On No Nut November

My loves, I am very sorry, but we have to talk about No Nut November. Why, you may ask, would I say something like that to you? And you would be right to do so. Why would I ask you to contemplate a month-long abstinence exercise for men propagated on reddit? The answer to that, sadly, is because the whole misguided, misogynist, pseudo-science binfire has all the hallmarks of medieval medical and theological thought on sex, and that is my job. I take no pleasure in saying this, because as you know, I think it is very important to be careful when using the word “medieval” to describe something. Yet, here we are.

For the up-until-this-point blissfully ignorant out there, No Nut November, (or NNN), was brought to us by the genius minds of Reddit, and the stated goal of these gentlemen is not to “nut” AKA orgasm for the month of November. (Yeah I’m not going to link this for you. It;s too weird.) Initially this idea spawned when some bright spark got a hold of one (1) study that showed a period of abstinence from masturbation in ten healthy men lead to a spike of testosterone production in the subjects. (Don’t even get me started on the sample size here.) This apparently is seen as a definitive good, and some dudes decided that they would refrain from jacking it for a month in order to get this extra hormone rush for some reason. (IDK. YKINMKATOK, I guess.)

You will be shocked to learn that a bunch of religious conservatives then got on board with their own branding surrounding this. NoFap the group was then born, also on Reddit (Again. Nope.) and despite their insistence on their website that they are “secular”, the fact that they want to call NNN, New Life November, along with their stated mission to end porn, masturbation, and sex addiction should tell you everything you need to know.

This is all, of course, extremely whack, for as Girl on the Net has already pointed out, you really aren’t masturbating too much and should probably calm down. Indeed, most studies show that “sex addiction” writ large has very little to do with sexual behaviour and much more often correlates with the religiosity of the person complaining of it, nonetheless this bunch of dudes feels they know more than trained psychologists, so here we are.

The upsides to sexual abstinence during NNN, are apparently several, and argued differently by the various men unafraid to take on the task. Our brave redditors, you see, know much more than scientists ever will, because retaining your semen is magic, and will make poor simple women want you more. (To which I am like, citation needed??) What’s more, by not wanking your concentration levels go up and you can learn Spanish in a month. (I am serious, they believe this.) In order to feel all of these amazing benefits, what had started out as a call to stop wanking, has eventually broadened to include abstinence from partnered sex as well. Similarly, the men involved are supposed to stop themselves from having more than one wet dream.

All of this extremely rational and manly abstinence also has a darker side, because while they are busy rejecting sex many of these charmers also take the opportunity to attack women as “THOTS” and “sluts” because women’s very existence is of course threatening to the very important mission of not masturbating. Some have even gone as far as issuing death threats to pornography companies claiming that masturbation to pornography is linked to depression. It’s all very charming.

 

threat
A lovely threat sent to xHamster.

All of this is of interest to me, because many of the conceptions about sexuality in men on display in the NNN subculture can be found within classical and medieval conceptions of male sexuality. Roman medical authorities, for example, warned men against sexual excess, which they felt would diminish the vital spirit, called the pneuma, which activates the body. Roman men were thus warned against having sex on an empty or overly full stomach; having sex in the morning; ideally encouraged to take some exercise before engaging in sex, and have a massage afterwards. Any men who did not heed these warnings, and opted instead to engage in sex “without restraint”, according to Rouselle, would need to ensure that they “have sufficient sleep to avoid the tiredness that comes from anger, pain, joy, excessively weakening activities, steam baths, sweating, vomiting, drunkenness, heavy work, [or] becoming too hot or too cold.”[1] That is to say, if sex was going to be your weakness, it had better be your one weakness, because too much of it meant men couldn’t engage in much of anything else without risking damage to their body.

This position was also taken by classical philosophers who took the same concept a step further. According to them, men didn’t need to moderate sex only to be healthy – they needed to avoid it in order to be a more masculine man, and therefore be able to participate in public life. Sexual moderation, they felt, helped men to cultivate the superior masculine qualities of men, which they identified as rationality, power, authority and strength. Excessive sex, would have a feminising effect on men because as Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a physician from the first century BCE, had identified all of these masculine qualities could be found in semen itself. Therefore, if men ejaculated too much, they were essentially dispensing all of their masculinity and becoming like irrational, weak women. Humor theory further backed up this view of the world. According to it, men were hot and dry, but excessive ejaculation could upset the balance of humors and make men cold and wet, or, “feminised”.

