“After 11 years of jacking off, I’ve finally quit.”
“I started (masturbating) in the eighth grade, in middle school. Now I’m in my sophomore year of college. I do it at least once a day and get headaches every day. I’ve wanted to quit many times, but it’s never lasted for more than a week. Now I’m trying to quit and asking for encouragement.”
If these messages sound like they were taken from “NoFap,” the online community-slash-message board where users swap stories and trade tips on their struggles against masturbation and porn addiction, you’re almost right. Cut off from sites like Reddit, Chinese netizens have built their own version of the NoFap movement centered on a Baidu forum: Jiese Ba, or “Abstinence Bar.” There, its 6 million members are passionately re-stigmatizing masturbation or, as they put it: “quitting porn and masturbation and retrieving healthy, positive energy.”
China’s growing acceptance of sex has shaken the country’s deeply ingrained beliefs regarding the harmfulness of masturbation. Although there are no definitive statistics, a state-sponsored survey of college students released this May found 87% of male respondents had masturbated at least once, and more than 65% of all respondents said they had looked at pornographic content online. But then why are so many young people pivoting and embracing retrograde views of masturbation? In search of an answer, I’ve spent the past six years following Abstinence Bar and interviewing its users.
Based on my research, the majority of Abstinence Bar’s members are teenage males. As with NoFap and other, similar Western communities, many draw from history and tradition. Among young Chinese, rationales for quitting masturbation can be broken down into two overarching categories: physical and spiritual health.
Traditional Chinese notions of sex dictate sexual intercourse not be too frequent and semen — the essence of the male body — not lightly expended. As one old saying puts it: “A drop of sperm is worth 10 drops of blood.”
This dovetails with key concepts in traditional Chinese medicine like “kidney essence.” In TCM theory, kidney essence is fundamental to growth and development, reproduction, metabolic function, and life itself. This lends special significance to conserving ejaculations, since according to TCM, masturbation burns through kidney essence, leading to kidney deficiencies and a host of other disorders. One well-known jiese proponent claims masturbation-linked kidney depletion leads not just to physical maladies, but also to mental and psychological problems such as sluggishness, insomnia, introversion, negativity, cowardice, and social phobias.
Then there’s the quasi-spiritual component of jiese, grounded in Buddhism and centered on resisting masturbation, seen as the embodiment of lust. One popular proponent of jiese cites the Surangama Sutra: “Without severing lust, you will fall onto a dark path.”
Similar terms and ideas crop up frequently in jiese discourse. Users talk of “masturbation demons” and of being made fun of for being “Mr. Spent Kidneys” — shenxu gongzi. In one post from 2018, the author bemoans the “bad consequences summoned by (his) lustful heart,” which led to a decline in his grades and prevented him from getting into a top high school. “Evil lust damages one’s luck in examinations as well as one’s good karma,” he writes.
Taken from Vol. 21 of a comic series created by Abstinence Bar users, Feb. 27, 2020. From Jieseba.org
Of course, none of this takes place in a vacuum. The lived physical, social, and psychological experiences of teenage males play an important role in their embrace of jiese and anti-masturbation rhetoric and ideologies.
Xiao Ming — I have used a pseudonym to protect his privacy — was a sophomore in high school when we spoke. He told me he used to think masturbation was harmless. “Baidu Baike (a Chinese Wikipedia equivalent) said masturbation was normal, so there was no need to worry too much,” he said. “Just like thirsty people want to drink water and hungry people want to eat, when people have desires, they need to release them.”
Freed from fear, Xiao Ming started consuming pornography and masturbating. He thought he had found a shortcut to happiness and saw masturbation as a stress-reliever.
Upon entering high school, however, he began experiencing various physical, psychological, social, academic, and family problems. Already short and skinny, he developed acne, suffered frequent back pain, received criticism from his teachers for his poor grades, and quarreled with his parents. Frustrated and with low self-esteem, he withdrew from his peer circles at school.
Xiao Ming’s feelings of shame and anxiety drove him to introspection, and he became desperate to change his life. Remembering some negative theories he’d read about masturbation, he began to suspect his habit was the root of his problems. Searching for evidence, he came across Abstinence Bar, where he found a community of people with similar issues. After perusing related articles, especially those grounded in TCM and Buddhism, his belief that his problems stemmed from masturbation solidified.
