Getting a grip on “masturbation”

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.
Go masturbate.

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.

19 thoughts on “Getting a grip on “masturbation”

  1. John Kelly January 5, 2015 / 1:51 am

    “Fornication was a big shame but also a big goal”: I still recall a high school religion class (Morality & Social Justice, a historico-theological survey of Catholic Church policies and practices, extremely well-taught by a liberal and enlightened teacher) where we went into (and got to reject) some ass-backwards “reasonings” of Thomas Aquinas, I believe it was. The reasoning went that procreation was the goal of sex, so sex-acts that had no procreative potential were deemed more sinful than those that did not. So, masturbation, as it has no potential to impregnate and thus reproduce God’s peoples, was technical considered more sinful than rape, which at least had the potential for procreation. Jesus Christ.


    • Ray Tate May 22, 2015 / 2:52 am

      This was the exact explanation given by Prof Diarmaid MacCulloch in the recent 3-part excellent BBC2 series Sex and the Church when mentioning Thomas Aquinas & wanking.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. hanmeng January 5, 2015 / 2:02 am

    “Tipper Gore is a very spunky go-getter…” Covered in Gore. Grounds for divorce?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ray Tate May 22, 2015 / 2:59 am

      Covered in non-Gore spunk may also be grounds for divorce 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Taboo English January 5, 2015 / 2:15 am

    Love the poll, especially. I couldn’t bring myself to actually take it, however, because I’m so desensitized to profanity, I’d skew your results.


    • Darrell Duke January 6, 2015 / 1:03 am

      Nothing in the poll would even be noticed by me, let alone elicit a feeling.


  4. Adrian Morgan January 5, 2015 / 4:58 am

    My comment on “Solo Artistry” was intentionally brief, to compensate for the fact that it had more to do with the act itself, as opposed to the linguistics thereof. But I also aimed for efficiency.

    One somewhat linguistic angle is to ask what it means to paraphrase “masturbate’ as “fuck yourself” or “fornicate with yourself”. Plainly, the self during masturbation does not serve the same role as that of a partner during intercourse. A more literal paraphrase would be something like: “Fornicate BY yourself WITH a figment of your imagination USING AS PROXY whatever you can find to push against”. (The last part may need some adjustment if you’re not male.)

    It’s no mystery why people don’t say that, but what attitudes are embedded in the shorter but cruder paraphrases?

    I have more points to raise, particularly in response to the paragraph beginning “The history of social attitudes”, but once I get started I might not know when to stop…


    • Ray Tate May 22, 2015 / 3:03 am

      “A more literal paraphrase would be something like: “Fornicate BY yourself WITH a figment of your imagination USING AS PROXY whatever you can find to push against”. ” I thought this was frotteur, Adrian, which, although I take to mean generally two men rubbing cocks together does not, in my opinion, necessarily imply exclusivity in rubbing.


      • Adrian Morgan May 22, 2015 / 11:46 am

        Ray, I am not familiar with the word “frotteur”, but the featured definition in is “someone who masturbates by rubbing against another person (as in a crowd)“. I’ll take it as read that it can also mean the act of doing so. Presumably there’s also a verb form.

        Obviously that’s a specific and unusual form of masturbation. But if instead of rubbing against a person, you used a statue of a person for the same purpose, then that would obviously just be masturbation and not frotteur.

        Moreover, if instead of a statue you use some other object — such as a pillow — then that is what I regard as standard, prototypical masturbation. I’ve done it myself thousands of times. In the terms of the comment you replied to, the PROXY is the pillow and the ‘WITH’ is the fictional partner that the pillow represents in your imagination.

        I know people often talk about masturbation as involving the hand, and if that works for some people then good for them. Each to their own, etc.

        (For the record, I have misgivings about tone of your comment, which doesn’t sound like the tone of someone interested in intellectual discussion, but I’ve elected to ignore that. I’m willing to believe you don’t mean anything by it.)


  5. Iva Cheung January 5, 2015 / 6:57 am

    Wait, wait, wait—so was Nikki masturbating while holding a magazine, or was she masturbating *ahem* WITH a magazine?


  6. jskemp January 5, 2015 / 8:28 am

    Too many syllables to get a grip on, and not enough versatility. Wank (on the other hand) is much more satisfying in this regard. I’ve always enjoyed the adjectival “wank” as in “This app is fucking wank!”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alon January 5, 2015 / 2:19 pm

    @Iva: that seems to be a frequently-asked question, to which Prince has never deigned to give an answer.

    For the sake of completeness, it should be pointed out that, grammatically speaking, the predicative “masturbating with a magazine” could also be attached to “I”.

    Low attachment (i.e., to the nearer phrase) is the syntactic default, but high attachment is plausible when there is real-world knowledge favouring it. Unfortunately, I know too little about Prince’s masturbatory preferences to make a case for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sesquiotic January 5, 2015 / 2:42 pm

      There’s also the whole issue of masturbating in a hotel lobby: how one could do that at all without being ejected. Perhaps easier for a woman than for a man, but I lack real-world data.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. casmith24 January 5, 2015 / 5:05 pm

    I have friends who have had to pseudonymize themselves to use Facebook — despite Facebook’s touted “real names” policy — because their surname is a verb which is one of the euphemisms for masturbation mentioned in this interesting post. Facebook insists that this legitimate, legal, generations-old surname is an obscenity and will not permit its use. I won’t say WHICH euphemism because that would render my friends identifiable. Sort of.


  9. Chips January 6, 2015 / 5:56 pm

    This may not be relevant, but I’ve always been taken by the (presumably Australian) insults: “Go and poke yourself!” and similar, “Go and poke your hole!”


  10. Martyn Cornell January 8, 2015 / 9:06 pm

    “They’re a coarse tool”

    That’s what you end up with if you masturbate too much.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. bookwurm777 February 1, 2015 / 12:08 am

    BUILT IN DEFENSE Everybody is stroking it these days…I mean the keyboard. Long ago enough, “your a cunt” made my ears bleed. It is true today that anyone not used to hearing such strong, foul language, it’s a”shocker” to them. But as you age, your heart also toughens, so emotionally you are stronger. Now these insults merely bounce off and can not penetrate. As long as you don’t take it personal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ray Tate May 22, 2015 / 3:07 am

      Agree totally with this. No cunt should be offended by language, however the way today’s society has inured itself to gratuitous violence is a completely different matter IMHO.


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