In a nondescript building on West 26th Street in New York City, you’ll find Paddles, “the friendly S&M club.” It’s an after-hours space that bills itself as “a playground for sane people who are into: whipping, spanking, bondage, domination, submission, foot fetishes, cross dressing, and all other fetishes,” where once a month, closer to happy hour than last call, the fetish du jour is mutual masturbation.
The event is organized by New York Jacks, a group that hosts regular meetings for men to gather in relative public to do something nearly every man does in relative private. They take over Paddles on Tuesdays, and on Sundays host a meeting on the third floor of a building on West 38th Street.
I first attended a New York Jacks meeting with a friend on a Tuesday a few weeks ago. After fortifying ourselves with a beer around the corner and waiting until what felt like a New York–appropriate hour after the event’s official start time, we walked through the open door and down a twisting concrete staircase, listening for any indication of a meeting in progress. We passed a few men coming the other way, looking flushed and conspiratorial, and opened a door into a short hallway with a ticket window, where a young, fully clothed man asked languorously, “Here for Jacks?”
Before arriving, we’d discussed our apprehensions. What if it’s empty? What if we see someone we know? Based on stories from friends, this is a not-uncommon occurrence at some other gay sex events in the city, and the fear amounts to one of being exposed somehow — not just physically, but, in the case of New York Jacks, as a “bator”: someone who seeks out mutual masturbation as a discrete sexual experience. But as with being seen on Grindr, or in the backyard of a gay bar in Brooklyn, the “exposure” would be mutual.
As in every fetish community, the fear of being outed as a participant in something deemed weird or pervy keeps many people, including bators, in the closet about their interests. All things considered, mutual masturbation is pretty tame — masturbation is something most people already do, albeit alone — but the popular notion of masturbation as somehow being failed sex, the purview of lonely internet trolls, leads many would-be avid mutual masturbators to keep their sexual cards close to their chests.
For many men, myself included, mutual masturbation is not merely the “I’m not really hungry; I’ll just have a salad” of sex; rather, it’s an experience to be sought for its own sake.
Among men who have sex with men, mutual masturbation is often seen as sex-adjacent, rather than a sex act in its own right. In some cases, this is a heterosexual fig leaf (“It’s not sex, we’re just being dudes”); in others, it’s treated as an hors d’oeuvre. More than one friend has told me about engaging in mutual masturbation as a sort of compromise in a disappointing hookup situation, as in, “I went home with him but I was tired, so we just jerked off.” But for many men, myself included, mutual masturbation is not merely the “I’m not really hungry; I’ll just have a salad” of sex; rather, it’s an experience to be sought for its own sake.
I’ve had a regular IRL j/o buddy for about a year and a half, a gay friend in an open relationship whom I’d known for a few years before either of us broached the subject of jerking off together. Now we get together every few months — less regularly than a book club but more often than you see your best friend from college who lives in Washington Heights — hang out, and masturbate. It’s friendly in a way most casual sex is not, or rarely is — a flavor of intimacy both platonic and horny. Sometimes we get a little stoned, sometimes we watch porn; afterward we usually catch up about friends or jobs or other plans. It’s like going to dinner. We’ve gotten closer over time, which is somehow both a result of the sex and nothing to do with it.
In an effort to better understand the appeal of mutual masturbation and the community that seeks it, I went looking for other men for whom jerking off together is not merely sex-adjacent, but an important part of a balanced sex life. I found these men among my friends, on social media, as well as in pockets of the internet I hadn’t yet reached into: notably Kik, a text-messaging app, and BateWorld, a global social network for masturbators that functions as a kind of Grindr–Facebook hybrid, with all the HTML sparkle of classic MySpace. I talked to men who associated their attraction to mutual masturbation with some of their earliest memories of queer desire; men who started seeking j/o buds in an effort to hook up with “straight” guys; men who simply consider it a safer, simpler alternative to other kinds of sex. Entering these spaces opened them up for me personally in a way I hadn’t thought I needed.
The New York Jacks meetup was not my first experience with public group sex. When I lived in Berlin, I regularly visited Der Boiler, a men’s sauna that functions as a modern bathhouse, where sex among patrons is explicitly advertised, rather than implicitly available. But the specificity of Jacks — the organization rules forbid “insertion of anyone’s anything into anywhere,” and clarifies: “no ass play, no sucking, no fucking” — suggests a fetish community rather than a community of sex party enthusiasts. I had never before explored the possibility that my sexual tastes might align with other men’s to such a collective degree.
Entry to New York Jacks is $25 ($20 for members; a one-year membership costs $30), and does not include tips for clothing check (encouraged). Money collected goes to paying for the venue and other organizational expenses, and each meeting’s tips are divided among the volunteers. Not wanting to overcommit, I paid the single entry fee and resolved to keep an open mind about investing in my jerk-off future.
