X Close

Do orgasms make us weak? The 'no masturbation month' movement points to a philosophy that dates back nearly two millennia

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

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.

moveincircles

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

45 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago

Tempted to knock one out right now….

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

Are you kidding? I’m masturbating right now!

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Are you nude?

David J
David J
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Or fully dressed, just a single nether hanging out.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  David J

Nurse! The screens!

David J
David J
3 years ago

Quick and clean, keeps the parts in woking order, what’s not to like? Unless of course, you are foolish enough to swallow religious guilt.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  David J

What does penile woking order consist in, exactly?

Ray Hall
Ray Hall
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Standing up for your woke beliefs ??!

Mark Birbeck
Mark Birbeck
3 years ago
Reply to  Ray Hall

In my experience there’s little else to do in Woking.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Birbeck

isn’t woking the emotional equivalent of masturbating?

René Descartes
René Descartes
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Birbeck

Wanking is better than Woking

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  Ray Hall

Penetrating and seminal

David J
David J
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Ho ho. Content = nice thought, nice stiff, nice end.
A thoughtful and loving gf once said to me, “…think of an orgasm as recharging your batteries.”
I thought and obeyed, and have topped off ever since.

Sean L
Sean L
3 years ago

What’s called “weird right” or “fashy” here was once merely masculine. To be a “wank3r” is shameful because unmanly. No one’s put it more acutely than Shakespeare: ‘expense of spirit in a waste of shame’. But the masterwork on masturbation is DH Lawrence’s P0rnography and Obscenity. His principal theme is *reciprocity* or rather its denial: masturbation is “doing the dirt on life”.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Sean L

‘expense of spirit in a waste of shame’ … is lust in action and, till action, lust.

Have you … er … come across Kant’s attack on wanking in the Metaphysics of Morals?

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Sean L

‘expense of spirit in a waste of shame’ … is lust in action and, till action, lust.

Have you … er … come across Kant’s attack on wanquing in the Metaphysics of Morals?

Sean L
Sean L
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Do enlighten me, sir.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
3 years ago

I think you may be overthinking this.

Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
3 years ago

I apologise for not resisting the temptation- what a load of tossers.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

I’m sorry, what? I am trying to wrap my head around the concept of a vast internet community engaging in a circle jerk about not jerking off.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

It seems odd to me that western religions discouraged masturbation when surely it was a God given antidote to sexual intercourse.

Similarly, if

“masturbation, just like sex, has several health benefits, as it follows the same sexual response cycle that you would experience with a partner. Sex, partnered or not, releases stress, boosts your immune system, brightens your mood, and calms your nerves. Happiness and a close bond (again, with a partner or yourself and your body) can result from having an orgasm. What’s more interesting is that when having an orgasm, 95 percent of the brain mimics the brain of someone who has taken heroin; the region of the brain behind the left eye shuts down during an orgasm, which is also the part of the brain that allows us to maintain control”

then clearly achieving multiple orgasms through chi orientated masturbation makes us stronger, healthier, more relaxed and happier.

So one can only guess St Augustine was miserable, bad tempered, prone to illness and riddled with shame ðƾ˜Ơ

wave heart
wave heart
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

I reach high state of health and bliss without sexual orgasm, when my energy accumulates and goes upwards, reaches the heart center and beyond.

Marco Federighi
Marco Federighi
3 years ago

Perfectionists, again overthinking stuff – both Augustine and Nietzsche. The ancient Greeks and Romans were better – nothing too much or too little of these or that. Virtue was in the middle – courage between the extremes of recklessness and cowardice. Enter the Christians, and now it is a one way street. Telleyrand had it right – et surtout, messieurs, pas trop de zele. oh well….

aelf
aelf
3 years ago

For Pelagius, we are all born innocent.

The 20th Century should have knocked that idea in the head.

Alan Hughes
Alan Hughes
3 years ago

An interesting article on a topic I’d heard little about. Perhaps I should have anticipated the puerile jokes in the discussion as it seems it is still an area we won’t talk about honestly.

johntshea2
johntshea2
3 years ago

Rereading Augustine absurd and vicious attempt to justify collective and inherited guilt reminds me that theologians can be just as idiotic as philosophers and priests as childish as politicians.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘(An echo of this view is found today in those football managers who tell players not to have sex the night before a match.)’

