I was maybe 14 years old when a group of us girls when over to my neighbor’s home where boys were watching Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1. In the scene, a Roman soldier says to the empress, “How can ensnare you? What bait must I use to catch your love? I am your servant!” To which the empress, played by Madeline Kahn, coyly replies, “Ah, but the servant waits, while the master baits!” Was that supposed to be funny? A friend had to explain it to me, but even after I understood the reference, I was still confused.
And I am now still confused why we’re stuck with such an ugly word. We have such simple and efficient words for many other physically intimate acts: kiss, hug, snuggle, cuddle, etc. Even for the home run, we have the singularity of “SEX”—a beautiful three-letter word that both delights the ear and pleases the eye. Yet when sex is subdivided, we have the monstrosity of “masturbation”. It’s a lumbering polysyllabic word, which by the time it stumbles out of one’s mouth, the oropharynx has repeatedly contorted itself from one extreme to the other. And try as one might, no one has ever said it in a way that arouses the listener: hence the comedic intent of Madeline Kahn’s delivery.
Because of the context where I learned the word, I assumed that “master” had something to do with dominance and control. Come to find out that it’s even spelled wrong! “Mastur” looks like something a second-grader would write using a purple crayon. This nasty word likely comes from the latin mas “male” and tubari “stir-up” meaning to stir up one’s man parts. Or from manus “hand” and stupare “defile”. None of which paints a pleasant picture. It’s no wonder adults and youth both blush when discussing the word.
The servant waits, while the master baits.
Of course, there are countless slang words for masturbation, and each is designed to be either colorful, descriptive, shocking, or comical. Dr. Patti Britton, categorizes sex words into three classes: those that are technical (vagina, penis, intercourse), those that are demure (privates, we-we, flower, intimacy), and those that are vulgar (pussy, dick, screw). Some words like “sex” and “kiss” span the categories. Unfortunately, every synonym for masturbation falls firmly into one of these discrete camps. “Masturbation”: technical and clinical. “Self-touch”: non-specific and devoid of context. “Wanking”, “jerking”, and “jacking”: gender biased and pejorative.
In almost every American culture “masturbation” is has a negative connotation (think “gingivitis”), and when adults attempt to teach youth, both sides stumble around the word. In my clinical practice I have attempted to avoid the awkwardness that some people feel by using alternate phrases which may be better tolerated: “sensual self touch”, “mutually cooperative manual arousal”. Admittedly, in such cases I’m leaning toward the demure terms in order to achieve wider acceptable, but these phrase are still just tailored definitions that don’t always get the job done.
So what’s the solution? Some sexual mavens in more liberal environs fully embrace the word “masturbation” and are working to strip it of its negative undertones. Even if they are successful, it will never rise to the level of being a first-class word. My hope would be that a replacement would creep into the modern lexicon—a sweet word that is free from gender bias and morality. If we want any hope of conversing about it, we may need to find a new name. Suggestions?