Masters of Their Domain: The Persistence of Sports Abstinence
Why this matters
Abstaining from sex prior to competition is a sports tradition that dates back centuries – even though there’s no scientific evidence that it actually improves performance. So why does it endure?
Paddy Flood was an old school boxing trainer straight out of a casting director’s office: a street poet, philosopher, and surrogate father to the boys and young men who walked into his Gramercy Gym in New York City. He knew what an absurd, corrupt, and hopeless endeavor the fight game was: “the most ridiculous foggin’ sport in the world,” he once told the writer John Schulian. But he loved it anyway.
One of Flood’s favorite projects was a kid named Ray Elson. Elson got into boxing late. He’d been a weightlifting champion in Brooklyn before turning pro as a fighter in his early 20s. It was a quick rise for Elson, and in 1975, with only 13 pro fights under his belt, he found himself challenging Victor Galindez for a light heavyweight title as the warmup act for Muhammad Ali.
Galindez was faster, stronger, and vastly savvier. But Elson was tough. Under the lights in Las Vegas, he battled bravely for eight rounds before Flood stopped the fight, frantically waving Elson’s white robe from the corner of the ring as Galindez hammered him.
An hour or so later, as the main event was getting underway, Flood’s corner man came up to him in the stands. It turned out that while Ali was dancing around before a sold-out crowd, Elson was still in the shower – and his girlfriend was in there with him.
“The kid just fought his heart out,” Flood said. “Let him go.”
What Flood understood was that Elson had been abstaining from sex in the lead-up to the fight. Doing so is an age-old sports tradition, and it’s hardly limited to boxing. The belief that abstinence can somehow boost athletic performance – or, conversely, that sex can actively harm it – has been around since at least the Roman Empire. It’s a notion that inspired philosophers ranging from Philostratus (“In what sense are they men, those who exchange crowns and victory announcements for disgraceful pleasures?”) to movie boxer Rocky Balboa’s crusty trainer Mick (“Women weaken legs.”).
It's also a notion that has no basis in any scientific evidence whatsoever.
'Let it build up and be ready to compete'
Austin Vanderford is an undefeated middleweight for Bellator MMA. Before that, he was a wrestler at Southern Oregon University, which is where he first learned about pregame celibacy.
“Our coach would tell us, ‘Hey, the national tournament is next week or two weeks away, so let's abstain from having sex or, you know, doing anything like that. Let it build up and be ready to compete on the weekend,’” Vanderford says. “I came from a really small place in Alaska, where we didn’t have these high-level coaches. So to me being in college, I listened to my college coach like it was the gospel. Anything he said, I believed.
“So there was a time for a while where I was like, ‘Yeah, I gotta not have sex, not [masturbate]’ – I don't mean to be crude – or do anything like that before a big competition.”
Vanderford wasn’t being unreasonable. In sports, many accepted training practices – from weightlifting regimens to sexual ones – are essentially folklore, handed down across generations. “So often, if you don’t know how to train an athlete or how to advise an athlete, you fall back on what you were told,” says Dr. Jason Shurley, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Among other things, Shurley studies the history of coaching. He recalls a conversation he once had with Boyd Epley, a pioneering strength and conditioning coach who in 1967 at the University of Nebraska became the first-ever paid coach of his kind in the United States.
“We do to our athletes what our coaches do to us,” Epley told Shurley.
Sometimes, it doesn’t take long for athletes to realize that what their coaches are doing to them does not, in fact, make sense. In Vanderford’s case, that process took a year.
“It was my sophomore year,” he says. “I had dislocated my elbow five days before the national tournament. I was going in ranked second, or third, or around there. I had a good opportunity to win it. It was my right [elbow], and I'm right-handed. So, you know, I was doing physical therapy, trying to get everything ready to go for the tournament.”
One day at practice, Vanderford says, his coach asked him how his arm was.
Coach, I did “the test,” and we’re good to go. I think we’re going to be able to compete.
“I think you probably understand what I mean by ‘the test,’” Vanderford says now. “By that point, I had maybe ignored the thought of holding back before competition.”
For Vanderford, the abstinence question is not a matter of whether sex impacts physical ability, but whether it impacts your mental state. “I know for myself, usually the week of [a bout], we’re cutting weight and we're tired and whatever chemically is going on in our body – I don’t really feel the urge to have sex,” he says. “My wife and I usually … right after I finally weigh in and get food, we have sex.”
Vanderford also likes to use the last night before a fight to psych himself up. “You think back to the [Roman] gladiators and they’re getting ready to go off to battle and they sleep with their wives one last time before they go out,” he says.
From ancient Rome to the 'spermatic economy'
Just as Vanderford has sex before fights because he feels like it makes him a modern-day gladiator, the coach who told Vanderford not to have sex before bouts was drawing on a line of thinking that has existed for thousands of years.
“Though athletes in Greco-Roman antiquity were often associated with excess in all areas of their lives, a certain number of them became famous for renouncing sex completely, in keeping with a belief that athletic performance might be improved by abstaining from sex,” writes Jared Secord in a paper titled “The Celibate Athlete: Athletic Metaphors, Medical Thought, and Sexual Abstinence in the Second and Third Centuries CE.”
