No Fap: A Cultural History of Anti-Masturbation

By Aya LabaniehNovember 1, 2023

No Fap: A Cultural History of Anti-Masturbation
MEN THROUGHOUT HISTORY—from Pythagoras and Yeats to Kellogg’s and the Proud Boys—have been anxious about masturbation.

If you’ve spent time on the internet, you’ve undoubtedly heard of “No Nut November” (NNN)—an annual Reddit-based challenge that dares young men to abstain from ejaculating (or “nutting”) for the full 30 days of the month. While NNN has gone viral as a tongue-in-cheek meme in its own right since 2017, its anti-ejaculatory ethos can be traced to the online “NoFap” community, whose adherents—almost entirely cisgender, heterosexual men—tout its near-magical self-help benefits. There, abstaining from masturbation is presented as a tool not only for quitting addictions to pornography but also for curing depression, finding a girlfriend, succeeding in one’s career, and generally regaining confidence, autonomy, and masculine power.

The movement was founded in 2011 by web developer Alexander Rhodes, who was inspired by a 2003 study claiming that men who did not masturbate for seven days experienced a 145.7 percent spike in testosterone levels. Though the study was debunked in 2021, the popularity of its principles among men has skyrocketed. The r/NoFap subreddit currently boasts 1.1 million members, along with several hundred thousand on website forums and countless spin-off Facebook groups. One YouTube channel that promotes “fapstinence,” Improvement Pill, has amassed upwards of 4.6 million views for videos such as “Why the People of NoFap Become Successful.” Meanwhile, Stanford neuroscientist and self-styled wellness guru Andrew Huberman (who has 4.2 million YouTube subscribers), appears routinely on podcasts and interview circuits—including Jordan Peterson’s channel, which boasts 7.5 million—to preach the dangers of masturbation and its easy dopamine high, along with the focus, energy, and success that can be attained through abstaining from it. Some NoFappers limit themselves to policing masturbation as a solitary act and encourage men to seek real intimacy with real women, while hard-liners discourage ejaculation tout court in pursuit of the aforementioned testosterone magic.

As entertaining as an entire community of men bonded together by self-denied orgasms may be, the movement has a darker underbelly. While many NoFap adherents genuinely struggle with porn addiction, loneliness, and a dearth of intimacy, the community has also come under fire for its ties to far-right, fascist, and misogynistic groups. In the last years, numerous articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, Vice, and The New Statesman exposing the overlaps between NoFap and the Proud Boys, who make it a membership requirement to abstain from jerking off and to engage in toxic online campaigns harassing and threatening adult film stars. These campaigns are peppered with calls to “kill all pornographers” and with antisemitic conspiracy theories connecting the pornography industry to the “global cabal,” accusing the nonexistent group of promoting “degeneracy” and “moral decline” in the West. Likewise, NoFap ideology has taken root in many “involuntary celibate” (incel) forums. In addition to creating noxious communities of self-loathing, often spilling over into real-life violence, incels have acquired a negative reputation for their hatred of women, female sexual liberation, and feminism—which they interpret as forms of subjugation of men through denial of sex.

Nutting, it seems, has never been more in crisis: where to do it, whether to do it, and who to hate for doing it are all openly contested questions in masculine spaces, articulating a fundamental concern with men’s loss of power in a modern world that legally and technologically empowers women. And yet, the fear of fapping is not as simply vile or puerile as it may seem. Seed-spilling has served as a potent metaphor for anxieties over power long before being “extremely online” was even a possibility. There is a surprisingly long history to this fixation—stretching as far back as 4,000 years ago.


There was no uniform view of masturbation in the ancient world. The Sumerians perceived it as an act of creation: one myth describes the god Enki ejaculating into empty riverbeds and thereby creating the Tigris and Euphrates. Likewise, ancient Egyptians believed that the god Atum created the world by the force of his masturbatory powers. The ancient Greeks regularly depicted scenes of masturbation on vase art, including masturbating women and their (at times multiple) ancient dildos.