On the other side of the final door, a large older man wearing a jockstrap and sneakers ripped our tickets and asked whether it was our first time. With the chipper, big-brother gentleness of a sophomore at freshman orientation, he pointed us around the space.
I had never before explored the possibility that my sexual tastes might align with other men’s to such a collective degree.
Paddles is a long, narrow room with a bar (though no alcohol is sold or permitted at NY Jacks events; instead, water and juice are offered beside a stack of small plastic cups), identified in dreamy pink neon as Whips and Licks Cafe. At one end of the main room, a set of stairs leads to a mezzanine with a few chairs and pleathery couches; at the other, behind an 8- or 9-foot wall that separates it from the main bar, is a more dimly lit space that leads to a small room with a leather sling — which is where I ended up while looking for the bathroom. There was no music playing, and the television sets playing closed-circuit gay porn were muted; the only sounds were the Jack/Officer’s running chitchat with new arrivals and light grunting in stereo.
We undressed at a bench near the entrance, put our shoes back on, claim tickets tucked into our socks for safekeeping, and waded in. Shoes are a requirement at New York Jacks, but full nudity is not; attendees are allowed to keep their underwear on if they prefer, though I didn’t see anyone who did. Shoes and nothing else is an odd look, but the strangeness of it faded after a few minutes, and I stopped noticing.
Considered alongside the rest of the weekly schedule at Paddles, the activities of New York Jacks seem pretty vanilla. The line between a kink and a fetish can be hard to distinguish, but one measure is to define a kink as a sexual proclivity, and a fetish as a necessary condition for sexual satisfaction. Mutual masturbation can be considered a kink for many who take part in it, but for others, who identify as solosexual, this kink rises to the level of fetish: It is their preferred or exclusive method of sexual activity. Some solosexuals interact sexually with other people, while others practice what might be called celibacy, if you can’t count yourself as a sexual partner. Most of the men I spoke to are gay and do not identify as solosexual; mutual masturbation is simply something they enjoy among other homosexual diversions. New York Jacks is aimed at these men, most of them gay, who are interested in group masturbation — witnessing it, participating in it, and making like-minded friends.
One of the organizers of New York Jacks, a man named Steve, told me in an email that he believes the nudity of the event “provides a great freedom and takes away most of the attitude many guys feel in a bar,” adding, “Nothing to hide!” Or rather, nowhere to hide it.
Steve told me that New York Jacks has around 300 card-carrying members, though he guessed the majority of attendees at any Jacks event are non-members — tourists and other curious visitors who’ve heard about the meetings. “Since most men masturbate and, I believe, are curious about other men’s penises, there are a lot of guys who just check in from time to time,” he said. “Masturbating with other guys takes away much of our culture’s shame and embarrassment about this universal practice.”
“Masturbating with other guys takes away much of our culture’s shame and embarrassment about this universal practice.”
Steve made a point of asserting that not all Jacks attendees are gay, and guessed some 10% may be married to or in relationships with women, who may or may not know about their partners’ sexual proclivities. Whatever the actual percentage — you aren’t required to identify in any way when applying for membership to Jacks — the appeal of mutual masturbation is certainly not limited to men who are otherwise interested exclusively in men.
Historically, mutual masturbation has functioned as a sexual outlet for men up and down the Kinsey scale, whether they’re cruising the Ramble in Central Park or taking a steam at the gym with a wandering eye. For some straight-identified men, mutual masturbation can be a way of exploring an interest in men at arm’s length, so to speak: trying it out in a way that won’t radically threaten your status as a straight guy, like clicking through to a PornHub clip that isn’t your usual flavor. Some men I spoke to recounted experimentations with straight friends that ranged from watching porn together to jerking each other off, and for the ones who now identify as gay, these episodes reverberate intensely. In hindsight, many seem like meeting halfway between Do I like this? and Can I do more of this? Perhaps these are the opposite poles of every sexual encounter, but walking this line is vital to learning about your own desire, a process in which cruising and other forms of semi-anonymous sex, both online and in real life, can play a major part.
One such online space is Kik, where there is at least one large private chat group of men in New York City who are into mutual masturbation. I spoke with one member of the group on Kik, a gay man in an open marriage whose husband is aware of his interests. He told me his early explorations of mutual masturbation were on Craigslist, where it began as “a way to get ‘straight guys.’” He would pose as a straight man seeking to meet other inexperienced straight men, mostly as a way of circumscribing the kind of sex on offer: Another gay man might want to take things further. “I genuinely just wanted to jerk off with other guys,” he said. “Looking for straight guys actually made it easier to avoid having sex for safety reasons.”
“Looking for straight guys actually made it easier to avoid having sex for safety reasons.”
Mutual masturbation is about the safest sex you can have with another person, and, unlike many common sex acts between men, requires virtually no preparation. It is the base unit of casual sex among men, and lends itself to cruising and other non-bedroom rendezvous.
