It's a "touchy" subject: "Sticky: A (Self) Love Story" wants to get us talking about solo sex

Salon talks to the director of a new documentary on masturbation about sex ed, religion, shame and Pee-wee Herman

Published February 8, 2016 12:29AM (EST)

Nicholas Tana’s new documentary begins with two questions: “Do you masturbate?” And, a few moments later, “Why is something most everybody does so hard to talk about?”

The answers, as viewers of "Sticky: A (Self) Love Story" learn, are complicated.

To fully understand masturbation, you’ve got to know that “A wide array of primates ... masturbate just like humans do,” as one primatologist explains during the film. You’ve got to travel to Alabama, where the sale of sex toys has been banned since 1998. (“I’m breaking the law every day I keep my doors open,” the owner of a drive-thru store called Pleasures says.)

You’ve got to talk about watershed cultural events, like when Paul Reubens – aka Pee-wee Herman – was busted for allegedly jerkin’ it in a porn theater in 1991; or when, three years later, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders lost her job for suggesting that kids ought to be taught about masturbating.

You’ve got to wrap around the sheer size of the sex-toy business, which is expected to hit $52 billion in annual sales by 2020. You’ve got to talk to porn stars, psychologists, sociologists, magazine moguls and a rabbi who says, “If God didn’t want us to masturbate, he would have made our arms shorter.”

Tana explores it all – from the Kinsey Reports, to the Fleshlight, to that famous scene in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" – in an ambitious film that’s sure to spark giggles and flushed cheeks wherever it’s screened upon its release, this week. The writer/director/producer/narrator recently discussed the 70-minute film with Salon. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

On Facebook, the film is billed as the “World’s first feature documentary on masturbation.” What took so long?

After doing it I realized it’s because it’s the world’s most popular taboo.

When I went in, I quickly, within two weeks, shot some key footage and was able to raise like $160,000 to do the film. But then, as you go, you realize that there are so many angles you can cover, and there are so many different ways you can go. And then also there’s people that won’t do interviews. For every one person that did an interview, I had like eight people that would say no.

Why is it so taboo, still, in 2016?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do with how vulnerable and how personal it is for many people, and that it taps into people’s fantasies and their notions of self. So, you’re dealing with the ego. You’re dealing with self-worth – you know, “Is this person going to find me attractive or not?” And then, with fantasies, you can go anywhere. In one’s fantasies, you can have sex with your neighbor’s wife. It’s possible to go places that you can’t go necessarily without major repercussions in the real world. So I think that’s part of our self-censorship around the subject matter.

But it goes beyond that, too. Historically, people discouraged masturbation because it didn’t have to do with procreation. And procreation meant your tribe was bigger. And the bigger your tribe, the more likely it was you would survive. So I think it taps into a very fundamental notion of our survival.

Did you wrestle with whether to make this a humorous film?

Absolutely. That was part of the balance of tone that was very challenging. In fact, it delayed me to some extent. Because, at first, I had all these sketch comedy things I did because I felt like it needed to be funny. Because the first thing people do when I told them I was making it was laugh. And so I was like, “OK, well, clearly there’s this anticipation for this film. And clearly they expect to laugh. So, if I were to take that out of the movie, it would be bizarre and I think people would be disappointed.”

So I knew I had to run with a certain sense of humor. But at the same time, as I delved into the subject matter, I realized how sensitive and actually interesting and profound and valuable was the information I was uncovering. Especially when you start looking at the future of masturbation. When I was a kid, [with] National Geographic, taking a look at some breasts was exciting, you know? It was a challenge to see some of the things kids can now see, today, in their own rooms, with their parents having no clue. And so you’ve got to figure, in the near future, there will be orgiastic environments of these virtual-reality worlds. You think you’re going to control all of it? I doubt it. And then what is that going to do to our sexuality? And how do you protect people and protect that sense of sexuality, but in a healthy way? Where does this dialogue come from? How are our laws going to evolve to manage this? And to what extent are we blurring the line between what is sex and what is masturbation?

This is all fascinating stuff and we’re just on the cusp of it. And I think this movie, ideally, will open the dialogue for these big, important questions, moving forward.

Let’s talk about that dialogue. What is your intended effect with this film?

I want to see people talk more about it. I want to see people have fun and be entertained by it, too, without being ashamed. I want to know that, because I did a documentary like this, I can still do other projects, other movies, maybe even animation, and not be seen as, “No, there’s no way. Because this person did this doc on masturbation.”