Nevertheless, not all old-world depictions of masturbation were celebratory or uncomplicated. The ancient Babylonians saw omens in everything, including the paths of the planets, the entrails of sacrificed sheep, and day-to-day human behavior. As first noted by the historian Ann Guinan, Babylonian “sex omens”—which were probably written down around 1100 BCE—develop a consistent association between good fortune and not orgasming during heterosexual intercourse: “If a man persistently (has sexual relations) with a woman and always ejaculates repeatedly, he will die in his prime.” Conversely, to come outside of heterosexual intercourse, including through masturbation, was often linked to a good outcome: “If a man talks with a woman on a bed and then he rises from the bed and makes his manhood (i.e. masturbates), that man will have happiness and jubilation bestowed upon him.” The Babylonian omens thereby reflect the misogynistic fear that a man gives women power by giving them his semen (similar omens warn of the dangers of the cowgirl position: allow a woman to mount you, and you will lose the favor of the gods). To secure health, wealth, and happiness, men must control their come, denying it to women and keeping it for themselves.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible laid down a blanket ban against masturbation, as depicted by the story of Onan. In Genesis 38, Onan is commanded by his father to sire a son with his brother’s wife. Knowing, however, that the son would not be seen as his, Onan does exactly what the Babylonian omens encourage: he ends the sex by pulling out and finishing himself off, “spill[ing] his seed on the ground.” For this wayward fap, he is killed by God.

Read alongside the Babylonian omens, the story of Onan makes clear that men have obsessed for millennia over when, where, and how to come. Those obsessions often relate to questions of power and patriarchy (which type of ejaculation will most advance your interests?). Still, they find varying and often contradictory expressions in different cultural contexts.

For the Babylonians, masturbation is what Michel Foucault would call a “technology of the self”—a practice undertaken by the self and directed towards controlling and transforming the self into a particular kind of being, “to make their life an oeuvre.” In the Babylonians’ case, abiding by the omens and refusing to ejaculate maintains the self’s masculine domination throughout the vulnerable act of sex with another. With respect to Onan, the narrative is more complex: though modern Christians interpret the story as a condemnation of masturbation, it is likely not about ejaculation at all, but about one’s duty to prioritize the good of the family over the good of the self.

Despite evident overlaps, anti-masturbation is not synonymous with asceticism (or celibacy). While the former seeks to modulate how men comport themselves during sex by setting down terms and conditions for ejaculation, the latter seeks denial of the sexual urge entirely. Though it also promised superpowers (flying, immortality, floating through walls), asceticism focused less on ejaculation and more on worldly renunciation in all its forms. For his part, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (ca. 570–ca. 495 BC) was not only the ancient father of geometry—he also sired an esoteric and ascetic religious cult. In a society known for its uninhibited access to sex, Pythagoras’s “celibate brotherhood” emphasized sexual inhibition and monogamy, and believed that loss of semen was dangerous for men. Diving into the NoFap subreddit, one easily finds a slipshod meme of Pythagoras’s face with the overlaid quote, “To a man eager to know when he should have sex with a woman, Pythagoras replied; ‘When you want to lose what strength you have.’” But the wisdom is misplaced: to follow the Pythagorean way of life, all possessions must be given up, all wealth communally shared, and a strict vegetarianism adopted. The modern manosphere could not possibly embrace such proto-leftist praxis, even as they extract from it a shared concern over seed-spilling. It is in this focus, cut out from the fabric of its context, that today’s anti-masturbation ideology shows its cards—it is not about withdrawing from the world, as celibate ascetics attempted, but about finding a way to rejoin it on one’s own terms.


