homage to mike kelley patron saint of filth_smKEEP IT DIRTY, vol. a., “Filth” (2016)



John Paul Ricco



“JACKING-OFF A MINOR ARCHITECTURE” is about the complicated mix of promiscuity, itinerancy, imperceptibility, and illegality that has been the hallmark of that particular erotic aesthesis-in-common that is cruising and anonymous public sex. More specifically, it was about the reinvention of those sexual and erotic practices and spaces, and their deployment against a bio-political regime in the early years of the AIDS pandemic. A bio-political regime that was negligent of “at-risk” populations, when that same regime wasn’t actually being outright genocidal in its obliviousness and intransigence. Including in its calls for abstinence and monogamy, and in its pervasive policing, hysteria, media exposé, and widespread vilification of non-normative and queer sex.

I wrote the first version of “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture” as the final paper for a graduate seminar on the de-domestication of architecture that I was taking in the fall of 1992, taught by Georges Teyssot, in the School of Architecture at Princeton University. Although I was still a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Chicago, I was spending the 1992-93 academic year at Princeton as an Exchange Scholar, attracted by the new theoretical work on gender, sexuality and architecture that was being done there.[i] Once again living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, I was commuting several days a week to Princeton, attending the weekly ACT-UP meetings at the Gay and Lesbian Community Centre in Greenwich Village, and spending many nights at Crow Bar and Wonder Bar—two of the newly-opened gay bars in the East Village—both of which had backrooms.

In creating spaces where sexual intimacy could be had with and amongst groups of anonymous strangers in public, these jack-off rooms, in their de-domestication of sex, offered the most obvious and (for me) exciting example of the de-domestication of architecture. More broadly, they were testaments to the inextricable relations between sex and architecture, and as such provoked me to think beyond identities and acts towards the actual spaces and geographies of sexual desire and pleasure. The where of queer erotic ethics and politics has ever since remained in the foreground of my thinking and work, in which any acts or identities are understood to be the taking-place of place—often non-appropriatively and in ways that are wholly dedicated to bodies and their differences and pleasures.

One of the primary reasons why I wrote “Jacking-Off” was because I saw the newly opened and almost nightly packed backrooms in various bars and clubs in NYC (and other cities in North America)—after nearly a decade of closures of such public sex venues—to be nothing less than social-sexual laboratories training men-who-have-sex-with-men “how to have promiscuity in an epidemic,” and how to do so safely. Backrooms in the early-1990s and my essay from 1993, spatially and architecturally brought together the sex and AIDS activist pedagogy of Douglas Crimp’s eponymous 1987 essay, and John Wagenhauser’s 1992 essay “Safe-Sex Without Condoms.”[ii] Indeed as Leo Bersani has recently noted, in the sex-phobic early years of the AIDS pandemic, there were constant calls (including from segments of the gay and lesbian community) to “renounce intimate relations . . . and to practice abstinence.”[iii] As he goes on to say, “if abstinence must allow for some sexual practice, that practice will of course be masturbation—that is, sexual self-love. Thus gays were once again marginalized” (ibid). But in fact what the jack-off rooms amounted to was a radical re-appropriation of the discourse of masturbation-as-safe-sex, and re-directed it away from abstinence and from solitary self-love, by promiscuously communalizing it. Such that tens—and at times hundreds—of guys on any given night, at any number of bars and clubs, would gather in small, dark rooms, and with their pants around their ankles and their shirts pulled up over their heads and behind their necks, jerk each other off. At that time in the early-1990s, in the midst of the AIDS crisis and still at least 3-4 years away from the discovery and widespread prescription of the so-called drug “cocktail” (1996), these minor—not marginal—architectures of “masturbatory relationality” were incredibly powerful political as well as social-sexual spaces.

Thus in writing the essay, I was responding to a highly specific historical situation at the newly-emergent conjuncture of economic, cultural, and bio-political developments: late-capitalism, urban gentrification, tele-technological networks, AIDS, and safe-sex discourse and practices. Whatever value there is in re-publishing the essay today, largely lies in being able to read it as a document of what turned out to be a rather brief moment in the history of queer architectural and urban sexuality and sociality. That historical moment also included the emergence of queer theory, and in its contribution to that field, my essay was also an early articulation of what, back then, I was calling “queer sex space theory,” in distinction to what later appeared as the history and theory of “queer space.” Which is to say that there are important differences between queer theory, queer space, and queer sex space theory, and these differences should not be elided.[iv] “Queer Space,” in seeking an alignment of subject and predicate—“space” and “queer”—was definitional in its intention and effects, whereas the kind of “Queer Sex Space Theory” that I was writing was conceptual: i.e. irreducible to any definition of queer/sex/space, and conditioned by its relation to other concepts bound to historical, economic, social and political contexts.

The collectivity that was generated by jacking-off a minor architecture was simultaneously ontological, bio-political, architectural and sexual. Which is to say that jacking-off a minor architecture is about the specific assemblage, composition or configuration of bodies, sexual practices and architectural spaces, such that those things together came to make sense at that time and place for those involved in their collective assembly. Including in that collective assemblage’s mobile, shifting, expanding, contracting, extending, appearing and disappearing existence.

