Many of our terms of abuse are founded on body parts or activities that are not insulting to attribute literally: “You’re a prick” is abusive, “You have a penis” is not; same for “You’re a cunt” versus “You have a vagina” and “You’re an asshole” and “You have an anus”; “You shit” as an epithet is angry, but as a statement meaning “You defecate” is boringly true; “You’re a fucker” is impolite, but “Literally, you copulate” is, for most people, not unflattering, though it may be a bit personal.
On the other hand, “You wanker” may produce less of a blush than “Literally, you are a masturbator.”
You can try this at home. Take something rude and vulgar, change it to literal technical words, then do the same with an equivalent masturbation reference. Gauge the varying effects:
You dumb-ass motherfucker.
You unintelligent-posterior mother-copulator.
You dumbass motherfrigger.
You unintelligent-posterior mother-masturbator.
Are you just fucking around?
Are you just fornicating in the vicinity?
Are you just jacking off here?
Are you just masturbating here?
Go fuck yourself.
Go fornicate with yourself.
Go wank off.
Your results may vary, but I suspect that if you were to try these lines with various different people, the ones most likely to get a gasp and/or a reflexive “Fuck off!” would be the literal masturbation ones. Don’t bother giving me funding to do that as a study. I’m not going to try it on unsuspecting real people. If you do, let me know what results you got once you’re out of the hospital. But I will create a poll here on the blog:
The activity of masturbation, though exceedingly common and generally innocuous, remains an object of social opprobrium such that the Latinate technical word for it is actually more outré in many contexts than related slang terms. This is not to say that a news story would use “The suspect was seen wanking” or “…jerking off” or any of the many other synonyms that Jonathon Green has listed in his article on this blog, “Solo Artistry”; in truth, they would probably try to keep their hands clean of it entirely, or would use a wider circumlocution (“was engaged in individual sexual behaviour,” perhaps?), but if necessary they might indeed use the word masturbating. And try to keep their composure while doing so.
But consider the case of “Darling Nikki,” a song by the artist known as Prince formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince. The daughter of Al and Tipper Gore listened to it and heard the line “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine” and mentioned it to her mother, who just about shit herself. Tipper Gore is a very spunky go-getter, and Prince’s “masturbating” was the seed that led to the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” labels. Not the song “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper, which is also about masturbation. Not any of the many songs popular then (and before and after) that mention sex using colloquial or technical language. Not any song that uses slang words referring to self-pleasure such as tosser or wanker. Nope. The word that blew it for everyone was masturbating.
Part of this is that masturbate does not have a truly vulgar synonym. Copulate has fuck, defecate has shit, vagina has cunt, anus has asshole; cock for penis is not quite as blue but is still quite impolite. But masturbate is the barest, most unsheathed term we have for the act. Tosser and wanker are just equivalents of dick, screw, or twat. You can use them figuratively without having to deal with the implication that someone might actually be choking the chicken or flicking the button. Clinical references to intercourse are not so blush-inducing, but clinical references to autoeroticism invoke something that is still vivid and embarrassing. We can see the potency of the literal reference by looking at the few cases where masturbation is used figuratively: mental masturbation is rude but not nearly as off-colour as a literal reference to masturbation. “I’m not going to say your paper is mental masturbation…” “Well, that’s good—” “…but I do think you were literally masturbating with one hand while you typed it with the other.” “Fuck off!”
The history of social attitudes towards masturbation clearly has much to do with this. “Solo Artistry” presents some of the evidence for what we know anyway. Fornication may have been the ultimate forbidden fruit for the repressed youth of the past (and present, for that matter, if less repressed), and it came with the threat of some very real consequences, but no one ever said it would make those who did it go blind or grow hair on their palms or whatnot. Fornication was a big shame but also a big goal; masturbation was that shameful little thing that shamefaced boys do precisely because they can’t get what they really want. (Female masturbation was not even thought of in this laddish schema.) Adolescent boys faced mockery for being caught Portnoying, even though they all did it (and still do it). And their mothers could not abide the rutting onset of sexual maturity it represented. Current culture, with its more common references to fapping and similar, and comics with multitudinous masturbation jokes, are making the sin of Onan more socially acceptable, perhaps – but still risible.
It’s hard to get a grip on the corpus data for masturbate and its related forms and synonyms versus fornicate and copulate and their related forms and synonyms, because the available panoplies of terms differ – in usage patterns (literal and figurative), in available terms for given contexts (masturbating has no synonym as plain as having sex or as coarse as fucking), and in connotations – and because there are generally more reasons to write about fucking than there are to write about jacking off (or jilling off). A detailed analysis of literal versus figurative usages (and non-referential usages, e.g., with screw) would be a thesis-level effort (and who wants to spend their academic juices on that?), and simple heaps of numbers will not tell us very much.
However, it is interesting to look at the rise and fall of a few of the terms discussed. I’ve made some Google ngrams. They’re a coarse tool, to be sure, and one that does not make any genre distinctions, so medical texts are mingled with novels and magazines and so forth, but you may find them diverting. The first compares copulate, fornicate, and have sex (and their various forms) with masturbate (and its forms) and onanism. (The OED says that masturbate took over from mastuprate in the 18th century, but the ngram starts at 1800 and gives no results at all for any form of mastuprate.)
Now for the sake of comparison let’s add fuck and its forms (ignore the apparent popularity of fuck resulting from OCR errors from early 1800s books):
Fuck really shoots up, doesn’t it? We have no equivalent profanity for masturbate. It is not sensational or desirable enough (or, on the other hand, taboo for sanitary reasons like shitting is). It seems it is doomed to remain a bit of a damp squib, missing the bonanza of sweariness. As further evidence, compare masturbator and two slangy but non-vulgar synonyms, wanker and tosser, typically used figuratively, with fucker and fornicator:
And that’s what seems to be up with masturbate. It’s caught in the middle, always a joke and an embarrassment, not desired enough or dirty enough to go full fuck – but in the end it comes out as possibly the most off-colour technical term of its set.