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Report

Three days at ‘wank camp’

Jack Flanagan, concerned he might not be getting the most out of masturbation, spent a weekend in rural Scotland exploring his ‘inner fire’ with six other men.

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I felt a hand slide up my back, and I moved uncomfortably away from the source of it. It was the guy next to me waking up, unaware of where he was. He didn’t apologise, just sort of glared at me, warily, then got up to leave the train at Glasgow. It was now 3 hours until Edinburgh.

The train was more expensive than I’d imagined so I opted to get the train up and a coach back down on Sunday. So this was the most luxurious travel I was going to get.

I was headed for a three-day exploration into self-pleasure I had dubbed “wank school” but which the organisers described in more florid language as “tending the fire in your belly”.

I had with me a list of things I’d been told to bring: an object “for the altar”, a drawing of my genitals, ear plugs and wet weather clothes

To be honest the journey was fine, bar the providential groping. I reviewed my notes. I’d made a list of three things I wanted to get out of the weekend: to understand a hobby better; to see if masturbation can be better than it is now, and to connect with other men about male sexuality.

That last point was to be the organiser Peter’s primary aim for the weekend, although I didn’t know it yet. He wanted us to connect with each other as men – not sexually, he emphasised – but to learn.

I had with me a list of things I’d been told to bring: an object “for the altar”, a drawing of my genitals, ear plugs and wet weather clothes.

I arrived into Edinburgh at 8 a.m., at Waverley station. It was still pitch black outside. Over the course of the journey, a cold had begun to develop so I found a café to try to rouse myself back into health.

* * *

Peter and I had arranged to meet at 10.30 outside of a Bagel Factory. He arrived on time.

“Sorry for being late, so sorry,” he said anyway.

He was a slight man, bald with ring of dark hair circling the dome. His eyes were bright and he smiled warmly. He was straining to make me feel welcome. As we walked out of the station we collided – just a little nudge really – and he once again apologised, stopping on the pavement to excuse himself for “herding” me.

In his car he tried to reassure me. “Think of me as your gay dad,” he said. “Come to me if you have any issues.”

After a breakfast he took me to his house and laid out the weekend. The important points were that I was to feel at home and that I should feel welcome to ask or saying anything to him about my concerns. “This is it, Jack!” he smiled, his face illuminated. “We’ve started.”

A few minutes later, he wandered back into his living room, a little sheepish but stern. “Just so you know, at no point will we be having sex. I want you to feel safe with me.” He left to pick up another man.

This was not a man’s retreat, and it certainly looked less and less like a heterosexual man’s retreat

Alone, I considered what he’d said. In fact, I was shocked, and realised I’d have to accept the implication: we would be in a situation that could possibly lead to sex. This was not a man’s retreat, and it certainly looked less and less like a heterosexual man’s retreat.

(I’m not a heterosexual man, but would perhaps feel more comfortable being naked around straight men if there was a “no sex” rule.)

Two things happened next: I felt a wave of anxiety and, then, 10 minutes later: an orgasm. I’d started early.

* * *

Peter returned with another older, tanned man with fluffy-white hair, Colin, who would throughout the weekend refer to his absent partner “Neil” as if he were an omnipresent ghost. Together the three of us sat in Peter’s living room and chatted. Colin was well-travelled and interesting.

He had retired recently. He now spent time between Lancaster and parts of Northern England and Scotland, attending various workshops like this one. I left the room briefly to make some tea and, as I was returning, heard Peter repeat what he’d said to me. “So, we’ve started. It’s on now.”

The countryside approaching the lodge

The countryside approaching the lodge

We left, with one last person to collect. Luke, a giddy man of 44, piled into the car. He was flushed with excitement. He sat in the back seat and as I turned round to greet him he laid his head upon the driver’s headrest, his right cheek ballooning over the rest of his face.

I was asleep for most of the journey, and when I woke up it was dark again, and we were deep in the countryside. I could make out the dark slopes of hills in the distance and trees lining the road.

And then we were there: Apple Yard Lodge.

The lodge

The lodge

As we approached the drive, a cheery-faced man waved from a front-facing window. He abruptly reappeared at the front door: a bald man in a flowered apron, with a large smile and a soft voice. He introduced himself. “I’m Mike, good to meet you! Very nice to have you here!”

