Director Nicholas Tana Breaks Down The Taboos Of Masturbation In ‘Sticky: A Self Love Story’

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.]

Why did you decide to include yourself in the documentary?

I was skirting around putting myself in it. Part of that had to do with a Catholic upbringing, my own shame around it. I used to work for Disney via ESPN and I had projects I was doing, I just didn’t want to be associated as that guy, the jerk-off guy. It wasn’t until about four years into making it that I started soul-searching. The economy had changed, the idea of what docs were like, it became much more of a challenge to finish the film. I was wondering if it was worth finishing. In order to get that energy to complete it, part of that came from soul-searching and realizing, what was the motivation behind really doing this? And I realized it was a very personal reason. When I was in middle school I knowingly admitted to some other students that I had masturbated, not knowing that they would react in such a way of disgust and fear about it. I was outcast and mocked for it.

And at the same time you don’t reveal your face, so you’re in it without being seen. Was that mainly for, as you said, career purposes?

To be honest, by that point that was an intentional design. It was because the other thing I get often, especially from people in Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco — cities in general tend to be more liberal in general when it comes to sexuality. And often the people that live there, especially people interested in this documentary, they’re more sex positive or comfortable talking about it. And as such they forget about the vast majority of the world that isn’t. And it’s easy to go in your own mental conceit and think, oh, that’s how everyone thinks. But then you interview a teacher in the Midwest and she tells me how a fifth-grader comes up to her and asks her if she can get herpes while masturbating, you realize there’s misinformation out there and a lot of people are confused. This really needs to get out. It was more of a narrative device to show that it really is taboo. You may not think it but don’t discount this, this is a taboo, it very much is. And it’s not until the Matthew Burdette story, and other ones that actually deal with shame to a tragic level, that you start to realize, we can’t just discount this as something that’s a joke. We really need to communicate this information.

When you’re so involved in a topic it becomes very normal, did you find that to be true for most of the people you interviewed? Do they forget that they are living in a bubble?

Absolutely. When I’m doing an interview and the person pulls their pants down and starts masturbating in front of me, it’s like no big deal. I’m thinking, oh wow, this is interesting. [Laughs.] As much as I love sex and sexuality on a personal level, as a creative person I think the creative residence is to create. Sexuality is how we make children, we create life through it, so I think there’s a very creative element to sex and a lot of creative people are sexual people. So I have that but at the same time I have this conservative, traditional element to me too and it’s not my world, per se. I have a traditional sense to and my limits on what’s comfortable. We actually did interviews at this thing called The Masturbate-a-thon which you’re probably aware of, it’s done in San Francisco. Dr. Carol Queen, she’s very involved with founding that. What it is is they put together an event where people masturbate in a setting and they sell tickets to enter and do it, participate. Any money they raise goes to sex education, which is great. But there were occasions where we saw things, me and my crew, where I didn’t want to see these things. I don’t want to talk negatively but at the same time I have my own sense of shame around sexuality and it’s probably cultivated from society and growing up the way I was, so it’s been an adventure in self-exploration as well as understanding how the world feels about it.

There’s a lot of interesting historical background on masturbating, like the history of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Graham crackers. In your research what did you find most surprising?

The Kellogg’s Corn Flakes/Graham cracker history was definitely fascinating. And there’s a great film I reference in the movie with clips, The Road to Wellville. [Anthony Hopkins] plays Dr. Kellogg, the gentleman who invited the cereal Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. He was a Seventh-day Adventist, I believe, and he truly was involved with nutrition and health and felt that sugars caused lust, especially with pre-pubescent boys. And to curb the lust, which would create masturbating children, he invented Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which at the time was really low in sugar so it was healthier. They could enjoy it but also they weren’t getting these lustful thoughts, thereby masturbating, thereby all the other negative health consequences of masturbating that they believed in at the time. And this was 20th century stuff, in the early 1900s, at a time in American history where you think, wow, this really happened? And what would spokespeople from Kellogg’s Corn Flakes say now?

Yeah, and what would Kellogg think of cereal now, seeing all these kids eating Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms? It’s fascinating.

And there’s so much more stuff, you wouldn’t be able to summarize it all in an interview. From the FBI study that links compulsive masturbation with serial killers and then my own belief that it’s not just a coincidence that Paul Reubens happened to be arrested four days after they discovered Jeffrey Dahmer.

That’s was an interesting connection.

It’s never been touched on, as far as I know. I think that after discovering that Dahmer’s first offense was masturbating in a public place — I think it was near a carnival or circus in town — I think they were like, “Wow, okay,” and with this FBI study you could stop people before it gets too late. And then four days later, Paul Reubens in a theater where they actually masturbate, tend to masturbate because it’s a porn theater. And usually people look the other way about it because it’s an agreed upon thing. They bust in, arrest him, and then pull all the sponsorships and everything.

You interviewed a great deal of people for this film. Who have you kept in touch with and what connections have meant the most to you?

Nina Hartley, who is an icon, someone who was a nurse, became a porn star, became a health educator, she’s very intelligent. She was, I believe, raised Buddhist as well so she has interesting philosophical ideas on life. I wound up reading her book and then later casting her in another movie I’ll be finishing this year, Hell’s Kitty, comedy horror. It was cool to connect with someone I hope will have an ongoing working relationship with.

She was great to meet, so nice and smart.

She is and that’s a really good thing because I think there’s a misnomer, or maybe there’s too many people that are involved in pornography that because they focus on a certain aspect of who they are you don’t get the full picture. Someone like her, she’s been instrumental in voicing the other aspects of her personality and a very intelligent part of her personality, which helps to elevate, at least my image, of what a porn star is.

So this documentary does a lot of things, or changes perceptions on multiple things.

