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A Circular History of Circle Jerks

There are three verses referring to people masturbating together in “The Ball of Kirriemuir,” a bawdy song about a famous and supposedly real-life orgy written by Scottish farmer John Strachan at the end of the 19th century. Here’s one of them:

The elders of the church
They were too old to firk [fuck]
So they sat around the table
And had a circle jerk

No one can prove whether this really happened, much less whether featured a scene of blue-hairs wanking off together. But the fact that it was written centuries ago suggests that the idea of a group of people playing with themselves in a circle is hardly novel.

Clearly they long pre-date our contemporary image of them — namely, pubescent sleepovers and frat-house initiations. And even that’s not the full story — more of a caricature, if anything. In fact, when we started researching circle jerks, we found that a bunch of different guys (gay and straight) swear by them, some of them going as far as to claim that they’re the secret to a good marriage.

Here are a few of the other things we found along the way:

1. The term “circle jerk” is typically defined as “a group of men or boys forming a circle to masturbate themselves or each other,” though it has come to mean any form of mutual masturbation among three or more people.

2. It typically refers to a circle of guys, but as I learned during my afternoon with a masturbation coach, Betty Dodson held women-only masturbation clinics called “Bodysex” in her rent-controlled Madison Avenue apartment throughout the 1970s, which involved a dozen women sitting in a circle fingering themselves as they stared at their vaginas in handheld mirrors.

3. Nobody knows circle jerks quite like Martha Cornog, author of an exhaustive study on wanking, The Big Book of Masturbation. While researching that project, she became intrigued by various forms of mutual masturbation and devoted an entire chapter to the circle jerk in Everything You Know About Sex Is Wrong, a subsequent book she co-wrote. “Naturally, I knew about circle jerks,” she explained. “I had been reading about them in a curious little magazine in the 1990s called Celebrate the Self, published for men who are masturbation aficionados. More than a few personal vignettes dominated its pages, and more than a few described collective masturbatory camaraderie among childhood buddies. But a surprising number recounted pud-pulling circles of adult men.”

4. Naturally, Cornog then tracked down every printed source she could find, collecting more than 100 anecdotes about shared masturbation — both youthful and adult. She also added questions about group masturbation to a longer sex survey conducted by a colleague who had recruited several classes of Midwestern college students to participate.

5. “The ‘circle jerk’ is one of my first memories,” wrote one student. “We all stood around in a circle, told stories about girls and rubbed our penises until we got hard-ons. Then we ejaculated. The purpose was to see who could ejaculate the farthest.”

6. Rodale Press put out a magazine called Men’s Confidential in 1996 that surveyed readers about “group masturbation.” The survey drew on hundreds of responses from men, the vast majority of whom self-described as heterosexual and married. Forty-four percent reported shared jack-offs as adults. “We all agreed that the experience enhanced sex with our wives,” one man wrote about his local circle jerk.

7. “When I was in my 40s,” another respondent shared, “I joined a group of men who would get together two times a month. For a few hours, we would trade stories about our sexual experiences with our wives and start masturbating ourselves in a circle.”

8. In the metaphorical sense, “circle jerk” is a pejorative referring to a positive feedback loop that occurs when an idea, belief or meme that’s already customary within an online community becomes reiterated and rewarded in a perpetual cycle. It’s typically used to refer to self-congratulatory behavior or discussion among a group of people, usually in reference to a “boring or time-wasting meeting or other event,” also known as an “echo chamber.” (Of course this doesn’t go both ways — i.e., jerking off with a bunch of dudes is not, and has never been, considered an echo chamber.)

9. As UrbanDictionary explains, many Redditors call r/atheism a circle jerk because the active members will post about popular fallacies or misconceptions within various religions, telling each other how right they are and labeling other people stupid for not believing what they believe.

10. The Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality reported in 2004 that in India, “boys at the younger ages may masturbate together without shame,” and in Japan, “there is an indication that being ‘taught by some friend’ is the more common inspiration for first masturbation experiences.

11. In Studs, Tools and the Family Jewels — Metaphors Men Live By, Peter F. Murphy, an English professor at Murray State University, includes circle jerks in Chapter 3: “Sex as Sport” because they transform masturbation into a sporting event, with winners and losers. “The ‘winner’ could be the guy who’s able to ejaculate first, last or farthest depending on the pre-established rules,” he explains.

12. One competition a circle jerk is NOT: when a group of males stand in a circle to jerk off onto a cookie. That unevolved frat game is called “Limp Biscuit” (aka soggy biscuit, ookie cookie, wet biscuit, shoot the cookie or cum on a cookie): “Several guys stand in a circle around a biscuit. They all begin to jerk off, ejaculating onto the biscuit. The last person to cum, consequently, has to eat the soggy biscuit. The game is also known in Australia as Soggy Sao after the SAO brand of biscuits popular there,” according to Urban Dictionary.

13. Not to be confused with the “Smiles Game,” which an AskReddit conversation revealed involves “men sitting around a round table and one girl underneath blowing one of the men. If that man is caught smiling, they have to take a shot, and the girl chooses her next target.”

