Explaining Dhat Syndrome: Why Young Indian Men Are So Afraid of Losing Their Semen
The association of maleness and masculinity with the ability to produce semen, especially in hyper-religious cultures in India, has led to a unique problem in young men: Dhat syndrome. Stemming from a cultural misunderstanding of semen as a precious and scarce bodily fluid, Dhat syndrome is a psychological condition in which men fear losing their semen to the point they experience discomfort, anxiety, or even depression.
According to Oxford Clinical Psychology, Dhat syndrome can occur in people who experience sexual dysfunction or in those who have not had proper, accurate sex education.
“It’s one of the most frequent disorders that presents in young adult males in most psychiatric clinics,” says psychiatrist and sexologist Dr. Anjendra Targe. He adds the phenomenon has appeared throughout history in the rest of the world but has a unique name and, to an extent, unique origins in India.
Dhat syndrome derives its name from the Sanskrit word dhatus, which in Hindu mythology means precious elixirs that constitute the body. Among them, the most precious is semen, considered a purified bodily liquid that needs to be rationed and conserved, according to Vedic literature. Even in ancient Ayurvedic texts, a misconception about how semen is formed — “derived from marrow which is formed from flesh and blood in a stepwise manner … in a multistep process of purification and filtration” — led to a persistent, popular belief that semen is precious, not easily made, and the primary contributor to men’s physical beauty and mental and physical strength. It’s why Ayurveda often discourages older men from engaging in masturbation or sexual activity; they need to preserve their semen, and through it their vigor and vitality, for as long as possible. This view is fairly common and popular in Hinduism, but other religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity also discourage sexual activity and masturbation and consider sex to be primarily for reproduction, not pleasure.
A PSA: the process of making sperm occurs on a loop inside the human male reproductive system, which produces several million sperm per day, or 1,500 per second. While this process slows down with age, there isn’t any biological or scientific basis to be afraid of losing semen — that is, sperm + seminal fluids.
Related on The Swaddle:
A Crash Course on the Male Reproductive System For Anyone Who Needs It
But a lack of education about basic biological processes — pervasive in disadvantaged, lower socio-economic classes — helps promote certain myths about semen production and loss (such as how semen loss can occur during urination), which can make men feel masturbation and nocturnal emissions are catastrophic wastes. In many religious communities across India, the gap left by an absence of proper sex education is often filled by religious and spiritual groups, such as the Brahmakumaris, which often perpetuate the idea of semen as a limited, precious bodily fluid and advocate for abstinence.
“The commonest feelings are guilt, fear, embarrassment, shame, disgust,” Dr. Targe says, adding most of his male patients start with admitting to a “bad habit” or to doing “something very wrong.” They gradually progress to admitting discomfort, pain, and sometimes severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. This arises both from constantly worrying about their semen supply and the lifestyle changes they feel compelled to make — no masturbation, no sex — because of their fear of semen loss.
Dr. Targe sees parallels between Dhat syndrome in India and the larger, online NoFap movement, which advocates abstaining from masturbation to achieve a happier and well-adjusted life. Both, he says, stem from misconceptions arising out of stigma related to masturbation and other sexual activity, which then breed myths around what abstinence can accomplish. “But [the Dhat syndrome] is purely psychological in nature,” Dr. Targe says, adding that the men who come to him exhibiting symptoms have no confidence in approaching sexual partners and suffer from premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction. “If [you’re] already burdened with feelings of guilt or doubt, then [you’re] not thinking about pleasure during the act of sex. [You’re] going to have these problems.”
When it comes to sexuality, sex, and gender roles in Indian society, we’re well aware of what a broken (or mostly absent) sex education system does to women, their agency, and their safety. But Dhat syndrome is one of the few psycho-somatic disorders that shed light upon how taboos on sex and undue glorification of gender roles can also affect men in dangerous ways.
In a patriarchal society such as India’s, the undue focus on virility as a sign of masculinity dissuades men from speaking up about their mental health, which can exacerbate symptoms of Dhat syndrome when left untreated. In order to encourage open discussions about sex — not just to ensure people’s safety, but also to bust toxic myths about masculinity — a larger socio-cultural shift is required, one that asks what it means to be a man, and tries to disassociate the answer from the ability to make sperm.
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