Arc volcanism and trace-element recycling are controlled by the devolatilization of oceanic crust during subduction. The type of fluid—either aqueous fluids or hydrous melts—released during subduction is controlled by the thermal structure of the subduction zone. Recent thermomechanical models and results from experimental petrology argue that slab melting occurs in almost all subduction zones, although this is not completely supported by the rock record. Here we show via phase equilibrium modeling that melting of either fresh or hydrothermally altered basalt rarely occurs during subduction, even at water-saturated conditions. Melting occurs only along the hottest slab-top geotherms, with aqueous fluids being released in the forearc region and anatexis restricted to subarc depths, leading to high-SiO2 adakitic magmatism. We posit that aqueous fluids and hydrous melts preferentially enhance chemical recycling in “hot” subduction zones. Our models show that subducted hydrothermally altered basalt is more fertile than pristine basaltic crust, enhancing fluid and melt production during subduction and leading to a greater degree of chemical recycling. In this contribution, we put forward a petrological model to explain (the lack of) melting during the subduction of oceanic crust and suggest that many large-scale models of mass transfer between Earth’s surface and interior may require revision.