By Dan Woog
Wrestlers get erections.
That straightforward fact is the elephant in the wrestling room. And it’s just one of many controversial, often-ignored topics addressed by Victor Rook in his insightful new documentary, “Stronghold: In the Grip of Wrestling.”
Here are others: Vast numbers of men are sexually attracted to wrestling. As kids, they cut photos out of library wrestling books; as adults, they believe they must hide their interest.
Now – thanks to Rook’s film, an accompanying book and his http://www.WrestleMen.com Web site – wrestling fans are coming out of the closet.
Growing up near Buffalo, Rook did not wrestle. “I thought you had to be a short, thick-necked Italian,” he laughs. “I was tall and lanky. I played tennis.”
He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan State, then worked as a technical writer for years. But in the late 1990s he realized two ambitions: He made a nature documentary for PBS, and he started wrestling.
After a wrestling cartoon he drew earned attention, he quit his job. Since 1998 http://www.WrestleMen.com has been his main source of income. Through conversations with thousands of men – gay and straight, single and married – he realized his attraction to wrestling was far from unique.
In 2004, he decided to make a film. He wanted to address sensitive subjects like wrestling homoeroticism, but in a way that straight and gay men could both respect. He also wanted to include every form of wrestling: amateur, professional, submission and “horseplay.”
He posted a request for interviews on the Web site of USA Wrestling, the umbrella organization for high school and college grappling. It was removed on the grounds of “solicitation.” However, a similar request for a fictional film was allowed to remain.
Rook says that USAW did not want to be associated with lightning-rod issues. He notes, “That’s unfortunate. Those same issues – boys’ shame about their bodies, and homophobia – ultimately prevent more kids from getting into wrestling.”
As he traveled the country filming interviews, Rook felt pressure from two sides.
“Gays were afraid that this film may set back gay men who take wrestling seriously,” he says. “And straight audiences wanted nothing to do with anything that spoke of homoeroticism, even when kids make constant jokes about wrestling looking so ‘gay.'”
But clearly, interest was there. Every day for four years, Rook wore a wrestling T-shirt. That made people feel comfortable initiating conversations. “In bars, guys have dumped their girlfriends to talk to me all night about wrestling,” Rook says.
Compared with the rest of filmmaking, the interviews were easy; finding archival footage was especially arduous. Rook spent months searching for clips in the public domain, and obtaining rights for others. But the many black-and-white and sepia pictures of boys and men wrestling through the ages provide graphic evidence that such activity has long been part of male life.
Rook spent enormous time organizing his material. “Before you can talk about one thing, you have to cover another,” he notes. For example, a section on “Masculinity and Wrestling” served as a lead-in to more sensitive discussions of arousal and eroticism later on.
Current events played a role too. When eBay banished all amateur-made wrestling videos to the “Mature Audiences” section – even those with no sexual content – Rook juxtaposed the decision with female and coed videos, which were not affected.
Cramming all that – while describing the stark distinction between scholastic and professional wrestling, the societal taboo against adult amateur wrestling and the underground world of wrestling for pleasure and gratification – into two hours was extremely difficult. Rook ended up including an hour of material on an “extras” disc.
Reaction has been very positive. Men tell Rook they no longer feel alone or odd because of their attraction to wrestling.
The film has been praised by coaches, too. Among the most compelling interviewees is a high school coach who seems surprised when he realizes he never addresses fears of erections, or the perception that all wrestlers are gay, with his young charges.
Rook hopes the video is seen by many scholastic coaches. “Listening to adult men talk about their fears and shame around wrestling growing up may help coaches become more sensitive to their wrestlers’ concerns,” he says.
Until then, Rook will be sustained by a conversation he had with a teenager. Advising him to ignore the gibes of those who call wrestling a “gay sport” – and to concentrate on the self-confidence, physical fitness and joy he takes from training and competition – Rook told the boy: “Don’t worry. It’s not about you. It’s about everyone else, and what they’re feeling.”
For more information on “Stronghold,” visit http://www.wrestlingfilm.com.