“Why is something almost everybody does so hard to talk about?”
That’s the guiding question that director Nicholas Tana explores in Sticky: A (Self) Love Story, a new documentary on masturbation, coming Feb. 1, pun intended.
For nearly a decade, Tana interviewed everyone who would talk to him on camera about masturbation, eventually assembling a motley crew of experts and commentators including former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders, comedian Janeane Garofalo, porn star Nina Hartley, and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. It’s a weird, multi-faceted, sometimes messy investigation of one of the most universal but unspoken aspects of human experience: getting yourself off.
Even based on unreliable self-reporting, it’s clear that most people masturbate or have masturbated in the past. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, 68 percent of men and 51 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29 said they had masturbated in the last month. Given the taboos around self-pleasure, it’s quite possible that even these are low-ball figures.
But in the sexually hypocritical United States, if you try to talk about masturbating or, worse, get caught doing it, the consequences can be a lot worse than hairy palms.
Sticky explores this point through two case studies: the 1991 arrest of Pee-wee Herman star Paul Reubens for allegedly masturbating in an adult film theater in Sarasota, Florida, and Bill Clinton’s 1994 firing of Joycelyn Elders, the first African American Surgeon General, who suggested in front of a United Nations AIDS conference that masturbation could be included in sex education programs.
“In regard to masturbation, I think that is something that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it is a part of something that perhaps should be taught,” Elders said in response to a question about whether or not the practice could reduce the rate of STIs.
The White House Chief of Staff said that this was “one too many” areas of disagreement she had with the president. Over two decades later, Elders shakes her head at the persistently high rates of unintended pregnancy in the United States and wishes more had changed since her abrupt dismissal.
“We in America can’t talk about sex,” she tells Tana in Sticky. “We can do it. But we can’t talk about it.”
When people do talk about masturbation—as they do for all of Sticky’s hour-long runtime—it becomes clear how thoroughly it has become intertwined with American commerce and culture.
From Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” to Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” to the Pussycat Dolls’ “I Don’t Need a Man,” the pleasures of autoeroticism seem to have found an outlet in music that they have been denied elsewhere. As Sticky points out, film depictions of masturbation from The Exorcist to American Beauty have traditionally been negative.
Media representation aside, it is widely known but rarely acknowledged that there is big money in masturbation. Online pornography and sex toys are both billion-dollar industries, as Larry Flynt well knows. The solitary behavior driving the growth of that economy is not exactly a secret.
“Some guy walked up to me but when I autographed his book he stuck out his hand to me and said, ‘Mr. Flynt, I just want to thank you for helping me make it through puberty,’” the porn publisher recalls with amusement in Sticky. “What he’s really telling me is he spent a lot of time jerking off to Hustler over the years.”
In addition to these broader strokes, the documentary also takes a deep dive into the finer points of masturbation trivia. If you didn’t know that the modern-day vibrator was developed out of steam-powered machines used to treat hysteria or that many religions regard masturbation as sinful because of an obscure Old Testament story about a man who used the “pull out method” while having sex with his late brother’s wife, Sticky’s got you covered.
But the real joy of Sticky is the giddy, almost adolescent novelty of hearing adults discuss a topic that continues to be taboo well into the 21st century. For a subject that is, as Tana observes, “so hard to talk about,” it is never a dull one.
Sticky: A (Self) Love Story will be released on DVD and VOD Feb. 1, 2016.