How No Nut November Started as a Joke and Evolved into Health Myths

fist tightly gripping a bedspread

Assuming you read the title of this piece, it should go without saying that a content warning is in order since this piece will discuss pornography and masturbation. Sorry, mom.

Take a moment and think back to 2010. Tumblr still allowed adult content, the Obama administration passed the Affordable Care Act, Apple released the iPad, and No Nut November (NNN) sprang up for the first time on Reddit. (Other things happened, sure, but those are basically the highlights.)

Over the last twelve years, it has become a yearly staple of online meme culture to post about No Nut November. Especially on pages and accounts that primarily target men, tongue-in-cheek jokes and memes about only making it five minutes into November before masturbating or making it the entire month without masturbating and transcending mortality have proliferated.

But what started as a satirical Reddit thread has gone past memeability. Some proponents have latched on to the idea of ritualistically abstaining from masturbation, claiming that it comes with health benefits, mental clarity, and a variety of mechanisms for personal development. Stranger still, right-wing political movements have even attempted to coopt No Nut November as part of fringe conservative movements.

Grab some lotion and a tissue. We’re about to dive into the sticky history of the fap-free phenomenon.

Sex Fasts, Semen Retention, and No Nut November. Why though?

As you’re likely already aware, “to nut” is slang for “ejaculation.” As such, the premise of No Nut November is that people with penises and testes refrain from ejaculating for an entire month. They’re encouraged to abstain from sex and masturbation, and some communities (perhaps jokingly) suggest that nocturnal emission– AKA wet dreams– also disqualifies you from completing the No Nut November challenge. Tantric sex practices, edging, and other forms of Coitus reservatus are discouraged even if the person participating has no intention of reaching orgasm, as they are seen as being too tempting. However, whether or not they break the ever-changing rules of the challenge is unclear.

In a 2018 interview with The New Statesman, Girl on the Net, a sex blogger who has written extensively on topics such as masturbation, sex-positivity, and the effects of porn on our mental health, broke down the origins of No Nut November.

In that original article, she explains:

NNN came out of the NoFap ‘movement’, which began on Reddit, with guys encouraging each other to give up masturbation. I suspect most people doing NNN are doing it for personal reasons; they think they’re spending too much time wanking, for instance, and want to see if they can spend their time on other things.

 

But not everybody who takes the No Nut November trend semi-seriously sees it as an opportunity to spend their time doing something they view as more productive than masturbation. Within the ranks of participants, there’s also a lot of misogyny, and it isn’t very subtle. Plenty of participants view gender as a strict binary and believe that No Nut November is a means of displaying their manly strength and personal fortitude, and they use No Nut November as a means of dismissing women as sexual objects, sources of temptation, or distractions.

According to Girl on the Net, No Nut November’s origins can be tied to forums and 4chan posts (gross) associated with pick-up artists, conspiracy theorists, and self-proclaimed alpha males. Without any scientific underpinning or apparent competency in interacting with other adults, these men build up fairly large online followings, primarily of young and impressionable men seeking a sense of meaning or self-identity.  

These forums proliferated the idea that “there was some inherent power in men that could be ‘focused’ by not masturbating.” They went on to argue that having the self-control to abstain from ejaculation would set alpha males apart from betas, and would further reinforce their vigor and appeal to women, who, again, they reduce to sexual objects.

Along the Way, Health Myths Started Bubbling Up

As No Nut November blurred the lines between fringe forum posts and the mainstream, more and more people participated– or claimed to participate– and reported on their findings.

Proponents of the reported health benefits of semen retention claim that it has mental, physical, and spiritual benefits for those who participate. As cited in Healthline, practitioners outline the benefits as follows:

Alleged Mental Benefits of Semen Retention

    • more confidence and self-control
    • less anxiety and depression
    • increased motivation
    • better memory, concentration, and overall cognitive function

Alleged Physical Benefits of Semen Retention

    • greater vitality
    • increased muscle growth
    • thicker hair, deeper voice
    • improved sperm quality

Alleged Spiritual Benefits of Semen Retention

    • deeper relationships
    • stronger life force
    • better overall happiness

Underpinning many of these claims is the belief that by abstaining from masturbation, sex, and other forms of ejaculation, the body increases its levels of testosterone and “resets” its serotonin receptors.

Does Science Back Up these Claims?

Let’s be clear that the reported spiritual benefits are outside medical science's scope to confirm or deny. For some people, refraining from masturbation and other sexual impulses is an act of practicing self-control, and if that benefits you, great!

But some healthy skepticism goes a long way when considering the mental and physical outcomes associated with the practice. Most of the existing literature on the topic is limited in scope and sample size. Rather than giving us concrete answers, this lets us know that further research is needed.