While historians can’t pinpoint the first person to suggest that “holding it in” can improve athletic performance, the third-century CE writings of the Christian philosopher Clement mention various Greek Olympians in the fifth century BCE who remained celibate. Clement also alludes to a work called “On the Peculiarity of Athletic Performance” by Istros of Alexandria that purportedly discusses this topic. (Alas, even the hottest takes eventually grow cold, and Istros’ work did not survive the millennia.)
Athletic celibacy in antiquity was not simply a competitive superstition. It was an issue at the crux of philosophical and scientific debate. Imperial Rome had a powerful tradition of self-restraint that was often reflected in stoic philosophy. There was genuine medical belief in the benefits of abstinence. Then there was the rising influence of early Christian thinkers: Clement, for example, dismissed celibacy as a virtue when it was motivated by anything other than the desire to be nearer to God.
“The figure of the athlete is a really ambiguous figure,” says Jason König, a scholar of classics at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who has written extensively on ancient sport. “They kind of are these models. Philosophers, and those Christian writers, too, take them as models of virtue and models of abstinence, but then you get quite the opposite in some other sources where they are really presented quite negatively. You can see versions of that today.”
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Galen, perhaps antiquity’s most influential thinker on medicine, wrote that you might spot an athlete by his “withered and collapsed penis.” The idea was that it had grown deformed from an intentional lack of use. He also wrote about the practice of athletic trainers attaching lead plates to the private parts of athletes in order to prevent “nocturnal emissions.”
Writing at about the same time as Galen, Philostratus noted in his work Gymnasticus that you could easily identify athletes who came to the gym after sex: “For their strength is diminished and they are short of breath and lack daring in their attacks, and they fade in colour in response to exertion, and they can be detected by signs of that sort.”
König says, “On one level, that looks quite weird from a modern perspective. But actually, a lot of these beliefs we probably have inherited, or we've got our own versions of them still.”
Take the idea that the physical loss of semen represents a loss of strength. In the 19th century, there arose a belief among some athletes and trainers that the body contained a fixed amount of energy – a belief that can be found in contemporary ideas about coaching and training.
“A lot of training theory is based on the vitalist idea that our body is kind of like a battery,” said Shurley, the kinesiology professor and scholar on the history of coaching. “We have a certain amount of energy and use it up, and it’s not there anymore. Or, kind of as a corollary to that – and this was used to argue against lifting weights – the idea that, if you lift weights, your muscles are going to get larger, so you’re going to have to direct more blood flow to the muscles; more to the muscles means less to the brain and other organs.”
These notions about energy found their way to sex. In the 1970s, historian Ben Barker-Benfield coined the term “spermatic economy” to describe an overarching 19th century belief system rooted in the idea that semen literally contained the male life force and that each instance of ejaculation meant a loss of vitality. Semen, wrote one influential American doctor of that era, contained the “concentrated powers of [man's] perfect being.” Men who masturbated or fornicated too much risked weakening their sperm and producing sickly children; athletes who did the same risked, well, losing.
None of this would have surprised Aretaeus, a contemporary of Galen and Philostratus who once wrote that “if a man is self-controlled in the emission of semen, he is powerful, courageous, and strong as wild animals; a sign [of this] is those of the athletes who are chaste.”
'No meaningful effect'
At this point in the story, you may have noticed an utter absence of women athletes. That’s no accident. Until quite recently, the people writing about subjects like athletic performance were almost all men, and almost all of those men did not consistently take women athletes seriously. The undying idea that abstinence improves sports performance? It’s also inherently sexist.
And yet. As women athletes have gained prominence, that same idea has managed to invert itself.
“In my gym, on my team, our coach actually encouraged the women to have sex,” says MMA fighter Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. “He said that, as women, if we had sex before a fight, it was actually replacing our estrogen with testosterone. We all believed him.”
Researchers have demonstrated that having sex the night before does not raise a woman’s testosterone levels the following day. Nevertheless, the idea that women gain something from pre-competition sex – just as men lose something – has adherents, including MMA fighter Ronda Rousey.
“If you have sex, it raises your testosterone,” she told Conan O’Brien in a 2012 interview. “So it kind of sucks that I don’t have a boyfriend right now – though I’m sure my Twitter is blowing up with offers at the moment. … I don’t know the exact science behind it. Maybe it was a pickup line I heard.”
Macfarlane now believes that the benefits of pre-fight abstinence are a myth. Every combat sports athlete has their own preferences, their own routines. Like Vanderford, she says that the important thing is being in a good mental space.
"After a while, you find out what works for you,” Macfarlane says. “I found out, with myself, I just like having somebody there. Not even necessarily to be physical before my fight. But just to have somebody there to help me through fight week, who I can cuddle with and everything. That’s what I prefer.”
Find out what works for you. Science supports this approach. Overall, there has been very little direct research on how sexual activity impacts athletic performance, and almost all of what has been studied deals with male athletes. However, the studies that do exist consistently demonstrate the same thing.
