'Sticky,' a new documentary about masturbation, explores the stigma surrounding self-love

            
    

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Almost all of us do it. Most of us won't talk about it.

It might not be something we talk about often, but most of us masturbate. Planned Parenthood estimates that approximately 70 percent of adult men and 50 percent of adult women masturbate and that such habits often begin during childhood. Masturbation is even healthy for you; it can improve your sex drive and decrease your risk of cancer.

Why, then, do we continue to feel so much shame about this common, healthy activity?

Filmmaker Nicholas Tana strives to answer this question in his new documentary Sticky: A (Self) Love Story, which released on Tuesday. Tana interviewed everyone from comedians to clergy members to sex educators to former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders in an effort to better understand masturbation (or "self-love," as Tana prefers to call it) and the mix of shame and fascination we feel when the topic is addressed.

Sticky: A (Self) Love Story

Unsurprisingly, the best place to watch Sticky right now is on the Internet. The film is available for rental and purchase on Vimeo, and in a phone interview, Tana told the Daily Dot that he has struggled to find a home for the controversial documentary via traditional distribution outlets. "The person from CNN said to our distributor that if they were to put this out there, they would have to resign," Tana explained. This discomfort is at the heart of Sticky, and it is even conveyed in the title—meaning, it's a sticky subject. 

The filmmaker believes that sticky subject needs to be destigmatized more—both as a culture and for each of us personally. "I don’t think [masturbation] is all healthy or all unhealthy," said Tana. "I think it’s somewhere in the middle. And I think through discussion and dialogue and asking questions and not feeling ashamed, we're going to all come to our own personal truth."

For Tana, masturbation is particularly healthy when it is rooted in personal fantasy. Indeed, fantasies are extremely common—in 2001, the Journal of Sex Research found that 98 percent of men and 80 percent of women have sexually fantasied about a person other than their partner at some point in their lives. Such fantasies can be liberating, and they are also safe; just because you think about your friend's girlfriend, Jason from accounts payable, or Ruby Rose when you touch yourself doesn’t mean you'll ever act on those thoughts.

Of course, Sticky also addresses pornography and virtual reality (VR) simulations. "Probably today more than ever, masturbation's rampant in terms of the Internet and technology," graphic novelist Joe Matt states in the film. "How many guys are jerking off in front of their computers right now as we speak?" Matt knows what he’s talking about, and he doesn’t necessarily see the increased accessibility of porn in a positive light: he’s the author of Peepshow, a graphic novel that addresses his own history with porn addiction in great depth.

Addiction as a real concern for when pornography replaces imagination, Tana agrees. He fears that when fantasy becomes tangible, via porn or VR, the line between healthy masturbation and unhealthy addictions or sexual dysfunctions can become incredibly blurred.

"There’s a big question as to whether pornography leads to addictive behaviors, or whether it leads to relationship problems, and whether masturbation plays into all of that," he told the Daily Dot. "I don’t think there's anything wrong with pornography if there’s discussion and a realistic expectation around it, but at the same time, I do believe, like anything else, there's a lot off misinformation." (Take, for instance, this blog post which suggests masturbation causes weight gain around the hips in women, promotes laziness, and leads to an early death.)  

Rampant misinformation is one reason why Tana is skeptical that the Internet bettering our understanding and acceptance of masturbation. "If you have the ability to discern what is true from what is not true [about sexual health], and you do the work, then I think, awesome, you’ve got a lot of information out there," he explained. "But if you can’t, and you wind up being confused, then I think you’re in trouble." 

Misinformation is only part of the trouble. Resources like OMGYes, an online educational resource about female sexual pleasure, do exist to provide accurate data and decrease shame—like, say, religious judgment. Yet there are plenty of other ways in which the social media in particular has only added to the discomfort that many feel about masturbation.

Tana;s exploration of shame in Sticky culminates toward the end of the film, when he explores the story of Matthew Burdette. Burdette was only 14 when a video of him allegedly masturbating in a school bathroom surfaced on Vine and Snapchat. He was bullied mercilessly at school and online as a result of the video, and two weeks later, he committed suicide.

Tana was in touch with the San Diego news team that initially broke the Burdette story, but they were ultimately unable to collaborate on Sticky. He noted that some of news coverage about Burdette’s death avoided referencing the masturbation entirely, calling the video "embarrassing." Tana believes that the relative silence regarding the role that masturbation stigma played in Burdette's death is part of a vicious cycle that led to his bullying in the first place.

"I think cyberbullying is a reduction of the situation," he said, continuing:

"The only reason cyberbullying works is because the bully has something to bully you about, right? For cyberbullying to work in the case of masturbation, one would have to feel shameful about masturbation. ... [I]f we still carry these old ideas of what we should be like then the pressure is enormous. And unless we end the shame, cyberbullying will continue to happen."

Sticky does not reach any firm conclusions about how to completely remove the shame surrounding masturbation, but it does its part by facilitating a critical conversation. The Internet may not always aid in demystifying our sex lives (and sex drives), but with resources like Sticky readily available, opportunities for sex-positive education and personal growth may be more plentiful than ever.

Sticky is currently available on DVD and Video On Demand. And look for it in a theater near you this May—just in time for International Masturbation Month.

Illustration via Max Fleishman 

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