humor
A chart of the humors

The “feminisation” caused by excessive sex could then be a self-sustaining proposition. The more like a woman a man was, the more likely he was to want to engage in yet more sex, and to become overly attached to the women who might provide it. At any moment, men who were afflicted by sex might actually like the people they were having it with (!) and then perhaps even take a “passive role” in sex. (!!) “Passivity” meant that either men would be the “penetrated person” with another man during sex (being the one doing the penetrating was totally chill) or performing oral sex on a woman, and therefore subverting the “natural order” of the world wherein men behave like callous asshats with no interest in anything around them other than their own pleasure.[2]

Now, as we have discussed before, medieval concepts about health and the body were rooted in those of the classical world. As a result, medieval people continued to think more or less that same things about sexuality and the body, but with a new gloss of Christian theology. As far as medieval people were concerned, men were indeed hot and dry, rational, and active in the world, and they felt that semen in particular was linked to these concepts.

The concept of activity in male sexuality was a particular sticking point for medieval people, much as it was for the Romans. However, this concept now spread to the concept of masturbation, or onanism as medieval people generally referred to it. Part of the trouble with wanking, you see, was that you weren’t doing it to anyone. For this reason Isidore of Seville identified masturbation as  specifically effeminate. Women were the ones that were supposed to lie back and experience pleasure during sex. Men were supposed to be actively going out and taking sexual pleasure by doing it to someone, compelled on by their magical manly sperm. By masturbating, men dishonoured the rationality and vigour of masculinity by enjoying a non-active and physically robust form of sex.[3]

Moreover, masturbation was an issue because it threatened men’s humeral balance. The hot dryness of men’s sexuality meant that men’s virility was likened to warm air. As a result, erections were thought to correlate to hot air being pumped through the penis from the testicles, which acted like bellows. Hildegard of Bingen described this in her explanation of the sexual response in men, saying, “the wind that is in their loins is more fiery than windy. It has two tents under its command into which it blows as a pair of bellows. These tents surround the stem of all of the man’s powers, like small buildings put up next to a tower for its defense”.[4]

In the testicles, this hot air was then mixed with sperm – the quintessentially masculine product, though there was some debate as to where that sperm came from. Some reiterated the ancient Greek idea that sperm came from men’s brains and descended via the spinal cord to the testicles. Others claimed that sperm generated from “the purest substance of all parts of the body”, i.e. just any of the best stuff. The Persian physician Avicenna, argued that sperm was simply a “better-digested and subtler blood”.[5] Wherever it came from, the sperm was hot, and it helped to heat the hot and dry air necessary for erections in the testicles. That meant that the heat and dryness inherent to maleness could be jeopardised if semen was depleted. Men would thus become cold and wet, like women, if they ejaculated too much. All sex, therefore, should be weighed up before it was engaged in, to ensure that men weren’t gambling with their very male essence.

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas a theologian, philosopher and jurist who is credited with the large-scale dissemination of Aristotelian ideas in the medieval period, argued that anyone who was going to engage in sexual activity, therefore had to first determine whether or not it was rational to do so. For Aquinas, as a devout Christian, rationality was linked not just to medical theory, but to the health of the soul as well. Therefore, people should consider how sinful sex was before they had it.

Aquinas argued that really the most rational way to relate to sex was to just not have it. You wouldn’t expend your rational male power. You wouldn’t sin. God would love it. Job done. Of course, if you were going to have sex then you should be doing it while married and when you were pretty sure that you could become pregnant, as that was the only type of sex that God accepted. All other sexual activities he then ranked in order or rationality from what he saw as the sex most likely to result in children that could be born into a home, down to sex that could never result in children.[6] For Aquinas there was no real difference between most sexual activities that could never result in child birth, so sodomy (i.e. any type of sex that cannot result in conception, not just butt stuff), was one of the least rational kinds of sex, with bestiality coming in dead last. (I am fine with that part).

hierarchy

Masturbation, was more or less a type of sodomy that you did to yourself. It was therefore totally irrational. You were sinning, couldn’t get anyone pregnant, and you were wasting precious semen and risking your masculinity.

Even if one were not talking about masturbation, but sex with a partner, still too much sex was dangerous for all the same reasons as masturbation. Jerome warned that the sexuality of women, who were, of course, insatiable and extremely DTF, could have deleterious effects on men’s forceful rationality. He claimed that exposure to women and sex “enervates a man’s mind, and engrosses all thought except for the passion which it feeds.”[7] In other words, if you have too much sex you can’t concentrate on any of your important manly work, and will simply be awash in thoughts of lust, becoming more and more like a sex-crazed woman.

