Alex Liu confronts sex ed in ‘A Sexplanation’

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Alex Liu is finally getting a sex education—no matter how awkward it gets.

A Sexplanation is just your typical queer, Asian American, comedic sex education documentary about the universal search for love, connection, and family acceptance. 

Like many Americans in the 90s, the adults in Alex’s life taught him that abstinence made him good. These tactics worked to suppress his sexuality—all the more because he was gay. But ultimately, years of repression disconnected him from his body, his desires, and his family. Now in his 30s, Alex still hasn’t outgrown these hang-ups. The fear mongering from school, media, and religion continues to permeate throughout his life—in both big ways and small. 

Fed up, Alex decides it’s time to turn years of fear and loathing into something positive and humorous. A Sexplanation follows his pursuit of shame-free pleasure and call for comprehensive sex education. Along the way, he’s surprised to discover it’s never too late to have “The Talk”—even with his parents. 

Directed by Alex Liu, it is written by Leonardo Neri and Alex Liu, produced by Steven Flynn, and edited by Brian Emerick and Alex Liu. Brian Emerick serves as Cinematographer. A Sexplanation screened at 32 film festivals on 4 continents, 8 countries, and 18 states, winning 9 festival awards. Check out the trailer here.

Check out my interview with Alex!

You talk about your frustrations with sex ed a lot in the film, but what was kind of the final straw that made you create this documentary?

Alex: The straw that broke the camel’s back. I think, as I entered my 30s, I thought coming out of the closet would be the thing that would set me free. And it did and so many ways, but the feelings of sexual shame, the feelings of fear and discomfort, talking about sex, sexuality, and really my deepest, darkest fears were still really present. I thought, by that age, I would have come into a fuller sense of myself and more confidence, but I realized I needed help, you know, that you can’t really do it on your own. It’s very easy to intellectually understand that it’s a problem, it’s a whole different thing to actually put together a plan and have the emotional set of tools to deal with them in a constructive way. 

So yeah, I think it was talking with friends and family about these feelings, kind of slowly piecing it together and hearing that many of my friends around the same age were also dealing with the same issues. So that kind of gave me the idea of, ‘oh, we’re all kind of struggling to deal with this. How do you actually deal with it?’ And that’s sort of the journey of the movie.

Throughout the movie, you give us a very intimate look at your life, what was that like for you?

Alex: Terrifying, at least at the beginning. It’s great now that we’ve had people seeing the film and it’s been out, but at the beginning, I resisted it a lot. Maybe it’s my background in science and health reporting, but I’m supposed to be more of an objective observer to help people contextualize and understand and think critically about these topics. But I have an amazing creative team who, as we started putting together the film, you know, it’s one thing to make a five minute story about a topic, it’s quite another to do an 80 minute narrative. You have to put together an actual story and, frankly, a bunch of really interesting interviews do not add up to a cohesive, engaging and emotional story. And so, my amazing creative partner, Leonardo Neri, took the time and patience to ask, ‘why am I doing this? What is the purpose?’ And through those conversations he started to say, ‘I think this is the story. The story is why you’re doing this and why it matters to you. That’s the only way other people will actually care.’

I had a lot of qualms like, ‘oh, if I talk about my being gay, talk about queer attraction, will that turn people off? Will it make it not relatable?’ And so there was a lot of discussion around that. It was really terrifying for me, really terrifying to talk about my masturbation habits and talking about this with my parents, but ultimately, I think, thanks to the support of my friends and family, I was able to get to a point where I understood that this maybe would be a way to get people to connect that they wouldn’t otherwise.

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You also use a lot of humor, which I really enjoyed. It kind of lessens the awkwardness of everything. What was it like balancing the humorous aspect with the deeper importance behind your message?

Alex: Yeah, you realize very quickly that if you want to make a movie about getting people to let go of sexual shame, if you keep the whole movie kind of like a tense, sad and anxiety ridden movie, you’re not going to let people let go of their shame. They’re going to hold on tighter, you know, it’s gonna increase the feelings of unease. And if I want to get real technical, the best humor and the best comedians are able to speak these unspoken truths in a way that releases tension. I think laughter is one of the most amazing, purest forms of releasing tension and that’s what we wanted to do with the movie to help people release their shame. 