The historian of sexuality Thomas Laqueur claims that the invention of masturbation as we know it today—as a profane and secretive act—began around 1712, with the publication of an originally anonymous but splendidly titled tract: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and All Its Frightful Consequences, in Both SEXES, Consider’d, with Spiritual and Physical ADVICE to Those Who Have Already Injur’d Themselves by This Abominable Practice (this isn’t even the full title). It is this text that first popularized the biblical story of Onan as a cautionary tale about touching oneself. According to the text, though masturbation seems like a victimless crime, it is actually a horrifying, rampant disease with consequences as steep for both men and women as they were for Onan. Moral authority was shifting in the 18th century from priests to physicians, but Onania wove the two registers—biblical and scientific—neatly together. What is bad for the soul, it turns out, is also bad for the body, and improper or un-Christian behavior can just as easily be medicalized.

“Onanism” exploded onto the cultural, philosophical, and medical scenes, as a fixation not of religious zealots and churchgoing conservatives but of secular scientists and Enlightenment thinkers. The tract’s author, according to Laqueur, turned out to be a surgeon who moonlit as a writer of “soft-core medical pornography,” and who was trying to sell more of his expensive snake-oil tinctures as “cures” for a disease he personally had invented. Onania became a smash commercial success, appearing in thousands of newspapers and coffeehouses alongside adverts for its author’s quack medicines. A big cause of its fame was its titillating descriptions of female masturbation, and numerous secondary “onanism” accounts that sprung up to cash in on the hype—including, notoriously, a story of two nuns with clitorises so enlarged that they were suspected of a miraculous sex change (the truth came out upon examination: the nuns’ frequent self-fondling was responsible). This flurry of tracts and associated faux treatments soon spread from London to Europe and North America, and from the lowbrow print media of Grub Street to sophisticated literary salons.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), the Enlightenment philosopher and one of the intellectual fathers of the French Revolution, aired his own addiction to masturbation in his autobiographical Confessions (1782–89). He attributed his failing health to the heinous disease, and condemned any boy who discovered it. “He will suffer until his death the sad effects of this habit, the most fatal to which a man can be subjected,” Rousseau put forth in his book Émile; or, On Education (1762). This text, considered one of the first books on the philosophy of education in Western culture, asserts that masturbation is a form of “mental rape” and “self-enslavement,” to such a degree that it violates the social contract—a “turning on one’s debt to society.” With equal intensity, the German philosopher of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), widely lectured that masturbation was morally worse than suicide.

Unlike the masculine concerns of the pro-fap Babylonians and the no-fap Redditors, the 18th-century hysteria about masturbation was not really about masculinity at all. Rather, it was about internal corruption at the heart of the self. In a century rife with revolutions, theories of republicanism, and discussions about what type of citizen should be given the power to govern, this concern with the moral purity of the individual was paramount. What if your neighbor, your child, or your average citizen were secretly polluted, secretly unable to control their baser urges? Who, then, would be worthy of ruling society?

Few examples capture this fixation better than the guillotining of Marie Antoinette in 1793. Among the scandalous charges of treason and decadence brought against her by the Revolutionary Tribunal was that she had sexually abused her son by teaching him to masturbate. Allegedly, through this type of incest, Antoinette had depleted his moral and physical health, and revealed her truth as a perverse woman, under all the pretty dresses and colognes that once hid that villainy from view. Historians agree that the accusation was spurious. Still, it serves as the perfect symbol for the covert, internal rottenness of the French monarchy in the eyes of the rebelling citizens. Masturbation was the sexual identity crouching in the closet—a sign of your unfitness for sovereignty in the new republican state.


Throughout the 19th century, attitudes towards onanism (or “self-pollution” and “self-abuse”) remained prudish and paranoid. Spermatorrhea, or ejaculating in your sleep, was treated as a serious disease. Together, capitalism and technology furnished doctors with terrifying anti-ejaculatory gadgets. To prevent “nocturnal emissions,” the “Spermatorrhea ring” dug metal teeth into one’s penis if it became aroused during their sleep, while the “Electric Alarum” (1887) was a surveillance tool that set off an alarm for parents if their sleeping boy’s penis changed size during the night. Girls’ legs and hands were tied to prevent stimulation of the genitals, and doctors performed all manner of operations to stem the tide of seed-spilling: American physician John Harvey Kellogg advocated for electric shocks to the genitals, sewing the foreskin shut, or performing circumcisions or surgeries that remove parts of the genitals on men and women, without anesthetic. Though invented for hospital patients, Kellogg’s eponymous breakfast cereals have often been linked to his militant anti-masturbation beliefs, since he regularly prescribed bland foods to curb sexual appetites.