It is in this way that jacking-off a minor architecture cannot provide a ground for politics or the social, even though it is thoroughly political and social, and precisely in terms of its specific configuration. In other words, in its historicity, jacking-off a minor architecture can never be the subject or object of some move towards “generalization.” Especially since the latter is part and parcel of the current political-economic order of general equivalence, in which such incommensurable forms of sociality and sexuality as those that populated jack-off rooms in the early-1990s, have been flattened according to a single general measure of commonality (e.g. masturbation as solitary—neoliberal—sex, with the smartphone as the weakest form of tele-dildonics). Like Deleuze’s conceptual figure of the “mediocre-I,” the cell phone wanker dwells in the at-home spectacle of internet sex and hook-up apps, entrenched in a thoroughly domesticated and monetized masturbatory bubble, in which he (or she) is undisturbed by the anonymity of the a priori Other, and thereby suffers from an existential loneliness that, according to certain recent surveys, is the number one health issue that gay men report that they struggle with today.[v]

Indeed, while from our current vantage point it might be hard to fathom, when I wrote and published my essay in 1992-93, the Internet was not yet a popular phenomenon, but only began to enter homes and appear on personal computers a year or two later.[vi] Which is to say that the historical moment and conjuncture to which my essay belongs and that outlines its determinations, was on the cusp of one of the most major transformations in the history of communication and perhaps humanity. So any anxiety or “fight” against digital pollution (i.e. Internet porn) is misplaced in this context, as we cannot underestimate the extent to which the conditions have radically changed in the historical shift from pre- to post-digital technology. In re-reading the essay, I was surprised to find references to “telephone party-line networks” that, in the wake of social media and smartphone apps such as Grindr, not only seem like quaint archaisms of a bygone era, but have been pretty much obliterated from individual memory and historical consciousness. Further, not only does STEAM—the journal publication in which my article appeared—no longer exist (Fig. A), as a printed and bound quarterly periodical dedicated to male-male anonymous sex in public, with listings of places, profiles of cities, college campuses, tips on how to find partners and avoid police entrapment, such a publication is inconceivable today. As I discussed in my book, The Logic of the Lure, and as the history of queer ‘zines has made apparent, there is a material practice and politics of publication here that must not be overlooked. The collage that I created to accompany my essay was entirely fabricated with printed bar and nightclub flyers and free gay weekly magazines, that were a vital part of the (analog) queer print culture in the early-‘90s. In addition to Crow Bar, two weekly New York sex parties are referenced in the collage: He’s Gotta Have It, and Spunk! (See Fig. 2)



Fig. A: Front Cover. Steam: A Quarterly Journal for Men (Winter 1993).


This essentially boils down to the difference between technological mediation and face-to-face synchronous contact. It also runs parallel to the critiques of network-centric homogeneous sociality and sexuality that were being written in the early-1990s by Bruce Benderson (“Sex and Isolation,” 1992) and Samuel Delany (Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, 1996—a book that Delany in fact dedicated to Benderson) and their critical recollections of the kinds of heterogeneous sociality and multiple trajectories of alterity found in the urban streets of cities such as New York in the decades prior.[vii] But it is equally about the difference between the physical and the virtual. That is, between a certain hygienic detachment enabled by digital technology and the inescapably intense smells, touches, tastes, sounds, and diminution of sight that filled a backroom on any given night. Those tiny dark and often body-packed spaces were smelly, sticky, sweaty and stifling in their unbearable heat. You left there drenched.

Inextricably tied to (its) historical/social actuality, “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture,” was my earliest attempt to write a philosophically speculative and experimental conceptualization of queer architectural-sexual nomadology. While nomadology was not a term that I employed in the essay, deterritorialization and collective assemblage were terms taken from Deleuze and Guattari and their notion of “minor literature,” that I did re-deploy in order to theorize minor architecture.[viii] My primary intention was to philosophically speculate on another practice—and the limits—of architecture, (safe) sex, collectivity, public anonymity and intimacy, the clandestine, promiscuity, exile and escape, as these were being experimented with—and that I and others were experiencing and indulging in—in bars and nightclubs in downtown Manhattan in 1992. I took on Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of deterritorialization (i.e. de-domestication and the radical displacement of sex, identity and perhaps sexual identity), and collective assemblage of enunciation (anti-individual subject; innumerable many or multiplicities of bodies and desires), in order to think the connection of the individual to a political immediacy (the bio-political regimes and apparatuses of HIV/AIDS, safe-sex, and its sex radical and activist counter-responses). All of this along with the spaces, geographies and architectures of anonymous sex practices and movements, constituting something like a queer nomadological war machine opposite bio-political State apparatuses, and such things as sexual risk/exposure, urban gentrification, social fatigue and the mistrust of strangers.

In referring to these as scenes of collective assemblage, we also realize the extent to which we do not possess a vocabulary adequate to naming or describing the particular group-form that came together in these backrooms and darkrooms. What other names might we use: cluster, swarm, crowd, groupuscule? I like the last of these terms, since it denotes a collective deviating from the group-form, and in this case, from any thing that might otherwise be referred to as “group sex,” or “sexual orgy.” More promiscuous than any such gathering, organizing or cohering, the sex that happened (happens) in backrooms was (is) sex with, amongst and alongside an incalculable multiplicity of others. As a multiplicity, it followed two logics of in-estimation: and, and, and . . . (of addition, arrival, advent, the newcomer) and n-1 (subtraction, departure, rejection, and the refusal of any totality). When in a backroom you experienced “an extremely populous solitude” (Deleuze and Guattari).[ix]

My conceptualization, as a way of making sense of things, was not idealistic or utopic, neither a political fantasy nor a hope for a brighter tomorrow. Nor did it set out to produce truth claims or any form of knowledge. Rather, it was speculative, in the proper (philosophical-political) sense of the term. Like the laboratories of social-sexual-architectural experimentation that backrooms were, my essay was also directed toward something else: a different or another scene of architecture, community, and sexuality. One that was minor in its architecture, promiscuous in its ethics, anonymous in its sexuality, and non-relational in its sociality.

In this regard, the essay wanted to do something other than simply point out the fact that jacking-off takes place somewhere, or that there are spaces dedicated to such sex practices, or even that jacking-off might be conceived as its own social-spatial as much as (non-solitary, noninwardizing) sexual practice. It is not so simple that, wherever jacking-off happens is a jack-off room, and this distinction entails more than simply the need not to lose sight of the very architectural specificity of “room.” Following Deleuze and Guattari, like any concept-creation, “jacking-off a minor architecture” was geographically (and architecturally) sensitive to its milieu (irreducible to “context”); it was connected to other concepts (e.g. minor literature, safe-sex, deterritorialization); while each of its formative concepts (e.g. public, anonymous, safe, promiscuity, intimacy) did not cohere but rather resonated with each other.

