Of Course It Took a Documentary about Cum to Get to the Heart of the Male Psyche

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Of Course It Took a Documentary about Cum to Get to the Heart of the Male Psyche

A few days before a documentary about cum shot onto Hulu, Esquire ran an article titled “How to Be a Better Man Right Now.” This piece assessed modern masculinity in relation to past advice dispensed by its fellow macho magazines, and came to a simple conclusion: “Guys are struggling.” Men know this already. If dudes at large couldn’t sense the cultural shift taking place around them, alpha-douches like Andrew Tate wouldn’t enjoy such intense popularity. As some parts of society slowly begin to reject the toxicity that has come to define masculinity, responses range from a radicalized doubling-down on misogyny to self-effacing apology. There are countless annoying ways men jerk themselves off about their experience being infinitesimally decentered from our cultural spotlight, but the bottom line is that many guys are finding themselves adrift, seeking purpose and place. Esquire recommends learning to listen and making soup, and offers more masturbatory suggestions like developing encyclopedic knowledge of a pet topic. But none of this has the insight of Spermworld, a movie that understands the strange, complex, lonely desires of its male subjects—men who’ve found that the best self-care is self-abuse.

Spermworld, from Some Kind of Heaven filmmaker Lance Oppenheim, follows the lives of off-the-books sperm donors. These freelance impregnators connect through Facebook with those seeking children. In private groups, there’s a sense of community—something less icy than an online database and more transparent than a skeevy Craigslist ad.

That said, it can still be skeevy, particularly if you’re engaging in “natural insemination” or, as it’s better known, “sex.” The opening scene, shot in a hotel room that’s the dark washed-out blue of a nightmare, sets the film’s unsettling tone. Most of these donors perform their duties artificially, with collection containers and small syringes, though that doesn’t make Spermworld more comfortable. Whether the film finds itself in a deserted parking lot (where a guy, parked with his fiancée, is jerking off into a cup) or a children’s playplace (where a guy asks someone to watch the kids so he can go into the bathroom and jerk off into a cup), the documentary’s saturated color, high shadows, and shallow focus generate the uneasy feeling of an anonymous hallway, explored alone.

But, as strange and off-putting as it can be, this world serves a purpose. For the recipients, the process is goal-oriented. Get a baby, get out. For the cumtributor, it’s somewhere between sex work, charity and a god complex. There are the kinksters getting their rocks off, and the Goo Samaritans. Nobody’s reasons are black-and-white.

Oppenheim started working on Spermworld as he tagged along with Nellie Bowles, who was reporting out her New York Times article “The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand” (Spermworld is also produced by the New York Times). Bowles’ piece focuses on the capitalistic side of things—COVID’s impact on supply and demand—the kinds of sperm folks were seeking from banks, and the seedy world of unregulated seed. It’s these “sperm kings,” the FDA-flouting fathers-on-demand, that captured Oppenheim’s attention. They’re not in it for the cash, which means they’re in it for something far more revealing.

Spermworld focuses on three men: Ari AKA “The Sperminator,” constantly touring to see his small army of children; Steve, going through a divorce at 60; and Tyree, struggling to start a family of his own. The spectrum of their experiences vary wildly, as do their purposes and needs. But they’re very much alike. Tyree reveals that he began donating after his release from prison, seeking redemption through altruism. Ari, ironically, avoids putting down the roots of middle-age by running a constant circuit of birthday visits. Steve (who also drives rideshare, so you get the picture) is simply lonely. 

In a broader sense, donation offers them an opportunity to feel needed—one that validates their place in the world through sheer biology. By being friendly enough and comfortable cranking it in unusual places, these men get to be useful. Important. Worthy. They don’t need to do or be anything special to do something good for the world, for others and for themselves. And this kind of fatherhood is a whole lot easier than volunteering at the food bank.

The imperfect pursuit of this fulfillment becomes more clear when you see that Steve, Ari and Tyree are all at different points on the “You live like this?” spectrum. Steve’s living room has no furniture. Ari’s got no permanent home, his life an endless parade of baby mamas’ couches. Tyree loudly games on the couch, shooting zombies and fielding requests for his jizz while his fiancée thanklessly works from home across the room. They devote themselves to donating sperm as something that supersedes work and family, yet the lives they’re trying to improve can’t hide from Oppenheim’s vérité filming.

Spermworld is engrossing, intimate and bittersweet. The desperate desire for connection with others and contribution to something bigger than a 9 to 5 is especially relatable as our increasingly isolated and tech-centric lives silo us off into our Slack channels and group chats. As we see the men interact with their clients, the complicated (sometimes ulterior) interpersonal motives bleed through.

The glimpses we get of those on the other side offer new shades of insight into the men whose genes they seek. Rachel, Steve’s recipient whose cystic fibrosis has made traditional donation tricky, toes a familiar tightrope: She just wants to be the guy’s friend, but it’s easy for signals to get mixed when there’s so much cum involved. The two’s excruciating viewing of Mulholland Dr., which takes place right after we’ve seen Steve—in a clumsy, boomer way—question Rachel’s bisexuality, is almost as tough to watch as the opening one-night stand. But they figure it out, the odd intimacy they’ve forged prevailing. 

Ari juggles endless mothers, popping in for an awkward evening with a kid he never sees with endless energy. But when we see his mother, who’s battling cancer and disapproves of her son’s lifestyle, it makes him seem like he’s on the run from reality. He’s confronted with the possibility that he’s addicted to this, either to the power or the pride or the constant motion, and it’s easy to believe.

Tyree has perhaps the biggest arc of the three. He’s the most clinical and professional of the donors, preferring to help queer couples conceive and then getting gone as soon as he’s come. When we meet him, he’s neglecting his partner Atasha—with whom he’s trying to have a baby—for online randos. He’s preferring the generous fantasy to the reality in front of him. But then one of the children he’s fathered needs help, and he has a chance to adopt them into his family. His worlds collide, and his decision seems deeply informed by his history of donation.

The wonderous thing about the documentary is that all its subjects (aside from the natural inseminator, yeesh) are charming despite the circumstances, simply because we get to understand them so deeply. Introspective asides and a devotion to shooting the environment as much as the people in it builds out a recognizable corner of the world in a place that once seemed foreign and absurd. You feel for everyone involved; caring for people struggling to get pregnant isn’t tough, but finding empathy for those from whom they borrow a cup of baby-making sugar takes a lot more nuance. I never thought there’d be so much jacking off in such a moving film.

Spermworld balances the story of each man with the underlying desires driving their continued DIY donations. More than any interview series of college students or podcast subscribers, learning about the men who’ve found their calling blowing their loads helps detail the inadequacies confronting modern men. A set of testicles and the ability to ejaculate? That’s good enough around these parts. During much of Spermworld, I couldn’t help but think of the breakout celebration of masculine mediocrity brandished on tie-dye Barbie hoodies: “I am Kenough.” Though these men may be kind of odd and not all that put-together, they’ve found a niche that reassures them that they’re enough—even if that niche resides in a Facebook group called Sperm Donation USA.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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