Let’s call a spade a spade: it’s been a bad year for sexual virtue. The Department of Health and Human Services has repeatedly scorned the conscientious objectors to its notorious contraception mandate. The Second Circuit decided that the abortifacient morning-after pill should be sold over the counter to minors. The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not define marriage as the union of one man and one woman for federal purposes, and it failed to protect the California voters’ referendum to the same effect.

In a realm that has far more cultural clout than any courthouse, Keeping Up with the Kardashians just aired its 100th episode, with no end to the series in sight. Magic Mike became the top-grossing dance film of all time—I use the term “dance” there terribly loosely—before announcing that it had its sights set on a stage adaptation. Speaking of stage adaptations, Kinky Boots won this year’s Tony award for best musical by dazzling audiences with its scantily clad transvestite charm. Even Downton Abbey decided that its third season needed some saucy same-sex attraction to spice up the storyline. And on top of all of that, this year saw the release of the final installment of the Fifty Shades trilogy, the “mommy porn” series that has now surpassed Harry Potter as history’s fasting-selling paperbacks ever.

With all of this loveliness in the background, you can imagine my astonishment when I stumbled across a new subcultural movement exploding on the internet, one whose express aim is to cultivate sexual temperance in its 70,000-some-odd members. NoFap is an anonymous online message board offering an unexpected beacon of hope in our sexually perverse age. That said, browsing around on NoFap is not recommended for the sexually squeamish.

Hosted by reddit, NoFap is one of over 5,000 “subreddit” sites, where anyone can show up and create new posts, comment on old ones, and affect the priority of threads and comments by up- and down-voting other members’ contributions. Since its creation in 2005, reddit has received several billion pageviews. It has subreddits devoted to themes as diverse as professional soccer and My Little Pony. Celebrities including President Obama, Bill Gates, and David Copperfield have hosted chats on the site where users can “Ask Me Anything.”

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Yet even amidst this endless diversity of reddit content, I am convinced that NoFap is the most interesting subreddit on offer today. Founded in June 2011, this community invites members to participate in what it calls the “fapstinence” challenge, to abstain completely from pornography and/or masturbation.

While each user, or “Fapstronaut,” decides for himself what his challenge will involve and how long it will last, for most, the goal seems to be at least ninety days, if not permanence, without either “P” or “M.” Those also abstaining from sexual activity with others forswear orgasms (“O”) altogether, an advanced version of the challenge that the gamers involved have dubbed “hardmode.”

The motivations driving this PMO-austerity are various, but commonalities emerge. Many Fapstronauts are young men—anywhere from eleven years old and upwards—who have come of age after the dawning of the internet, at a time when pornography has been ubiquitous like never before. Most of these men fell into lustful habits incredibly young, and have failed to excise these practices from their lives since. NoFap is, for them, a long-awaited opportunity to fight for freedom, among brethren who share both their wounds and the determination to mend them.

While in one sense there is nothing new under the sun, still, our technological developments, and the cultural trends they have shaped and been shaped by, present unprecedented challenges in the area of onanism. Our fathers cannot be blamed for failing to prepare us for this epidemic, of course, since often their best shot at acquiring even soft-core pornography as preteens was to shoplift a Playboy from a gas station. We have advanced from slingshots to the atomic bomb in a single generation, and the parental regulation necessary to contain the explosion could not have hoped to keep up. Still, the carnage remains, and it cannot be ignored.

Perhaps the link shared most frequently on NoFap is to Gary Wilson’s Your Brain on Porn, an anatomist’s breakdown of the biochemical forces behind the appeal of pornography. For all the divergences and disagreements on NoFap, nearly all members concur that internet pornography has been a scourge for our generation. Many testify that overcoming this vice has been harder than breaking addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, and even heroin. One determined Fapstronaut summed up this common sentiment in a post entitled “Dear Porn Industry,” in which he banished pornographers from his life once and for all:

I am done with you. I hate you. I gave away my [f-ing] freedom to you. I gave you the key to define my sexual desires and expectations. I gave you permission to walk uninterrupted in my beliefs about relationships. I let you paint a picture of femininity and I ran by it. I gave you more authority over me than I ever gave my parents, my teachers, or my lovers—people who actually loved me.

