Are men are so inherently weak their brains can be warped by porn? Can a man’s sexuality be measured by the strength of his erection?
I get asked about the NoFap movement often, as you might imagine.
NoFap (that name is now trademarked, in an interesting twist) 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. Now they are 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, 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 Kellog, who invented corn flakes as part of an anti-masturbation campaign.
The anecdotal problems these physicians were seeing turned out to be the untreated effects of STDs such as syphilis and gonorrhea.
The past hundred years of advance in sexual medicine tells us that masturbation is very, 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.
That’s a little sad.
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.
An interesting note is that no one in the NoFap movement is actually a scientist who does research on 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 simplistic and reductionist 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 folks 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 expectancy effect — 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 people like Kellog to argue for surgery such as clitorectomies and the use of physical restraints to prevent masturbation. These same types of morally-driven arguments led to homosexuality being labeled a disease, and to sexual women being called nymphomaniacs.
The latest argument by the NoFap folks 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 (ED) and begun to realize it’s quite common, even among young men.
In young men, the causes are typically from medications, anxiety, cigarettes, drugs, obesity and lack of sexual experience.
Today, young men find it easy to masturbate to porn. 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 porn that creates this effect, and therefore these men understandably blame porn rather than themselves.
That’s an unfortunate misdirection, leading to externalizing this issue and pointing the blame for ED at the common social whipping-post of porn. Scientific evidence looking at this question continues to build in the opposite direction, indicating that high levels of porn use are most likely to be tied to high libido — meaning frequent porn use is most often an effect of libido, and not the other way around.
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 ED on porn — and we already have plenty of other things to use to explain it.
Unfortunately, the NoFap community seems filled with people who think the strength of their beliefs is equivalent to scientific evidence.
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 for 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. When there are problems, porn 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. This is 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 to become more mindful and more aware of the impact of these behaviors.
These guys reports that they are able to “get laid” when they stop using porn have 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 as a therapist, I just wish it didn’t come along so loaded with these messages that men are inherently weak, their brains subject to being warped by porn, and that the quality of a man’s sexuality is measured by the strength of his erection.
This article originally appeared on PsychologyToday.com.
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