‘I Touch Myself’: An Intimate History Of Songs About Masturbation

It was 25 years ago that Australia’s Divinyls released their tongue-in-cheek classic single “I Touch Myself,” one of the most famous and least subtle songs about self-love. It’s been used countless times in media and played even more behind the locked doors of many a listener. We owe so much to these brave Aussies, particularly fearless frontwoman Chrissy Amphlett who sadly passed away in 2013. But while that song is certainly stark in its imagery, it’s not the only song to discuss the topic. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the more famous pop songs to focus on the subject of masturbation. Note: This is far from a complete list, because if we mentioned every song to broach this topic, we’d be here all day. And I’m guessing some us have better things to do…

The Who – “Pictures of Lily”

By the time this song came out in 1968, The Who had already explored sexually suggestive themes on tracks like “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” and their first rock opera, “A Quick One While He’s Away.” This track, from Magic Bus  however, was their first song to explore the theme of self-exploration. The song tells the story of a young man who has many sleepless nights, and finds the cure when his father gives him several pictures of a woman named Lily. It’s not hard to figure out where things are headed here. The song has a sad twist when our protagonist finds out that Lily has actually been dead since 1929. Oh well, at least he’ll still have the pictures.

Billy Joel – “Captain Jack”

For those who dismiss Billy Joel as uncool offhand, this song is a major reason to give him a bit more consideration, as it’s one of the most harsh character studies you’ll ever hear. The song focuses on a lonely young man who escapes into alcoholism to avoid confronting his isolation (the “Jack” of the title refers to Jack Daniel’s), and the point is really driven home with the line “your sister’s gone/she’s on a date/and you just sit home and masturbate.” While many songs celebrate the activity, this one presents it as a hopeless act of desperation.

The Vapors – “Turning Japanese”

“I want a doctor/to take your picture/so I can look at you from inside, as well.” Well, then. Yeah, The Vapors don’t really mince words on this new wave classic that would prove to be their lone hit. The song tells the story of a lonely man who needs an outlet for his sexual frustrations, and thus, is no longer master of is domain. What’s really stark about this one, however, is the title, which refers to the face a man makes while climaxing. Seriously. Read the title of this song again, and then think about that. Yeah, this song would’ve gotten ripped to shreds in the thinkpiece era. As it stands, it’s fun little relic of a time when the word “problematic” wasn’t so omnipresent in our culture.

Cyndi Lauper – “She-Bop”

Hey, what do you think she meant by “girls just want to have fun?” The lyrics might have gone over some people’s heads when it was released, but in retrospect, it’s not hard to figure out what she’s talking about when she tells us she wants to “go south and get me some more.” If that weren’t enough, she also references the myth that doing it too much will make you go blind. The suggestive nature of this song is actually what led to the creation of the infamous “parental advisory” sticker. Although this next song probably played a role in that, as well…

Prince – “Darling Nikki”

Remember the PMRC? Thirty years ago, they were the group of uptight ladies who probably inspired Helen Lovejoy’s catchphrase, “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!” Well, while these people weren’t thrilled about metal or Frank Zappa, their main target was this naughty little number by Prince, which topped their “Filthy 15,” which represented the songs they hated the most. It’s easy to see why, as Prince sings about a young woman “masturbating with a magazine,” but if you were familiar with Prince up to that point, it couldn’t have been a huge shocker, because he had already given us extremely suggestive classics like “Head” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” What changed? With the success of Purple Rain, he was now a superstar, so he faced far more scrutiny now that he was in the public eye. It probably didn’t bother him, however, as the objections of the PMRC didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most influential musicians of the 1980s.

Radiohead – “Thinking About You”

In this underrated deep cut from Pablo Honey, Thom Yorke is remarkably honest about how he’s getting over a tough breakup. Yorke sings about his ex-girlfriend hanging out with a new group of friends while he’s at home “playing with himself.” On later releases, Yorke’s lyrics would get a tad more sophisticated, but this one gets some serious points for honesty. While plenty of songs celebrate the positive aspects of the activity, this one, like “Captain Jack,” reminds us that at times, it can be a joyless act.

The Dresden Dolls – “Coin-Operated Boy”

In which Amanda Palmer gives us the most memorable ode to vibrators of all-time. With lyrics like “made of plastic and elastic/he is rugged and long lasting,” this song gets right to the point. The song has gone on to become one of the Dolls’ most famous tunes, and justifiably so. With that said, one can only imagine how Palmer’s husband, author Neil Gaiman, feels about it.

Hailee Steinfeld – “Love Myself”

In case you were wondering what Steinfeld meant when she sang “pictures in my mind on replay/I’m gonna touch the pain away,” yes, this song is about exactly what you think it is. “Love Myself” is sung from the point of view of a woman who is lonely without her lover, but comes up with…shall we say a D.I.Y. solution? It’s a bit surprising that she even had to address this, considering how blunt the lyrics are. Maybe people were just surprised that the girl from True Grit had grown up, and was singing about some rather stark topics.