The essay was also an experiment with the lamination of genres: masturbation, architecture, philosophical essay, subcultural publication (etc.)—instead of their division. With this re-publication of the essay in Keep It Dirty, vol. a., “Filth,” we are called to pay attention to its language, format, medium and circulation; what Michael Warner might describe as styles of intellectual publics. Like the paradoxical task of “a public practice oriented to redefining public practice,” that Warner describes in that eponymous essay, “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture” might be seen and re-read as “a way of imaging a speech for which there [was] yet no scene, and a scene for which there [was] no speech.” Which means that this was less about providing a resolution to a problem, than speculating on a possible direction and sense that I saw opening up in the re-opening of public sex spaces in New York (and other cities) around 1992. An architecture to-come, including as another way of thinking community, jacking-off a minor architecture is architecture not only of the coming community, but of what I have since theorized as the unbecoming community.[x] The community of unbecoming—filthy—figures: newcomers, the ones who depart, passersby, traitors, hustlers, pickpockets, deviants, perverts, vagrants, and any number of other rejects. Minor architecture is an unbecoming architecture of the unbecoming community.[xi]




John Paul Ricco



BACK ROOMS, DARK ROOMS, JACK-OFF ROOMS: three terms which mark different definitions of these specific queer spaces which will be further described as they are mapped. For although these terms—a spatial nomenclature—currently designate a single rather than three separate spaces, they also mark differences in the historical constitution of these rooms. Back rooms in bars and clubs have been a part of gay social-sexual space for decades, and inscribe posterior[1] sites within a greater architectural plan or layout, viz., the bar or club. In our attempts to maintain one of a variety of spaces for safer sexual experimentation, in an age of sexual panic spurred on by the AIDS crisis, we, as queers, have recently re-invented these spaces as jack-off rooms. While in most aspects “homologous” to back rooms / dark rooms, jack-off rooms nonetheless signal shifts in the practices and practitioners which constitute these spaces, all in the face of sexual hysteria, which has often provoked abandonment rather than re-invention. One of the principal physical conditions of these rooms being always inescapable, they are in turn commonly referred to as dark rooms. To the extent that this essay addresses the current conditions of these rooms, I use the term jack-off room(s), even though back room and dark room possess equal currency within queer culture—if not at times more so—and hence all three terms must be mapped together.

The title which names this map (essay)—Jacking-off a Minor Architecture—conveys my most fundamental sense of these rooms, namely, that these spaces (jack-off rooms) and these practices (jacking-off) function through a pre-supposed reciprocity. For although both spaces and practices may operate separately one from one another, this is not what I am addressing here. What I address are practices which, by making connections between rooms, male bodies, (anti-)-late-sexual economies, and post-identity politics, come to constitute what I understand as jack-off rooms-as minor-architecture.

This is an architecture of (made by) jacking-off.


Minor Architecture


Designating jack-off rooms as minor architecture allows me to circumvent an appeal to the paradigmatic bourgeois (or major) binary public/private, a pair of terms not only insufficient but inappropriate to the conditions of jack-off rooms. The public/private binary not only forces these spaces into un-fitting categories, it also forecloses an understanding of the politics of these spaces.

The minor is situated within the major/majority/masterly, rather than outside, as this latter term is usually understood. As examples of minor architecture, jack-off rooms articulate and are articulated by queers (minorities), whose identities are anything but constant, unified, and self-evident, but rather are always in the process of becoming, changing, and being contested. Queers are here part of a collective assemblage or multiplicity of anonymous bodies, assembled within a small, dark, cramped space, touching, kissing, licking, hugging, stroking, pumping . . . . Borders between self and not-self are radically undermined.

Along with other theorist writers, my sense of a minor architecture is as an extension of the concept of a minor literature, as formulated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. “The three characteristics of minor literature are:

  • the deterritorialization of language [for my purposes: the deterritorialization of architecture, sexuality, identities, etc.]
  • the connection of the individual to a political immediacy [the contested arenas of queer sexualities]
  • the collective assemblage of enunciation [or bodily practices].”[2]

Jack-off rooms-as-minor-architecture disrupt the heterosexist, bourgeois, marital, familial, domesticating, and interiorizing models, imperatives, logics, politics, and spaces, which constitute major architecture(s).

As minor architectures, jack-off rooms are spaces of exile—in the sense of escape—for queers. Exile and escape routes from the institutionalized intimacy, interiority, and domesticity of heterosexism, or major sexuality—which is to say the same thing. The escape routes opened up by minor architecture are always in-between zones, corridors which are never entirely outside of a major architecture. As sites of deterritorialized (radically dislocated through space) bodies, practices, spaces and identities, jack-off rooms de-domesticate sexuality, without necessarily being spaces of absolute liberty, privilege or refuge.


ricco 1

Fig. 1: Advertisement. Steam: A Quarterly Journal for Men (Winter 1993): 239.


Descriptive Mapping


So simple, the appearance of night in a room full of strangers . . . . It’s the simple sense of turning slowly, feeling the breath of another body in a quiet room, the stillness shattered by the scraping of a fingernail against a collar line.[3]


Situated at the back of certain gay bars and clubs, jack-off rooms are usually encountered after having moved through one or several other thresholds, corridors, and rooms. Integrally connected with these other spaces, it is often difficult to say where these rooms begin and end. These anterior spaces (hallways, vestibules) to these posterior rooms (jack-off rooms) function as in-between zones: spaces for waiting, cruising, anticipating—or even (in one bar) a round of pinball. For just as a jack-off room’s “internal logic” is one of exteriority—of bodies, identities, practices, desires, etc. (cf. below)—so too are its parameters extended out into a greater network: most immediately the other rooms and spaces of the bar or club. Nonetheless, there are ways in which to distinguish a jack-off room from the remaining spaces of the bar or club. DJ-performed music is one of the few things which manages to occupy the space of a jack-off room and the remaining spaces—although this connection is only partial.

