Tag Archives: thumb war

Thumb War Masturbation Joke


“One, two, three, four,

I declare a thumb war.

Five, six, seven, eight,

I use this hand to masturbate.”

The joke is performed in the context of a traditional “thumb war,” in which two opponents hold hands and attempt to press down the other person’s thumb.


AD is a college student from New Jersey. He first heard this joke in middle school, around sixth or seventh grade. “It was right in the beginning of puberty,” he explained. “So nobody really knew what was going on.”

Thumb war tournaments at recess and lunchtime were already a big thing at AD’s school, and there was one boy who would perform the joke. “He was always the kid that would say that kind of stuff… Everybody was scared to say that word, but he would say it,” AD explained. “Everybody would get around him and wait for him to get somebody new. We would go up to the younger kids and do it, too.”

“If you didn’t know, you would freak out the first time you heard it.” The trick is that you are holding hands when the ‘punchline’ drops. “That’s the fun part,” AD said.

AD noted that the joke was exclusively performed among boys.

“It’s stupid now, but back then it was the funniest thing.”


AD’s joke stood out to me largely because I had never heard of it before. Another male-identifying friend of mine from California had an experience almost identical to that of AD, even from across the country. As someone who has been socially conditioned as a woman, it made me curious about the differences between boys’ and girls’ experience of the social construction of their sexuality.

It is not surprising that such a joke was popular as AD and his peers entered puberty. Jokes have a normalizing function, providing a safe space for pubescent boys to explore their sexuality.

However, the boys’ self-policing contained the joke within their gender, and I am unaware of an equivalent masturbation joke for girls at this age. I see this discrepancy as deeply reflective of the differences in the social construction of boys’ and girls’ sexuality during puberty. Masturbation is an action — an act of agency over one’s body and sexuality. That the normalization of this action is denied to girls of the same age thus denies them a form of agency over their sexuality.

In a larger context, the deficit of sexual jokes of any nature among pubescent girls may contribute to a lack of knowledge about their sexuality, and feelings of shame due to missing out on the normalizing function of such jokes. This can lead to misinformation or shame about sex and sexual development, rendering teenage girls vulnerable to sexual abuse. 

I would argue that folklore in the form of sexual jokes can function as a form of sex education and that pubescent girls may benefit from sharing this folklore amongst each other — especially with relatively harmful jokes, such as this one. (Note how AD now finds the joke “stupid.”)

Lastly I would comment on the adult policing of pubescent sexuality. It really stood out to me that only one boy was bold enough to say the word ‘masturbation’ in a public context, under the potential surveillance of teachers. Such jokes are seen as taboo and ‘dirty’ even as they can have a positive function. I am curious how the awareness of adult policing of sexuality at this age may contribute to shame surrounding sexuality for both boys and girls equally.



This piece was collected in a casual interview setting on the informant’s living room couch . My informant (CH) was born in Pasadena, CA, but grew up in a very French household, learning English as her second language. All of her education has been in American schools, but she learned how to read and write French thanks to after school lessons her mom gave her and her older sister. She is currently a Sophomore in high school and enjoys horseback riding. 

Main Piece:

Interviewer: Do you remember the Thumb-a-Wars from when we were little? Can you describe them to me?

CA: Wait, wait, let’s just do it. *both turn to sit facing each other* Ok film it from above, yeah *moves the interviewer’s hand to a good position*

Interviewer: *interview switches from voice recording to camera and they proceed to film the video*

Both: *Sing Thumb-a-War song and then play*

One, two, three, four

I declare a thumb-a-war

Five, six, seven, eight,

Try and keep your thumb straight

Interviewer: *after settling down from laughing and playing a few games. Switches back to voice recording* Ok *laughs* so where and when did you learn this.

CH: I learned it at school! In like, kindergarten and we  played it during recess. Everyone I know knows the game so even today if my friend and I are bored we can just play for funsies. 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant (CH) and interviewer.


Thumb-a-War was a very popular game when I was in elementary school. We would play it during recess or on bus rides to field trips. We would have big competitions between classmates to figure out who was the strongest boy and strongest girl in the grade, so I have a lot of very good memories of this game! Like CA said, everyone who’s around my age knows this game, so we can whip it out at any time and play if we’re bored. 

Thumb Wars


I asked the informant for a popular schoolyard game from his childhood, and this was his immediate response. Though I had played many a thumb war, his opening signature chant varied from mine.

Main Piece

Alright: thumb wars! Everyone used to do ‘em, and it starts off with the signature chant: “one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war” as you move your thumb from left to right in opposition to your opponent’s. Sometimes, I don’t know if this is a thing out here, but we had “one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war. five, six, seven, eight, you’re the thumb I really hate” um, I’m not sure if that’s a thing out here but we did that back home and then, you know, obviously you just like take your thumb and you try to push the other person’s thumb down as your hands are intertwined. It is cheating to move the elbow, um, it has to be all the thumb and yeah, the winner gets nothing, besides pride.


Thumb wars were very popular during my childhood, and so this recounting may not be the most valuable piece of lore, but I was intrigued by the variation in the classic introductory chant. While familiar with the first part — “one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war,” in my experience, it is followed by “five, six, seven, eight, try to keep your thumbs straight.” Because my informant grew up in Wisconsin, I believe it may be a regional variance.