film, hardcore vs softcore, etc). There’s so much we don’t know about these things and so many subjective definitions, that all of these individuals are arguing far, far ahead of the data. Because they enter the argument with moral assumptions about sex, porn, and masculinity, they are subject to the expectancy effect, and they see what they want to see, in research which is, at best, ambiguous.
That’s the dangerous part. Bad data, lack of knowledge and the intrusion of moral values is what led to people like Kellogg arguing for surgeries such as clitorectomies, and for the use of physical restraints to prevent masturbation. These same types of morally-driven arguments led to homosexuality being called a disease, and sexual women being labeled nymphomaniacs.
The latest argument by the NoFap movement is that porn is causing erectile dysfunction. This is a complex issue, because it’s only in the past few decades that we’ve learned much about erectile dysfunction, or begun to realize that it’s quite common, even among young men. In young men, the causes are typically from the effects of medications, anxiety, cigarettes, drugs, obesity, and lack of sexual experience. Today, young men find it easy to masturbate to porn. But then, when with a female partner, they may get nervous due to lack of experience, and the high degree of performance pressure on men, and have difficulty getting an erection. Sadly, the NoFap movement promotes the self-fulfilling prophecy that it is porn that creates this effect, and so these men understandably blame porn, rather than themselves. That’s an unfortunate misdirection, leading to externalizing this issue, pointing the blame for E.D. at the common social whipping post of porn.
Scientific evidence looking at this question continues to build in the opposite direction, indicating that the effects of high levels of porn use are most likely to be tied to increased libido, not to more porn use. Porn use is most often an effect of libido. High levels of porn use and masturbation lead most often to delayed ejaculation, not erectile difficulty. There’s currently no evidence that suggests we should be blaming E.D. on porn; we already have plenty of other things to use to explain it.
Unfortunately, the NoFap community seems filled with people who believe that the strength of their beliefs is equivalent to scientific evidence, and they fail to acknowledge the subjective weakness of their reliance on anecdotes. Some of their leading voices appear to be people who have replaced a past obsession with porn with an obsession for fighting against the dangers of porn. I think porn is rarely the issue, and that they, like all of us, need to spend more time looking at themselves. Porn is never a cause of problems, and when there are problems, porn use is a symptom. Diagnosing porn addiction is like telling a person with a cold that they have a sneezing disorder.
The press is part of the problem, by treating these issues as though the anecdotes and moral conviction are just as important as scientific evidence. That’s why we have the anti-vaccine crisis. Same dynamic here, thankfully with less critical results.
The NoFap strategies might have some positive benefits for people, but only incidentally. The brain doesn’t need to “reboot” the way they argue, though taking a period of time away from any repetitive behavior may help a person become more mindful and more aware of the impact of these behaviors. These guys reporting that they are able to "get laid" when they stop using porn has little to do with the porn, and everything to do with the fact that they are making conscious choices about their lives, their sexuality, their relationships, and their needs. I encourage that, for all people. As a man, and a therapist, I just wish it didn’t come along so loaded with these false messages that men are inherently weak, that their brains subject to being warped by porn, and that the quality of their sexuality is measured only by the strength of their erections.