Jack-off rooms are usually spaces of anonymous occupation and relation (“a room full of strangers”). Individuals, as bodies-of-desire, forfeit their individual subjective selves as they are re-constituted as parts of a collective assemblage, in which personal identities are exchanged for anonymous positions within a multiplicity of desiring bodies. Free of speaking voices and enveloped in a darkness cast by a single darkly-colored light bulb (“feeling the breath of another body in a quiet room . . . the appearance of night in a room full of strangers . . .”), bodies operate in continuous motion, either shuffling between, alongside, and up against bodies, or, in a stationary flight: a moving while standing still, as caused by an almost instinctual reaction when in a dark space, to extend hands and arms into the darkness, a self-exteriorizing gesture which here is a gesture of communication along paths leading to dicks, asses, Calvin briefs, torsos, balls, T-shirts, belts—each, parts of others bodies which touch still other parts, as theirs are being touched. A jack-off room is a space of connections, extensions and exteriorizations, all mobilized by desires. And darkness operates as a crucial collectivizing force.


ricco 2

Fig. 2: Collage (John Paul Ricco). Steam: A Quarterly Journal for Men (Winter 1993): 23.


All bodily senses are activated: smells (cologne, sweat, semen . . . ); tastes (skin, sweat, lips . . . ); sounds (music, moans, zippers, whispers, feet shuffling . . . ); sights (faces, muscles, cocks, clothes, gestures . . . ). Distinctions of Self and Other (not-Self), inside and outside, are subsumed by this collectivizing network of multiple desires, bodies, practices and durations, which I call jacking-off a minor architecture. This multiplicity is effected by simple calculations of either continuous addition (and, and, and . . . ) or subtraction (n – 1).


Groups form, a threesome or foursome here and there, or a cluster around a central core [space of ejaculation], bees vibrating on a comb. These clusters form and break continually all night . . . [s]o long as the core doesn’t dissuade outside participation, the accumulation can grow like coral.[4]


Although all bodily senses are activated and engaged, it is needless to say that sight is greatly de-prioritized, while not entirely eliminating cruising and voyeurism. Such a distinction between surfaces for visual projection, and non-representational dark spaces is actually built into a particular New York City bar, where a wall-sized movie screen divides the bar & table area up front from the small jack-off room in the back (or behind).

A jack-off room-as-minor-architecture is a space of invention, what Michel Foucault might have referred to as a “laboratory of sexual experimentation,” which is here articulated collectively and across a series of differences (body types, race, ethnicity, class, and age [sometimes]).[5]

It is a politically social and sexual space; a site of post-identity politics, with a collective objective to get off.


Groups are my favorite. Four or more guys, in a circle, laughing, grunting, fingers locked in armpits, touching faces, reaching forward to stroke bellies—dicks moving to the rhythm of their hand or another’s—arms around one another, body weight leaning thigh into thigh, a palm weighing testes . . . it’s okay if someone joins in, even if he isn’t your type, even if you wouldn’t pick him out of any crowd.[6]


As a tall, skinny, wire-rimmed-eyeglass-wearing 27-year-old graduate student, I am far from the embodiment of one of the handful of iconic gay male body types which you might think of as welcomed in these rooms. On the contrary (!), not only are “my types” of bodies welcomed (i.e., somewhat muscular, rather hairless boyish bods), but so too is the body-type which is mine. In a jack-off room I hook up with Puerto Rican homeboys, young muscle queens, otherwise-monogamous couples, body-pierced boys, little guys, big guys, effeminate fags and macho men . . . some of whom are into my body just as much as I am into theirs. In a jack-off room, I am just one of the boys.

This articulation of bodies is mobilized by the collective force of desire, a nearly tangible device or mechanism, through which jack-off rooms-as-minor-architecture are built, and by which they operate. Desire and erotics are potentially tremendous mobilizing and articulating forces, capable of opening up and linking particular spaces, bodies, and practices, and thereby begin to approach the kind of activ(ist) politics which many of us are pursuing. Jack-off rooms-as-minor-architecture constitute this linkage of space, bodies, and practices. They are sites for the formulation, deployment, and continuous re-constitution of a post-identity sexual politics (a different network of identities).


ricco 3

Fig. 3: Advertisement. Steam: A Quarterly Journal for Men (Winter 1993): 237.


Miss Thing, there is no guest list tonight![7]


Jack-off rooms, as escape routes, open up paths of survival, relative safety, and crucial education: necessary options in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Much of this is facilitated by the ways in which these rooms function as “laboratories of experimentation,” in counter-distinction to others, such as those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) in Atlanta, a less-than-imaginative major institution, scientifically investigating HIV and AIDS. Following the closing of most back rooms, bathhouses, gay sex clubs, and even many public bathrooms (such as those in subway stations) in the early-to-mid 80’s, the re-opening and re-inventing of many of these sexual spaces during the past two years marks an extremely important shift in queer communities’ tactics to responsibly address the links between sexual behaviors and modes of transmitting HIV, and to actively affirm and promote safer forms of sexual practices in these spaces. In a recent New York Times article,[8] “sex clubs” (a term which homogenizes the differences between stripper bars, hetero-swinger clubs, jack-off rooms, porn shops, etc.) are described as sites of transmission of “social” diseases, such that news of the “proliferation” of these clubs is meant to signal more than simple capitalist growth. Not surprisingly, New York City “public” health officials are reported to be “seek[ing] new ways to regulate sex as the epidemic [sic] continues to spread,” by instituting various monitoring strategies within these sex clubs. “Sex clubs” and “social” diseases are equally cast as uncontrollable forces, both of which assume the status of an “epidemic.” The usual (mis)representation of such “public” officials as protectors of a necessarily imaginary “general public” is once again deployed; a general public (majority) threatened by their own non-participatory relation to these breeding grounds of “social” diseases. The users of “sex clubs” are viewed as separate from the general public, and concern for the welfare of the former is largely forfeited for that of the latter.

