Lack of mental health care and toxic masculinity create a void for cult-like groups online.
This NPR article has a lot going on. Some people really could use health care and have an addiction problem with pornography. There are not many affordable options for them in our broken healthcare system, but there are a lot of wrong places to go for advice online. The article focuses on one such forum; a particularly bad one. The minds behind their theories around abstinence are not doctors, nor were scientists or doctors consulted by the media when writing stories about them:
Ideas about masturbation abstinence got a big boost from the man who interviewed Rhodes on the radio in 2012 — Gary Wilson. Wilson, a former massage therapy instructor in Oregon who died in 2021, ran a website called yourbrainonporn.com. While he was neither a medical doctor nor a Ph.D. scientist (he was an adjunct biology instructor at Southern Oregon University for a combined four months in 2005 and 2010), he had given a viral TEDx talk arguing that internet porn is a hazard for men's brains.
NoFap's message today is strongly aligned with Wilson's arguments that watching porn is addictive, causes conditions such as erectile dysfunction and brain fog, and can even involuntarily change one's sexual desires.
Within a few years, major media outlets were running profiles of Rhodes and his touted approach to pornography addiction, including The New York Times, CNN, the BBC and NPR's Here & Now, co-produced with Boston member station WBUR. Many of those stories didn't include comments from scientists or doctors.
The folks behind one of the main anti-masturbation/toxic masculinity groups online have indeed spent a lot of time courting the extreme, and so it's no surprise to find out that they are a good place for people to get sucked into a cult-like mindset about others.
In 2016, NoFap company founder Alexander Rhodes made a guest appearance on a talk show hosted by Gavin McInnes, who would go on to found the far-right Proud Boys months later.
Rhodes has said that at the time, he knew McInnes only as a comedian and co-founder of Vice Media. Rhodes has strongly denied that he has any ties with extremist groups and has sued people, including his own mother, who have alleged that he or his company has worked with or supported extremists. There is no evidence that Rhodes has worked with such groups.
McInnes also interviewed Wilson, who did the viral TEDx talk about porn addiction. White nationalist David Duke has recommended Wilson's presentation on his blog, where he made unfounded, antisemitic claims that pornography is a Jewish plot to undermine white men.
It's an idea that migrates onto the forums, according to another former user of NoFap.com who spoke with NPR. "On the message board, there would be people saying that the Jews are controlling the porn because they're having Black men have sex with white women and that's going to deplete the white race," said Chuck, a 39-year-old in Colorado.
NPR has not found these specific posts, but conspiracy theories recur on both NoFap.com and the subreddit. Some posts are explicitly antisemitic. Others use generalized language about a "global elite," or "Illuminati," narratives that echo the worldviews in some extremist spaces.
"Spokespeople of online forums like NoFap, for example, have been very concerned with distancing themselves from anything having to do with extremism," says Burke. "Alt-right, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, antisemitic — they are very clear to say we are not that. But they're not willing to recognize what I think is just an empirical reality, which is that some people who buy into porn addiction rhetoric also buy into these more extremist beliefs."
It is easy to access a hobbyist forum online and find great advice about camping or restoring a cool old object; however, those forums are perhaps not the place to entrust one's mental health.