This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
In a September interview with GQ, Paul McCartney revealed that he and John Lennon once masturbated together when they were growing up in Liverpool. According to McCartney, they were with a group of their friends at John’s house: “The lights were out, and somebody started masturbating, so we all did.” The rock legend went on to qualify that “it wasn’t a big thing. … But it was good harmless fun. It didn’t hurt anyone.”
Predictably, McCartney’s quote about the circle jerk hit the Twittersphere, comedians trotted out their best Beatles-themed masturbation jokes, and the whole, uncomfortable matter seemed to go away within a few days. But while everyone was laughing, there was one place where people took the revelation that two of the Beatles once beat off together very seriously: the website known as BateWorld.
BateWorld, now nine years old and 87,000 members strong, has been called “Facebook for masturbators.” With its red and black color scheme, it looks like a kind of Facebook After Dark. When you create a profile and sign on, you will be greeted with a plethora of thumbnail-sized penises, as scarce few members display their faces. If face pic–centric sex apps such as Grindr and Scruff emulate the feeling of walking into a gay bar, then BateWorld is the darkly lit, anonymous backroom. Along the top of the homepage is a horizontal scroll of the newest sign-ups, virtually up to the minute, so once your profile is created, within minutes BateWorlders will send you posts and messages, welcoming you into the world of mutual masturbation. Or to the world of talking about it, anyway: Though I suspect the majority of men have experienced it at one time or another, it’s very rarely discussed. Which is why McCartney’s admission was such big news to those of us who are advocates of the pastime.
While the fundamental act needs no explanation, there are many variations of “bators” out there, and BateWorlders are pretty vocal about it. There are bators who grew up with mutual masturbation and bators who did not. Bators can be bi or gay men who are not interested in casual oral or penetrative sex. They can also be straight men who consider mutual masturbation to be “not gay.” As a gay man who has enjoyed mutual masturbation for many years myself, when I joined BateWorld three years ago, I started finding more and more straight-identified men who enjoyed the activity along with their gay and bi brethren. So after I read of McCartney’s confession, I wanted to learn more about how common the straight or “not gay” version is and what it means to those guys in terms of sexual identity and behavior.
BateWorld was gracious enough to grant me a premium membership for the purposes of this assignment. I was upfront with the site’s admins about wanting to zero in on the portion of the community of bators who consider themselves straight, and they kindly supplied me with the most recent breakdown of membership data:
The bulk of the members being gay is expected. But that 10 percent claiming to be Str8 is significant. Based on higher rates of public closetedness among bi men, we can even extrapolate that a healthy portion of those who list themselves as bi are not publicly open about their bisexual identities. Then there’s the 5 percent of members who have chosen not to identify. So I’m going to estimate that anywhere between 15 and 30 percent of BateWorld members are straight in the world outside of the bate. That’s a lot of not-gay dudes with profiles on a website for men who like to masturbate with other men.
I wanted to find out how straight guys jerking off with other straight guys works psychologically, so I used BateWorld’s user-created polling questionnaires—one of the site’s most popular features—to get consensus opinions and facts from other members of the site. But before I started posting my own surveys, I perused some that were pertinent to my objective. For instance, one asks simply, “Is mutual masturbation gay?” and the poll gives voters only two options:
“No. Being homosexual is an attraction. You can bond and bate with a bro and not want a homosexual relationship.”
“Yes. Any interaction with same sex genitals is a homosexual act.”
The results of “Is mutual masturbation gay?” were 465 to 100 that mutual masturbation is not gay. The answer to that simplistic poll becomes more interesting when you compare it with the results of “Stopping at the Threshold of Gayness,” which has 18 options for answers. The top two answers for what makes a person gay were “kissing another guy” and “becoming emotionally involved with a male sex partner.” So according to these responders, touching a cock isn’t gay; lips touching lips is gay; and for that matter, heart touching heart is really gay.
In 2015, sociologist Jane Ward published a book called Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, which at numerous points brings up the phenomenon of straight men who “JO,” or jerk off, together. For one section of the book, Ward and her research assistants looked at hundreds of Craigslist ads from 2006 and 2007—just two years shy of when BateWorld was started. Many of the ads were looking for “JO.” Ward’s findings were that the ads looking for JO were often interchangeable in vocabulary and in setting the scene of what was to go down.
The scenes described in the ads—the props, the costumes, the dialogue—capture the drama and spectacle of white male homosociality. What do young straight white men do together when they are engaged in male bonding? They get drunk and stoned, watch heterosexual porn, and they talk about “pussy.” The ads draw heavily upon the model of adolescent friendship, or the presumably meaningless and proto-sexual circle jerk. Nostalgic commentary about being buddies or “bros” and sharing “legit” male bonding experiences constructs dude-sex as a kind of sex that bolsters, rather than threatens, the heterosexual masculinity of the participants.
Notice that Ward’s words in 2015 echo McCartney’s in 2018 about something that happened in the 1950s: Meaningless. Harmless. But is the circle jerk really meaningless and harmless if men well into adulthood are seeking out strangers on the internet to re-create something we normally associate with adolescence? These men are looking for encounters in which they can bare themselves to other men and have male-to-male nudity and often physical contact while maintaining their heteromasculine capital. What I have found on BateWorld is that these lines between “just fucking around” and “kinda gay” and “OK, that’s really gay” are indeed superficial and imaginary. Even so, they are lines that allow for a thriving sexual subculture with a logic all its own.