I think we live in a society that really censors and segments people. [People] don’t realize that Shel Silverstein wrote for Playboy, but he also was a children’s book writer. And you see [in the film] the tragedy that befell Paul Reubens, who’s now just coming back, [after] over a decade, with his Pee-wee shtick, after what happened to him for getting caught in a porn theater, masturbating, which was what people did back then before the Internet was so popular. And so I want to see that shame go away.

How far do you think we are from widespread acceptance of masturbation?

Well, it depends on where you live. If you live in Los Angeles or San Francisco, [things are] maybe a little further along than if you live in Alabama, let’s say. But it really has to do with what’s inculcated from, sometimes, a moral perspective on what it means to be a sexual person. There’s always been a concept that sexuality is only … for procreation. But now there’s a big sex-positive movement out, and it has existed for quite some time. In fact, I’ve interviewed some of the key members of the sex positive movement – Betty Dodson, Carol Queen – and that’s about ending that shame around it and just accepting us as sexual beings. [The idea that] whether you want to have children or not, it’s OK to be sexual. That’s part of what life’s all about. It’s like enjoying food. Are we allowed to enjoy food? Or do we just eat it, so that we live?

“Abstinence only”… sort of [delayed] our efforts to teach children about sex. So what happens? As a modern nation, we have more STDs and teenage pregnancy than any modern nation in the world. And it was at an AIDS conference that Dr. Joycelyn Elders – the first female and black surgeon general, who’s in my film – said that we should talk about perhaps teaching kids about masturbation, as an alternative to sex. This was in a context of safe sex and she was forced to resign by a supposedly liberal president, [Bill Clinton].

The film takes an interesting look at how masturbation is depicted on TV and in films. Do you think depictions are getting any better?

I think we’re doing it more. I’m seeing it more, for sure. But I think it’s tied in with the whole popularity around shock value right now. I think we live in an information-overload society. And, as such, it takes a lot to get attention. Is there a value in most of it? That’s a question of your taste.

I do notice that every time I do see it, it’s usually couched in being a joke. It’s not necessarily taken seriously. It’s only in pornography, I think, or erotic movies where it’s taken in more of a sexual fashion. And even then … females masturbating [tends to be presented as] more erotic, in terms of mainstream media. The male is always seen as a joke.

How much of a difference do you think exists between attitudes toward male and female masturbation? Do you think they’re equally taboo?

I think it’s ever-evolving. But, in general, I think women have been suppressed sexually from a male-dominated society. And I think that’s very reflected in the Alabama law that prohibits the sale of sex toys. Yet they have the loosest gun laws, which is really interesting. Who are they protecting there? That’s the question.

I received two preview links for this film: an “explicit” version and a “censored” version. Are you releasing two versions?

Well, we’re going to start with the censored version. Because marketing and selling the film is also its own challenge. Obviously, tons of people want to see it. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of emails from people wondering when the film is going to come out. But when you’re dealing with Comcast telling a distributor that they’ll never have a movie with masturbation in its title. And then … CNN, I think, recently said something similar; they were really concerned about the subject matter.

But I’m like, “Give me a break!” We’ve got movies at Sundance about a guy with an erection who’s farting. And just [think of] the weird stuff that comes out on TV, too. Not just the weird, but extreme sexual stuff I’ve seen on Showtime and other stations. And I wonder, “Jeez, are we really that touchy about this?”

It’s so funny to me. But it’s true. For years, I’d try to email about this and I’d have to say “self-love” and come up with a different title because “masturbation” would get stuck in their spam folder.

Is this ultimately an anti-shame film?

That’s part of it, but I think that’s a reduction of what it is. I think it’s much more mammoth than that. How do we present this topic in media today? We go through that. In music today? We go through that.

I interviewed people representing four major religions of the world, from Islam, to Catholicism, to Judaism, to Buddhism. That covers a huge population. And we’re talking half of them say it’s a sin and half say it’s not. And actually it’s a little more than half say it’s a sin, when you think about the fact that there’s a distinction between the Talmud and the Torah, as to whether it’s a sin in Judaism.

So, where are we? Have we accepted the fact that something so fundamental is an actual sin? Or do we have to reevaluate our moral standards?

By Philip Eil

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter at @phileil

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Documentaries Film Masturbation Sex Sticky A (self) Love Story