Today we’re going to answer the question “What the fuck is a circle jerk?” so you don’t end up like Melissa Rauch’s parents.
To begin with, what’s the difference between a circle jerk and a clusterfuck?
That’s a reasonable enough question. They’re both sexual references applied more often to organizations than to orgasms. They have the same rhythm; they have rhymes or near-rhymes on the stressed syllables; they have (dare I say it) liquids—/l/ and /r/—and fricatives—/s/ and /f/—plus two /k/ sounds each, one at the end. But clusterfuck doesn’t literally refer to a potential real-world occurrence—it just replaces a literal bomb with a figurative fuck—and it’s unpleasant for everyone involved, whereas circle jerk refers to something that various texts and anecdotes assure us that some people literally do, and at least some of those directly involved in it may find it pleasant. Which is why circle jerks exist in the first place.
What, literally, is a circle jerk? All sources agree that it can refer to a circle of men, each jerking off the guy next to him. Some sources insist (sometimes vehemently) that this is the only thing it can literally refer to. Other sources allow for a circle where each member handles himself, and this seems to be what many early uses we can find in Google Books refer to (see below). This doesn’t make as good a metaphor, though in real-world mechanics it obviously requires less coordination. One thing we can say with certainty is that a situation in which numerous men jerk off onto a single person lying in the center is a bukkake, which also has great potential for use as a business metaphor but is a different thing. (I should also point out, for any unaware of this fact, that none of the above situations is what cock ring refers to.)
Can a circle jerk involve females? The expected mechanics of “jerking off” would seem to preclude it, but there’s nothing preventing an analogous female activity. A Reddit thread generated assorted ideas about what one would call such a thing; the most popular one was The View, but I don’t think it was meant literally, and of course anyone, regardless of equipment, can participate in a figurative circle jerk.
There are also deviations in what circle jerk refers to figuratively. One definition makes it a synonym of echo chamber, where people (such as your Facebook friends) reinforce each other’s opinions. Another refers to an orgy of mutual congratulations such as we see during movie and TV awards ceremonies, or an organization or social sphere wherein mutual stroking is endemic.
My background is academia, and in that sphere it can refer to scholars citing each other’s papers. This isn’t necessarily an echo chamber; they often just name-check the other authors to show they’re current with what other people have said, then go ahead and say whatever it was they were going to say anyway—some genres of scholarly writing require an entire expected section of this kind of circle-jerking, called literature review. It’s also not necessarily congratulating or saying nice things about the other authors; in fact, if you mention someone else’s work, it’s in the context of building further on their results or correcting some data or conclusion—either way, you’re doing them one better. It’s just staying current with the club, staying on topic, showing you have a grip on other members of your scholarly field.
When did circle jerk come into popular usage? According to Knowyourmeme.com, “The earliest known use of the term dates back to 1979, when the Los Angeles punk band the Bedwetters renamed their band to the Circle Jerks after one of the band members found it in a dictionary of English slang words.” Well, then, that’s not the earliest known use, is it? If it’s in a dictionary, someone’s used it already. They evidently mean the earliest known use of it in a popular culture context. Aerosmith actually recorded an instrumental track by that name in 1977, but it wasn’t released until it showed up on compilation albums later on.
A Google ngram shows circle jerk appearing at a low level in the mid-1900s and then shooting up starting in the late 1960s to mid-1970s; its use is still growing at a stiff rate. The earliest result in Google Books is a hit from 1952 in a book called The Wild Green Earth, but the excerpt displayed suggests that it does not mean the same thing. The word jerk, after all, has been around much longer, and in the early-to-mid 1900s calisthenics were sometimes called physical jerks without any apparent sense of impropriety (they were even on the program of activities at British summer resorts).
In books and magazines from 1959 onward, circle jerk shows up in literal reference, sometimes in pornographic stories, sometimes in po-faced documentary articles on the behavior of juvenile delinquents (I almost typed javelin delinquents, which would have worked in its own way). The first figurative use that shows up in the Google Books results is from May 1, 1972, in an article by Shana Alexander in New York magazine about Bella Abzug’s election campaign: “ ‘Liberal circle jerk time’ was at hand, said Joe Flaherty.”
From that time forward, graphically evocative figurative references gradually increase in frequency, and literal references also continue. It doesn’t get rubbed down to commonplace too quickly, but by the turn of the millennium the figurative use is showing up in mainstream fiction—here’s a good example from Stephen King’s Bag of Bones: “I didn’t feel like a modern fin-de-millénaire man on a spiritual quest to face his fears (I’m okay, you’re okay, let’s all have an emotional circle-jerk while William Ackerman plays softly in the background) …”
So. Circle jerk started as a very literal reference, then became a graphically evocative figurative reference, and is now tame enough to appear in mainstream fiction (but not yet the New York Times). But now that it is at least somewhat current in ordinary usage, it is also open to misconstrual, as Melissa Rauch’s parents demonstrated:
The confusion is understandable because “getting jerked around” has no current masturbatory reference—it doesn’t seem to have originated with one, either, or we wouldn’t see it used in an 1883 story in Harper’s magazine called “Eugenie’s Fête Day”: “ ‘For once,’ she said to Miss Emily, ‘they did not jerk me around when they tried a suit on me to-day, nor tell me about my bones sticking out; because, I suppose, it was to be a birthday present to a girl like me.’ ” Bones sticking out notwithstanding, she clearly was not referring to a circle jerk.