Given their performances this season, I can only assume that the Derby County players are having sex at half time.

Richard Gipps
Richard Gipps
3 years ago

‘make us weak’ in the sense of “has the effect of draining us”, or in the sense of “partly constitutes a weak way of life”? The article doesn’t try to answer the first (surely scientific) question, and mainly just offers different opinions on the latter (surely moral) question… Unless we separate the questions out, we won’t be able to address how they come together (so to speak): as when a belief that it makes you weak itself is the real cause of engaging in it demoralising you.

kdelafield
kdelafield
3 years ago

I read that No Nut November is about abstinence, not just masturbation, as the opening paragraph implies. Anyway No Nut November appears to be cancelled, apparently due to Covid. Moreover this is a tedious article that attempts to address the health question in its title with a summation of views and quotes from a select group of the long-dead. Maybe its meant to be ironic, or even funny, and i missed it, whatever for me it seems pretty pointless; maybe it pleasures the author !

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago
Reply to  kdelafield

The article’s about historical perspective, not health – not everyone thinks a look into the past is pointless!

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
3 years ago

And there was me thinking that masturbation was god’s way of telling me that my future was in my own hands

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

What does Jeffrey Toobin think? Perhaps we could set up a Zoom call with him to find out.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
3 years ago

Not a helpful quote in an article on the pros and cons of onanism:“… a British ascetic named Pelagius, thought human willpower was enough to enable every man to get a grip…”
Sorry, I’ll get my coat .

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
3 years ago

I can’t understand the whole ‘incel’ movement or why young guys would group together and self-identify as such. I think it was Clive James who said that virginity was a reoccurring condition. If you want a girlfriend, you clean up, get a job and make yourself attractive to the opposite sex. Sitting on the sofa eating cheetos, whining to other losers online isn’t usually a good way to get laid.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

Now I know about #nofap. Thanks, Mary.

Seriously, though – nice way to turn out 3000 words (I haven’t counted) on wanking in an article which is, essentially, a verbal w**k about theology.

croftyass
croftyass
3 years ago

As someone once eloquently stated..”masturbation…having sex with someone you really love..”
or as a good friend once told me..”I’ve been having sex with Sarah for a few years yet…although she doesn’t know it..”
Mind you..troublesome stuff for us good Catholic boys!!!

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago

To give the christian point of view it is tied to marriage. Masturbation before marriage would tend to encourage fornication (sex outside of marriage) as it is very difficult to do it without visualising somebody. Masturbation within marriage (if it is not with your spouse in mind) would tend to foster adultery. Within the marriage bed anything goes so long as there are no third parties, in reality and even in your head.

F Wallace
F Wallace
3 years ago

Nofap is nonsense. Simple as that. Trying to create a false discipline around nonsense is all it is. It’s healthier for you to ejaculate reasonably frequently.

M Spahn
M Spahn
3 years ago

Yes, it seems over the top. On the other hand, I suspect there is a lot we don’t know. It does feel different when you take a few days off.

billwald123
billwald123
3 years ago

“Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about command and control.”

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

Excellent!

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

The Christian case was based on not spilling seed on unfertile ground, so obviously it only applied to men.

tiffeyekno
tiffeyekno
3 years ago

I think there is some confusion in the comments. In America to ‘nut’ is to ejaculate rather than masturbate. So the month is about abstinence, not oraism. Personally, I dont give a toss.

nim.rod77
nim.rod77
3 years ago

i thought this was a health piece .. but no.. it was mostly ranting.
also mentioning greasy food is dumb and misleading. saturated fats are essential for our diets
#meatrx #carnivore.

yes, orgasms weaken us phisically , can only speak for males though. mentally also.
havent done it in a year or so.. and yes, i have an attractive girlfriend but we dont have sex everymonth.. maybe every season

mahmud.gibran
mahmud.gibran
3 years ago

I recommend everyone on nofap-the absolutely power of liberation and dignity and honor it comes with are unparalleled. Helps me with focusing on my purpose too.