As Paul Rosenberg, the founder of Seattle's Rain City Jacks, explains to me what exactly a jack-off club is, I am immediately intimidated. As a woman, my imagination plants itself in the middle of a scenario where 60 naked men in a room are walking around with erections, jerking and playing with themselves and one another. It felt more like a nightmare than a dream. Of course, if I really was in the middle of one of Rain City Jacks' popular jack-off events, the men there would hardly notice me or even be interested. Men go there to be with other men. To explore masturbation in a male environment.
"The energy at jack-off clubs is inevitably very focused on physical pleasure and the penis specifically," Rosenberg tells me. A prepress manager for a large in-house design group by day, he's been running Rain City Jacks since 2005. "The power of the experience lies in the exposure of what is routinely hidden and the sharing of what is almost universally private: our masturbation practice."
Rosenberg grew up outside of Chicago and was a professional actor and singer for most of his life. He first became aware of jack-off clubs in 1985 when he found a fictional article in a Honcho magazine describing an organized masturbation party. "The article turned me on in a big way," he says. Like any handsome gay man, Rosenberg had a ton of sex in the 70s and 80s. He also smoked a lot of weed and took acid on the regular, but in 1991, after a year of 12-step sobriety, he met his husband. They eventually migrated to Seattle for work. They had both been into the experience of the jack-off clubs in Chicago and were disappointed to find there was not one in Seattle, which put a damper on the open-relationship he and his husband had decided to embark on.
"Bathhouses and hookups were easy to come by, but finding even one jack-off buddy, much less a club, was really difficult," he says. "So I started one myself."
Rosenberg started a Yahoo group (which is still active today) and found the response to be huge. The first jack-off club he hosted happened in a hotel room, seven guys crammed in a room; eventually the demand helped it grow into an actual organization. Today, Rain City Jacks is a premier jack-off club that has hosted more than 300 events, averaging about three a month with 60 men showing up regularly. There are fewer than such ten clubs operating in North America, and according to Rosenberg, only a small percentage of men even know they exist.
Although it's assumed that jack-off clubs rose to popularity in the wake of AIDS in the 80s when there was a heightened fear of infection through intercourse, Rosenberg says this sort of play had been going on since early history because of desire, not fear of STIs or contracting HIV.
"It's a uniquely open and nonjudgmental space that straight guys feel free to explore and intersect with gay and bi men." —Paul Rosenberg
"We do this because we want to jack-off together, not because we're scared of getting sick," he assures me.
"Jack-off clubs are a pretty small piece of what I would call gay male bonding," Rosenberg explains. "I find more non-gay-identified men at jack-off clubs than in any other venue where men are sexual with each other. While some of these guys are certainly either closeted or just starting to explore their sexuality, I've come to believe that many are indeed straight men, predominantly heterosexual guys with a desire to enjoy recreational penis play with other men... so I hesitate to call this 'gay.' Most of the men who attend clubs identify as gay, but many do not. It's a uniquely open and nonjudgmental space that straight guys feel free to explore and intersect with gay and bi men."
Rain City Jacks is a top-tier jack-off spa. He says that there is always a line-up of men waiting to get in, and there are always newcomers. Each member (it's a $25 annual fee) either flashes their card or pays a first-time entry charge. There is a locker room to safely store your clothes and belongings as well as an orientation for rookies. Usually, an experienced member will sit down with a newcomer for 15 minutes and show him the ropes. Rain City Jacks also provides a system of wristbands to let everyone in the jack-off party know where everyone stands when it comes to interaction.
"A red silicone wrist band signals, 'Don't touch my dick.' A green wristband means, 'Don't bother asking. Everyone may touch my dick,' and no band at all, which is how most members play, just means, 'Ask before you touch my dick.' The basic rule is get consent, but the bands provide a permission shorthand."
The room is fully equipped with comfy furniture covered in canvas tarps and beds with clean linens, while oil-based lube, baby wipes, paper towels, and trash cans are carefully placed around the room to maximize comfort. The lights are dimmed to a mild level while instrumental or electronic music plays over the speakers (preferably no female vocals, Rosenberg says).
"Couches will have two or three or six men seated side by side, legs draped over one another, with everyone playing with themselves or their neighbors," he says. "And the energy is not rushed at all, but intensely focused and chill. The great majority are not into a fast orgasm but want to make the time last. Nobody leaves in that first hour."
The bathroom showers are stocked with skin care and clean-up products. Even the bathrooms have mouthwash on hand. There is never a shortage of fresh, clean towels. It's basically male-masturbation heaven. With a situation this lush, inviting, and pleasure-based, why aren't more men doing this?
"Younger guys still associate fucking with conquest, with rites of passage, with achievement of adulthood," Rosenberg explains. "Our culture is still incredibly biased against masturbation. It's referred to as 'not real sex,' 'practice sex,' even 'failure sex.' The stigma is absolutely pervasive and I think that is the first assault we make on a child's sense of sexual identity and physical self-worth, even if it comes via a benign diversion from self-exploration and stimulation, the message is always, 'Don't do that.' Obviously, we do it anyway, but the stigma has already been attached to masturbation from infancy. As long as a guy thinks that this is masturbation, he attaches negative associations to it. The younger he is, the more susceptible he is to that judgment."
While that stigma does exist for men, it is still sided with an expectation that "boys will be boys" and that masturbation is a part of their sexual exploration. While things are changing, females have been taught a very different narrative about how to relate to masturbation. I couldn't even imagine a female jerk-off club rising to even a fraction of Rain City Jack's popularity—and Rosenberg agreed. Was it a biological determination? Men walk around with an appendage that rises, signifies arousal, and can be grabbed, while a woman is constantly assumed to be in the state of arousal (or the opposite, never at all).
"Maybe it's just a natural expression of our sexual reality—much more visual and genitally focused—but 'jill-off' clubs don't really exist," he says. However, there are couples clubs, but according to Rosenberg, those still end up with an 80 percent male attendance. "I think there is a lot of value for women in group masturbation.
"One thing that always strikes me is the happy peacefulness of these guys. There is a remarkable absence of rancor, unwelcome aggression, competition. It is extremely obvious to me that when men are getting the sex play they crave; they lose their tension. It's very intense, and then it's relaxed and content," he says.
"I just encourage everyone to try it if they have any interest at all. Only experience can really tell the story of what a jack-off club—or anything else—has to offer, and people walk in with a lot of preconceived notions."
Follow Mish Way on Twitter.