  • In 2018, researchers conducted a systemic review of studies on the length of ejaculatory abstinence and semen characteristics. They noted the varied quality and limited nature of existing studies. Evidence suggests that an abstinence period of less than a day, rather than a longer abstinence period, is linked to improvement in sperm motility– which is the ability of individual sperm cells to move efficiently.
  • In a small 2003 study, researchers documented a link between ejaculation and changes in serum testosterone levels. Among the 28 volunteers, testosterone levels peaked on the seventh day of abstinence. While a sample size of 28 is not large enough to fully validate the claims made, it does suggest that there can be some correlation between semen retention and free testosterone levels.
  • A small 2001 study found elevated testosterone levels in participants who abstained from masturbation for three weeks. Again, this study had a fairly small sample size (10 participants), so it can’t be used to confirm conclusions about abstaining from masturbation and increasing testosterone levels. Additionally, within the paper, researchers wrote, “On the other hand, the increased testosterone concentrations may have resulted from enhanced sensitivity to anticipatory cues, since testosterone secretion increases in anticipation of sexual interactions.” This means that the researchers don’t know if the increased testosterone they observed was the result of abstinence or if the period of abstinence meant that participants were more easily excited (the same study reported that they were more easily aroused after the abstinence period), and therefore produced more testosterone in anticipation of finally having an orgasm.

Are There Any Risks Associated with Semen Retention?

Okay, so the research on whether No Nut November benefits you is shaky at best. But can it hurt to participate and see if you personally experience any benefits?

Short answer: no.

If you want to try participating in No Nut November or any period of abstinence, you will not face significant negative side effects. You may be more likely to experience wet dreams or the phenomenon known as blue balls, but neither of those things are very serious.

On the other hand, it should also be noted that much of the rhetoric around No Nut November treats masturbation and ejaculation as a moral failure. That can be a harmful idea to internalize. Sex and sexuality are natural parts of life and deserve to be treated as such. Having sex or not having sex should be seen as a personal decision, not a moral failure.

The moralizing of sexuality is one of the driving factors behind the stigmatization of sex, which ultimately contributes to lower rates of STI testing, misinformation, and an incomplete understanding of consent, pleasure, and personal care. All of these work together to increase rates of unplanned pregnancies and the spreading of STIs.

Additionally, frequent masturbation, according to recent studies, may be linked to improved prostate health, including a decreased risk of developing prostate cancer. Further research is needed to determine how impactful frequent masturbation may be.

The Biggest Risk Ultimately Has Nothing to Do with Health

Anti-masturbation and semen retention philosophy go beyond health and well-being discussions. As mentioned before, it’s also heavily associated with misogyny. If we dig in deeper, it also sets the stage for young men in such forums– often as young as 13– to form communities and engage with each other around dangerous ideas.

This has been most recently evident in the Proud Boys, the far-right political group that was banned from both Facebook and Instagram for hate speech at the end of October 2018 and for whom “no wanks” is a key tenant. Although originating online, the Proud Boys have toured worldwide, from Australia to the US to the UK, promoting their self-described philosophy of “Western chauvinism”.  Especially in the United States, they are a recent iteration of alt-right internet groups that have been able to make mainstream headlines due to their increasing grassroots presence offline.

“The anti-wanking community is an excellent recruitment tool for the far-right,” Girl on the Net stated in her interview with The New Statesmen. “Young men who feel ashamed of themselves, are encouraged to put themselves through, let’s face it, a very difficult physical test, all while reaching out to other frustrated men on the internet, many of whom are misogynist and racist.”

 

In this way, what started as a satirical internet trend evolved into a recruitment tool for dangerous ideologies that exploit the insecurities of isolated, lonely men. Alt-right groups like the Proud Boys don’t just spew hateful ideologies online. Their actions, especially in recent years, have gone offline, harassing and threatening queer communities, people of color, and voters as they’ve transformed from forum trolls into a pseudo-militia built on fascist ideology.

Our Advice: Take Care of Your Bodily Needs and Stay Out of Unhinged Forums

Ultimately, whether or not you want to experiment with periods of abstinence is your decision. Do what’s right for you! Rest assured that masturbation is completely normal and nothing to be ashamed of– it will also not kill your testosterone levels or prevent you from forming relationships.

Suppose your impulse to masturbate is disrupting your quality of life. In that case, reaching out to a therapist who specializes in sexual psychology is going to be a better choice than turning to Reddit forums and Discord servers.

If you enjoy participating in the meme-swapping associated with No Nut November, by all means, have fun. Especially among communities of men, we should normalize talking about sexual health; weirdly, NNN can help facilitate that.

Our most direct advice for No Nut November: look out for alt-right and incel red flags. If someone seems incapable of enjoying the jokes and wants to blame women or society for their problems, steer clear.

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