Sexual Cleansing

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An online community of the young declares war on pornography

MEET A 26-YEAR-OLD man who chooses to call himself Nikhil. He works in Bengaluru, in finance, after completing his undergraduate degree in Chennai and his Master’s in the UK. In college he found himself ensnared in a cycle of pornography and fapping (an onomatopoeic term for masturbation, first used in manga comics, and a common slang today). Eight months ago, while sitting at a bar in Bengaluru, a friend, who had also returned from the UK, told him about the NoFap website for the first time. Despondent that he was hooked to porn and was fapping four or five times a week, Nikhil decided to take the plunge. And as modern plunges are wont, it entailed diving into the internet. There he found thousands of testimonials from men who had chosen the NoFap lifestyle. The one YouTube video that struck him was a man who claimed to have fapped only three or four times in the last 365 days. The man in question appeared to glow from within; he looked strong and healthy, and exuded confidence and charm. Inspired, Nikhil resolved to try ‘fapstinence’ for himself.

Speaking on the phone from Bengaluru, he says, “I wanted to stop watching porn, which requires a huge lifestyle change. When you stop watching porn, you start to view things differently. You go deeper. The first two weeks that I went off those two things (porn and fapping) I found a new clarity. When you masturbate, an energy leaves you. Porn makes you view women in fucked up ways. It’s twisting society. I wanted to step out of that. I felt much freer when I stopped.”

Nikhil is just one among 204,026 (to date) ‘fapstronauts’ (around 5 per cent are ‘femstronauts’) on the NoFap Reddit community who have chosen ‘fapstinence’ or ‘rebooting’. The page comes equipped with a ‘panic button’, ‘badges’ (for number of days gone without fapping etcetera) and ‘accountability partners’ who hold each other responsible for their sexual habits.

NoFap ,which calls itself ‘a comprehensive community-based porn recovery website’, was founded in June 2011 by Pennsylvania- based Alexander Rhodes. In an interview with The New York Times, in 2016, the 26-year-old Rhodes said, “It’s one thing to look back and regret what happened in terms of growing up, being addicted to internet porn. You might look back and be like: ‘Oh, man. I was a loser. And if I never watched it, my life would be so much better.’ And maybe that’s true. But at the same time, the fact that I was addicted to internet porn, the fact that I was so mediocre, makes me uniquely qualified to help humanity.” What Rhodes has done is learn from his addiction and channel that unique experience and knowledge to help others. Admitting that while in college he would masturbate to porn up to 14 times a day, Rhodes is well positioned to help a generation of young Nikhils who find themselves in the deep and destructive end of the online world and floundering while on earth.

Affluent young men are exposed to more porn than ever before because of the internet, and this is fundamentally rewiring their brains. Internet porn differs from that one clammy Debonair ferreted and shared by teenagers in boarding schools . The reason: unending novelty. After a hundred flips of the page, even Pamela Anderson can be a damp squib. With the internet, a thousand other Andersons nestle just a click away. The Coolidge effect helps explain the male spike in arousal when it comes to matters of novelty. In Biology and Psychology, this effect is ‘a phenomenon seen in mammalian species whereby males (and to a less extent females) exhibit renewed sexual interest if introduced to new receptive sexual partners.’ Or to put it in everyday terms: men dig the new chick on the horizon.

When you stop watching porn, you start to view things differently. The first two weeks that I went off those two things (porn and fapping) I found a new clarity

Gary Wilson, teacher, and author of Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction (2015) uses principles of Neuroscience, Behavioural Psychology and Evolution Theory to illustrate the effects of high-definition porn on adolescent brains. In a TED talk, he explains that today we are in the throes of the ‘great porn experiment’, whereby every young boy has access to pornography, and many seek it out by age 10. He says that without the Coolidge effect, there’d be no internet porn, adding, “This old mammalian programme perceives each novel female on a guy’s screen as a genetic opportunity.” This means that the guy’s brain fires the neurotransmitter dopamine in a bid to ‘fertilise’ each novel mate or image. Wilson adds, “With internet porn, a guy can see more hot babes in 10 minutes than his ancestors could see in several lifetimes… and carefully the brain gets associated to this porn harem.” This ‘porn harem’ leads young men into coves of isolation, inattention, dissatisfaction and might even result in porn-induced erectile dysfunction.

Started five years ago, the NoFap website caters to those who want out from this porn harem. The site gets about one million unique visitors each month, proving the need for it in today’s society. The Reddit community serves like an AA meet-up for those seeking the path of ‘fapstinence’. Instead of a huddle of people swapping stories over cookies and soft drinks in a common room, here thousands rally and support each other, creating a worldwide brotherhood of sobriety and connections. The discussion board is a fascinating canvas of people’s concerns, motivations and inspirations. The conversations shimmer with honesty, and are devoid of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge humour of pubescent toilet stalls. The lack of innuendo and the sheer candour found on the site elevates it from random online chat rooms to a movement fostered by dialogue.