When we got inside, another man rushed upon our group. He was also bald, with a severe, Germanic face. “I’m Karsten! Good to meet you.”

I shook his hand with a weary smile. I could have clocked the time on my watch – the moment I realised this was absolutely a gay retreat.

* * *

We were shown to our rooms: tidy, and decorated in typically barren Scottish fashion. Two rams’ horns on the window-sill. A heavy brown throw on the bed. My roommate, Lachlan, hadn’t arrived yet. I was called for dinner and went downstairs: 5 men, the youngest 44, greeted me as I entered. I had the mixed sensation of pleasure – meeting new, interesting people in my home country, and a distant fear of what I might be expected to participate in over the weekend.

Over dinner, Colin regaled us with stories, some of which seemed to feature impossibly witty and dreadful characters. He talked about an elderly man and his sugar baby Joshua. He told us the young man had “never turned right on an aeroplane”.

Mike and Karsten were a couple who ran the Lodge primarily for gay men. It wasn’t set out too clearly from the beginning, but by the end of the weekend I had begun get the impression of a spiritual retreat for gay men of all ages.

After dinner we were told to bring down the picture we’d drawn of our genitals. My altarpiece was a drawing too: one I’d done of a lover some years ago. The first drawing lacked ceremony and was about the size of a Post-It note. I’d paid too much attention to a garish vein, which made my penis look alien.

These Buddhist designs adorned the walls of the shrine

These Buddhist-style designs adorned the walls of the shrine

The space or “shrine” in which the altar sat, and where we’d be doing almost all our activities, except those that required privacy – and even some that should have done – was now covered in a strange, unrelated objects: a drawing, a flower, a plastic cock ring. (The owner urged us all to get one.)

The altar on which we placed our sacred objects

The altar on which we placed our sacred objects

As we sat down, Lachlan burst in. He was a short man with a stoop. He looked a bit like Igor from Dracula. He was softly spoken but with a strong Scots accent. Disconcertingly, he reminded me of my father.

* * *

Our first exercise was to talk about our experiences masturbating: the first time, how it felt. Remarkably, to me, every man had first been introduced to his sexuality by another man. For one, a prefect; for another, a much older man, met in a candy store at age 11. Peter seemed to be the only one who had disliked his experience: his first day in boarding school, in the shower with another young boy.

By the time we’d finished speaking, it was 9 p.m. and Peter had just one other experience for us before bed. It was a trust exercise. We had to be blind-folded and disrobed by the other men in the group

Luke was first, possibly because he was only wearing a bathrobe. I watched the robe being peeled back over his stomach, and dropped to the floor. I had no desire to look down.

I came second. In my head, I pretended to be coaching a friend through the ordeal, telling her not to worry. They removed my shirt, socks and undid my belt. I felt disgusted. That slow peeling-off of clothes, really the domain of lovers and passion, was being ritualistically performed by elderly strangers.

It was difficult was to get my trousers off. They had collected around my feet and the men struggled to remove them. Managing that after some painfully awkward seconds, they took off my boxers. I was aware of heavy breathing in the few moments between becoming completely naked and Peter removing my blindfold.

When everyone had been undressed, we stood around each other, naked, holding hands and repeating a “sacred mantra”.

Saturday

The next morning we were all late to breakfast, which irritated Peter. After breakfast we arrived in the altar room, to talk about how our sex lives related to our parents. Everyone had been through similar experiences: a distant father, a silent but stern mother. Only I, of the five, had grown up with an open sexual environment at home.

We then split into groups: two for massage, two to go upstairs and masturbate. I was in the massage group, and the two others went upstairs. Peter told us to think of them while they were absent.

Both Colin and Peter were massaging me at once: 4 hands running up and down my back, along my legs and, fleetingly, between my legs

I was first to be massaged, so I took my clothes off as instructed and lay down, blindfolded, on the floor. Both Colin and Peter were massaging me at once: 4 hands running up and down my back, along my legs and, fleetingly, between my legs.

