science of us

A Sociological Investigation of #NoWanks

Photo: AP/REX/Shutterstock

The Proud Boys call themselves a fraternal organization of “Western chauvinists,” the Southern Poverty Law Center calls them a hate group, and many Americans probably had no idea what to call them when they made headlines earlier this year. To refresh your memory: the group was part of a “brawl” outside a Manhattan Republican club after their founder, Gavin McInnes (who is also one of the original co-founders of VICE), “performed a re-enactment of the murder of a Japanese socialist” for the club’s members. (McInnes claimed to quit the group two days after reports surfaced that the FBI had classified it “an extremist group with ties to white nationalism.”)

All this increased attention on the group has resurfaced what McInnes refers to as one of the “top 12 myths” about his former boys: “Gavin tells them when to masturbate.” Though he may not tell them when, the group does, in fact, have a set of rules that tells its members how. “We call it #NoWanks,” he writes. Achieving the second “degree” of membership (after declaring oneself a Proud Boy publicly) involves only masturbating once every 30 days, only within one yard of a woman, and (mercifully?) only with her consent. “What started as a dare among Proud Boys has become the core of their existence,” according to McInnes. “It gets young men off the couch and talking to women and it gets married men away from their computers and back into bed with their significant other.” (I reached out to the Proud Boys for comment; they haven’t responded.)

It’s tempting to laugh at the absurdity here. But note the language under the stipulations for the group’s fourth degree of membership: “engaging in a major conflict for the cause.” It’s a little unclear what that cause actually is, but this line on the Proud Boys USA homepage gives us a clue: “I Am A Western Chauvinist And I Refuse To Apologize For Creating The Modern World.” Though the Proud Boys claim to be open to all races and sexualities, and even seem to draw the rare non-white, non-straight member, they have attracted the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who cite concerns over the group’s fondness for white nationalist memes, as well as their anti-Muslim and misogynist rhetoric. And let’s not forget that former member Jason Kessler was a key organizer of last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Clearly, this is no joke.

It should be noted that after McInnes’s departure, the Proud Boys’ new leadership, now focused on image control, claims to be reconsidering its relationship to violence. Even the Proud Boys’ initiation ritual, in which members are beaten until they can name five cereals, has been codified in the post-McInnes era — no punches to the head allowed.

Still, what does white nationalism have to do with jerking off? Or, rather, not jerking off? “It’s a confusing paradox,” said Sarah Diefendorf, a sociologist and Scholars Strategy Network postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah. Diefendorf specializes in white evangelical sexual politics in the age of Trump.

At first, #NoWanks seems to fly in the face of the notion that “real men” prioritize sexual conquest. In fact, several groups in the “manosphere” (blogs and forums online that are dedicated to men’s rights) have philosophies that seem to run counter to that stereotype. For example, there’s Men Going Their Own Way, or MGTOWs, a loose affiliation of men who abstain from marriage initially, and sex and dating eventually, because feminism has ruined all of it. And, of course, there are also Incels, a misogynistic online community linked to several violent attacks, who say what unites them is that they are “involuntarily celibate.”

So what gives? “If we look at these groups in the aggregate, we see something they all have in common,” Diefendorf says. “They are all talking about their relationships to sex and sexuality, and approaching those questions differently. But what they all have in common is their understanding of women.”

And that understanding, Diefendorf explains, involves a virulent sense of ownership over women’s bodies, combined with a feeling that they’re “losing power or control.” MGTOWs feel they’ve lost a gender war, and their revenge (?) is to remove themselves from the dating pool. Incels blame women for not giving them what they “deserve” (sex), and at least some of them believe violence is the right response. The Proud Boys, Diefendorf added, also feel an acute loss of power, but instead of bowing out or advocating “sex redistribution” like Incels and their sympathizers, their response is to focus on family and fatherhood.

“However,” she adds, “they believe in this gender essentialism and biological determinism that men and women have separate roles to fulfill, and that women have been taking over men’s roles. They believe that everyone — both men and women — are unhappy because of this, that women will be happier in the home. And that as men they should be in control over these women, provide for them, and be the ones in the workforce.”