Hard numbers are impossible to come by, but judging by the typical content of responses to religious posts, I would estimate that well over half of the Fapstronauts are atheists, or at least “nones.” NoFap’s founder, Alexander Rhodes, openly identifies as an atheist, so his motivations for the challenge and for establishing the subreddit obviously involve no acknowledged supernatural component.

For many, these natural reasons are more than sufficient inspiration. Fapstronauts long to master their desires rather than be mastered by them; or they want to experience real human friendship rather than waste away in front of a computer screen; or they want to make themselves worthy of the women they love; or they have gradually let their pornographic tastes get more and more extreme and hope to overcome these disturbing fascinations; or they admit to having used masturbation as an escapist drug and are resolved to face their problems head-on instead.

One of the most interesting things about NoFap is that its members are discovering not only the unfortunate consequences of PMO, and not even just its moral evil. They are also coming to see it as aesthetically repulsive. The Fapstronauts speak not just with regret, but with disgust. They constantly allude to the revolting perversion of these vices, captured so well by C. S. Lewis, in a quote that constantly resurfaces on the NoFap boards:

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides . . . The danger is that of coming to love the prison.

Yet not all Fapstronauts are driven by thoughts as noble as those of Lewis. Indeed, many have terribly perverse objectives for the challenge. Their masturbatory habits have led to severe sexual impairments, and they hope that fapstinence will cure their erectile dysfunction; or they think staying away from porn stars will free them up for more frequent trysts with live women, helping them amass notches on the bedpost. The list could continue, but saying more seems unnecessary.

What are we to make of these depraved Fapstronauts? Does their perversity damn the movement entirely?

I am inclined to think not. They may on occasion make some disgustingly raunchy comments, and in a nobler age, this would be worth censoring ourselves against entirely. But to be frank, they say nothing most young men today have not heard in the locker room by their twelfth birthday. Filtering out the vicious inputs and exchanging them for virtuous ones—replacing pornography with iconography, as it were—is an excellent aim. But if Fapstronauts must suffer the occasional lustful cad in order to cooperate toward chastity in this honorable community, that seems to me a price well worth paying.

As to the question of how to understand those who are sacrificing one sin in order more effectively to commit another, this seems to me the perfect illustration of a point that J. Budziszewski has been making for years. One of the most important witnesses to the natural law—that set of moral imperatives binding on all and at some level known to all—is the natural consequences of violating its precepts. Says Budziszewski, “Those who cut themselves bleed. Those who give offense to others are hated. Those who live by knives die by them.  . . . Those who travel from bed to bed lose the capacity for trust.” We can now add to the list that those who lust after another in private are incapable of pleasure when they finally meet her face-to-face.

NoFap is far from perfect, but it is a powerful step in the right direction. Drawing men and women together in community to battle a vice that works through isolation, this subreddit goes a long way toward taking people out of themselves, and preparing them to lay down their lives for love of another. Even for those whose ends remain skewed, there is evidence, however limited, that the positive influence of their compatriots may ultimately effect a comprehensive change in their outlook.

Our side is not faring all too well in the “culture wars” we have been waging for the last half-century. Following Aristotle, we have become fond of saying that virtue leads to happiness, and rightly so. Yet for too many years we have tried merely to insert our arguments about flourishing into the public square, with inadequate sensitivity to the lived situations of those who are hearing them. As a result, we have found ourselves sorely disappointed with our arguments’ cultural fruits. This does not mean we should stop arguing, of course, but it does mean that we should both contemplate our approach and manage our expectations.

History would seem to indicate that arguing our way to single-issue victory, philosophically or politically, is something of a pipedream. Far more probable is that our culture will either be forced into a wholesale conversion of worldviews, or else, more likely, that things will continue to decline gradually, as we have watched them do for a quite a while. In the latter scenario, our hope should be that, eventually and amidst the mindless hedonism, a new secular subculture of virtue-oriented people will arise, not out of abstract moral interests, but simply because they want to be happy.

NoFap seems one such instance of a trend that we should pray to see much more frequently. These 70,000 members have all but rediscovered classical sexual ethics, merely by questing after genuine happiness, and finding the offerings of libertinism wanting by painful firsthand experience. Their achievements are individually significant, of course, and they should be commended for them. But their common realizations may ultimately prove far more so. Time will tell, but it may one day be said that the Fapstronauts have inadvertently taken one small step for man, and made one giant leap for mankind.