The Victorian Era is known for both its sexual and imperial anxieties, which wove together fear of sexual deviance within the nation—like masturbation, homosexuality, and racial mixing—with loss of military and civilizational power. During the middle and latter half of the 19th century, the British Empire faced near-constant mutinies and rebellions in its colonies. A concern with its emasculation on the world stage reached a fever pitch. This anxiety went hand in hand with Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, which proposed the theory of evolution and the competition between individuals for the survival of their genes. Darwin’s findings were gradually reformulated in classist and racist directions that Darwin had neither intended nor foreseen. “Social Darwinism,” a cluster of ideologies that applied Darwin’s ideas of “survival of the fittest” to nations and cultures, argued that certain groups were more powerful (socially and globally) because they were innately better; its ideas were thereby used to justify imperialism, slavery, and abject poverty. Reproducing the genes of the powerful, white, upper classes became a fixation; “purifying” the nation of its so-called “degenerate” elements was bandied about, along with fears of racial mixing and arguments in favor of the forced sterilization of deficient, inferior individuals in society. The fall of great empires, it was believed, was caused by the “degeneration” of its people, which could be resisted through tight controls over morality, sexuality, and reproduction. Contrary to current assumptions, eugenics (first formulated by Francis Galton in 1883) was not the twisted pet project of the Nazis—it was widely popular across the Western world well before the rise of fascism, with prominent advocates including Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and the aforementioned Kellogg.

The existing panic over masturbation was thus buttressed by national and civilizational concerns. Masturbation was thought to destroy marriages and direct sexuality away from procreation, and by extension away from the family and the nation, towards personal and private pleasure. Likewise, it weakened the virile bodies of men, rendering them effeminate and unable to uphold the military might of the embattled empire. Masculinity thus crawls into the story, dressed in the robes of nationalism and eugenics. Spilling your seed was a moral question of high consequence: Are you destroying your healthy, masculine body by ejaculating in your sleep? Are you wasting your seed on a sock rather than a fertile marriage bed? Worse—are you wasting it on a woman of inferior race or status? Are you yourself inferior, and contributing to your nation’s degeneracy, by spilling your seed at all? These were the questions of a time in which masturbation and scientific racism were deeply intertwined.

Writing before the term “eugenics” had been coined, Richard Wagner (1813–83), one of Germany’s most famous composers, presaged the racial dimensions of seed-spilling. He decried Jewish art as improperly German for its “masturbatory” nature. He also viewed Jews as sexually deviant and mentally handicapped because of their widespread masturbation and homosexuality, neatly interweaving onanism and social Darwinism, to produce a fear of masturbating Jews contributing to the moral and genetic degeneracy of the German nation. Unsurprisingly, Wagner would later be appropriated as a key cultural icon for the Nazis—along with the notion of “degeneracy,” the linchpin of their eugenicist pursuit of the Aryan race.


The link between masturbation and evolutionary degeneration did not hold a monopoly in the cultural and medical scenes—particularly not among “degenerate Jews” themselves, many of whom would usher in the “wellness” and self-improvement aspects of anti-masturbation so central to the NoFap community today.

Enter Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the perfect man to repackage masturbation hysteria for the post-Victorian age. He, too, was classified as a degenerate Jew by the Nazis, and in 1938 fled from his home in Vienna to London, where he lived until his death. The Freudian revolution reformulated masturbation as a natural stage that children must pass through properly, and then leave behind. Masturbation thereby becomes temporary and teleological: in his or her immature state, the child naturally discovers and engages in masturbation, but to become a healthy adult and avoid future neurosis, they must give up this primitive pleasure.