After 15 minutes, I turned over and the same occurred over the front of my body. It wasn’t erotic; they didn’t attempt to turn me on. Their hands nudged my genitals, and ran under my legs and sides, but not in a rough or passionate way. I was chiefly aware of my running nose.

Massaging Colin was odd. I attempted to treat him like a lover, grazing my hands over his body lightly, while Peter pressed his hands firmly. Colin guided us: he wanted his nipples and genitals massaged. I didn’t assist, I continued to stroke his shoulders and arms, while Peter cupped and fondled him.

* * *

We went much later than we had expected to: at ten past 11 we realised, quickly put clothes back on and let Luke and Lachlan inside while Colin and I departed upstairs. Alone in my room I wondered how I was going to conduct myself, before stripping and laying down on the bed.

Where the other men perhaps needed the full hour, I didn’t. After trying to experiment and tease myself, my blood began to rush and before it was half-past had achieved what I suppose I was meant to achieve. I showered off and scribbled a few notes:

Can I take masturbation seriously? I think it shouldn’t be derided or something to be embarrassed about, but I can’t suggest it’s holy or something to be honoured. I enjoyed the [erotic] touch but that and the wanking were just the same as being with someone, just not as romantic

Downstairs, for lunch, I was told I looked fresh-faced. Between spoonfuls of lentil soup, I listened to Colin’s stories, taken over the course of a glitzy, sex-laden lifetime. He told us about a sex cinema in London. “It was in South Kensington, which was dreadful as I worked five minutes away. Most lunches I’d head over and I’ll tell you something: all 4 screens were playing straight porn. But the boys were shagging the arses off each other.”

He, along with Luke, talked about the recent work by Elaine Stritch, actress and singer, and her disappointing recent performances. “Oh course,” waved Colin with a fey gesture, “All the Queens cheered her. As they do.”

* * *

We had a long break after lunch, and I went for a walk with Peter and Lachlan. We didn’t talk about the weekend, or the events, or how we felt. Lachlan enjoyed his massage – he told me – but that was about the most I heard about their experiences.

After that walk we re-entered the shrine to watch a short film. A man masturbated vigorously on-screen, completely oiled from his feet to his chest. The 15 minute video featured “moves” known collectively as “evolutionary masturbation”, which seeks to combine the heart and the genitals.

It was this last point that Peter felt mostly strongly about, holding in hand the scruff of his sweater, the other hand in his groin. Colin undressed to test out some of the moves, and Peter dimmed the lights to allow him some privacy. The short film went on a loop, was intensely pornographic, and beside me I could hear Colin’s hands squelch over the lubricant he had lathered over himself.

This was perhaps not as overtly erotic as it sounds. For one, Peter’s tone and his body language was oddly un-sexual. It was not a turn-on. As I was leaving the room to take yet another shower, Peter caught up with me. “Hey Jack, I wanted to check in with you. How are you?” I told him I was fine. “That’s good… great.

“Oh, did I ask already – is it okay if Mike and Karsten join us for the sex dancing tonight?”

* * *

Dinner, which followed a short lecture on leaving our problematic pasts behind, was much calmer than before. I was asked a lot of questions about myself, which I answered (with some embellishment): I had a long-term boyfriend, I was close with family, I had been attracted to the event by a mutual friend. I also related my opinion on gay men my age and the concept of “personal development”.

After lunch we had coffee and I helped clear the table. When I returned a few minutes later, I caught the pale smooth ellipse of a man’s ass disappear into the living room. Peter appeared around the corner and, smiling, I nervously followed him.

The living room of the lodge prepared for 'sex dancing'

The living room of the lodge prepared for ‘sex dancing’

A projector secreted behind the couch threw stars and a dark blue mist up onto the ceiling. My eyes fell upon Mike, seated naked on the floor beside a laptop, picking music. He looked up at me and smiled. Luke, who had recently suffered some heart problems, sat quietly and despondently on the lounge chair to my right.

Peter approached me, still in a hoody and absurdly baggy joggers. (“Clothing optional, Jack.”) It wasn’t lecherous, his tone, but assured. “Right,” I said, smiling. I removed my shirt, trousers and socks, flinging them onto the free lounge chair, but chose to keep my boxers on for the moment.

