To fap or not to fap? That is the question. Here’s the actual science as it relates to testosterone levels and fertility.
I don’t know whether the NoFap movement is just another internet trend like the singing of sea shanties or if it’s a bona fide social movement with far-reaching influence. In case you’re lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the term, let me destroy your innocence:
The “Fap” portion of NoFap refers to masturbation, and the “No” just means no, otherwise known as abstinence. From what I can find, the expression is an onomatopoeic slang term that first appeared in a webcomic in 1999. Yeah, that’s right, fap is from the sound made when a male character masturbated.
The question is, why are some modern males suddenly embracing “fapstinence” when everything from religious admonitions against pleasuring oneself to warnings of going blind largely failed to have much effect?
Part of it may well be a noble effort to help people return to some sort of sexual normalcy in the face of porn addiction. Another part of it may lie in watered-down Eastern mysticism. One of the tenets behind the Dharmic practice of brahmacharya – practiced by yogis, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jainists – was to preserve “sexual energy.” This meant keeping their hands out of their kurtas, robes, and angarkhas, if you know what I mean.
Not only was this practice thought to be virtuous, but failing to remain master of your domain was thought to result in a loss of virility.
Of course, it’s unlikely that many current-day fapstainers are well-versed in Eastern religious practices, but somehow this notion about abstinence and virility wriggled its way into Western consciousness as many of the anti-fappers, in addition to the incels and even the Proud Boys, seem to have embraced tenets of it to varying degrees.
These groups appear to believe that abstaining from masturbation will increase their testosterone levels and in turn, their virility and confidence, thus giving them the strength and courage to cold approach women or be more manly in general.
Some even believe that this abstinence-derived higher T will endow them with a version of Kramer’s kavorka – “the lure of the animal” – and eliminate the need to approach women altogether because they’ll come a runnin’ of their own volition.
This higher T will supposedly also affect their body comp, giving them more muscle and less fat, thereby compounding their animal magnetism.
There are also seemingly sane but probably incorrect reasons for practicing semen retention, among them the belief that abstaining from masturbation for a few days or even weeks (not months or years, though) will result in increased fertility, thereby increasing the chances for procreation.
Standing in stark contrast to the fapstainers are those who believe, probably because of the influence of porn, that the amount of sperm they produce (and distribute) is a sign of virility. As such, they treat their testicles like an agribusiness, seeking ways to maximize spermatic crop production.
Let’s look at all these beliefs and practices and see if any of them have any merit.
Before we delve into the science of sperm (a rare branch of study with no name attached to it), we need to acknowledge that only about only 5% of that white stuff is actually sperm. As such, it should instead be referred to as ejaculate or, less formally, cum.
The rest of ejaculate consists of a variety of fluids, one of which is produced by the seminal vesicles and allows sperm to survive the acidic, hostile environment of the vagina. Another component is prostatic fluid, which is the fluid that allows sperm to swim through the vagina to the uterus and the fallopian tubes beyond. Lastly, there’s a bit of fluid released by the bulbourethral glands near the urethral opening that allow the sperm to “grease up” before they start swimming across the biological English Channel that’s the vagina.
So yes, most of that fluid, most of that ejaculate, is merely the sauce that carries the spice. But let’s give sperm its due. As pointed out by Syracuse University biologist Scott Pitnick, sperm are the only cells in the body destined to be cast forth willingly into a foreign environment.
Sperm has always stood alone in the pantheon of human cells, though. Heck, we weren’t even aware of its existence until 1677 when the father of the microscope, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, thought to examine his own ejaculate. He was dumbstruck by the “animalcules” he saw wriggling around.
Van Leeuwenhoek was so mortified by his discovery that he was reluctant to turn his findings over to the Royal Society, but he ended up doing so anyway. They were published in 1678, which subsequently brought forth all kinds of hypotheses.
Prior to van Leeuwenhoek’s findings, theories about how humans made more humans were colorful, to say the least. Predominant among them was that the ejaculate emitted vapors that somehow stimulated women to make babies.
(Oddly enough, modern research suggests that a fluid in sperm does indeed emit “vapors” that stimulate ovulation, or more precisely, it “emits” neural growth factor or NGF. The factor travels through the bloodstream to the brain, causing the hypothalamus and pituitary to release the hormones necessary for pregnancy (Adams et al., 2023). As such, males with more NGF in their semen might be more fertile.)
Another theory was that each spermatozoan contained a tiny, completely formed pre-human. According to proponents of this theory, women contributed nothing to the fetus; they simply gave the tiny pre-formed humans a place to hang out, feed, and develop until they were ready to launch.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century when improvements to the microscope allowed scientists to observe the process of embryonic development courtesy of transparent sea urchin eggs. Those observations pretty much put the “preformation” theory to rest.
Regardless of these early observations, masturbation itself was still considered a sin, as it had been from the time of Hippocrates. It wasn’t until the 18th century, though, that it came to be regarded as downright deviant and harmful and something that would eventually lead to insanity and bodily decay. Even nocturnal emissions (a “wet dream”) were deemed sinful. And this wasn’t just the belief of a few scolds dressed in robes, it was also accepted medical doctrine.