“After a few years I stopped posing as a straight guy or looking for straight men,” my Kik contact said. “I just posted about being a dude that likes to kick back and do what guys like to do, but together. I recognized it as a hobby that I want to share.”
“Hobby” is not a word often associated with sex, but it may be the best way to understand how avid bators think about mutual masturbation — a free-time activity featuring penises. The notion of doing “what guys like to do, but together” is a familiar shibboleth of the jerk-off community, from the robust genre of “walked in on my roommate” Tumblr porn, where mutual masturbation is an accident (i.e., not something either person has actively sought and which is therefore safe to explore, as *straight guys*), to the profiles of many men on BateWorld and even Grindr (“looking for j/o buds” is common and pleasantly straightforward).
Another common theme is a simple fascination with penises — “I wanted to see dicks! And touch them!” my Kik contact told me, of his earliest experiences. Seeing and touching a dick is a specific kind of intimacy — a permitted, shared, physical exploration of another person — that recalls an adolescent level of curiosity about other male bodies that many men I spoke to feel as though they’d missed out on satisfying.
A gay friend I was talking through this topic with pointed out that most men’s earliest sexual experiences, no matter how they go on to identify, were having sex with men: themselves. There is a vicarious pleasure of sharing in what many of us discovered alone, and to experience that discovery as though for the first time, through witnessing another person’s otherwise private sexuality.
“I didn’t masturbate with friends when I was younger and really felt like I missed out.”
“I think part of the thrill is that I didn’t masturbate with friends when I was younger and really felt like I missed out,” another Kik user told me.” So it’s been a nice thing to do and see as acceptable. … If you had told middle school or high school me this would happen I wouldn’t have believed [it].”
My own scattered, teenage experiments were furtive and secret, and made me feel a deep and long-lasting shame about my own interest. Any closet is built out of a need to hide desire; even after coming out of The Closet, the major gay one, life can contain any number of smaller closets. Mutual masturbation has been a personal closet of mine since before I came out, but I didn’t recognize it as one until recently, when starting to talk about it made me realize how much nobody really talks about it.
Another man I spoke to, a Twitter mutual who answered my questions over email, told me about a regular j/o buddy of his who lived near his job, whom he would see once or twice a week “only to jerk off together. I don’t think we ever even kissed.” Regular sex with someone you wouldn’t think to kiss is a friendship built on common interests, and, like my shoes-and-bare-ass ensemble at Jacks, it starts to feel more natural the longer it goes on.
“I like to see another person’s private ritual,” he told me. “I want to see what they do when they pleasure themselves, and then I want them to do it to me.” He told me he has frequently sought out j/o buddies on Grindr in the wake of breakups that left him feeling insecure about penetrative sex. “It’s a real connection.”
More simply, as my second Kik contact put it, “It also doesn’t hurt that I love penises so much.”
This adulation for simple body parts can come across as puerile, like a straight teenager reading Juggs magazine, and penis-worship among homosexual men seems a little on the nose: men who love men worshipping men’s bodies. Perhaps it is painfully male to get off to waving your dick around, but it’s true that simply getting naked in front of someone is a huge part of the appeal of mutual masturbation and shared exposure. And that seems fine! But then I’m biased.
This cult of penis-worship is on full display on BateWorld, a site that requires email registration to access. BateWorld is free to use but also offers premium memberships (rates run from $25 for a 90-day membership to $60 for a full year) that grant users access to features like video chat. New members receive a 7-day premium membership trial to whet their appetites.
Everyone I spoke to on Kik pointed me to BateWorld as a community portal, and said men they meet on other apps often ask whether they have a BateWorld profile. Profiles are searchable, and can be filtered by location (x miles from y zip code, or by city), age, penis size, sexual orientation, and even circumcision status, among several other factors. Most users’ public profile photos are either blank or a dick pic (often somewhat amusingly distorted by the site’s thumbnail aspect ratio so that, depending on the original angle, they look either extremely long and thin or inhumanly thick). Users can also upload public photo albums, which are often also mostly dick pics, but occasionally include faces, too.
BateWorld features common-interest groups, much like early Facebook, as well as public forums containing everything from masturbation memes to a “dicktionary” of masturbation-related terms both humorous and real, to a vacation rental section called Airbnbate, where bators around the world offer bate-friendly travel accommodations. Some listings are more CouchSurfing than VRBO — including half of a queen bed somewhere in Bushwick — but others are legitimate Airbnb listings, with instructions to mention BW.
One benefit BateWorld has over actual Facebook, aside from not being a malevolent engine of back-channel personal-information sale undermining American democracy, is that friend requests include a drop-down menu of categories: Buddy, Special Buddy, Just Curious, Hottie, or Other, with a text field to clarify whatever relationship you have or wish to have.
