Can temporary abstinence actually help you focus?

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Productivity guru and TED talker Tim Ferris famously issued a challenge to his loyal followers: abstain from sex, masturbation, and alcohol for a month. That one got a hard no from me. Participation made folks eligible for a prize — but the real prize, according to Ferris, would be increased productivity. Still, no. We’ve all heard that athletes shouldn’t get it on before the big game, because it would deplete their life force or something. That theory’s generally been shot down. Another, very prevalent theory is that sexual fasting leads to increased mental clarity — this one feels archaic and sex-negative to me.

But even though I’m kind of an unrepentant nymph, I don’t want to keep other folks from reaping the benefits of swearing off sex, so I set out to find out whether there is any scientific evidence to show that not having sex or masturbating makes you better able to focus.

The idea that sexual abstinence leads to increased physical and mental prowess comes to us from Ancient Greece, when athletes were required to abstain before the Olympics. It’s believed that the Greeks feared that engaging in pleasures like sex would weaken athletes. Ferris contends that, for men, not wanking leads to an increase in Testosterone, which makes men get more done. Sounds pretty woo — and it is; the abstinence impetus is not backed by science and has not passed the test of time. In fact, contemporary studies indicate that sex does not diminish physical prowess.

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I talked to a few well-versed sexuality experts to get their take on the sex-fasting-for-mental-clarity phenomenon. “I don’t know for sure where this idea came from. Throughout history, you can see the idea that abstaining from sex would enhance performance in the world of sports,” says Justin Lehmiller, a sex scholar, research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, and author of two books on human sexuality. “However, the research just doesn't seem to support the idea that this really works.” When it has been reported, anecdotally, to work, it’s probably more of a placebo effect than anything, he adds. In other words, if you believe it will help you, it just might help.

There’s no universal assumption we can make about how sex and masturbation affect individuals, Lehmiller says, since different people can have vastly different sex drives. “For example, for someone with a low drive, abstaining from sex for a little while might not be particularly challenging and they may be able to use that opportunity to enhance focus and concentration. For someone with a higher drive, though, abstaining could actually be very counterproductive and, if anything, could decrease clarity.”

So, if my non-believing behind tries a sex fast mental clarity, it’ll likely leave me cranky, resentful, and cloudy. “If people with high sex drives try not to think about sex, we know that this has the ironic effect of making people think about sex even more,” Lehmiller says. “I don’t think there’s a universal ‘rule’ here, and there’s actually good reason to suspect that abstaining could actually impair mental performance for some people.”

Dulcinea Pitagora, an New York City-based psychotherapist and sex researcher, agrees and points out that short term sex fasting could actually be harmful to an individual’s emotional wellbeing. “Not only is the premise inaccurate about its potential for benefit, but it’s informed by sex negative socialization,” she says. “The whole idea that sex is something that needs to be repressed or removed in order to improve something about someone’s life is another way of demonizing, pathologizing, and controlling sexuality.” Perpetuating sex-negative ideas and practices, Pitagora says, can be damaging to self-expression, self-esteem, and the development of a person’s identity. Even further, she suggests that suppressing sexual thoughts for any reason other than to intensify sexual desire could lead to distractibility and possibly aggression.

Both Lehmilller and Pitagora feel confident that attempting to suppress sexual thoughts is likely to backfire. She jokes that people like Ferris are actually making sex fasting into kind of kink. “This reminds me of chastity play, which is a kinky interaction in which the dominant controls the sexual release of the submissive,” Pitagora says. “The submissive is reduced to a state of sexual frustration that is easily controlled. This can be fantastically sexy for enthusiastically consenting adults.”

Okay, I changed my mind. I’m in. Ferris isn’t really my type, but if he’s a skillful dom, I’ll consider chastity play. Especially if there’s a prize.