Across the room, Colin and Lachlan almost in tandem removed their clothes, standing nude with their bellies pointed at one another.

The first piece of music was the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. Mike dashed about the living room, his arms sketching out massive arcs. Paul stood on his toes and walked in figures of eight. Colin sat down, and Lachlan swung in his arms around his body, largely immobile.

I tried my best to escape into my own mind and pretend I was alone. How would I dance to this music in my home? I knew I’d move my hands like a conductor, and so I did: swinging my hands like I was leading an orchestra at the Royal Opera house.

I wasn’t, of course: I was dancing, nearly naked, in a room of five naked men and one clothed interloper.

At some point, Luke left, after his wine glass toppled over the vibrating speaker, and five naked men humorously minced around to avoid the broken glass.

Mike dashed about the living room, his arms sketching out massive arcs. Paul stood on his toes and walked in figures of eight

I started to understand the vibe of the dance. Various music played – classics, folk songs, old dance beats and… Shakira. I didn’t break away from standard steps: I certainly didn’t, like Mike, crawl to the ground and roll into a ball. I felt loose and unburdened by fear of nudity, but only if I could pretend I was alone and unwatched. As soon as Karsten or Peter approached me I looked down and couldn’t bear to interact with them.

We danced for an hour. Colin got up for the dance music, his dancing borrowed, or perhaps taken directly, from the 70s. He watched himself in the mirror. He waltzed with Lachlan during the slow songs and, I thought, I could make out his fingers caressing Lachlan’s nipples. It was an intrusion I wanted to unsee.

When it ended, we held hands. Thanked each other. And then some of us left. I threw on a sweater to stop my cold from developing and grabbed some tissues, sitting down with Peter and Colin. We talked about gay London, how it used to be, what it had become.

Sunday

The next morning my cold had massively worsened. I woke up choked with saliva and, strangely, facing Peter. He was nudging me, saying that Luke had left during the night, and it’d be better that we didn’t mention it at breakfast.

I was vaguely embarrassed, but a little bored of feeling embarrassed at the tail-end of this weekend. I blew my nose.

He was nudging me, saying that Luke had left during the night, and it’d be better that we didn’t mention it at breakfast

At breakfast, I can’t say I noticed Luke’s absence. In the shrine, Peter said he felt betrayed by the disappearance and that, in a flare of temper, he’d been told to “fuck off”. Colin and Lachlan felt sad too but, perhaps like me, didn’t care to care.

* * *

We had two final sessions: an open discussion about aggression and another erotic massage, with the four remaining men partaking at once.

The anger workshop covered our parents’ expressions of anger. I contributed a version of my upbringing: a passionate family. The others had had similar experiences, a short-tempered father and a mother who stoked the embers of long-burning feuds. We all, however, typically buried our anger rather than release it.

All apart from Peter, who revealed a history of anger throughout his life. It explained, briefly the sudden irritation he sometimes expressed and his overt caution in dealing with us.

At last we’d come to our final lesson: a second erotic touch massage. “We’ll do this so that we all get to touch each other… I’m not sure how that’ll work,” he laughed. “I’m not good at arithmetic. Jack and Colin, would you like to go first?” As Colin and I disrobed and put our clothes tidily into the corner, Peter had another idea. “Maybe the masseurs should be naked as well, as it’s the last session.”

I watched the two men remove their clothes, Peter sliding his joggers off effortlessly.

My massage was very similar to the one before. I was being massaged by Peter, around whom I was comfortable, because he had been kind throughout the weekend.

* * *

It was with shock and guilt that I turned over, at the end of my 30 minutes, to see Lachlan had been my masseur. The two had switched places. What Peter had thought I would find appealing about that I don’t know.

We changed places: myself massaging Peter, and Colin on Lachlan. But I wasn’t in the mood. I moved my hands over Peter, very aware and avoiding his soft penis. Within a minute or so I had become vague and disinterested, watching the gliding hands of Colin across from me.

He wasn’t unconscious of Lachlan’s penis. His hands were busying fiddling with it, or running in an almost cruel distraction away from him, down the inside of his legs, and back up again. I questioned in my mind whether or not that broke the “rules” of erotic touch. I watched Colin become more vigorous, more focused in his actions: he began to toy with other parts of his body.