Taken from Vol. 18 of a comic series created by Abstinence Bar users, Feb. 27, 2020. From Jieseba.org
Xiao Ming’s journey is in a sense typical for many adolescents. The sexual awakening of puberty comes at a time of immense physical, emotional and psychological upheaval and change. Yet even in today’s more permissive climate, issues involving sex remain difficult to talk about, especially in-person.
The virtual space provided by Abstinence Bar can seem like an ideal alternative. Its claims that masturbation is harmful fit its members’ personal experiences while offering a path to a healthier, happier future. In other words, members aren’t just passively accepting misinformation regarding the harms of masturbation; they’re making an intentional choice based on their own individual experiences.
But making this choice and sticking to it are two different things, and it’s not as simple as breaking a single habit. As one influential poster puts it: “A person who has the habit of masturbation is bound to have other bad habits, and masturbation and other bad habits are symbiotic. They depend on each other and are inextricably linked.
“It is not simply a matter of not masturbating,” they continue. “But of rebuilding one’s life and bidding a complete farewell to (one’s) past lifestyle."
The first step is to stay away from pornography. Abstinence Bar users see porn as impure and blame it for cultivating the impulse to masturbate. Two commonly proffered tips are: Avoid porn and places where you might be in contact with porn; use psychological tricks to control sexual desire, such as imagining the other person as a skeleton, or with skin sores and ulcers.
This isn’t easy: Sexual desire is a normal physiological phenomenon, and many Abstinence Bar members talk about how difficult it is for them to stay away from pornography long term. Real freedom therefore requires a more comprehensive lifestyle change.
Taken from Vol. 18 of a comic series created by Abstinence Bar users, Feb. 27, 2020. From Jieseba.org
That’s where practicing overall wellness comes in. Staying up late, being addicted to the internet, and overeating are common unhealthy habits that Abstinence Bar users routinely link to masturbation. To get better means breaking these habits: waking up early, going to bed early, eating less, exercising, and quitting smoking and drinking.
Finally, members must “rebuild (their) lives.” They begin with the character flaws supposedly caused by their masturbation habit. That includes laziness, procrastination, impatience, and restlessness. Then they seek to improve their negative attitudes. Besides being honest with themselves, they need to check in regularly at the Abstinence Bar to set goals and publicly reaffirm their desire to quit masturbation. And lastly, they must cultivate their moral character, generally defined as learning about traditional Chinese moral culture and being filial toward one’s parents, generous to others, and critical of oneself.
The idea is to break their self-destructive cycle by reconnecting with others. In response to questions about what filial piety has to do with quitting masturbation, a popular jiese proponent drew on Confucian ideas of loving one’s parents by respecting and preserving the body they created. He also stressed a child’s struggles can cause parents emotional harm and that keeping this in mind is one way to stay on the wagon.
“If you’re just quitting for health, then you’ll never make it,” he writes. “Why? When a scar heals, you forget the pain it caused. You’ll get better and reoffend. But if you’re quitting for your parents, your family, and your sense of propriety, then you’ll certainly succeed.”
One positive of this approach is that members’ frustration with pornography and their own sexual urges rarely translates into anti-female rhetoric. Although not necessarily feminist, popular posters encourage their followers to respect women as part of re-cultivating one’s morals and to stop seeing them as a receptacle for their urges.
Modern Chinese society is characterized by increasingly relaxed attitudes toward sex. Yet certain topics, including masturbation, remain off-limits for discussion, keeping important information from those who need it most. In the above-mentioned study of college student sexuality, 41% of those who admitted to masturbating said they did so a few times a month; 27% said they did so multiple times a week; and 4% said it was “almost every day or more.” Unable to find someone they can talk to about these desires and urges, teenagers naturally resort to the internet.
The members of Abstinence Bar aren’t anti-science, ignorant, or radical conservatives, per se. They’re young men looking for answers and a way to regain control over their bodies. If we don’t like their methods, we shouldn’t call them ignorant, but reflect on why they’re so vulnerable to extreme or unscientific ideas in the first place.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Wang Zhenhao and Ding Yining for Sixth Tone)