After years of whacking off to pro-wrestling and Roman-Greco matches at the Olympics, I finally joined my city’s gay wrestling group. Arriving in my new singlet and jockstrap, I envisioned sweaty erotic matches with muscular jocks and worried about getting trounced or tearing a ligament. But my fantasy was far off from the reality, and I ended up learning a lot more about myself than I ever thought I would.
The gay wrestling group I joined meets once a month at a local gym that also hosts kickboxing and Jiu-Jitsu classes. It’s led by a local yoga instructor, and usually 10 to 15 men attend, each of varying skill levels, strength, age and body type, including a few trans men.
The group’s invite e-mail indicated it was a friendly recreational group meant purely for the enjoyment of rolling around with other dudes rather than super-competitiveness or skills training. It also said we shouldn’t feel embarrassed if we got an erection, because wrestling is intimate and erotic.
At the gym, we roll out nine mats connected in a three-by-three square, we do some pair-stretches and warm ups, and then it’s go time.
These are submission matches, meaning you’re supposed to wrestle until someone taps out or says the safe-word (which is “Chaka Khan”). You get your opponent to tap out by exhausting them with a painful or inescapable hold. Though some of the guys are wicked strong, few have formal training.
Most matches last anywhere from two to 10 minutes. If someone wins too quickly, the loser can instantaneously ask for a rematch or two, even handicapping the stronger wrestler by choosing their starting position, applying a starting hold or asking them not to use certain limbs or holds.
For safety’s sake, we’re not allowed to grab anyone’s fingers or toes because they’re so breakable, nor are we allowed to wrench on anyone’s necks because they’re so prone to injury. Only three matches are allowed to happen at a time to avoid overcrowding or slamming into each other.
We’re told to communicate whether we have any injuries and to “match the other guy’s energy,” not to try and dominate or destroy them if they’re just looking for a friendly tussle.
Most matches start slowly, with both guys on their hands and knees. Some guys roll around gently together — grunting and straining as they exchange holds. Others scrap and toss each other around like young jocks with something to prove. Both are exciting to watch.
Gay men in particular fetishize wrestling, and it’s easy to see why, as singlets and wrestling briefs accentuate a guy’s muscles and bulges. Wrestling looks a lot like sex as two men breathlessly try to top one another.
As gay men, often estranged by the vulnerability and competitiveness of the locker room, we eroticize strength and male-touch. And so wrestling gets entangled with domination and submission fantasies all too obvious and complex to lay out here.
But I wanted to try out the gay wrestling group not just because it seemed hot but because I wanted to try something new, scary and exciting. I wanted to know I was brave enough to challenge other guys and to see how I felt about winning and losing.
I ended up learning a lot about myself, things I never though I’d learn from such a sexy “meathead” sport.
Here are 10 things I learned by joining my local gay wrestling group:
1. We’re all much stronger than we think.
I’ve long considered myself physically weak because I’m not a jock or a gym bunny, but I’ve beaten guys who are stronger and more skilled than me just by lasting longer and squeezing the air out of them with a leg scissors move.
It turns out that I have stamina and strength I never realized — the same is likely true of all of us. We’re all a lot stronger and more resilient than we realize.
2. We often let our feelings get in the way of actions.
Getting hit, pinned or put in a painful hold can bring up old, powerful emotions, especially if you were ever bullied or abused. While it’s important to acknowledge these emotions — especially since they probably affect your non-physical encounters — it’s also important not to let them result in doubting yourself or distracting you from the task at hand.
3. Winning can make you feel guilty.
I’m a modest Libra who likes it when everyone wins and who will often give up the spotlight to honor someone more marginalized than myself. But wrestling matches almost always end with a clear winner and loser.
In one of my first matches I wrestled a handsome otter who was weaker and less skilled. I enjoyed the match and didn’t want it to end too quickly, but I also didn’t want to make him feel weak by quickly dominating and pinning him.
Our match ended in a draw, and for the rest of the day I wondered why I didn’t pin him. Why did winning make me feel guilty? I felt like a sucker.