14. In 1979, the L.A. punk band the Bedwetters renamed their band to the Circle Jerks after one of the band members found it in a dictionary of English slang words.

15. As Jay Mechling writes in On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth, “In some versions, the circle jerk becomes the premise of a practical joke in which the boys in on the joke explain to the ‘dupe’ that they are going to do the circle jerk with the lights off. The boys make appropriate sounds and then turn on the lights when the dupe ejaculates — he is the only one masturbating.”

16. While Cornog concluded that at least some men have long enjoyed sharing masturbation, only recently have groups organized in public. Their popularization in the 1980s was under somber circumstances. When public fear of AIDS peaked, circle jerks were meant to be places where men could meet up to gratify one another without risk of death.

17. The San Francisco Jacks, for example, is a “fellowship of men who like to jack-off in the company of like-minded men” and is described as “a service organization whose purpose is pleasure.” It meets the second and fourth Monday of every month. “Refreshments and lubricant provided; you provide the dick and the desire,” their website promises.

18. There’s also the NY Jacks, Atlanta Jacks, Los Angeles Jacks, Seattle Jacks, Pittsburg Jacks, Florida Jacks, Salt Lake City Jacks, Philadelphia Jacks, Fort Lauderdale Jacks, Orlando Jacks, Cleveland Jacks, Vancouver Jacks, Toronto Jacks, Calgary Jacks, Amsterdam Jacks, Munich Jacks, and Melbourne Wankers.

19. These J.O. clubs have membership cards, newsletters, songs, rituals, yearbooks, theme parties, weekend retreats, even charity fund-raisers. One quotes the Talmud in its newsletter. Another uses grapeseed oil as the club lubricant. A third offers masks to members who want to stroke anonymously. Many of them have theme parties — e.g., No Pants Disco Dance or a “We Have a (Wet) Dream” night for Martin Luther King’s Birthday.

20. Firm rules bar oral and anal sex. Or, in their parlance: “No lips below the hips,” “On me, not in me” and “We discourage insertion of anyone’s anything into anywhere.”

21. Peter Benn, author of The Versatile Husband: The Ultimate Guidebook for Men Who Want to Have Sex with Men, estimates two-thirds of the participants at Melbourne Wankers are married. His book explores how these men make the decision to have sex with other men. “Men get isolated and don’t have touch in their lives. Touch is banned by everybody, and these men get more and more isolated in their marriage. They lose that intimacy that you have at the start of your marriage where you can’t keep your hands off each other. Ten years on, where has it gone?”

22. As a Craigslist post about “Manhood Camping” indicates (three times, in all caps) circle jerks are NOT GAY (and not even a SEX THING): “Lookin’ for a 100% for real bros to share/experience manhood in all its glory. This is for real, I don’t want to waste my time or yours. 100% JO and manhood, no sugar added. I AM NOT GAY. Don’t even think this is a sex thing, it’s all about manhood. Looking for bros to head into the woods and bond by fire, experience life as men once lived it, JO circle and fire/vision quests. THIS IS NOT A SEX THING. We are gonna need a mobile music device, ipod or something. I’m bringing the music for the firequests and visionquests, Nickleback’s The Long Road. I only have it on CD, so I’ll have my discman as a last resort, an ipod would be nicer. Just sayin’. If you are serious, then I promise you this will be the trip of your life. It will change the way you think. I’m serious, and I AM NOT GAY. To see a group of bros being men, a JO circle by a camp fire. The charge/energy in the air. Crystals get jacked, no lie. You will slip into a different frame of mind, you will feel electric. Last outing, we had a group that was so charged we attracted bears. It was no big deal, nature knew man was in the forest, the crystals gave us the confidence to own those bears. I saw it, I was there. 100% SERIOUS, NO FAKERS”

23. Maybe our Manhood Camper was onto something, because in his 1998 book Our Guys, sociologist and investigative reporter Bernard Lefkowitz cautions against placing too much emphasis on the homoerotic nature of circle jerks: “Some analysts interpret such adolescent behavior not as homoerotic but as an effort to prove heterosexual dominance and to establish masculine authority within the group. The real goal is overcoming your insecurities about sex by impressing your friends with your sexual prowess. To achieve that goal, a guy needs an audience to witness his dominating performance. A group of appreciative and responsive buddies is essential to build a reputation for sexual control and dominance.”

24. As reported by Barry Miles, Paul McCartney’s biographer, McCartney and John Lennon were part of a masturbation group in their teens.

25. “Why do people masturbate?” Cornog asks. “The general consensus is that people masturbate — like dogs licking their balls — because they can. Is group masturbation really so weird? Millions of people share masturbation by phone sex or cybersex. The phone sex industry took in $1 billion by the late 1990s. Why do people masturbate in groups? Because people somewhere sometime do just about anything in groups, including just about any kind of sex — partly just to do it, partly to show off, and partly to watch. And because they can.”