From a sunny sitting room, 26-year-old Kristel beams at the camera she has set up to broadcast her life to her 49,000 YouTube subscribers.
“I struggled with acne and I had body issues,” she explains reverently. “I think I [now] look better and I think more positively … I’ve been told how much more attractive I’ve got.”
Later, she will intercut the video with photographs of herself taken over the previous eight months, her skin growing noticeably more radiant, her hair changing from lackluster to glossy.
But with her before-and-after shots, Kristel isn’t documenting a weight-loss journey or a new skincare regime.
Instead, she credits her new glow to a movement that has lurked in corners of the internet for several years.
Kristel is a follower of NoFap, a platform that encourages its users to refrain from masturbation.
She claims her new lifestyle has led to a complete physical and mental reformation.
“After starting NoFap I felt more motivation, more willpower and more discipline,” Kristel tells me.
“I decided to take part in the movement because I like challenging myself and I wanted to prove that I could accomplish this.”
The flippantly named NoFap community has gained a strange prominence since it was founded in 2011 by Pittsburgh web developer Alexander Rhodes.
Inspired by a small study that suggested that male testosterone levels rose after seven days of abstinence from ejaculation, followers avoid masturbation in order to “reboot” their brains.
Having first gained momentum among men in Reddit forums and backwaters of the internet, the community regards NoFap as a sexual health program to combat porn addiction.
But there is also a consensus among many NoFappers (who often brand themselves “Fapstronauts”) that refraining from masturbation can lead to “superpowers”, ranging from increased energy and confidence to commanding respect from peers or curing social anxiety.
NoFap’s Reddit forum now has more than 450,000 members primarily in North America and the UK, and Kristel is part of a smaller subset of female subscribers.
Rhodes estimates that about 5% of the NoFap followers are female and although the cohort may be small, it is seemingly mighty.
Kristel’s transformation video alone has racked up almost 1.5m views to date. She says the vast majority of her viewers are based in the US, with a smaller but significant following in India.
In an attempt to engage its rising female cohort, NoFap has recently introduced new measures including hiring female moderators and creating women in reboot forums.
Kristel explains: “Even though most of the responses I get are encouraging and positive, there is also a side of people not taking it seriously. They think girls don’t even masturbate to begin with.”
Kristel has become something of a poster-girl for the Femstronaut movement, but there is a darker side to NoFap.
Among the reams of Reddit discussions and YouTube videos, a fundamentally misogynistic rhetoric regularly emerges.
The movement’s focus on testosterone inherently idealizes masculine traits, and the oft-cited claim that NoFap makes men more attractive to the opposite sex objectifies women and frames them as the “prize” in the game of who can hold out for longest.
Some have even linked the movement to incel (involuntarily celibate) communities, who extend contempt towards masturbation and pornography to a more insidious hatred of women.
So what drives women to participate in this male-dominated trend? Like Kristel, Chicago-based YouTuber Alana, 29, joined the NoFap movement as a lifestyle improvement in 2017.
“I think the biggest issue is porn,” she says. “Porn is where people go to learn how to have sex, and most of the time the approach to sex in porn is built around the man’s pleasure.
Even as a heterosexual woman, porn made me sexualize and objectify women … I also began to think of myself as a sex object, and that my value came from my sex appeal.”
Kristel also cites the influence of pornography as a key driver of the trend. She says the unrelenting theme of male dominance, unrealistic body standards and the overly performative scenes made watching adult content a discomfiting experience for her.
She claims that without pornography to masturbate to or compare her own experiences with, she is able to enjoy sex in a way that she wasn’t able to before.
Sex addiction therapist Staci Sprout says the phenomenon really is “a new grassroots movement where people are seeking to reclaim their bodies separately from pornography’s input.
If a woman has only learned how to self-pleasure through high-stimulation pornography and later just re-enacts this with others, she probably won’t know herself very well sexually.”
It seems no coincidence that both Alana and Kristel, seemingly some of the most prominent and outspoken women in the NoFap movement, are part of a generation that has grown up with extreme sexual content only ever a few clicks away.
Despite the almost non-existent science behind its claims, the NoFap movement seems to represent a solution to very real concerns.
Yet it is not clear whether NoFap offers any relief. Although the thousands of women who post on NoFap might be benefiting from access to a community of like-minded people, it fails to provide the expert support that may realistically be needed for women struggling with sex or porn addiction.
The women drawn to NoFap seem trapped in a conundrum of the digital age. They see themselves as victims of a world where access to online pornography is unlimited, but also end up seeking solutions within a similarly opaque and murky world.
Although they may feel isolated from the male-centric world of pornography, their association with an ideology that idolizes the strange pseudo-science of semen retention and stereotypically masculine powers could only further isolate them from the nuances of female sexuality.
And yet, Kristel has no plans to stop. “After years of abstaining, there is no restriction involved, it feels natural to me now,” she says. “I don’t feel any urge to go back.”