From that day on, I promised myself that in future matches I’d always try to win, otherwise I’d be cheating myself and my opponents out of an authentic experience.
4. Rolling around with a guy is less erotic than you think.
While lots of Tumblr and wrestling porn websites show wrestlers getting hard during their matches, in a competitive match you spend most of your energy fighting for control rather than getting turned on. Even if a beautiful man pins you, you’ll likely feel too exhausted to get a boner. But then again …
5. There are wrestling websites for setting up matches with other men.
Websites like BearHuggers.com and GlobalFight.com are filled with gay, bi and straight guys looking for real-life and cyber matches: Everything from friendly practice and skills training; wrestling, boxing, legitimate, fantasy and erotic matches; one-on-one, in groups, in a ring or on a mattress in a hotel room.
Unsurprisingly, these sites have a strong sexual vibe to them, but you can also specify if you’re only interested in non-erotic matches. (You’ll still probably get guys hitting on you, though.)
5. There are many types of matches.
While my gay wrestling group does friendly submission matches, other wrestlers prefer Roman-Greco wrestling with lots of technical holds and formal rules. Some practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which emphasizes ground fighting, submission holds and joint-locks. Others like Thai kickboxing, Japanese judo, sumo or boxing.
There are also fantasy pro-matches where the match is somewhat pre-planned with one guy often playing the dominant guy (the “heel”) and the other playing the submissive loser (the “jobber”), and the holds are stylized with theatrical reactions. Other guys go for no-holds-barred matches where punching, scratching and other painful, injurious moves are allowed. It all just depends what you’re into.
6. A few rules can prevent a lot of injuries.
Unless you’re an abuse sponge or looking to destroy your body, you can avoid injuries by following a few basic rules (like the ones I mentioned up above). You can also avoid them just by communicating with your opponents. If your opponent puts you in a painful hold, just tap out instead of trying to tough it out — it’s better than getting injured.
Basically, unless you’ve been seriously injured in the past, fear of injury shouldn’t be an excuse not to wrestle. Any compassionate competitor in a friendly match will do their best not to hurt you.
7. Competition isn’t always about winning.
One guy in our group said that he didn’t want to challenge a particular wrestler because he had no chance of beating him. I pointed out to him that wrestling isn’t always about winning: Sometimes it’s about learning new moves, seeing how much you can take or just making a friend.
Once you’ve rolled around with a guy, it’s a lot easier to chit-chat, have a beer together or become friends. If you stand on the sidelines, afraid of losing, you’ll miss out on growth and social opportunities.
8. LGBTQ-inclusive sports groups sometimes unwittingly exclude trans people.
Even though our group gladly welcomes trans people, a trans man in our group pointed out that the welcome e-mail mentions not feeling ashamed about boners but doesn’t mention how to feel if you have breasts or if you don’t have a cisgender penis, especially when most men there wrestle in revealing singlets.
When they pointed this out to the group leader, he welcomed their input and they helped write more inclusive language into the group’s e-mails. It just goes to show that simply welcoming trans people isn’t enough. It helps to meet with actual trans people and involve them in shaping the group.
9. Non-sexual touch is scary to a lot of men.
I’m not very physically affectionate with my male friends because I have come to equate touch with sexual desire rather than something friendly, healing and affirming. And that’s too bad, because studies show skin-on-skin contact has positive health and psychological benefits.
The gay wrestling group hasn’t made me more cuddly with my friends, but it has encouraged me to start thinking about it, and to give hugs or throw my arm around friends when I feel like it, something that feels good to both of us.
10. It’s important to live out your fantasies.
For a long time I didn’t wrestle with other guys because I thought it was purely sexual and worried I’d get injured, but my experience with my gay wrestling group has taught me all sorts of things I didn’t realize I was missing out on. And by encouraging other friends to come, they’ve learned important things, too.
In short, by exploring my fantasy, I grew and helped my friends grow. When you deny yourself your desires, you run the risk of stunting your own growth. Your bravery and participation make other people brave, and together we all grow stronger and more interesting.
Would you join a gay wrestling group? Why or why not?
This article was originally published on Sept. 8, 2018