Gasping for hope and ‘moments away from relapsing into porn’, a user whose resolve is ebbing reaches out to the invisible community. Within minutes a certain Mr ‘Memo-Moto’ replies with these words of encouragement, ‘You can do it. You can get over these ludicrous, primal urges that you know will leave you feeling as empty and cold as before. Shut down your computer and walk away from this situation… If I didn’t walk away from my computer a week ago, my presence, confidence and ultimately the quality of my life would have been compromised for a few fleeting seconds of ejaculative sneeze… You deserve a life of happiness and prosperity, unhindered by the darkness of carnal pleasures… If you do this; if you turn off your computer right now and walk away, you will literally be that one in a million who chose to say no to their caveman urges.’

Those on the NoFap forum are (mostly) men who have resolved to battle their caveman urges. Nikhil explains, “I don’t want future generations to be like us. We need to get these fucked up trends out of our system. If people try out this lifestyle, they will realise the benefits of it.”

I was a lot more confident (without fapping for over four months). I was more socially engaged. I didn’t over-think when I was with women. People said I was ‘manlier’. My social anxieties were less

Twenty-three-year-old Ritesh (name changed) is quick to list out the other benefits. He chose to ‘reboot’ not because he was addicted to porn, but because he’d heard about the advantages of not fapping. Having gone without fapping even once for four-and- a -half months, he says, “I was a lot more confident. I was more socially engaged. I didn’t over-think when I was with women. People said I was ‘manlier’. I don’t know what that means, even. My social anxieties were less.” Having studied in the UK, but now that he is working in India, he says he has found no in-person community of support. He relies on the online world. When he has a ‘strong urge’ to break his ‘streak’, he has turned to the NoFap app at times, which encourages those teetering on the edge of relapse to count backwards from ten, and to breathe slowly. He also uses another app called BrainBuddy which helps users stay away from PMO (porn, masturbation and orgasm). He says, “It is like a daily tracker; for every day that you don’t fap, ‘the tree of life’ grows back. If you say you are stressed, there are different games to help relieve that stress. For example, popping bubble wrap on the screen.”

I can understand the dangers of porn, but what are the perils of masturbation, I ask him. Ritesh takes a long pause and says, “That is a good question. But I have read some research that shows if you are not sexually that excited and if you keep doing it, it is not the healthiest… My motivation was very simple. I wanted to reduce my social anxieties and I thought this would help.”

THE ETYMOLOGY OF ‘masturbate’ is a compound from the Latin roots ‘manus’ (hand) and ‘stuprare’ (to defile). From the start, the word has carried a negative moral judgement, with religious texts discouraging the ‘spilling of semen on the ground’. (Women’s masturbation is seldom, if ever, dealt with.) Sigmund Freud warned, it ‘vitiates the character through indulgence’ and that it might result in ‘diminished potency in marriage.’ Even today, while parents might be comfortable discussing sexual intercourse with their teenage children, masturbation is seldom touched upon, even though it is known that 90 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women practise it.

In the essay ‘Masturbation: Vice or Virtue’ (available on JSTOR), author and professor of comparative religions, William E Phipps writes, ‘There is no accepted medical standard defining ‘excessive masturbation’. Several decades ago an experiment requiring men to masturbate every several hours over a two-year period was conducted in Germany. There was no evidence of any physical or mental disorders in the subjects as a result...The physiological system has its own controls, so there is as little point in warning about the dangers of excessive masturbation as about the dangers of excessive sneezing. Both are usually orgasmic experiences in which tensions are relieved. With respect to masturbation the data prompt the generalization that never has a more harmless activity provoked more harmful anxiety.’

Masturbation is the most widespread sexual activity for youth, and that is a seed that sprouts anxiety in society. Our children are sexual beings—the horror! To give masturbation its due credence is to recognise and acknowledge the sexual awakening of young men and women. For many of these young men at online forums the concern over masturbation is essentially linked to the viewing of porn.

Nikhil and Ritesh and other 20-year-olds have found that abstaining from porn and masturbation has been useful. They agree that porn causes social anxiety and that porn is the stimulus in one’s head that makes men ‘see’ women differently; it culls empathy and reinforces objectification. They also realise the need for more men in India to become aware of such online communities and forums. Many men in this country would benefit from a message on the NoFap Reddit page, ‘Go on, go about your life and enjoy the real world outside of your darkened room. The choice is completely in your hands.’