February 8, 2024 - 7:00am

The online movement against pornography and masturbation gained further traction this week.

A recent NPR article suggested the movement was potentially harmful, based on unscientific claims, and tied to racism, sexism and extremism. It disputed common beliefs of anti-porn and anti-masturbation groups, including that one can become addicted to pornography and that frequent masturbation can cause sexual dysfunction. 

The average child sees online pornography by age 12, and many see it even younger. A tenth of men are concerned they may be addicted to porn. Psychological associations do not formally recognise porn addiction, as NPR notes, and the link between masturbation and erectile dysfunction hasn’t been empirically substantiated. 

Right-leaning commentators have since defended the anti-porn movement and portrayed the NPR article as part of an effort to weaken men by discouraging self-discipline and demonising male efforts at self-improvement. 

Whereas previous generations broadly viewed the anti-porn crusade as a feminist cause, many of today’s feminists view sex work and porn as empowering, while a significant number of Right-leaning men see porn as part of a broader threat to male physical and spiritual health. This inversion has its roots in the Left’s embrace of sex-positivity and its disinterest in the growing crisis of men’s mental and physical health. 

Conservatives view critiques of the anti-porn movement as a symptom of the Left’s supposed reflexive suspicion of masculinity, a trend which may have something to do with the increasing political polarisation of men and women. Generation Z women are nearly twice as likely to be liberal as their male counterparts, an AEI survey found last year; women of previous generations are only a few percentage points more liberal. 

Often referred to as “NoFap”, the push against porn use is male-dominated and loosely tied to the online Right and the “manosphere”. The Christian Right has long condemned porn and masturbation for moral reasons, but this newer, secular opposition views the practices as physically and mentally unhealthy, and a way for the elites to keep men docile and distracted. Masturbation is a symbol of futility and lack of self-discipline, both of which are anathema to the bodybuilding enthusiasts of the manosphere. 

As the Right-wing influencer known as Bronze Age Pervert famously quipped, “Chimp in state of nature never jerks off, but in captivity he does, wat does this mean?” To masturbate is to be ineffectual and weak, he argues: that is the undercurrent of the manosphere’s rejection of pornography. 

Popular posts on the NoFap Reddit page consistently reject the movement’s reputation for being aligned with the alt-Right and various hate groups, but the NoFap idea has nonetheless flourished in those circles. A Proud Boys rule book released in court last year included a rule limiting masturbation to once per month. 

Online pornography is replete with racist and sexist tropes as well as rape and child abuse content. The political Right has been campaigning against porn for decades, but a 2020 New York Times investigation into rape and child porn on PornHub finally pushed the issue into the mainstream. Visa and Mastercard suspended business with PornHub’s parent company MindGeek soon after, and PornHub purged two-thirds of its videos as part of a new policy restricting user uploads. 

Despite the social justice themes at play, anti-porn activism hasn’t taken hold on the Left in the same way it has on the Right. Instead, the fight over explicit content has taken on the same partisan contours as other fights over gender and masculinity. State Republicans are passing restrictions on minors accessing porn, while liberal critics have condemned the effort as a violation of constitutional rights. Sex positivity and its demands that the culture destigmatise and decriminalise sex work have become battlecries for the progressive Left, and this applies to pornography as well as prostitution. 

As Republicans advance legal restrictions on porn and Right-wing cultural influencers continue to discourage its usage in the coming years, the polarisation of the porn issue will only deepen. Given the massive scale of the industry, legislative and legal action are likely the only avenues through which Americans’ porn habit can be tamed. 


Laurel Duggan is UnHerd’s US correspondent.