Keep Both Hands on the Newspaper
The first time Dana Garbo masturbated, she was six years old. She hid under a lace-covered table at her grandmother's house, touched herself, loved the feeling but felt bad about herself. Her mother and grandmother told her to take it upstairs. The last time she did it, the 37-year-old corporate lawyer and divorced mother of two had a "quickie" that involved "a whole bunch of things," but focused primarily on delicious thoughts of Ewan McGregor.
The first time Eric Snyder masturbated, he was in grade school. He rubbed himself on a post during recess, dug the feeling but felt bad about himself. He stopped before the other kids caught him. The last time he did it, the 37-year-old office administrator for two attorneys and nonprofit internet creator got out a copy of the "all natural" sex magazine Perfect Ten, and finished up with delicious thoughts of his wife.
Garbo and Snyder are comfortable talking about what is known to women as "defrosting the freezer," and "visiting Niagara Falls"; to men as "flogging your dumber brother," and "calling down for more mayo"; and to both genders as "auditioning the hand puppet." Their ease with all things masturbatory stems in large part from the fact that, for the past two years, the first-time filmmakers have been walking up to strangers on the street with a camera and asking, "We're making a film we're hoping to sell to HBO. Can we talk to you about masturbation? How often do you do it? What do you think about? What's the weirdest object you've ever used? What's the riskiest place you've ever done it? What was your religious upbringing?"
Funding, time, and resources permitting, the duo has plans to turn the footage into a documentary (current working title: Wank!) that they hope to finish by early next year. But beyond the intimate, funny, and truly, er, touching interviews that the filmmakers have already collected, Garbo's and Snyder's labor of self-love is no mere exercise in prurience. It's a tonic against repression that recalls the canvassing work of Alfred Kinsey in the '40s and '50s.
"I actually felt a great kinship with him when I saw the movie Kinsey," says the gentle and bookish Snyder, sitting with Garbo over a cup of coffee at Java Jack's in south Minneapolis last weekend. "I think we're living in a political and social climate where there's a great demand for truth-telling. There's this toxic Victorianism present, and a moral inversion relative to violence and sexuality. You can see murder on television on a regular basis, but lift up a woman's shirt or show genitals, and it's like you have a knife to the throat of baby Jesus."
"I know what you see in movies and pop culture," says Garbo, a mousy powerhouse whose husky voice hints at her underlying passion. "I know what you don't see in the sociopolitical discourse, and I know that we're becoming scarily right-wing in this country. I don't need to read any more about this. We need to see more frank talk about our experiences."
On some level, talking about onanism is about as frank as it gets, and the viewer of Garbo and Snyder's raw footage is instantly drawn in by the universality of the experience--no matter how "bizarre" the stories get. The team has talked to several hundred subjects, from punks to pastors, dominztrices to housewives, businessmen to artists, the lot of whom use cantaloupes, lotion, bottles, screwdrivers, dildos, and, most gratifying of all, their hands.
There's the girl who got herself off for the first time with a clicking multicolored Bic pen and the woman in her early 20s who admits to having her first orgasm a few days prior to being interviewed, thanks to an episode of Sex in the City. There's the guy who practices auto-asphyxiation, the straight women who fantasize about other women, the grinning man behind his desk who thinks about his dog, and the young woman at the music store who does it at work and has come to call it "winning."
There's the guy who would jerk off in the back seat of the family sedan while his mom was in the grocery store. The cherubic middle-aged woman who works at the coffee shop and who long used a baggy on her hand because "it's dirty and wet down there and unfamiliar." The priest who, when asked if he thinks Jesus masturbated, says, "I sure hope so."
There's the Venezuelan girl who says, "Latin girls never do it," and the Latin guy who says, "Latin girls do it all the time." The skinhead punk who says he hates doing it, but says that he does it four times a day, and "enjoys it about as much as hitting someone in the head. I just use a sock and throw it in the hamper. I do it for release, that's all. I can't stand it. It pisses me off." There's the evangelical Christian who believes it's okay for him to masturbate as long as he fantasizes about ice cream, not people.
"People do it everywhere: at work, in their car, in stores," says Garbo. "More men think about people who are attainable--a current girlfriend, or a friend, or a past lover, or a colleague. More women fantasize about superstars. We heard Johnny Depp all over the place. We've got 18 hours of interviews. We've done it weekends, 10:00 in the morning until bar closing. We've done it weekdays. The people in Uptown go from reticence to enthusiasm, immediately. We had good luck in downtown Minneapolis, too. But St. Paul was tough. Really tough."
"They just don't want to talk in St. Paul. They're all ashamed in St. Paul," cracks Snyder.
"Seriously, there was a radical departure from a willingness to participate in St. Paul," says Garbo. "We finally gave up, because it's expensive to rent the camera package, and finally we just went, 'We're not going to waste our time here.' They would just say, 'No,' and walk away. It was hard--no pun intended."
St. Paul is not alone. The doc-makers' parents aren't wild about the idea, and it remains to be seen whether they'll get the investor and technical help they need to bring Wank! to a large audience. (They can be reached at email@example.com.) No matter what, though, some day soon, screens somewhere will light up with people talking about their most private moments--because Garbo and Snyder are, as Garbo's T-shirt reads, "On a Mission."
"It was obvious that a lot of people were talking about it for the first time," Garbo says. "They would just glow when opening up, like they'd been waiting for someone to ask. It's still the last taboo. Apparently, some people still feel if they admit they masturbate, they're admitting they're a loser. I think quite the contrary. It's a rite of passage to know what pleases you, and it's empowering to know you can do it yourself.
"Besides, from a religious and anatomical standpoint, if we weren't meant to do it, we'd have shorter arms."
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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