These beliefs started to dissipate around the beginning of the 20th century, at least among people in the medical profession. However, paranoia and guilt largely remained until sex researcher Alfred Kinsey published his work on sexual behavior. Only then did society begin to accept masturbation as natural, normal, and even beneficial.
Still, there remain cultures that are afflicted by what’s been coined “semen-loss anxiety.” For instance, segments of the Indian continent suffer from “dhat-syndrome.” It describes usually young, unmarried men who, because of masturbation or nocturnal emissions, allegedly suffer from fatigue, weakness, anxiety, and feelings of guilt.
A related syndrome, shen-k’uei, is described in China where, again, loss of semen through sex, masturbation, or nocturnal emissions is linked to several medical problems.
Given this rich historical and cultural aversion to masturbation, it’s not difficult to understand the existence of the American NoFap movement, even if their motivations might be slightly different. Many of today’s NoFappers – aside from those that are fighting porn addiction – might not feel the same guilt about pleasuring themselves, but most do believe that abstinence will make them more virile and more attractive to the opposite sex, courtesy of the alleged increase in testosterone that will occur if they keep their hands out of their pants.
To date, there’s almost no research to support the notion that abstinence increases testosterone levels. Quite the contrary, watching porn or engaging in sexual activity appears to raise testosterone levels, albeit temporarily (Van Anders and Watson, 2006). Another study, this one conducted in a sex club (for real), found that engaging in sexual activity again raised T levels temporarily (Escasa et al., 2011).
Likewise, Das and Sawin (2016) conducted a longitudinal study with a representative sample of older male and female adults and found that a higher masturbation frequency predicted higher levels of testosterone.
Then there are the studies on patients with erectile dysfunction. Low sexual activity or loss of sexual activity due to erectile dysfunction is associated with low testosterone levels, while resuming sexual activities has been shown to restore testosterone levels.
However, the No-Fappers have their research ammo, too. One oft-cited paper (Hartmann, 2020) asserts that refraining from masturbation promotes stronger mental health. Another (Jiang et al., 2003) reported a peak in testosterone levels after 7 days of abstinence. The sample size was very small, though, and the results couldn’t be duplicated.
Another study measured the effects of a 3-week period of sexual abstinence on the neuroendocrine response to masturbation. They did indeed find that it elevated testosterone, but only by a measly 0.5 mg/dl.
The preponderance of evidence, though, suggests, contrary to the NoFappers’ belief, that “fapping” leads to higher testosterone levels.
What About Increased Sperm Quality from Abstinence?
As mentioned, there’s a “sane” reason for practicing abstinence, at least temporary abstinence. Many wanna-be fathers believe that the longer you hold out, the heftier their fertile punch will be, but is there any evidence to support this idea?
Fertility scientists evaluate sperm quality on the following parameters: semen volume, sperm concentration, total sperm count per ejaculation, sperm motility, sperm morphology, and sperm vitality, but a review of 28 studies (Hanson et al., 2018) published since the year 2000 concluded that the impact abstinence on fertility is complex and inconclusive and as murky as the subject matter.
There is, however, some evidence that abstaining for less than 3 days is associated with higher pregnancy rates, at least in cases of artificial insemination. Other studies conclude that abstinence could be recommended (for fertility), but with a plateau being reached after a few days (De Jonge et al., 2004).
One puzzling finding is that semen collected from masturbation at home or at the clinic differed significantly from semen collected from penile-vaginal intercourse in terms of motility, count, and concentration, with the latter (masturbating at a clinic) boasting superior results.
Another surprising finding in fertility science is that the first fraction of ejaculate is the most effective for conception (this first fraction shouldn’t be confused with the pre-ejaculation phase, commonly known as pre-cum). This first fraction represents between 15% and 45% of ejaculate volume, but it’s loaded with sperm, acid phosphatase, citric acid, magnesium, and zinc, all of which support sperm vitality and function.
The second fraction consists of the remaining volume, but it’s composed of secretions from the seminal vesicles that can damage sperm. In other words, the second contains substances that make it difficult to compete with the first brigade. After all, sperm are a competitive lot; each wants to win and knock the others out of competition.
This has great significance to fertility clinics that used to simply take entire sperm samples and inject the whole milkshake into the uterus. However, when the fractions are separated, the chance of successful fertilization increases.
These findings also further discount the withdrawal method as a remotely viable method of contraception because, in stark contrast to a ketchup bottle, the good stuff is at the top and not the bottom.
There’s another reason some men want to practice periods of abstinence: to increase ejaculatory volume. The average amount of fluid ejaculated is between 1 and 5 milliliters of sperm, but there are those who have a condition known as “hyperspermia” where they eject 5 to 6 millimeters.
