Alongside other strategies to abstain from Internet pornography, abstinence from masturbation is advocated within a quickly growing online community. The subreddit NoFap, which currently has 516,444 followers (R/NoFap, 2019), suggests abstinence from masturbation as part of “reboot” challenges comprised of 90 days of abstinence from porn, masturbation, and orgasms. While the notion that consumption of Internet pornography is problematic has received scientific attention (Grubbs, Perry, Wilt, & Reid, 2019), abstinence from masturbation has remained unexplored. In this explorative study, we assess correlates of motivation for abstinence from masturbation in behavior and attitudes in addition to calling for abstinence from masturbation to be considered in Internet pornography research. We begin with a review of relevant developments regarding both the condemnation and acceptance of masturbation.
Individual motivation for abstaining from masturbation has been diversely scattered across recent history. It is present in religious arguments, discussions surrounding the fear of physiological or psychological consequences, and efforts to avoid feelings of guilt or loss of control (Patton, 1986). Until the early modern age, moralists and theologians considered masturbation a “sin against nature” (Stolberg, 2000), whereas medical professionals left it largely unnoticed (Laqueur, 2003). In the beginning of the eighteenth century, this view changed with the publication of “Onania: or, the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution,” which ascribed physiological symptoms to masturbation (Laqueur, 2003). In one edition of this work, Tissot (1781) elaborated on the concept of a “post-masturbatory disease.” He regarded the loss of semen and the mechanical manipulation of the genitals as possible causes of infection, sexual dysfunction, and insanity (Patton, 1986; Stolberg, 2000). Complementing religious arguments, fear of pathological consequences became an incentive to abstain from masturbation (Kontula & Haavio-Mannila, 2003). This fear widened to a loss of self-control or control over one’s own sexual desire (Hunt, 1998), which was linked to the ability to control and satisfy a woman and maintain the patriarchal position within the family (Stolberg, 2000). Abstinence from masturbation also reached political significance as “Victory over the sexuality of young men was symbolically necessary to provide the legitimacy for their capacity to carry forward the national or imperial project” (Hunt, 1998, p. 589). After the “masturbation panic” reached its peak in the beginning of the twentieth century (Kontula & Haavio-Mannila, 2003), progressive evaluations by medicine and psychology were on the rise (Patton, 1986). For example, Freud viewed masturbation as a natural developmental component in childhood and adolescence that should nevertheless be discarded in adulthood (Laqueur, 2003). Around the end of World War II, masturbation was regarded as a treatment option rather than a cause of psychosexual dysfunction (Patton, 1986). Finally, the “Kinsey Reports” (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953) contributed to a normalized view of masturbation by revealing how widespread the behavior was across all strata of the population.
Abstinence Motivation Today
For a period of time known as their “reboot,” the porn-critical subreddit NoFap encourages their followers to abstain from masturbation (“What is NoFap?”, 2018). They assert that “Most guys need to ‘TEMPORARILY’ [sic] eliminate or drastically reduce masturbation and ORGASMS [sic]” (Deem, 2014). In light of the recent public recommendations and the long history of masturbation panic, a scientific description and explanation of individual motivations for abstaining from masturbation are sorely needed.
The modeling of perceiving consumption of Internet pornography as problematic has already received scientific attention (Grubbs et al., 2019). Gola, Lewczuk, and Skorko (2016) studied the predictors of help-seeking behavior relevant to problematic pornography use. They reported that the quality of symptoms explains a significantly higher proportion of variance than the quantity of consumption of Internet pornography, suggesting that the frequency of use should be less diagnostically weighted to better meet the complexity of patients’ presenting concerns. Although abstinence from pornography might be regarded as a feasible intervention to alleviate any negative symptoms, no experimental investigations (but a few clinical case reports) have been made to date (Fernandez, Tee, & Fernandez, 2017). Grubbs et al. (2019) propose a two-path model comprising dysregulation and moral incongruence to explain perceived problems with pornography. Distress regarding pornography use is generated by dysregulated consumption behavior in the first pathway and by conflict with own morals or attitudes in the second. We will adopt these pathways for abstinence motivation to guide a literature review and first exploratory hypotheses.
Pathway of physiological and psychological dysregulation. Abstinence motivation resulting from an “addiction to masturbation” characterized by a high frequency of masturbation behaviors and perceived loss of control.
Pathway of conflicting attitudes. Abstinence motivation resulting from a “perceived addiction” characterized by conflicting attitudes that motivate reduction in an average frequency of masturbation.
To assess the aforementioned and other potential correlates, we will review contributions on masturbation frequency, hypersexuality, and selected attitudes.
Today, learning about the pleasures of masturbation at an early age is part of European sexuality education standards (“Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe,” 2010). In a survey in the UK, about 95% of men and 71% of women reported they had masturbated at least once (Gerressu, Mercer, Graham, Wellings, & Johnson, 2008). Positive aspects of masturbation include becoming familiar with one’s own body, forming sexual fantasies, and possibly achieving sexual satisfaction without risk (Driemeyer, 2013). Furthermore, masturbation plays an important role in sex therapy (e.g., LoPiccolo & Lobitz, 1972; Zamboni & Crawford, 2003).