Freud deployed what scholars call a “hydraulic model” of the psyche, which, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, was “based on the analogy of fluid flowing through a system under pressure, such that pressure may build up in the system and seek release.” For Freud, libido was a form of energy that could be released through different outlets with varying consequences: if release is achieved through masturbation, the energy is wasted and can no longer be harnessed for the higher-order goals of a well-adjusted adult. Seed-spilling thus becomes the art of choreographing the creative juices: a more positive formulation of masturbation-abstention that is much closer to the self-help ethos of the NoFap movement than the deviance, degeneracy, and innate inferiority of eugenicist discourse.

A key example of Freud’s hydraulic model in action is the “Steinach operation.” Introduced by Dr. Eugen Steinach, the 20-minute procedure involved tying off one of the seminal ducts—in other words, performing a partial vasectomy. This procedure was all the rage in the 1920s, conducted not to prevent pregnancy but to restore youth and vigor to older men through a form of “semen retention” within the body that allegedly increased the production of sex hormones, resulting in “rejuvenation.” Steinach outlined the effects of his operation as follows: “[The patients] changed from feeble, parched, dribbling drones, to men of vigorous bloom who threw away their glasses, shaved twice a day, dragged loads up to 220 pounds, and even indulged in such youthful follies as buying land in Florida.”

The Steinach operation implicitly subscribes to a hydraulic model of semen as vital energy, so much so that Freud himself underwent the operation at age 67 in the hopes of improving his sexual vigor and ability to work. Though the procedure has now been debunked, it had copious testimonials at the time from overjoyed, rejuvenated men who swore by its magic. Among the most famous of its advocates was the poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939): “It revived my creative power,” he declared in 1937. Ejaculating in this context is far closer to a “technology of the self” than the moral questions posed by onanism and eugenics, as modulating how you spill or retain semen means to shape you as a man (as opposed to simply revealing how rotten and inferior you are). Retaining semen as a mode of redirecting vital energies toward creativity and productivity—what Freud and Yeats sought when they got “Steinached”—is precisely what NoFap manfluencers promise their followers: increased focus, career advancement, muscle buildup, and success with women.

Both the Steinach operation and the NoFap challenge thrive off the testimonial genre; part of the allure of “cum control” involves entering into a community of men who are self-modifying in the same way, not unlike communities for weight loss, bodybuilding, or breaking addictive habits. What these men seek is positive change, as opposed to the demonization of those who masturbate, as seen in degeneracy discourse. Because they themselves are professed (and eternally relapsing) masturbators, they desire a social ecosystem of encouragement that dangles before them the rewards of self-discipline and anecdotal evidence from other men who have attained these rewards. “I did it for 42 days and regret relapsing. My mind was so clear and meditation was easy,” one man proclaims. Another chimes in: “I feel so much more confident just talking to other people, and being more interactive at school and work.” YouTube comments and Reddit threads brim with these testimonials, along with brotherly encouragement promising fellow soldiers in the trenches that the perks are worth fighting for. Meanwhile, “breaking the streak,” or succumbing to the temptation of fapping after long holding fast, results in existential dread and shame, the conviction that all one’s toils have been wasted, and disgust with oneself—all feelings that are identical to ones you would have after binge-eating cake while on a diet. After using up your creative energies (or in today’s medical language, your dopamine high) on the unearned, porn-induced orgasm, you no longer have any to spare on your homework, your job, or the cute girl at the office. NoFappers are trying to engineer a “self” that is more optimized for success in the “real world” of money, friends, sex, marriage, and kids, and to leave behind the “fake world” of the internet, temporary dopamine-hit pleasures, parasocial relationships to porn stars and bots, and unfulfilling online communities.

As pseudoscientific as it might be, NoFap is an expression of men trying to regain some agency in a world that routinely strips us all of agency. Controlling one’s orgasms can serve as a small sphere of influence over one’s life, on par with women expressing their dispossession by obsessively controlling the food they allow into their bodies, often developing eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia in the process.