You could call all of that garden-variety sexism, but here’s where it veers into stranger territory. Diefendorf has observed that the Proud Boys blame their role in the “gender imbalance, to put it nicely,” as she says, on … porn. The masturbation rule is a way to encourage real-life sex with real-life women by limiting exposure to porn (which seems to imply that men only masturbate when watching porn, but okay). Specifically, Diefendorf notes, the rule encourages sex in pursuit of marriage and procreation.

But reproducing more Proud Boys isn’t the only reason masturbation is such a hot topic for the group and those like it, according to Amy Wilkins, a professor of sociology at University of Colorado-Boulder. Wilkins, who has studied Christian men who “resisted” sex, says that this resistance became a way to assert their masculinity “by drawing on an understanding of masculinity as being about the ability to control oneself.” (Whether or not the individual members of the Proud Boys are Christian, the behavior aligns them with this group Wilkins has studied.)

The notion of self-control is bedrock to a masculinity based on dominance more broadly, according to Wilkins because, somewhat ironically, it only works if men believe that the constant desire for sex is key to manhood. Thus, she says, “this talk of self-control actually shored up these men’s heterosexual identities.” (Though she adds that she “wasn’t entirely convinced” that the Christian men she studied were “all actually were that interested in sex” in the first place, it provided a great “cover” for those who wanted to maintain their masculinity status without questions about their sexuality.) Additionally, like many male “bonding” activities, refraining from masturbation requires the group: You need “accountability partners,” and the opportunity to share stories of your struggles, Wilkins says. “In this way they created a group culture of self-control that A) proved they were all red-blooded heterosexual young men and B) made sexuality central to their identities even when they weren’t doing it.”

“Men’s sexuality is created with and for each other,” Wilkins says. Incredibly, in this context, “not having sex became a central way they created the group and proved they were all good, heterosexual men.” In the Proud Boys’ case, it also connects sexuality — arguably the most-policed aspect of masculinity, and therefore a crucial form of social control over men — directly to the mother ship of an ideology that reinforces the status quo of gender roles. If one has to think about letting down the “boys” every time he wants to jerk off, his association with his own, private sexuality becomes public, and twinned directly to a political ideology. There is no space between his body and the political apparatus that governs it.

Which is made all the more troubling by the recent announcement of the Proud Boys’ “tactical defense arm,” the “Alt-Knights.” This “accelerant for violence” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, seeks to eradicate “globalism, radical Islam, and communism,” according to the Alt-Knights own founder, Kyle Chapman. This all might seem unrelated to #NoWanks, but fundamentalist Christians have made the connection for years. “BYU Idaho released a commercial years back that equated fighting off the urge to masturbate and look at porn with being on a war battlefield with your fellow soldiers,” Diefendorf says. “Pure Desires Ministries, which provides curricula across the nation to evangelical Christian churches, has a curricula called Top Gun, with an image of a fighter jet on the front — and it is a ‘flight manual for young men in a pornified world.’”

Again, though masturbation seems like a funny way in, the rules these group members set for themselves around sex are worth taking seriously, because they reveal the Proud Boy worldview. “For some groups of men — and here, I think we are talking about white men — when other groups gain economically, or in terms of social rights, added visibility in the world, it can feel like discrimination to them,” Diefendorf says. That this would involve reproductive strategies makes perfect sense: Women have only recently, and only sometimes, wrested control over their bodies. And that white men who may be feeling a sense of masculinity threat would respond with aggression and dominance is also no surprise: It’s a crucial part of male socialization.

“As a society, we teach young boys that they have a right to women and women’s bodies,” Diefendorf says. “We see this early on with responses to girls getting chased or pushed down on the playground by a boy — and an adult responds, “jokingly” with, ‘Oh he must like you!’” For me, it’s a chilling, and necessary, exercise to remember how often I heard that refrain, and then consider that it is likely that at least one of the boys I grew up with is, right now, an aggrieved man using sex as an entitlement, strategy, or weapon.

A Sociological Investigation of #NoWanks