I think so. Also from a religious perspective it was interesting to talk to four representatives of four major religions. Catholicism with the priest, the imam for Islam, the Buddhist monk for Buddhism, and the rabbi for Judaism. All of them had their own take on things, slightly different. It goes to show that these major religions, which really influence our ideas around life and sex and masturbation, how much variation there is in hard felt ideas surrounding sexuality. Half of them say it’s a sin, half says it’s not. And those that say it’s a sin, amongst the two, I was surprised to find that the Imam was actually more liberal than the priest. Whereas the priest, and this might have been the priest I was speaking to, he could have been more old school, but he was emphatic about there’s no if, ands, or buts. A sins a sins a sin.

I loved the inclusion of the religious perspective. I was raised Jewish, but we definitely didn’t talk about masturbation in Hebrew school. So I was happy to hear the rabbi’s perspective. Did you talk to people on an asexual bent or how normal it is also not to masturbate?

I don’t know about people who claim to be asexual as much, I think they don’t necessarily want to do an interview about masturbation. Or at least the one’s I’ve met. But as far as people who believe in channeling one’s sexuality and maybe by masturbating they’re not accomplishing things in life or they’re losing their inner essence. We did interview people like the chi expert, who says that you’re actually lowering your chi. You’re lowering your energy levels and it’s unhealthy. We talked to a medical doctor who also spoke to that a little bit, and we also spoke to the founder of NoFap and there is this group of people, tends to be men and tends to be very type-A men who are analytical and very overachiever types, like your MIT guys. People that want to have a level of control over their lives and these people are abstaining from masturbation and find that, in doing so, they’re able to get a better job or they’re able to have a better relationship or be more attractive to women. As to whether it’s psychosomatic or if there’s some reality to it, I don’t know. It kind of reminds me of the Kellogg’s experiments back in the day and kind of a similar approach to sexuality.

Ideally how do you want people to respond to this film, how do you want their lives to change?

I want them to be comfortable enough to talk about this subject matter because I want education to change. Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who was, I believe she was the first black and the first female Surgeon General, she was fired from supposedly liberal president Bill Clinton. And it was at a time where he had been in trouble for sex offense with his intern, so he had a lot of pressure on him. She was this really progressive woman who talked about putting condoms in schools and it was at an AIDS conference that she suggested we should teach about masturbation in sex ed as an alternative to sex — AIDS was the big scare then — and for that she was fired. That was an extreme, tragic moment in our nation’s history when it comes to sex education, it really set us back. There was a big agenda towards abstinence only education. And as a modern nation we have more teen pregnancies and STDs than any modern nation in the world and I want that to change. I want us to be able to have education and discussions around this and be comfortable around it so that we can prevent issues in the future.

You have multiple versions of this film. I watched the uncensored version so I’m wondering how the censored version is, how it can even exist, and the challenges of putting together a censored version of this film.

What a challenge that was. We actually have three versions of the film. One is a 55-minute TV cut, we’re hoping Discovery will pick up on it and discover masturbation. And then there’s the two 72 minute versions. One is the censored cut and one is the uncensored cut and basically they’re very similar but the censored cut doesn’t show a lot of the nudity and actual masturbating. I don’t think there’s any in it and going through the censorship process with our distributor was interesting. I was like, “Look, you’re distributing a movie about masturbation and anyone that buys this is going to know what they’re getting into. How am I going to make a movie about masturbation and not have masturbating in it?” This is exactly reflective of our fear and shame around it and it was funny because we talked about the title back and forth and the distributor wanted to call it “Masturbate.” Call it what it was. I thought that was a little too generic and my big issue with that was, having been through that process for so long, when I requested interviews I often had to call it “self-love” or “self-pleasuring” or “erotic self-pleasuring.” I couldn’t call it “masturbate” because the spam filters would pick up on it and they would never get my email requests. It was crazy, such a challenge, so I had to be creative to even communicate the idea and get it out there and skirt around it. Even our technology is so reflective of our shame and how we treat a very scientific word, that is the word for it. And so this was a challenge and it made it a longer process to even get this done.

So you’re making a film about masturbation but can’t even say the word masturbation, or be careful of when you use it.

And to me that’s the world’s most popular taboo. It’s one of the last things we haven’t just called out and said, “Hey, let’s lighten up about this.” We can’t even put it out there in media. You have people doing it but you can’t even put it out there. And I feel like I want to break that down. We also talk about one of the biggest killers of kids these days is shame around sexuality, someone posts something about it or they’re at a party or the child we talk about, Matthew Burdette, who was caught allegedly masturbating in a high school stall, whether he was or wasn’t, the fact that that was what he was accused of created such isolation and shame that he wound up committing suicide on Thanksgiving night three years ago. That really stunned me and hurt when I saw that because I was hopeful that if this movie had been out sooner then maybe the dialogue would have been out there and it wouldn’t be so impactful, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

Right, and why make fun of someone for something everyone does?

Exactly. We all can empathize and identify. I think that’s the thing, with technology, where it’s moving, we tend to blur the lines between what is masturbation and what is sex. If you’re in your own room or in a room with someone else in a virtual world, what is that? The laws, and legalities, everything’s going to have to evolve and force us to come to terms with our own sexuality and, if not, there’s going to be a lot of people in some painful places and a lot more tragic. And I want to avoid that.

Do you have another mockumentary idea that you will turn into a documentary?

Moving forward I have two documentary ideas I would love to start but they’re actually not mockumentaries. They’re an offshoot of this one. I consider this a triptych on relationships. Sticky is our touchy relationship with erotic self-pleasure and ourselves. The next one is more of our relationship to others, the idea of monogamy and marriage. And then the other one I’d like to do is what we believe to be God and the soul.

Sticky: A Self-Love Story is currently available via VOD and DVD.