Masturbation is an activity that most partake in, but one that remains a taboo topic. It’s a rare occurrence that someone casually opens up about how often they masturbate, when they masturbate, and where. Unless, of course, you find yourself at a Masturbate-a-thon or happen to live in a community with oodles of sex-positive people who discuss masturbation on the regular. But most people don’t. The details are kept secret for multiple reasons, which Director Nicholas Tana investigates and shares in his documentary Sticky: A Self-Love Story. Tana has spent the past nine years investigating the history and current perceptions of masturbation and the complex relationship society has with an activity that a lot of people do as often (or perhaps more often) as they brush their teeth.
Much is revealed in Tana’s doc, such as the real reason we started eating Kellogg’s corn flakes and Graham crackers, the devastating effects of being taunted for masturbation, the U.S.’s stunted stance toward sex education, and theories as to why people were so upset at Paul Reubens masturbating in a adult theater. To get to the root of masturbation, Tana interviewed former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, adult entertainer Nina Hartley, sexologist Dr. Carol Queen, sex educator and author Betty Dodson, and Janeane Garofalo, to name a few.
I met with Tana to talk about how his nine years of masturbation research began and his hopes for starting a discourse that could change the way we feel about pleasuring ourselves.
I’ve been working on a documentary about pubic hair and some of our sources overlap, like Carol Queen and Nina Hartley, so I was excited to see your film. I’m wondering where the idea started for you to make a documentary about masturbation?
To be honest, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine and we were just thinking of fun mockumentary ideas. And a documentary on masturbation somehow came up. [Laughs.] And this was many years ago, this was back in 2006 or 2007. It wasn’t until I was at the Sedona Film Festival when I had an opportunity to meet with a development exec for ThinkFilm, which at the time was a distributor doing a lot of edgy documentaries. They did Zoo, they released Murderball, and the person there was being pitched ideas like octogenarians doing yoga and Indian quilt making. His eyes were glossing over the whole time and he’s like, “Wait, stop. Guys, you have to know about what we do and what we release. We like edgy topics that really haven’t been done before with a little bit of a taboo element. That’s what we are.” And so I recalled the documentary on masturbation idea and I pitched him. And he’s like, “Now that’s something we’d be interested in.”
Afterwards I started doing a lot more research and there was nothing mockumentary about it. I realized that I had touched upon — no pun intended — a potential to mine this relationship we have with ourselves and with sex in general throughout history. For many people masturbation is the first sexual experience we have so how we feel about it, how we grow to experience it, it’s the first time we actually get to know ourselves as sexual beings. It’s this huge thing yet we have this love/hate with it. Throughout history it’s been called “self love,” “self pollution.” I thought, wow, this would be a great documentary.
When you told people who were not involved with the documentary what you were working on, did you find that they would have an uneasy reaction? Did they laugh or feel uncomfortable?
Both. I think they would laugh uncomfortably. I think it’s a vulnerable subject and, as such, people use humor to debunk that vulnerability. I think that’s why it was so funny and, especially the younger you are, you hear the masturbation jokes and I think that’s all because it makes us uncomfortable. We use humor in a way to combat that uncomfortable feeling. I’d get different reactions and they were always extreme. Most people would laugh. It made them awkward. It was the extreme ice breaker. [Laughs.]