I was entranced, feeling all at once guilty, disgusted, feverish and dimly aware of the mutual experience of sex between these two older, larger men.

It was sex. Not just because of the clear arousal of both men, and Lachlan’s steadily rising knees. I had a greater impression of Colin, who I had never taken to be a predatory man, as someone who (not uninvited) had taken advantage of the situation. I was revolted, but only looked away to see if Peter had awakened to the gasps and forced breaths of the other two.

Colin looked at me, and I wonder what my face might have been saying.

I looked down and saw that, in the midst of my voyeurism, I had become erect.

* * *

Feeling embarrassed, I returned to Peter’s body, which was unaroused. I tried to forget what I’d seen, or somehow explain away the fact that Colin had seen me aroused. I glanced up at them once again and the pitch they’d risen to. Peter opened his eyes and leaned onto one elbow.

I looked at him – sure that I, and not they, had been caught in some illicit act that broke the boundaries we had painstakingly set during the weekend. Friendship, not lust, and spirituality, rather than greed. Rather than condemn any of us, he called time, and we swapped partners.

It was sitting in the car on the ride back to Edinburgh I began to consider something that had been said to me that morning. After the strange experience in the shrine, we had returned to the kitchen. I was thinking about lunch, and people leaving: walking into the kitchen and Colin summing up the weekend as “unerotic – and believe me, I know erotic!” Peter making me tea and, out-of-the-blue, worried about me.

I must have eaten very slowly, because only myself and Mike were left when everyone went up to pack. He asked me whether this was my first experience in “personal development”, a term for which I was still sceptical. I told him it was. He recounted, in return, his experiences: after the break-up of his marriage, his revelation of his homosexuality, his first tantric workshop and the “triggers” there for him.

“My life changed,” he said, smiling. “And, I knew, of course that’s where I meet my life partner. I met Karsten.”

He continued. “We’ll be looking for someone to take over the manual work here at the estate. We’re trying to build a community here. We’re older, our backs get sore.” I felt a rush of anxiety. “A young boy. And we’d, you know, want to invite him into our relationship.”

I murmured something to change the subject.

In the car, I was wondering whether I was really being asked to join their commune. They wanted men from around the world to come here, live and heal here, and potentially die in this reclusive lodge, in perennially bleak but preternaturally beautiful Scotland.

All of these men talked about personal development, about reconnection. They are confused about their past, which affects the people they live with now. The soft and intimate spirituality of the commune, dancing naked, casual but not anonymous sex, must feel very healing to them.

That’s not to say I enjoyed it. I felt what Colin did to Lachlan was unfair. It was generous of him, in a way, for him to provide sexual pleasure to a sex-starved man. But it was a weird sort of generosity, suggesting promises and intimacy. He might in the future have fantasies, banal and secret, of day-trips and occasional rendezvous in Edinburgh.

It was a gift for the moment, but it might affect him for a long time. What he did was lust thinly masked as love or spirituality.

It was generous of him, in a way, for him to provide sexual pleasure to a sex-starved man

I fell asleep, again, on the journey back – eventually. I was tired and my cold was worse than ever. I woke up as we dropped off Colin, who shook my hand. I think there was no love lost there. As far as sexuality is concerned, he and I are utterly different people.

I leaned into my chair and felt sore. I had a bus that night, at 10.30, which would get in at 8 a.m. I was looking forward to a rapid conclusion and a full sleep on Monday evening. I thought back to the first time I jerked off in Peter’s house, and that I’d fantasised about him. He was right, sexuality is a strange thing. Stranger still is its relationship to romance and friendship.

Peter got back in the car, flustered but happy. “Jack. I’ve hatched a plan.” He looked at me. “Don’t look at me like that!”

I had no idea how I was looking at him.

“Jack, I really like you.” I felt a rush of anxiety. “And, because I like you, I want to buy you a train ticket home to London.” I smiled, laughed and said how much I would like that. I asked him not to.

“Please let me. I couldn’t bear to think of you on that bus.”

Some names have been changed.

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