People have a hard time with the word masturbation. Saying it out loud, discussing it with anybody, admitting they do it—all of it is feels uncomfortable or taboo, even though according to every study (and common knowledge) everybody does it. This is stranger, still, in a day where—at last—non-heteronormative identities, transgender issues, and gay rights have been widely embraced. And yet, masturbation, common to everyone, as old as the human being, and connected innately to our sexual identities, remains an outcast.
Thankfully, one man is trying to change this. Nicholas Tana—the normal person he is—has been fascinated with masturbation since he was five. Seeing the void in the conversation surrounding the topic, Tana did a brave thing and made a documentary: Sticky: A (Self) Love Story. Over the course of a decade, Tana talked to 60 experts on the topic—authors, physicians, religious figures, public officials, Larry Flynt, Janeane Garofalo (who once masturbated on film in The Truth about Cats and Dogs)—in an attempt to understand why masturbation elicits such knee-jerk, negative reactions; and, ultimately, to transform it into something seen as a healthy party of human development and—in an even deeper sense—self-actualization, self-expression, and happiness.
Tonight, Sticky will be screened at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan (in honor of what is, apparently, National Masturbation Month). And last weekend, Sticky was given its New York premiere at Syndicated, followed by a Q&A with Tana and co-producer Denise Acosta.
As soon as I got the email about a documentary screening on masturbation, my instincts told me I had never seen nor heard of anything like it before; masturbation is our collective-sexuality’s white elephant. Everyone knows everyone does it, and, equally, will not talk about it. How does Tana, at last, force the topic into the open?
Some of the film’s earliest talking heads are religious, and thereby provide the standard moral context: A Catholic priest says masturbation is a sin because it is an abuse of what “sex ought to be,” i.e., for procreation only. A Buddhist monk is far more reflective: Does masturbation bring us closer to reality, to the kind of happiness we seek? My personal favorite point of view came courtesy of a rabbi, who posits that if God didn’t want us to masturbate, he would have given us shorter arms.
In western culture, historically, we’ve been told not only is masturbation a sin, it’s dangerous. Hairy palms, madness, and blindness will result. Among women especially, masturbation has been seen as shameful—though, in the 1800s, doctor’s treated the condition known as “hysteria” by manually stimulating women’s vulvas. On one hand, then, it was medically acknowledged as healthy, and on the other, morally condemned, especially among Christian-dominated American society. In Alabama, to this day, stores that sell sex toys are outlawed. Only if the toys are deemed to have a “medical purpose” can they be bought. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, somewhere between $5 and $13 billion is spent on pornographic material every year.
While Tana recognized his fixation on masturbation early (he joyfully discovered a hole in his pants that would allow him touch his penis in school without anybody noticing), two events in 90s American media gave him abrupt pause on the subject: The very public arrest of Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-Wee Herman) in an adult movie theater when he was caught masturbating; and the dismissal of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders under Bill Clinton because she publicly promoted masturbation as healthy and normal. Elders appears in the film and says, of the time, she was not Bill Clinton’s Surgeon General, she was “the people’s Surgeon General,” and was going to do what she thought was right.
But as with any behavior that is healthy in moderation, Tana does not shy away from saying masturbation can also be done to excess. And, isolated instances that have been made public have given masturbation an especially bad rap. One of the outstanding traits among serial killers, including Jeffrey Dahmer, was public masturbation. (Perhaps not so incidentally, Paul Reubens was arrested on the heels of Jeffrey Dahmer’s trial.) Indeed, some of Tana’s experts say there is such a thing as too much masturbation—an addiction that occurs most frequently among men—but that, often, it is a symptom of an underlying depression or low self esteem. In these cases, masturbation is a shield against outward self expression and real human connection.
Outside of one 30-minute English film on masturbation—as far as Tana has been able to find—Sticky is the world’s only feature-length definitive investigation on the subject. This fact alone makes the film valuable. Beyond that, however, it is entertaining, informative, illuminating, and thorough. And further proving this is not just a novelty project for Tana, he said on Saturday that, in fact, Sticky is the first installment of a documentary triptych on love and relationships: Committed will explore “the truth behind marriage and monogamy,” and the third film (still without title) will be a “very metaphysical” look into our relationship with god and soul.
At the screening on Saturday, Tana ended the film by wondering: What is the future of masturbation? Will there be masturbatory robots who pleasure us? Maybe. But whatever the case may be, it’s new dialog brought about by films like Sticky, that—Tana concludes—makes the future look good for the future of masturbation.