So by using humor, it’s kind of like a trick we do to get people to understand in a way that maybe no one had ever articulated. For me, that’s a really funny thing we do as a species, be ashamed about these natural urges. It really doesn’t make sense if you frame it the right way. So that was a big point of what we wanted to do. And then the other part I think, is that so much of sex ed out there, abstinence only sex ed, is so laden with like risk and negativity that I wanted to make something that was what I wish I had gotten when I was 13, which is like, leading with the fact that sex, at its best, is the most positive experience you can have as a human being. It’s something that we should all value and enjoy. And at its best, it’s a light hearted fun experience. So I wanted the movie to reflect that actual reality of sets.

How did you select the people that you interviewed and then ultimately put in the finished product?

Alex: We had so many great interviews that didn’t make it into the movie. We went to a trans healthcare center where all the patients and healthcare providers are trans, and we went to amazing queer researchers, kink researchers. But it became very clear in editing those sections that we were only giving each section five minutes of time, 10 minutes at most, and you need like a whole documentary to do any of those subjects justice because we’re so far behind in our understanding of sex and sexuality to talk about gender or trans issues or kink issues or queer issues. It requires so much context and education, so those were some of the saddest cuts that we had to make. 

But the way we went about it is we sat down, Leo and I, sat down and we just thought like, from as early as we can remember, how did we learn about sex? What were the ways that we tried to educate ourselves on sex? School is one and we knew religion had to be a huge component to find someone who could talk about the religious aspects, both from a negative perspective and someone who has a more positive view, which is very rare and very enlightening. And then politics. We knew we needed to talk about politicians because my upbringing was so scarred by the HIV AIDS political fights and the gay marriage political fights, and then we porn. You know, porn is the biggest section in the film, because I think that’s where all of us now go to answer the questions we really have about sex. Sex education is so easy to find online. Good, basic sex education on how to get pregnant, how to avoid disease, you know, all the things that sex education is supposed to teach in schools, you can find it online. The questions we all really have are questions of how do we make sex feel good? How do we make our partners feel good? How do we make sure that the moments we have are pleasurable for everyone and life affirming? And I suppose it just gets down to like, what does a blow job look like? What does anal sex look like? Porn is kind of the only place where we have that so porn is great in certain contexts, but it’s awful in other contexts, especially around sex education. So that was a big component we knew we needed to have and then it became who are the people doing good sex education, really good sex education? Planned Parenthood was an obvious choice. And then we found these parent/child sex education classes and that was a huge turning point in the film because it’s not just kids who need education, it’s all of us, parents, grandparents, we all are living in this kind of sex negative shame, so it’s not enough to just educate the kids, we have to all be educated. 

Was it difficult to get people to talk to you about sex?

Alex: Certain people, yes, like the parent/child classes, they took two years to set up, and for good reason, they don’t know who I am, they don’t know my intentions and I’m gonna film intimate moments with them in their child. That took a lot of time to set up and gain their trust. The educators, not so much. They’re so starved for attention because so many institutions, from the government to traditional media, even social media, really feel like stories about sex and sex education and sexual health are frivolous and not worth covering or funding. So they’re willing to sit on camera anytime because they just want their message to get out there. Politicians, they love the camera, right? (Laughs) so they were easy to get. But the religious leaders, that was difficult. I think if you were to say I’m doing a story on sex education, I’m a progressive liberal atheist to you know, wants to talk about how the Catholic church has scarred me- for good reason they’re going to be a little scared about how they might be perceived. The other one that was hard was Pornhub. Pornhub is very careful about how they present themselves to the world, especially around their business practices. But they have the best kind of database of our sexual fears, desires, what we’re actually searching for, so I knew we had to have that. And the data analyst we talked to was amazing. 