Yet these “sex club” users must be differentiated as much as the particular clubs, bars or bookstores that they use. For instance, one can be certain that in bars and clubs, queers were wearing condoms as a means of safer-sex more than three years ago, unlike some stupid straights at “Le Trapeze, a Manhattan club for couples only.” For a simple-minded heterosexist reporter such as Ms. Navarro, this means non-gays and lesbians—who, she reports, only “began using condoms in large numbers three years ago.”

Within a two-sentence paragraph, Navarro distorts an HIV+ party at a queer club, as she argues that they are evidence: of unsafe sex, of the kind of event which will extend the twelve-year history of the AIDS crisis, of “a rebellion against sexual constraints,” and of a marketing / advertising strategy “to attract those infected with the virus”—a line which requires little more to complete a circular logic back to the other points listed. What some of us see as recognition of, and active intervention in, the real lives of those who are sero-positive, is instead re-aligned as “lapses” in presumably more proper ways of living one’s life. Contrary to Navarro’s ignorant story, queers—or, in her words, people with “sexual preferences that are difficult to modify”—in general do not operate “in denial of the HIV risk,” and with a “sense of immortality.” Rather, most of us live our lives responsibly, intelligently, critically, and affirmatively, lives which effectively demolish stories such as Ms. Navarro’s.

Bars and clubs which sponsor jack-off rooms disrupt many of the strategies of late-capitalism’s incorporation of AIDS discourse, strategies which rely upon sexual panic as they commodify, technologize, privatize, and domesticate sexual practices. Late-capitalist and current sexual economies are so inextricably linked at times, that it is difficult to separate the functioning of one from the other.


ricco 4-2

Fig. 4: Advertisement. Steam: A Quarterly Journal for Men (Winter 1993): 241.


Operating without a severely discriminating door policy, a guest list, or a cover charge (if one exists, it is usually minimal), these bars and clubs disrupt a sexual economy in which even other gay establishments operate. Once through the door, complimentary condoms and lubricant are often offered in lieu of the usual bar snacks. As Homo Xtra, New York’s self-described “totally biased politically incorrect party paper,” reminds its readers about one jack-off room: “Don’t forget where you can get laid by cute East Village boys . . . for free!”[9]

One of the most dominant ways in which late-capitalist economies have adapted to the current sexual economy is through the production, promotion, and sale of the greatest variety of sexual prophylactics ever to be marketed—with condoms at the very top of the list.

The use of condoms has undoubtedly been proven effective in the fight to halt the spread of HIV, and what I am presenting here should not be taken as an indictment. What I do wish to assert is the way in which many queers have extended the already creative and imaginative re-deployment of sexual promiscuity-as-safe-sex, as we practice “safe sex without condoms”—sex practices only oxymoronic if you lack the continuously re-inventive imagination through which queer culture continues to negotiate terrains heavily inscribed by discourses of AIDS. “Safe sex without condoms,” in addition to being the title of an excellent essay on jack-off clubs written by John Wagenhauser, may also be heard as something of a motto for jack-off rooms, along with “on me not in me,” and “J.O. only.” All of these are further signs of the ways in which these spaces disrupt major discourses, i.e., “safe sex with condoms,” “just say NO” campaigns, and arguments of abstinence or monogamy over experimentation and multiplicity.


As [Cindy] Patton insists, gay people invented safe sex. We knew that the alternatives—monogamy and abstinence—were unsafe, unsafe in the latter case because people do not abstain from sex, and if you tell them “just say no,” they will have unsafe sex. We were able to invent safe sex because we have always known that [sex] is not, in an epidemic or not, limited to penetrative sex. Our promiscuity taught us many things, not only about the pleasures of sex, but about the great multiplicity of those pleasures. It is that psychic preparation, that experimentation, that conscious work on our own sexualities that has allowed many of us to change our sexual behaviors—something that brutal “behavioral therapies” tried unsuccessfully for over a century to force us to do—very quickly and very dramatically . . . .


Douglas Crimp, the author of the words just quoted, ends that paragraph with the assertion that “it is our promiscuity that will save us.”[10] I agree.

Video and printed pornography, phone-sex lines, bars featuring erotic dancers and strippers, and computer-network bulletin boards are some of the technologies and spaces of representation incorporated by today’s late-capitalist economy, in its attempts to prosper from the pervasive sexual panic which inhibits folks from pursuing more direct, embodied, one might even say archaic, forms of sexual practice. By taking the example of telephone party-line networks, and casting them against the network of jack-off rooms-as-minor-architecture, one is able to perceive the ways in which the latter operate in counter-distinction to high-tech mechanisms of sexual “encounter.”

Granted, they share networked structures which link various persons—anonymously and actively. This last condition is important in that more typical distinctions between consumers and producers, patrons and performers, are entirely deconstructed, such that “the users are also the show.” This dismantles the scene of a spectacle, the screen of projection, and the stage of performance which customarily establishes a relation of viewing subject and viewed object, and a politics of representation often based upon rooms-as-minor-architecture and telephone party-line networks make room for the “promotion of a series of multiple encounters considered non-exploitative by virtue of resisting the model of monogamy, possession, commitment,”[11] privatization, and domestication (telephone as a technology of de-domestication).

Nonetheless, similarities are at this point exhausted, and important differences may be cited. The most significant distinction is the way in which bodies-of-desire in jack-off rooms need not expend the costly fees of staying connected to a telephone party-line. With little or no entrance fee, membership requirement, etc., jack-off rooms largely sidestep economies of exchange, or profit and loss. In a jack-off room you link up with other bodies in an immediate, embodied way, free of the mediating and disembodying technologies of the phone lines. Although bodies move in darkness in a jack-off room, they are not as blind to, and invisible from, other bodies, as are those with telephone receivers placed at their ears. Finally, whereas in a jack-off room I am part of a collective multiplicity, on a telephone party-line I remain an isolated individual.


