It’s Wednesday, November 18, 2020. Tensions rise over the US election, national economies teeter on a knife’s edge, and the coronavirus pandemic continues its grim march across the planet. But for a few thousand young men, there’s only one immediate concern: the urge to jack off. Welcome to No Nut November, the movement dedicated to abstaining from masturbation for an entire calendar month.
Powered by an extremely online mix of self-help dogma, memes, and total bro-science, No Nut November adherents are halfway through their annual challenge, and have swamped messageboards to encourage their fellow ‘cumrades’ not to bust. Now, years after it was first connected to far-right ideologies and unguarded misogyny, it may be time for No Nut November to finally reach its climax.
While religious and cultural groups across the planet have abstained from masturbation for millennia, No Nut November sprang from the No Fap scene, a collection of forums and Reddit boards dedicated to the simple act of not cranking one out. The primary No Fap subreddit today counts over 723,000 subscribers, advertising itself as a safe community for anyone who feels “excessive masturbation or pornography has become a problem”. This ethos of self-improvement, combined with the faddish appeal of other month-long trends, helped launch No Nut November as a deceptively simple challenge for folks to interrupt their masturbation habits. On the official No Nut November subreddit and Discord channel, participants check in each day to discuss their progress or reveal their temptations. The goal seems harmless, but there’s more to it than battling the urge to wank.
For as long as No Nut November has been a thing, onlookers have questioned its core tenets. In a 2018 article tearing down the movement, The New Statesman pointed to the work of author Gary Wilson, whose book Your Brain On Porn is touted as a must-read text on /r/NoFap, as a key contributor to the idea that habitual porn use can alter how your brain actually works. Yet studies have repeatedly shown that masturbation in and of itself ain’t damaging. In a 2020 paper, University of Mainz researchers Felix Zimmer and Roland Imhoff posited, “On the level of physiological outcomes, thus, there is currently no evidence for any beneficial effects of abstinence from masturbation”, save for temporary bumps in serum testosterone, a hormone responsible for the development of ‘male’ sex characteristics.
Even this perception – that withholding from masturbation is intrinsically ‘manly’ – has been co-opted by some No Nutters. The idea of abstinence imparting superpowers appears in memes; on Discord, one member today said they have “ascended to God status and can fly at the speed of a fighter jet.”
But this impulse to see ejaculation as an open threat to masculinity also presents itself in more damaging ways. The Proud Boys, a male-only far-right movement whose members jostle over how racist they should be in public, maintain a mazz-free philosophy, itself an outgrowth of weird, paranoid fears over virility and race.
A number of NoFap adherents are also on the record refuting incel ideology, and Reddit posts tease out the crucial differences between the two camps. But some No Nutters have sent abusive messages to adult entertainers and have emailed threats to porn sites, a decidedly misogynistic twist on abstinence. On the Discord, one user today described fighting sexual urges after watching “some instagram (sic) bitches”. (Administrators in both the /r/NoFap and /r/NoNutNovember subreddits have distanced themselves from extremist politics and overt misogyny.)
If the occasional wank isn’t harmful – and if some adherents take the meme way too far, openly attacking women for the crime of existing – why are people drawn to No Nut November?
The answer may lie in Zimmer and Imhoff’s research, which drew respondents from Reddit itself. Simply put: while No Nutters might think an ‘overuse’ of pornography or masturbation has a tangible impact on their lives, there could be more at play. “Such attitude-based incentives for abstinence may be rooted in an apparent tension between religious and political core convictions and the act of masturbation, resulting in feelings of shame and guilt,” the researchers reckon.
These internalised feelings of failure and resentment are plain to see across in Reddit and Discord chats. Each day, dozens of participants reveal their angst and shame, brought forward by the totally normal process of jerking off.
For some, No Nut November may be a way to take a break from self-stimulation, kicking off a few weeks of reflection and, ironically, self-love. It’s impossible to navigate the internet and social media without being bombarded with sexualised images; if taking a breather helps some folks monitor their reactions to that overwhelming stimuli, well, good for them. But it’s hard not to see No Nut November as self-inflicted punishment, where the pleasure of jerking it will never quite overcome the needless self-pity it brings.
In the end, Zimmer and Imhoff state further research into those who abstain from porn and masturbation “might eventually be a basis for reducing pathologization of average and healthy frequencies of sexual behavior.”
Until then, it feels like time to bust No Nut November wide open.