A clutch of penis balloons. Credit: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty

November 5, 2020   5 mins

Forget Movember, that sanitised celebration of men and their facial hair. Real men celebrate No Nut November, the annual autumn festival of not wanking.

No Nut November emerged from the #nofap movement, a support community for masturbation addicts founded in 2011 by Pittsburgh web developer Alexander Rhodes. The original #nofap Reddit forum now has over 715,000 members, while the movement has created its own forums and even premium content and merch. Every November, in the name of freeing themselves from pornography and certain urges, boys and men (and the occasional woman) set themselves the challenge of abstaining from orgasm for an entire month.

The movement discourages community members from coming on too strong with religious viewpoints, and its followers have many motives for abstinence. But both the community’s recurring topics, and the criticisms it faces from wank-positive critics, reveal the outline of an argument about sexuality that stretches back over a millennium and a half.

Throughout most of the history of Christianity, masturbation has been frowned upon. Central to this is the influence of the fifth-century theologian St Augustine, who argued in The City of God that the unruliness of human sexuality is a punishment for our disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden:

 … by the just retribution of the sovereign God whom we refused to be subject to and serve, our flesh, which was subjected to us, now torments us by insubordination, although our disobedience brought trouble on ourselves, not upon God.

In our fallen state, any man experiencing an inconvenient boner is suffering “a most righteous retribution” for “the disobedience of his flesh”.

Certainly, those #Fapstronauts who report waking themselves up in the night would relate to Augustine’s description of our radically unruly bodies. But where St Augustine attributed the rampant wilfulness of human sexuality to our fallen state, his theological nemesis, a British ascetic named Pelagius, thought human willpower was enough to enable every man to get a grip.

For Pelagius, we are all born innocent. Thanks to God’s gift of free will, we are all capable of sinning – but sinning is a choice. With enough determination and discipline, he argued, a sinless life is attainable even on earth. St Augustine demurred: this sort of perfection, he protested, was only available to humans before the Fall and certainly isn’t on the menu now, no matter how grimly we stifle our urges.

In ‘Against Julian’ St Augustine describes how even the most austere among us find “disquieting memories associated with base pleasures” pop up, unprompted, “even when not aware of any pleasure of touch”. Such thoughts, he laments (perhaps from experience, having vowed abstinence himself), “crowd in upon chaste and holy intentions with a certain uproar of sordid interruptions”.

In the epic theology-off between St Augustine and Pelagius, it was St Augustine who won. Pelagius was excommunicated and eventually fled to Egypt, where he vanished into obscurity. But despite more than a thousand years in the wilderness, with his name a byword for heresy, it may be that Pelagius had the last laugh.

Today we’re less likely to believe we need God’s grace than to imagine heaven can be achieved on earth, and that humans can be made perfect if only we ‘do the work’. Even in the #nofap communities many are more Team Pelagius than Team Augustine. In response to one #NoFap thread asking: “How do I master lust?”, the responses emphasise self-mastery through practice, with the clear inference that this can be perfected and untoward urges defeated forever.

But St Augustine worried that the logic of Pelagius’ arguments would end up writing God out of the picture altogether, in favour of a humanism interested only in perfection on earth. Fast-forward 1,400 or so years, to the 19th century, and Friedrich Nietzsche both declared God dead and – in God’s absence – embraced a version of Pelagius’ doctrine of perfection through discipline. In Anti-Christ (Don’t say I didn’t warn you, St Augustine might have said), Nietzsche argued that the best men (he didn’t think everyone could attain this elevated state) should see themselves as the sole measure of their own values and also sole master of their own destiny:

“The most intelligent men, like the strongest, find their happiness where others would find only disaster: in the labyrinth, in being hard with themselves and with others, in effort; their delight is in self-mastery; in them asceticism becomes second nature, a necessity, an instinct. They regard a difficult task as a privilege; it is to them a recreation to play with burdens that would crush all others…”

For Nietzsche self-mastery wasn’t a condition of escaping sin, as Pelagius had it. Rather, it was opposed to Christian morality – an ethic he described in Beyond Good and Evil as the doctrine of slaves. Far from offering us a path to redemption, for Nietzsche, Christianity was a fatally weakening and feminising influence on otherwise proud and vital men.