Making a Major Fuss over Jack-off Rooms-as-Minor-Architecture


In May of 1992, jack-off rooms in New York City—spaces of deterritorialization and de-domestication, operating absent of representational strategies—were effectively re-territorialized, re-domesticated, and mis-represented by police / media busts and exposés. As agents of the majority matrix or State Apparatus (juridico-media-medical), news reporter Mary Civiello and her cameramen, (secretly) armed with equipment for social management and control, infiltrated a gay club and its back room, and filmed the fun. Televising this footage on News 4, Civiello and her team not only distorted what they saw and recorded, they attempted to transmit a minor architecture into major architectures, i.e., homophobic enclaves in the NYC area, heterosexist family living rooms and bedrooms, etc. Playing on her own pre-conception of the “panic logics” (Singer) and sexual phobias of her viewers, Civiello at one point described “a clothed man squirming in another man’s lap, as ‘what could have been anal sex.’”[12] The cameras and strobes of News 4, as technologies of representation, operated during this media-bust as devices of re-domestication: re-territorializing these jack-off rooms-as-minor-architecture, by de-territorializing them into major architectures. Needless to say, these technologies once again make it difficult to discern or define where “public” and “private” spheres begin and end, as they force the need to take flight, get off, or escape.


ricco 5

Fig. 5: Advertisement. Steam: A Quarterly Journal for Men (Winter 1993): 241


* First published in Steam: A Quarterly Journal for Men 1:4 (Winter 1993): 236-243.




Christian Hite



I don’t touch myself from inside . . . . To begin with, I have to be in exteriority in order to touch myself. And what I touch remains on the outside. I am exposed to myself touching myself. And therefore—but this is the difficult point—the body is always outside . . . . The body is always outside the intimacy of the body itself.

—Jean-Luc Nancy[a]


John Paul Ricco’s “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture” originally appeared in the (queer) ’zine, Steam: A Quarterly Journal for Men, in 1993, and was inspired, as he says, “by a resurgence of anonymous sex spaces and practices in Manhattan around 1992.”[b] As a graduate student at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, Ricco was then writing in the context of what he calls “the ‘second wave’ of the AIDS pandemic”:


As with the “first wave,” the second was articulated by a number of highly visible, primarily New York-based gay male journalists who set out to write causal narratives in which they linked . . . reported increases in HIV transmission to public or, more accurately, non-domestic, social-sexual spaces such as bathhouses, sex clubs, jack-off rooms, porn theaters, and adult bookstores—sites of minor architecture. (L 143)[c]


And indeed, by 1996, as Samuel R. Delany notes in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), most of these “anonymous sex spaces” (so inspiring to Ricco in 1992) had already been shut down:


What makes their shutdown so troubling is that even as the city spoke of supporting “safer sex,” while it hasn’t made “being a homosexual” a crime, in the course of closing such places, by law it has criminalized each and every homosexual act (as well as masturbation and vaginal intercourse: straight sex clubs have fared no better) “in public” (a concept left hopelessly undefined) . . . . Safe-sex-shamafe-sex, the city wanted to get the current owners out of those movies houses, “J/O clubs” (Jack-Off Clubs, advertised as just that on the marquees), and peep shows, and open up the sites for developers.[d]


Like the “jack-off rooms” that inspired it, Ricco’s essay is itself, some might say, part of a brief moment in time (now lost). And yet, beyond nostalgia, the decision to re-publish “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture” in Keep It Dirty, vol. a., “Filth” is at least twofold.

First, in the wake of Leo Bersani’s recent attempt to demonize the (prescribed) practice of “masturbation” during the early years of AIDS,[e] Ricco’s essay, to a certain extent, provides us with a precious (un)timely counter-memory.[f] I say “to a certain extent” because, in its valorization of mutual masturbation, “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture” could also be read as implicitly bolstering Bersani’s dystopian account of the “individualistic ideology” (TT 33) of masturbation, if only by Ricco’s excessive, and perhaps symptomatic, effort to emphasize the “collective multiplicity” (11) of jack-off rooms. Indeed, it is precisely the “power to isolate individuals from political life” (TT 33)—i.e., from a certain “relationality”—that epitomizes, for Bersani, the insidious “legitimacy” offered to gays by (prescribed) masturbation “during the early years of AIDS”:


During the early years of AIDS, we were repeatedly told that the best and safest protection against dangerous relations with others is to renounce intimate relations with them and to practice abstinence. And if abstinence must allow for some sexual practice, that practice will of course be masturbation—that is, sexual self-love. Thus gays were once again marginalized, this time with apparent scientific authorization, in order both to save us from a world that had become dangerous for us, and to save the world from the danger we embodied, a perennial danger that had now become biologically detectable in our bodies . . . . [I]n obeying the now medically authorized homophobic goal of removing us from sexuality (and especially nonmonogamous sexuality), the social order granted us a new kind of legitimacy: one earned by our acceptance of a masturbatory retreat . . . . (Bersani, TT 33-34; emphasis added)


Seemingly far from Ricco’s “jack-off room-as-minor-architecture,” it is the isolated, germ-free pod of Wrenwood—the dystopian retreat of Todd Haynes’ film Safe (1995)—which, for Bersani, best embodies this “banishment from the relational field of intimacy that a homophobic culture was able to present as a hygienic imperative” (TT 34) via the solipsistic practice of masturbation (“self-love”).