Increasing rates of mental illness and isolation, combined with the marked decline in sexual relationships and friendships in adulthood, all have their roots in a capitalist system of unrelenting labor extraction and social fragmentation. In this system, people are left with no time or resources to engage in play or develop hobbies, which thereby diminishes their chances of meeting their life partner, deepening their social bonds, or starting a family. But self-help will sell you on the idea that you—and only you—can control your future (including potential happiness, health, beauty, and wealth) through a series of individual decisions and day-to-day quick fixes. ​​Almost all forms of self-help function this way. Consequently, though they can be useful tools of self-transformation, they also often serve to repackage systemic issues as personal problems. They imply that if you fail, it’s not due to the socioeconomic structure or the influencer’s poor instructions; you just didn’t try hard enough to help yourself. Plainly and simply, it’s your fault.


In Freud’s hydraulic model, we see the foundation of the positive vision of masturbation-abstention that informs much of the NoFap community. But there is more to the story. The older and more toxic vision, which inflects the fear of masturbation with nationalist paranoia and fascist notions of degeneracy, continues to haunt modern masculinity.

This bricolage of self-help model and “degeneration” rhetoric comes together in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about anticommunist American anxieties during the Cold War: Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The film seamlessly links a communist conspiracy to poison American bodies (by putting fluoride in our drinking water) with refusing to ejaculate into women during sex. Both involve “losing fluids,” and thus masculinity, to a devious Other. The protagonist, General Ripper, refuses to allow “the international communist conspiracy [of fluoridated water] to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Of course, the “bodily fluid” Ripper fixates on in particular is the semen of his fellow American men—their masculine “essence.” In an odd Babylonian echo, he explains: “Women … women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women […] but I do deny them my essence.”

This relationship to ejaculation folds together the two modern approaches to masturbation: the pseudo-Freudian self-help view and the right-wing fear of “degeneration.” It is by spilling your seed—your essence—into women that you waste your virility, creativity, and control, whereas semen-retention allows you to keep those advantages to yourself. Women seek to deplete you of your masculinity and are attracted to you only insofar as you are in possession of your “essence”: as the titles of several NoFap YouTube videos have it, “Women Can Smell the Retention on You.”

A far cry from rosy promises of self-denial and self-help, this version of the story is shaped by paranoia, by the idea that there is a vile conspiracy afoot, one that’s trying to convince you to spill the seed and so lose your power—to fall for the “degenerate” trap. For Ripper, the moral rottenness is not located in the average American who consumes the fluoridated water without his or her consent; rather, it lies in the conspiracy that has fed them such impurities in the first place. The same is true of the suffering masturbator: right-wing influencers will argue that there is an insidious conspiracy to hijack and ruin the minds of men (and women) by feeding them “degeneracy” (porn, homosexuality, the promiscuity of the “sexual revolution”). In so doing, the conspiracy aims to destroy Western civilization. Antisemitic memes about “killing pornographers” and Proud Boy bans on masturbation are not meant to demonize in-group masturbators who “suffer” at the hands of OnlyFans, Tinder, or sexual liberalism, but to deflect blame elsewhere: onto the “postmodern leftist agenda,” feminists, LGBTQ+ groups, “cultural Marxist” ideology, or a dozen other bogeymen that the manosphere routinely decries.

While many NoFap influencers remain innocuous, others churn out NoFap and alt-right content in equal measure. Swedish white nationalist Marcus Follin, known online as “The Golden One,” is an ardent proponent of NoFap and NNN—what he refers to as “ancient male knowledge”—posting many videos and podcast episodes extolling their benefits. These materials appear alongside his calls to destroy feminists, prepare for the race war, and build an all-white ethnostate. He points to an “ancient enemy of modern Europe” (code for Jews) who use pornography as a “tool of degeneracy” in order to “[target] your masculinity, your masculine virility,” so that you are too weak to defend your white nation against migrant invaders, and too effeminate to reproduce with your Aryan women. “I implore you to stop watching porn,” he says to his followers, often shirtless as he sits before his webcam, showing off his dancing pecs.