Even if you were an idealised man, you could, however fall prey to nocturnal emissions, or wet dreams, and this was a source for some debate among medieval people. Saint John Cassian, for instance lamented the fact that it was almost impossible to stop men from “polluting” themselves during the night. He did feel, however, that with practice and self-control, a true rational man could cut down his ejaculations to one every two or four months or so.[8] Anything less meant that a man was – you guessed it – weak willed and effeminate, and probably engaging in excesses elsewhere in his life.

These ideas all track perfectly with the conceptual apparatus of NNN. Like medieval people, these guys believe that the very essence of maleness is sperm. They think that it must be kept inside of them in order to keep themselves vital, attentive, and rational. Not ejaculating allows men to store up this energy and express it elsewhere in their lives. For people now, that might mean attracting women (to presumably not have sex with for a few weeks or something), or learning Spanish. (I can’t. I just can’t.) For medieval people, in contrast, that emphasis was on theological or philosophical study, and you can’t say that Thomas Aquinas – who was out here on a No Nut Ever tip – wasn’t one of the most prolific thinkers of all time.

Anthony
The Temptation of St Jerome by Francisco de Zurbaran

The more unfortunate side of the whole debacle is the inherent misogyny within these ideas. For the redditors and medieval people involved, one of the inherent issues with too many orgasms is that it makes a person feminine and femininity is ipso facto is a bad thing. Men should avoid sex so they don’t become like women AND they can blame women for their desire to orgasm and stray from the path of righteousness. Hell, St Jerome who was busy lecturing us all about how bad wet dreams are was himself tempted by a bunch of demons disguised as sexy women when he was on his own personal no-wanking retreat in the desert. Much like the brave soldiers of NNN, he was simply trying to not orgasm and there were suddenly women existing near him, messing the whole thing up. Within this framework women are temptress THOTs that must be avoided in order to … avoid becoming like a temptress THOT. It’s all very confusing.

Crucially within this discussion, the major idea that medieval people and the fine men of NNN have in common is the idea that semen and sperm are a finite source that needs to be hoarded. Now hold on because I am going to blow your mind – this isn’t true. I know. Testicles are constantly pumping out more sperm all the damn time, and you can have some more in a minute if you wait. You will not become a woman because you ejaculated.

This whole idea would be laughable if it wasn’t a misogynistic shit show with links to the alt right, because these men in the name of rationality have jettisoned a millennium’s worth of medical learning. We are all really clear on where semen comes from now, as well as the fact that regular ejaculation is actually a good idea if you want a healthy prostate. Don’t say that men are more logical and rational and then immediately discredit centuries worth of learning, to justify why you can’t crank it you know? Pretty sure my man Aquinas would be trying to learn from extant knowledge, not ignoring it if he was alive today, is all I am saying.

Fundamentally, I am very much of the position that people can do whatever they want with their bodies. Don’t want to wank? Fine. Don’t want to have sex with women? Even finer if you are the sort of woman-hating douche who thinks you can save up your magical sperm to have us pawing at you. What I am not fine with, however, is the misogyny at the heart of the idea, and the framing of what is fundamentally a discredited form of thinking as “rational”.

You don’t want to come? Fine with me. Just stop pretending this is scientific and that you are better than women as a result.

Now if you will excuse me, I am going to have sex.

[1] Paul Veyne. “Homosexduality in Ancient Rome”, in, Western Sexuality: Practice and Precept in Past and Present Times (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), p. 29.
[2] Aline Rouselle, Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1988), p. 18.
[3] Isidore, Etimologías X, 179, 835.
[4] Causae et curae, trans. Margaret Berger (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1999) p. 58.
[5] Danielle Jaquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 52-60.
[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Thologiae, II-II, 154, 1.
[7] Jerome, “Against Jovinian,” 367 in A Select Library of Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (New York: n.p. 1893).
[8] John Cassian, Institutions cénobitiques, ed. and trans. J.-C. Guy, Sources Chrétiennes, no. 109, (Paris: Editions du Cerf. 1961): VI, 20; 1955-1959: II, 23.


For more on sex in the medieval period, see:
On cuckolding – a thing
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
These hoes ain’t loyal: on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hiphop culture
On Courtly Love, sexual coercion, and killing your idols
On Incels and courtly love
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at BISH
Sex and the (medieval city): social hygene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On women and desire
On power and the entitlement to lower-status women’s bodies, or, the thing that IS medieval about Trump

 

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

6 thoughts on “On No Nut November”

  1. Thank you for breaking down this topic! I’ll be linking this far and wide.

    Probably by accident the link on “retaining your semen is magic” is the same as the previous one on sex addiction. Could you please fix it, I’d love to know everything about the magic of retaining semen!

    Like

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