So, how to reconcile this (dystopian) “masturbatory retreat” (the isolated, germ-free pod) with Ricco’s (utopian) account of the “jack-off room-as-minor-architecture” in which “all bodily senses are activated” and distinctions between self/other, inside/outside, are subsumed by “a collectivizing network of multiple desires, bodies, practices and durations” (4)? One way, as I’ve suggested above, is through the phobic figure of the (apparently) isolated, idiotic “masturbator,” or what Beatriz Preciado calls “the hypothesis of the brainless masturbator” (Figs. 6 & 7).[g]



Fig. 6: Film Still. Her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013).



Fig. 7: Film Still. Lars and the Real Girl (dir. Craig Gillespie, 2007).


As depicted in two recent films—Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), in which an awkward loner (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with a computer, and Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl (2007), in which an awkward loner (Ryan Gosling) falls in love with a sex doll—the infantilized figure of the “masturbator,” here, foregrounds yet another meaning of the word minor in “minor architecture,” beyond Ricco’s Deleuzeo-Guattarian lexicon, namely: “a person under the age of full legal responsibility.” A “minor architecture” in this sense, then, would highlight what Michel Foucault calls—in his reading of the 18th-century anti-masturbation “children’s crusade”—a “new physics of the family space,” centered precisely on the body of the minor.[h] Here, as Foucault states:


The family space must be a space of continual surveillance. Children must be watched over when they are washing, going to bed, getting up, and while they sleep. Parents must keep a lookout all around their children, over their clothes and bodies. The child’s body must the object of their permanent attention. This is the adult’s primary concern. Parents must read their child’s body like a blazon or as the field of possible signs of masturbation. If the child has a pale complexion, if his face is wan, if his eyelids are bluish or purplish, if he has a certain languid look and has a tired or listless air about him when he leaves his bed, the reason is clear: masturbation. (A 245-246; emphasis added)


In this “minor architecture,” so to speak, the issue is not the “repression” of masturbation, as Foucault notes, but its responsibilization in the hand of the minor (“minor” here, once again, defined as “a person under the age of full legal responsibility”). Thus:


The question: “What have you done with your hand?” begins to replace the old question: “What have you done with your body?” From another angle, at the same time as the patient’s responsibility for his illness moves from diet in general to masturbation in particular, sexual responsibility, which in eighteenth-century medicine was only recognized and assigned in cases of venereal diseases, is now extended to every illness. The discovery of autoeroticism and the attribution of pathological responsibility interpenetrate in an autopathologization. In short, childhood is assigned pathological responsibility . . . . (Foucault, A 242)


But what happens to this “minor architecture”—this space of responsiblization—in an age of ubiquitous, handheld digital devices and free, online “pornography” in which anywhere, or everywhere, becomes a potential “jack-off room”? Here, I think, is the second reason for re-publishing Ricco’s essay in Keep It Dirty, vol. a., “Filth,” although we would have to read Ricco against himself in order to follow this thread. After all, in addition to a certain naïve, humanist technophobia—in which Ricco claims that jack-off rooms allow you to “link up with other bodies in an immediate, embodied way, free of the mediating and disembodying technologies of the phone lines” (11)—the basic tendency of “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture” is not to generalize jack-off rooms, but to differentiate them from “sex clubs,” a term which, as Ricco says, “homogenizes the differences between stripper bars, hetero-swinger clubs, jack-off rooms, porn shops, etc.” (7). And while one understands this strategy in 1993, today I wonder if the fight against so-called “digital pollution” (free, ubiquitous online “porn”), as Susanna Paasonen has noted, demands a generalization of the “jack-off room,” since, as Paasonen notes, this fight is “emblematic of the affective dynamics, anxieties, and values attached to porn, masturbation, and solitary sexual arousal.”[j] She goes on:


Although porn is also watched socially (in clubs, cinemas, and homo-social parties and together with partners), porn consumption is primarily a solitary activity aiming at sexual arousal that involves masturbation [ . . . ] Whereas the rational modern subject is in control of himself and his emotions, the masturbator turns inward and dwells in sexual arousal and pleasure, knowing no restraint or moderation. The masturbator requires no partner since his own imagination suffices to coin forever new figures of fantasy. These are practices with no “redeeming” social function. (CR 218)


If this phobic figure of the (apparently) isolated, idiotic “masturbator” continues to structure notions of “the lamented Internet porn addicts of today” (CR 218), as Paasonen suggests,[k] the fight against “digital pollution”—or what we might call the generalized jack-off room—is really a fight against non-procreative, unemployed negativity, i.e., a kind of inhuman suicide.[l] Perhaps the question, then, as Lee Edelman notes in “Unbecoming: Pornography and the Queer Event” (2009), is this:


Rather than object to the moralizing assaults on pornography’s dehumanizing tendencies, mightn’t we insist on the truth event of a queer dehumanization? By appropriating, not without violence, Badiou’s understanding of a truth event, I mean to claim that pornography, to the extent that it’s faithful to the porneme, to the anti-social transgression that properly motivates the genre, attests to what we’re always unable to cognize or to recognize: the end of the era of the human.[m]


A Note on the Text


This re-publication of John Paul Ricco’s “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture” includes many of the “advertisements” that originally accompanied it on the pages of Steam: A Quarterly Journal for Men in 1993. Since Ricco himself has reflected on the importance of certain (non-academic, non-peer-reviewed) ’zines, like Steam, Holy Titclamps, and Diseased Pariah News, for an early articulation of “queer sex space theory” (L 147), it seemed appropriate to include some scanned reproductions of these “advertisements,” along with Ricco’s own D.I.Y. collage (Fig. 2), consisting of cut-up texts and images from promotional materials disseminated by bars and clubs in NYC around 1992.



[i] For instance, the collection of essays, Sexuality & Space, edited by Beatriz Colomina, and published by Princeton Architectural Press had just come out. Colomina was on the Architecture faculty, where she continues to teach to this day.

[ii] Douglas Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” October 43 (Winter 1987). John Wagenhauser, “Safe Sex without Condoms,” in Flesh and the Word: An Anthology of Erotic Writing (New York: Plume, 1992).

[iii] Leo Bersani, Thoughts and Things (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 33.