Despite the positive effects of masturbating, overly frequent masturbation might also have negative effects. At a purely biological level, the long reigning authoritative view is that overly frequent masturbation reduces sperm quality. This conviction encouraged the World Health Organization (2010) to recommend an intermediate duration from 2 to 7 days of sexual abstinence before sperm donation. Yet in a recent review, Ayad, van der Horst, and Du Plessis (2018, p. 245) called for a revision of this recommendation based upon finding superior sperm quality in shorter abstinence periods. On the level of physiological outcomes, thus, there is currently no evidence for any beneficial effects of abstinence from masturbation (notwithstanding endocrinological effects like an increase in serum testosterone; Exton et al., 2001; Jiang, Jiang, Zou, & Shen, 2003).
This lack of support for negative effects of frequent masturbation, however, may be markedly different for psychological variables like well-being and mental health. Two studies hint at an association of high rates of masturbation with decreased satisfaction with sexual life and life in general (Brody & Costa, 2009; Långström & Hanson, 2006). However, the authors did not control for relevant covariates such as relationship status. From a psychological perspective, extreme frequency of masturbation can be seen as a symptom of hypersexuality.
An early operationalization of hypersexual desire was provided by Kafka (1997), suggesting a cutoff of one orgasm per day. He also pointed out that for a subset of men, hypersexual behavior is associated with time-consuming sexual fantasies and distress. Contemporary constructs of hypersexuality include compulsive sexual behavioral disorder (Kraus et al., 2018) and hypersexual disorder (Kafka, 2010). While hypersexual disorder was rejected for the DSM-5 (Kafka, 2014), compulsive sexual behavioral disorder was included in the ICD-11. Hypersexual disorder is characterized by a long-term, frequent, and intense preoccupation with sexual fantasies and sexual behaviors that, in addition to personal suffering, leads to a reduced functioning in social, occupational, or other domains. Compulsive masturbation can be found in 30–75% of patients suffering from hypersexuality (Kaplan & Krueger, 2010). Yet, even high frequencies of masturbation must not be pathologized when they are not paired with impaired control or distress (Kraus et al., 2018).
As detailed above, masturbation abstinence cannot only be interpreted as an attempt to overcome physiological and psychological dysregulation, but also as a consequence of personal attitudes and convictions (potentially in complete absence of problematic and dysregulated behavior). 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. Abramson and Mosher (1975) developed a measure to assess negative attitudes toward masturbation. Unsurprisingly, they found a negative correlation with the average frequency of masturbation per month, implying that persons with negative attitudes masturbate less frequently (or vice versa). They also found a high correlation of negative attitudes with sexual guilt. Sexual guilt, conceptualized as a tendency toward feelings of violation of a moral standard (Mosher, 1979), is a construct which Coleman (2003) attributed “most of the ill effects of masturbation” (p. 7) to, rather than considering the behavior itself or its frequency. Liberal sexual attitudes are connected to the general prevalence of masturbation (Das, Parish, & Laumann, 2009; Gerressu et al., 2008). Finally, religiosity has been found to be associated with negative emotions toward masturbation (Strasser, 2011) and the view of masturbation as a sin and unhealthy behavior (Davidson, Darling, & Norton, 1995).
To our knowledge, this is the first study to exploratively assess the correlates of motivation for abstaining specifically from masturbation. Based on the pathway of physiological and psychological dysregulation, we hypothesized a positive association for hypersexuality, higher masturbation frequency before reduction, maximum number of orgasms, and earlier onset of masturbation. Representing the pathway of conflicting attitudes, we included hypotheses for religiosity, liberal attitudes, perceived impact of masturbation on everyday life, and trust in science. According to the extant findings for religiosity and liberal attitudes, we expected conservative attitudes and religiosity to be positively correlated with abstinence motivation. Furthermore, we suggest that the consideration of abstinence is often preceded by the perception that masturbation affects other areas of everyday life. Ideas about how masturbation influences concepts such as social anxiety or creativity may justify attempts to change behavior. On the contrary, limiting the relevance of masturbation to the sexual field should reduce the likelihood of considering abstinence from masturbation. Representing another possible predictor, distrust in the scientific method and scientific institutions is a topical issue in political and scholarly debates (Imhoff, Lamberty, & Klein, 2018). Since science has not provided any support for the negative view of masturbation and might even regard it as a positive and natural behavior (Robinson, Bockting, Rosser, Miner, & Coleman, 2002), trust in science was expected to be negatively related to abstinence motivation. Moreover, the conviction that masturbation poses a risk to health has been studied longitudinally in the last century (Kontula & Haavio-Mannila, 2003) and supposedly represents a strong correlate of abstinence from masturbation.
We also included sexual dysfunctions as possible correlates. For online pornography, it was investigated whether problematic consumption is related to the occurrence of erectile dysfunction. Specifically, whether a causal relationship of pornography-induced erectile dysfunction is justified (Fisher & Kohut, 2017). While there is no evidence for a general association (Landripet & Štulhofer, 2015; Prause & Pfaus, 2015), there is some evidence for problematic pornography use specifically. Yet, no causal link could be identified in a longitudinal investigation (Grubbs & Gola, 2019). Despite these findings, there is still a widespread belief in “porn induced erectile dysfunction” that motivates abstinence from pornography (Park et al., 2016) and, in case of NoFap, abstinence from masturbation as well. A reported erectile dysfunction or other sexual dysfunction might therefore be positively associated with abstinence motivation.