Users make frequent reference to “gooning,” a term defined in a BateWorld forum as a “state where your inner freak is allowed complete control over your bate session.”
BateWorld users can also fill out a public Bator Q&A, which asks things like “Where’s the craziest place you’ve ever bated?” and “Does your best friend know you’re a bator?” Most of the profiles I read through answered “no” to the second question, which is both perfectly reasonable and a little sad. The things we tell to strangers are often things we can’t tell to the people who know us in real life, where the stakes of acceptance are far higher, and this is perhaps true of sex more than most things.
As on Grindr, many BateWorld profiles are arrestingly frank about their interests, and in a lexicon as rich as it is specific. Users self-identity as “popperbators” and “stonerbators” (both consistently written as one word), and make frequent reference to “gooning,” a term defined in a BateWorld forum, with a citation from a forum on LPSG (short for “Large Penis Support Group,” a forum site with a predictably trollish, meninist flavor) as “a state when your inner freak is allowed complete control over your bate session.” Explanations of “gooning” often reference accessing a primal, implicitly male state of sexual excitement and indulgence, a kind of physical speaking in tongues through masturbation.
I am likely both too repressed and too vanilla to ever be a gooner of any distinction, but the term speaks to the existence of a community of men for whom masturbation is a serious and important aspect of their sexuality. This insistence on the primal, the ur-male act of self-pleasure, is interesting to consider as a dividing line between mutual masturbation and sex, and the distinct kinds of relationships that surround both. Rather than a disingenuous, heterosexuality-preserving workaround, the notion of “just dudes being dudes” is, perhaps accidentally, the seed of male-male desire.
Masturbation is sex with yourself; mutual masturbation is sex with yourself with other people, who are also having sex with themselves. In this way, mutual masturbation can be an ideal open-relationship extracurricular for many people: with an implicit limit of physical intimacy drawn in the sand — though some men looking for j/o play are also interested in kissing and/or oral sex, it is not a given that jerking off together means anything more than mutual hand jobs. Mutual masturbators can experience a sexual release both individual and shared, and the specificity of the activity doesn’t threaten the romantic seriousness of the primary relationship. In John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), mistress of the sex party Mx. Justin Vivian Bond assures new guests that “voyeurism is participation” — and V isn’t wrong. But voyeurism is not sex, and, in the eyes of some, neither is mutual masturbation.
Of course, what “counts” as sex is often negotiated along heteronormative lines.
It seems beside the point to split hairs about where the sex/not sex line is at the level of activity — whether physical contact is a necessary condition, if we can agree that penetration or even orgasm are not, in other sexual scenarios. Going to a nude beach with another person isn’t sex, but comparing erections behind the dunes might be.
Of course, what “counts” as sex is often negotiated along heteronormative lines, particularly with respect to penetration, and this extends to notions about the boundaries and functions of acceptable sexual relationships. When I’ve talked to my straight friends about having a j/o buddy, most simply shake their heads in amused disbelief at the permeability of sex and friendship among gay men. The impossibility of long-term, semi-sexual friendships between men and women more or less sums up all 10 seasons of Friends, and yet queer people fill their movie nights and housewarmings with old hookups and Tinder dates who they may or may not sleep with again. Either way, why turn away perfectly good companionship just because the context has changed?
I’ve been out for more than a decade, and relatively open about my sexual proclivities in that time — with my close queer friends, at least — but a specific interest in mutual masturbation is something I haven’t often felt comfortable fully copping to. (And yet look at me now.) My earliest sexual experiences involved mutual masturbation — at sleepovers, in someone’s unchaperoned basement, or over Skype — but I have often been afraid to admit how formative I believe those early, secret explorations were to my sexual development. I lived for years in denial about what I wanted from other boys my age, or why, and chalked my interest up to the plausible deniability of anthropological curiosity. Jerking off (or talking about doing so) with someone else was as close as I could get at the time to admitting same-sex desire, by labeling it simple boyish curiosity. All guys want to know what other guys’ dicks look like, right? Maybe many do, but universalizing my own desires was my only avenue to self-acceptance. A visit to New York Jacks is cashing in on the numberless adolescent hours many of us spent alone in bed, fantasizing about just such an opportunity.
Even among gay men who have been out of the closet for over half their lives, a Rubicon I’m fast approaching myself, it’s easy to forget the ways shame and fear of exposure have shaped us. The intimacy of mutual masturbation has a great deal to do with exposure, both literal and figurative: physically, in a manner more frank and explorative than most romantic-sexual ways of getting naked together, and personally, in sharing something that is not often discussed, or accepted as a kind of sexual encounter to be sought. I think back to the years I spent hopelessly dreaming through my confused shame, and I’m heartened (phonetic pun intended) to think of the experience I now have at my fingertips. ●