To begin to understand that logic, you have to recognize what it’s reacting against: No one, not a single person in the history of time has, in the middle of hetero sex, stopped, assessed the situation of a penis coming into contact with a vagina and thought to utter the words, “Wow, this is really straight!” We don’t speak that way about straightness. Could you imagine a straight man recounting to his friends a make-out session he had with a girl that progressed into some heavy petting, and then his buddies stopping him to tell him that fingering a girl is OK, but there’s nothing straight about it? That’s because of heteronormativity: Our society considers straight to be the norm.
But what does it mean when a straight man jerks off with a gay man? Does the sexual orientation of the man you are masturbating with turn the experience from homosocial to homosexual? Does it say something about who you are? I asked. Most straight bators claimed they do not care about their buddy’s orientation. For example, one guy said:
Generally speaking, no problem with partner orientation, but I’d be lying if I said that the experience across straight, bi, gay, unsure, was the same and as reliable and even enjoyable in outcome. I usually find more common ground with straight and bi guys since there’s usually firm groundrules and we can usually share more about what we enjoy together whereas I find more sexual complexity with gay guys, even though it’s still usually just as fun too. We all have and want to share our cocks so don’t overthink it. I think it’s important all parties establish and respect boundaries, whether sexual or otherwise, and that you act as authentically as you can for a mutually good time.
For every short essay–length answer on the meaning of mutual masturbation, there is almost always another commenter who can sum it up more succinctly:
A stiff dick has no orientation. … It just wants to be masturbated.
In addition to granting consciousness to their penises, BateWorlders justified their habits by invoking the phrase “male bonding” a lot, which led me to ask about the connection between bating and friendship. From my poll on “Male Friendships,” I found that while most bators prefer to jerk off with a few special friends or total strangers outside their social circles, about a quarter of respondents would like to bate with more of their friends. One guy optimistically put it:
If all the men of the world just admitted they bate and started doing it together, we’d probably have peace on earth! I’ve bated with some friends but most would have too many hang-ups about labels to just let go and do it.
So for straight buddies who engage in side-by-side masturbation, what do they think is the focus, if it isn’t each other? As exemplified by the scene-settings of the Craigslist ads studied by Ward, when straight men masturbate together, they use straight pornography as a substitute for a woman. As long as these men have the pornography present, they can claim that is the primary source of titillation; it is a way of excusing the fact that they are naked and erect in the presence of another naked and erect man.
When I asked BateWorlders about the role of porn in “buddy bate” sessions, only 12 percent voted for “no porn” and 1 percent for “porn is the sole focus.” The rest fell somewhere in the middle, with porn being a vital ingredient in the ritual. One responder wrote this:
Porn is a must but then again, I do consider my self straight. I find people giving into arousal VERY appealing. Being so turned on by the porn that you just have to whip it out [and] stroke, that’s how bating with buddies always started for me. Sneaking those first glances and catching your buddy watching you. Everything else that follows is bonus.
Does “everything else that follows is bonus” sound very straight to you? The common refrain is “it’s a male thing.” Well, yes, it is, but to some of us, it’s also a deeply homoerotic thing. It can be frustrating, seeing straight men debate the infinitesimal difference between touching your own cock and someone else’s, hearing each one hand-wring about “how far he’ll go,” and whether double penetration or using a Fleshlight on a friend is gay. It all reminds me of the scene late in the comedy film Zack and Miri Make a Porno in which Jason Mewes’ character shows Seth Rogen the “Double Dutch Rudder”:
I grab my dick, you grab your dick, you work my arm, I work your arm, same time, same time. It’s like jerking off together but not gay. We’re not touching dicks—each other’s dicks anyway. I’m touching my dick, you’re working it, and I’m loving it. Feels good, sir, try me, come on!
It can definitely all seem a little absurd, these intellectual contortions around what’s gay and what’s not. But when you think about it, it’s not really the guys’ fault. We know so little about male sexuality, and because of that, carving out space in it for anything other than totally straight or totally gay behavior is bound to be confusing. Ward demonstrates this in her book, showing all the wild ways guys rationalize having sexual encounters with other men, whether it be just jerking off together or eating potato chips out of each other’s butt cracks. Compared with women’s sexuality, Ward theorizes, male sexuality is perceived as rigid, and because men aren’t perceived as being able to have fluidity, their behaviors have to be defined as either gay or not gay. This explains the difficulty the Str8 bators of BateWorld have with coming to a consensus on what jacking off together means. There’s no allowance for fluidity, and if the world were to find out that you jack it with dudes, everyone would think you were gay, and that means you lose your heteromasculine capital.
The upside to all of this is that there has never been a better time in history for a man to explore his sexuality. Binaries like gay/straight are being challenged, and we are creating conceptual and physical spaces in which it’s possible to imagine ways of being that are more fluid. BateWorld is, I think, one of these. One thing that’s kept me going back is that unlike Grindr, Scruff, and Tinder, BateWorld has constructed a real sense of community where men can go to share their ideas and feelings about the place in time we live in and help each other figure out their diverse sexualities in ways we weren’t allowed to while growing up. I think the site helps a lot of them find acceptance and come to terms with whatever complexity they contain. When you see guys post things like “Hail penis!” yeah, it’s a little cheesy. But these men lift each other up and empower each other. If we can do that, enrich understandings of identity, and have fun getting off, it seems to me that buddy bating is definitely not harmful. In fact, it’s something all guys should consider exploring, rock stars and regular dudes alike.