[iv] For more on “queer sex space theory,” including a theorization of cruising and anonymous sex and contemporary art and architecture, see The Logic of the Lure (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[v] Gilles Deleuze, “Statements and Profiles,” trans. Keith W. Faulkner, Angelaki 8.3 (2003): 85-93.

[vi] Mosaic, one of the first graphical web browsers, was released in 1993, with Netscape developed out of it and launched in December 1994. The latter caused an explosion in the popularity of the Internet in the access that it provided to the “world wide web.” Yet in 1992, the largest microprocessors for computers were 64-bit, and those wouldn’t be installed in any commercial brand computer system until 1995.

[vii] Bruce Benderson, Sex and Isolation (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007). Samuel Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

[viii] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[ix] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[x] For more on “unbecoming figures,” see the essays collected in the issue of the journal Parallax that I edited on the conceptual theme of “unbecoming:” Parallax, issue 35, April-June 2005. For more on “unbecoming community,” see my book, The Decision Between Us: art and ethics in the time of scenes (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[xi] John Paul Ricco, “The Art of the Consummate Cruise and the Essential Risk of the Common,” Feedback, Open Humanities Press, February 2016: http://openhumanitiespress.org/feedback/sexualities/the-consummate-cruise-1/ and http://openhumanitiespress.org/feedback/sexualities/the-consummate-cruise-2/

[1] [On the “posterior” (“behind”) in relation to figurations of sodomy (anal sex and the anus)—whose “preposterous” structure “dislocates such spatio-temporal ‘situations’ as ‘pre’ and ‘post,’ before and behind”—, see Lee Edelman, “Seeing Things: Representation, the Scene of Surveillance, and the Spectacle of Gay Male Sex,” in Inside / Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (New York: Routledge, 1991), 113. On the question of “taking one’s dick in one’s hand in the presence of other men similarly engaged”—in what we might call the major(ity) architecture of the “public restroom”—, see Lee Edelman, “Men’s Room,” in Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, ed. Joel Sanders (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 154. —Ed.]

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 18.

[3] David Wojnarowicz, “Losing the Form in Darkness,” in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage, 1991), 9.

[4] John Wagenhauser, “Safe Sex Without Condoms,” in Flesh & the Word, ed. John Preston (New York: Plume, 1992), 272-281.

[5] [See, for example, Michel Foucault, “Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity” (1982), in Foucault Live: Interviews, 1961-1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer [New York: Semiotext(e), 1989], 385. —Ed.]

[6] John Wagenhauser, “Safe Sex Without Condoms,” 279-280.

[7] These words, sampled here and regularly by DJs at New York clubs, Fall ’92, herald the more nonhierarchical, democratic door policies of the bars and clubs sponsoring parties with jack-off rooms. (Recorded in L’il Louis’ track “Club Lonely.”)

[8] Mireya Navarro, “In the Age of AIDS, Sex Clubs Proliferate Again,” The New York Times, Friday, 5 March 1993, sec B, pp. 1, 5.

[9] Homo Xtra, vol. 3, no. 9, March 3, 1993.

[10] Douglas Crimp, “How to have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas Crimp (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 237-270. Italics original; underlining mine.

[11] Linda Singer, Erotic Welfare: Sexual Theory and Politics in the Age of Epidemic (London: Routledge, 1993), 58.

[12] Robin Hardy, “A Backroom of One’s Own,” Village Voice, June 3-9, 1992: 16.

[a] Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham UP, 2008), 128-129.

[b] John Paul Ricco, The Logic of the Lure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), xxiii. Hereafter cited in the text as L.

[c] In The Logic of the Lure, Ricco singles out the anti-public-sex journalists Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorile who, in 1995, established the Gay and Lesbian HIV Prevention Activists (GALPHA), which “set out to shut down spaces of anonymous, promiscuous sex” (L 144). Although it could be argued that the discursive practices of “queer theory”—including early articulations of “queer space”—emerged largely in response to this gay neoconservative journalism of the mid-1990s, Ricco, on the contrary, has insisted that a certain “queer sex space theory” already existed as early as 1992, albeit in non-academic (and thus often overlooked) ’zines like Steam, Holy Titclamps, and Diseased Pariah News (L 147).

[d] Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 91

[e] Leo Bersani, Thoughts and Things (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 33. Hereafter cited in the text as TT. See particularly chapter two, “Illegitimacy,” 15-36. See also Christian Hite, “(Re)Treating Master-bation: Leo Bersani’s Thoughts and Things,” Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy 22 (2015): 118- 125. Available online: http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia22/parrhesia22_hite.pdf

[f] On the notion of “counter-memory,” see Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” [1971], trans. Donald Bouchard and Sherry Simon, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald Bouchard (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 139-164.

[g] See Beatriz Preciado, “The Architecture of Porn: Museum Walls, Urban Detritus and Stag Rooms for Porn-Prosthetic Eyes,” in Post/Porn/Politics, ed. Tim Stüttgen (Berlin: b_books, 2009), 25.

[h] Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2003), 245. Hereafter cited in the text as A.

[j] See Susanna Paasonen, Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 2 & 217. Hereafter cited in the text as CR.

[k] Paasonen links this figure of the “Internet porn addict” to the stigmatized figure of the “rain-coated tosser” (the old men who masturbated under the cover of their raincoats in porn theaters). A more recent iteration of this figure could include, I think, those (men) banned from public libraries due to masturbating to Internet porn within the research cubicle. http://www.irishmirror.ie/news/weird-news/man-caughtmasturbating-public-library-3653723

[l] Here I perhaps depart from Ricco, who writes in The Logic of the Lure, “one must be cautious not to turn the pleasure of losing oneself into suicidal self-destruction” (L 82).

[m] Lee Edelman, “Unbecoming: Pornography and the Queer Event,” in Post/Porn/ Politics, ed. Tim Stüttgen (Berlin: b_books, 2009), 201. Emphasis added.






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