Therein lies the overlap between NoFap and neo-Nazism—a hydraulic worldview that combines the self-help semen-retention ethos with the conspiracy theorizing of the Far Right, pushing an age-old “technology of the self” into the realm of the political fringe. This paranoid model of NoFap interlaces two modes of thought with distinct historical origins, combining a vision of self-improvement with infiltration anxiety: “they” are meeting in dimly lit rooms, plotting how to get your “precious bodily fluids” out of you. “Degeneracy,” that eugenicist term that has now gained fresh political currency among the right wing, Donald Trump foremost among them, is no longer directed at the masturbator. Rather, it is lobbed at the “leftist” forces trying to corrupt him—they’re the ones who need to be annihilated.

This is not to claim that all NoFappers are fascists in disguise—far from it. But the niche community of “Fapstronauts” does often overlap in its concerns and membership with a broader online “manosphere,” a loose confederacy of blogs, forums, and influencers that are part of an anti-feminist and increasingly radical men’s rights movement. Within this manosphere, the forces of self-help (How can you change your life?) and the forces of the political Far Right (Who is to blame for the state of your life?) do battle over the minds of men who are desperate to regain control over their bodies. Right-wing celebrities fashion themselves as wellness gurus, life coaches, and self-help advocates who merely seek to help their followers help themselves—while also pointing out which social groups and political ideologies they should be hating in the process. They peddle profoundly conservative and conspiratorial views about race, class, sexuality, religion, and government, and sell them alongside their supplements, “courses,” books, subscriptions, event tickets, and merch.

Seed-spilling might seem like a silly topic—a simple, private act, divorced from the political sphere—but it has joined a constellation of contentious issues tethered to masculinity. François Jacob famously said that evolution is a “tinkerer” and not an engineer, meaning that it never invents something new from a blueprint, and instead works “on what already exists.” The same is true of the internet. It does not fabricate strange desires ex nihilo but builds on the hodge-podge fixations that we already have, adapting their shape to suit their new material and cultural contexts. Put another way, the love of telling men when, whether, and how to ejaculate is as old as the hills. Still, its constancy is the only constant thing about it: if the Babylonians advised against ejaculating in the same woman and might have preferred that you use your sock, 18th-century doctors believed that you would go blind and die if you came anywhere but in the same woman. The internet did not invent male communities of onanistic self-fashioning. But it is actively reshaping and radicalizing them, by folding the anti-masturbatory ethos into the embrace of the manosphere, and thus tying the diverse ancient practices of no-fap to a specifically modern model of misogyny, antisemitism, and conservative nationalism.


Aya Labanieh is a Syrian American writer, translator, academic, and aspiring stand-up comedian. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, studying imperial conspiracies and their conspiracy-theory afterlives in literature and media.


Featured Image: The Unicorn Crosses a Stream (from the Unicorn Tapestries), ca. 1495–1505. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr. CC0, Accessed October 30, 2023. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Aya Labanieh is a Syrian American writer, translator, academic, and aspiring stand-up comedian. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, studying imperial conspiracies and their conspiracy-theory afterlives in literature and media. She currently serves as research associate for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Ancient Near East, and has led multiple public humanities projects, such as GATE: From Babylon to Berlin (2023), which invited migrant Middle Eastern poets and musicians to reflect on exile, belonging, and Babylonian antiquity at Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum. Her scholarship has appeared or is forthcoming in the Journal of Arabic LiteratureTulsa Studies in Women’s LiteratureJournal of Postcolonial WritingMOSF Journal of Science Fiction, and edited volumes Global Science Fiction and Approaches to Teaching Gilgamesh. Her public-facing writing has appeared in Aeon magazine, Ancient ExchangesCulturico, and Politics/Letters.


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