Like Nietzsche, whose thinking on self-discipline was influenced by his study of Chinese and Indian cultures, many #nofappers are influenced by Eastern thought. Here, for example in fourth-century Taoist text The Classic of Nu Su, sexual self-control is often described as a route to health and even enlightenment.

For many Chinese and Indian thinkers, the marital and the martial arts are also intimately (literally) linked: the vital energy expended in ejaculation was understood to be the same one needed for a warlike disposition. (An echo of this view is found today in those football managers who tell players not to have sex the night before a match.)

It should come as no surprise, then, that those corners of the Very Online Weird Right who obsess about weight-lifting and self-discipline often also embrace the masculine virtues of semen retention. Nor should it come as a surprise that this Weird Right embrace of abstinence, Nietzschean self-mastery and masculine warrior virtues sees #nofap routinely accused of being a bit, well, fash.

Confusingly, though, other critics accuse #nofap of being a stalking-horse for the Christian war on wanking. Thus, a movement dedicated to inculcating sexual self-discipline attracts criticism both for being too Christian in the Augustinian sense, in painting sex as innately sinful, but also for not being Christian enough, in taking Pelagianism to its humanistic and vaguely goose-stepping conclusion as an Übermensch doctrine.

Behind both these critiques lies the modern belief, so pervasive it’s nigh-on invisible, that there’s no reason (Christian or otherwise) to try and control our desires. Far from being either evidence of our fallen nature, a bodily urge we should discipline, or even a ching force to be gathered in pursuit of enlightenment, for the modern world the desire to masturbate is healthy, and we should embrace it.

In this view, the fulfilment of desire is an intrinsic good. According to Oprah magazine, masturbation is a crucial part of ‘self care’. We’re more likely to be harmed by feelings of wanking-related guilt than the act of wanking. What’s the point of self-denial when the pursuit of desire’s fulfilment is so much better?

And it seems as though there’s an entire industry out there jostling to fulfil our every momentary urge, often via the advert-riddled, distraction-filled, dopamine-oriented internet where many of us spend more than a third of our waking hours. Whether it’s greasy food, pornography, social media, gambling or something else that tickles your pleasure centres, there’s someone out there who wants to monetise your dopamine cravings.

St Augustine’s “uproar of sordid interruptions” has become the fabric of reality itself. And the touchy-feely language of self-care, self-expression and healthy release is there to offer easy justifications for giving in to those interruptions. Eat that biscuit, click that outrage link, fap away: desire is healthy and natural.

Except the tech bros of our new 21st-century aristocracy are coming to the opposite conclusion. Far from spending his days doom-scrolling, the CEO of Twitter (my personal dopamine vice) goes on 10-day vipassana retreats for his birthday. For those less committed to self-discipline than this, other hot concepts include ‘Dopamine fasting’ – that is, self-imposed breaks from activities that deliver a dopamine hit, especially those which can become compulsive or addictive such as eating, shopping or masturbation. Clearly, while the official message is ‘Give in to those urges’, those in charge of creating our dopamine hits increasingly forswear the drug they’re selling.

Downstream, young men are listening. Their response might be framed in Team Pelagius terms, as a search for perfection, or in Nietzschean terms as a a (maybe sometimes just a bit fashy) pursuit of warlike masculine self-mastery, or in cod-Taoist terms as a search for higher consciousness. It might be framed in Team Augustine terms as a desire to sublimate our fallen nature, in search of human love and even the grace of God. But, however they’re telling the story, this mutiny of wankers against wanking is a very masculine kind of rebellion against our culture of therapeutic desire.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.