“They all tend to show that there is no meaningful effect on physical performance measures,” says Dr. Gerald Zavorsky, who runs the pulmonology lab at the University of California, Davis, and has published multiple papers analyzing data collected on this subject by other researchers.
But Zavorsky also says there is more work to do. For instance, although he believes that men and women are “more alike than not alike,” he says that there are significant gaps in the literature with regard to biological differences. In addition, there are questions about the time lapse between having sex and competing: does it matter if an athlete has sex an hour before as opposed to the previous evening? There is also the fact that lab tests can go only so far in simulating real-world athletic performance. “We’re not looking at 5k run times in a real race,” Zavorsky says. “We’re not looking at swimming times at a real swim competition. What we are doing is we are having people come into a lab and do these physical performance tests.”
These are complicated experiments to run. Getting approval from the Institutional Review Boards that govern human research can be tricky. Moreover, these kinds of studies require a certain amount of trust between researchers and subjects. After all, investigators can’t simply watch athletes have sex to make sure they are following study protocols.
Television producers face fewer restrictions. In 2009, the show "Sport Science" dedicated a pair of episodes to the topic: one starring a male boxer, former heavyweight champ Chris Byrd, and one starring a female boxer, four-time national champ Liz Parr.
The fighters were put through a series of physical tests measuring strength, speed, and agility – including boxing-specific tests – after a night of abstinence, and then they were put through the same battery again after a night when they had sex. Both times, they also had their blood drawn. The show’s findings were the same as the peer-reviewed studies: There was no meaningful difference in Byrd’s or Parr’s performances after they had sex.
Heading into the experiment, Parr believed the superstition. Today, she thinks it persists in boxing in part because it gives trainers a method to keep their fighters focused and in part because those in combat sports continue to buy in. “It’s just an unspoken rule,” she says. “Nobody specifically said it, but it kind of goes without saying. Anything that would cause any sort of hindrance – you just don’t do it.”
The persistence of abstinence
In many ways, the sports world runs on tradition. Records span eras, fandom passes from parents to children, and today’s athletes become tomorrow’s coaches. If a longstanding belief like pre-game abstinence seems to work – or fits neatly into a preexisting sports value system based on discipline and self-control – then there’s no reason to mess with it, or even closely examine it.
Take Mike Tyson. His trainer, Cus D’Amato, famously developed the boxer into a fighting machine from a young age, not only his molding skills in the ring but also manipulating his mental state. Zavorsky, the sports abstinence researcher, says that there is something called the frustration-aggression hypothesis, which a) essentially holds that frustrated people, sexually or otherwise, can channel that rage into something productive in the field of play, or b) is just a hypothesis.
Tyson, arguably the most frustrated and aggressive boxer of all time, once told an interviewer that he went five years without sex at the start of his career. If he believed at the time that abstinence made him a more formidable fighter – well, who can prove otherwise? Galen and Philostrates would have been proud. Following his upset loss to Buster Douglas in 1990, Tyson even blamed his performance on having too much sex beforehand. But he later came to believe that his lengthy period of abstinence was misguided. “I was so stupid,” he said. “I just went by what people told me.”
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The idea often comes from above that athletes must be masters of their domain to achieve peak performance. Zavorsky, a former competitive sprinter in Canada, heard it from one of his coaches. This is no coincidence. Before the 2014 World Cup, Mexico coach Miguel Herrera publicly banned his players from having sex. “If a player can’t handle a month or 20 days without having relations,” Herrera said in Spanish, “then he’s not really ready to be a professional.”
Herrera wanted his players to be single-minded. But he was also exerting control over them. Like all superstitions, forgoing sex before competition is an attempt to bend the future – to master the unmasterable. Maybe that explains the persistence of abstinence. “In the early 20th century, there was probably a medical belief that you were in some sense depleting your energy,” said Shurley. “And obviously for coaches, that implies some sort of lack of focus. So it's easy to go, ‘Hey, don't do that.’
“You can probably couch it in some medical overtones, but, really, it's ‘You’re not focused. You're focusing on your girlfriend, not your boxing match the next day.’ Control extends into the bedroom, beyond what's happening on the training floor, or even in the dining hall.”
At the time she went on "Sport Science," Liz Parr was training with Freddie Roach at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, California. She agreed to go on the show not because she was especially curious about what sex might or might not do for her as a woman in combat sports, but because she thought it would be beneficial for girls to see a woman boxer on TV. The abstinence myth, she says, is more prevalent among male boxers, but only because “there are so many more men” in the sport.
Today, Parr is a boxing trainer herself. She runs a gym called the Guv’nors Boxing Club in Long Beach, California. You might wonder what she tells her pupils about sex before a fight. As it turns out, her students are generally kids. She leaves that conversation to their parents.
Beyond the Binary in Sport
The spectra of sex, gender, and sexuality challenge our traditional understanding of sport and competition, but are increasingly central to the conversation around athlete and fan experience.
With legislation and organizing increasing around how these various identities intersect, sport makes a natural landscape for discourse and broadening our knowledge of these conversations. How are perspectives changing, and what can we discover by diving into the multitudes underneath these nuanced topics?