The correct reaction should be, “Who cares?” But I get it. There’s something to be said for sheer spectacle. A 2018 survey of women found that only 13% believed having a bigger load led to increased pleasure, but if pressed, many of the others would probably confess that it’s hardly worth it to drop a few Mentos in a bottle of coke if all you’re going to get is a sad little fizzle.
Their perception, and for sure the perception of men who want to blow big loads, is probably a direct result of the pornography industry. Producing more ejaculate has become associated, wrongly, with increased fertility, virility, and masculinity.
But it’s easy to see how this happened. Porn directors are like regular movie directors in that if they’re trying to film the napalm scene in “Apocalypse Now”, they want the explosives guy to go all out and light up the sky.
Similarly minded porn directors used to buy buckets of methycellulose, which, when mixed with water, gave them the perfect cum hither look. There’s also a company named Magic Money Shot, whose flagship product, “Kum,” is rapidly becoming the industry standard.
Those kinds of products, combined with powerful hydraulic squirting dildos, a director with a sense of the grandiose, and a bit of off-Hollywood magic, can easily make even the most “productive” male porn watcher feel like he’s a gerbil, ejaculation-wise.
So yes, abstinence leads to increased volume. Studies say that every day you wait between ejaculations, you increase your volume by 12%. Don’t worry, though. This added volume tops out after about 5 days, so no need to worry that your partner will be Katrina-ed away by a deluge.
There are also several lifestyle/diet/supplement hacks you could use to increase volume. Among them are the following:
Take care of your prostate. A healthy young man can ejaculate as fast as 31 miles an hour and shoot a stream anywhere from 6 to 9 inches away, but these numbers can decline when muscles get weaker (from age) and the prostate grows. Consider using a supplement like Biotest’s P-Well™ to support its function and health.
Hydrate. Don’t smoke. Watch the alcohol.
Engage in foreplay. It literally primes the pump.
Take pomegranate extract (punicaligan) and lycopene, both of which increase ejaculate volume and sperm motility. Both are contained in Biotest’s P-Well™ formulation.
Take zinc, which also seems to increase production of semen volume. About 30 grams a day seems to be the sweet spot.
Try Maca root. Studies have shown that taking approximately 3 grams of this Peruvian herb can improve sperm quality and semen volume.
Use hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin). You’ve really got to be obsessed about semen volume to go this route, but to each his own. The drug, particularly when used in conjunction with testosterone replacement therapy, at the very least preserves semen volume and probably increases it.
Early in the article, I wrote that many fapstainers were attempting to break an addiction to porn, or at least make a statement about porn addiction. I can respect their decision, but just as I was finishing up this article, I saw a report on my newsfeed about this segment of the NoFap movement.
Researchers from UCLA surveyed 587 fapstainers and nearly 30% said they’d experienced suicidal thoughts when they inevitably broke their vows of self-celibacy. The suicidal thoughts were preceded by feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression, especially when they participated in NoFap forums online.
Clearly, masturbation is a lot more complex than we might have thought. It obviously can affect our physical and mental health, but I don’t know if this study says more about human sexuality or the role internet groups play in mental health.
Nevertheless, I’m more interested in the biology of masturbation and sperm than the psychology. Hence the bulk of this article. Obviously, men have different reasons to fap or not fap. Abstinence doesn’t raise testosterone. It doesn’t make you more manly or virile. And there’s even limited evidence to suggest it makes a man more fertile. So, fap or don’t fap. Just don’t ascribe any false medical or moral or spiritual beliefs to it.
Anna Mascherek, et al. Is Ejaculation Frequency in Men Related to General and Mental Health? Looking Back and Looking Forward, Frontiers in Psychology, 09 August 2021.
Laura Poppick, The Long Winding Tale of Sperm Science, Smithsonian Magazine, June 7, 2017.
Esther Inglis-Arkell, When scientists believed there was a little man inside every sperm cells, Gizmodo, March 4, 2014.
Ms Exton, et al. Endocrine response to masturbation-induced orgasm in healthy men following a 3-week sexual abstinence, World J Urol, 2001; Nov 19(5):377-82.
The first fraction of ejaculate is the most effective for conception, Science News, May 26, 2015.
S.N. Nnatu, et al. The effect of repeated semen ejaculation on sperm quality, Clin Exp Obstet Gynecol, 1991;18(1):39-42.
Emily Underwood, Semen’s Secret Ingredient, Science, 20 Aug 2012.
Hagai Levine, H et al. Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis. Hum Reprod Update. 2017 Nov 1;23(6):646-659.
Angela Watson, How Fake Cumshots are Made, Doctor Climax, January 20, 2019.
Gaffari Turk, et al. Effects of pomegranate juice consumption on sperm quality, spermatogenic cell density, antioxidant activity and testosterone level in male rats, Clin Nutr, 2008 Apr; 27 (2):289-296.
Mehran Nouri, et al. The effects of lycopene supplement on the spermatogram and seminal oxidative stress in infertile men: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, Phytother Res. 2019 Dec;33(12):3203-3211.