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If you’ve read about the NoFap online community in the mainstream media, you may have gotten the idea that they’re a bunch of science-denying misogynists. In reality, they’re the internet’s Alcoholics Anonymous, but for porn.

Pornography and sex addiction is becoming a concern for many. Several celebrities have been open about their own sex addictions, such as Kanye West, Terry Crews, Michael Douglas, Tiger Woods, Lamar Odom, Jada Pinkett Smith, and others. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2013 film ‘Don Jon’ tackled the subject as well. It’s something seemingly unique to our digital age, with the ability to access pornography on demand from any device that has an internet connection.

There are those that deny the addiction exists, like popular feminist YouTuber Laci Green, or noted sex therapist Dr. David J. Ley, who wrote in Psychology Today that pornography is not addictive back in 2013. However, a 2014 study at Cambridge has shown that a porn-addicted brain reacts to pornography in the same way a drug-addicted brain acts towards drug cues. The World Health Organisation recognised sex addiction as a mental health condition two years later.

But long before the addiction was acknowledged, there were tales of both men and women suffering from its effects on their social lives, personal lives, and pocketbooks. Enter Alexander Rhodes, a web developer from Pennsylvania who started NoFap to cope with his own addiction to pornography – ‘fap’ being the internet shorthand for masturbation, created initially as the visualised sound of the process by the author of a webcomic called ‘Sexy Losers’. The NoFap subreddit began issuing challenges among its users, then sharing the results as they set newer goals to abstain from pornography and masturbation. Since then, it’s exploded into a subreddit with almost 560,000 members.

What NoFap isn’t…

Those people have been branded misogynists and adepts of ‘pseudo-science’ by the likes of the Guardian’s Katie Bishop, who said they treat women as prizes to be obtained, and that those actual women who join the movement (some five percent of members are female) are, according to Bishop, isolating themselves “from the nuances of female sexuality,” with the word ‘sexuality’ being a hyperlink to an opinion piece celebrating promiscuity.

Another article by Peter Allen Clark at Mashable makes strong allegations of NoFap being a gateway to right-wing thought, saying it “harkens back to Puritanism and the blind belief in the American Dream.” Given that the article was penned during Mashable’s ‘Masturbation Week’ – described as “celebrating by exploring the many facets of self-love” – the bias against NoFap isn’t exactly surprising. Beyond that, the article presents a subreddit search of the word ‘women’ as evidence that the board mirrors men’s rights activists. Given that the subreddit sees thousands of users and thousands of threads per month, six search results are hardly conclusive.

This seems to fly in the face of what the actual content of NoFap appears to be. During my investigation into the community, few links to actual statements within the subreddit were found in media articles. And as I looked at the community itself, I could not find posts that were demeaning to women. If anything, quite the opposite was true, with men wanting to be better people for the women in their lives. The ‘pseudo-science’ belief that abstaining from pornography and masturbation actually gives you superpowers is just a meme within the community. ‘Superpowers’ is used as a shorthand to describe how much better someone feels while abstaining from masturbation. According to the press kit that NoFap’s official site provides, it’s not a religious community nor is it anti-sex or calling for a ban on pornography.

…And what it is

In truth, one of the first things that I found when browsing NoFap was a meme. From there, I found exactly what its founder describes. Jokes, memes, and people encouraging other people in their pursuit of trying to better their lives. Advice is freely given, along with words of encouragement from inside the community and out of it. There also seems to be no hesitance in the community to help those that are deeply troubled. Within hours of a user posting a desire to die, dozens of commenters came forward to support the person. When reading the subreddit, it’s actually not very hard to define NoFap. It’s the internet’s answer to porn addiction. It is the online Alcoholics Anonymous for porn addicts.

There is also a benefit that stems from NoFap’s purely online origins: greater anonymity. Though there exist support groups that people can go and visit, alongside counseling that’s available through both religious groups and secular ones, it’s not easy to admit that you’re an addict. With NoFap, a user doesn’t need to be associated with a real name, face or voice. Anonymity often gives people a freedom to say things they normally wouldn’t, and control their image much easier. It’s as simple as typing what’s on your mind, and waiting for others in the community to lift you up.

Through my observation of, and research into, NoFap, it seems obvious that its purpose from day one was to be a force for good. It’s made a difference in the lives of both men and women, and the desire to continue to do so doesn’t seem to go anywhere. So for those who do seek to conquer this addiction, NoFap may not roll off the tongue, but it may signal hope for those struggling souls.