Yeah, so for certain people it’s difficult to talk about but other people I think, are just hungry to talk about it. And I was actually surprised, you know, when we talked to people on the street, how open they were to talk about it. I think we all just want that permission in a way. We’re not given it very often and when we are given it, people have a lot of questions and things they want to get off their chest.

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Have you noticed that sex education is getting better since you started this process?

Alex: It’s like two steps forward one step back. I think there are certain states, counties, school districts that are going full steam ahead, younger and younger, comprehensive age-appropriate sex education. You know, it’s a community thing that working with parents to make sure that the kid gets the right information, while making sure parents have the right to keep whatever values they want. But as you can see, even in the past couple of months, in Florida and elsewhere, sex education is this huge political firestorm. It’s easy to fear monger around sex education because again, most of us never got a good education. So what we don’t know, we’re afraid of so it’s really easy to say something like, ‘we’re going to teach sex education to eight year olds in order to groom them for sexual abuse,’ which is so disgusting and so cynical. But because we don’t have that understanding of why it’s important, why sex education actually protects kids from abuse, why it helps parents have the conversations they want to have with kids, but are difficult conversations to have because none of us ever had those conversations in our households I think, unfortunately, it feels like a big backlash is coming because yeah, we’re all living in a place where none of us really understand what good sex education looks like.

I even think back to my own sex ed class and it was basically a short video about abstinence and the consequences of having sex. That’s it.

Alex: Most schools are fully fine with like pregnancy education and disease education because the public health mandate is to prevent teenage pregnancy and prevent STDs, which is great, but it’s not really sex education. After doing this movie, I have so much empathy for parents who feel like they’re losing control or feel that somehow the schools are kind of in opposition to their values. I think schools and frankly, progressives and liberals could do a much better job at addressing those fears, rather than being more antagonistic, although it’s so complicated and nuanced, some people do well, but really the message of the film is that sex education is for everyone, parents and children. The best results of sex education isn’t that we all of a sudden become these fully expressed, totally sexually free, healthy, sexual beings. That’s a lifelong journey that you’ll probably never attain, right? But the best part of what good sex education can do is help you have these typical conversations with your loved ones, family members, friends. But how do you manage the morality? How do you manage the difficulty? How do you manage the emotions of sex because it’s so individual for everyone? Really good sex education is really communication education. How do you talk through these things that are difficult, that we’ve been conditioned to think are taboo and controversial, but are conversations we so need to have if we have any chance of a good sex life or sexual health? So I think framing sex education in that way, consent boundaries, love, connection, all these things that sex provides is a much better way to talk about it rather than like teaching kids the ins and outs of sexual intercourse. That’s really not a big part of what I think good sex education really is… People will just find other ways to answer their questions, like porn or peers, which are even worse, you know? I understand the impulse but ultimately, it backfires in a really severe ways sometimes.

Do you have advice for people still feel that sex is something to be ashamed of? 

Alex: Yes. So people often ask me, ‘are you now cured of your sexual shame?’ And no, it will always be a core component of who I am simply because of the imprinting I received. It’s how we all are. You can’t condition your brain out of it especially when the imprinting was there when you were very young. But what I will say is that I am so much more present to my shame when it comes up and I’m so much more able to deal with it in productive ways. I now know that the best way to deal with the shame is to find that trusted person I can talk to about it, someone who will listen non judgmentally and a good way to do that is to be yourself, a person who listens non judgmentally… To me, I think a better framing is sex neutral, like everyone is in such different places and it’s so individual, it’s too difficult to have a one size fits all kind of prescription, but the one thing you can do to help other people with their sexual shame is to just be like a non judgmental listening board. Shame will come up. Disgust will come up. Just process it and let it through and you’ll find that, at least, I found that you’ll start to build these connections where the better you can listen, the better you can see how different everyone is and the better you can feel good about yourself. Ultimately, though, I think that you can’t do this alone. So even if it’s having to find a therapist, which I highly recommend, in finding someone who can listen non judgmentally about everything, the stronger and easier it’ll be for you to really feel at your core rather than understand intellectually, that what who you are as a sexual being is nothing to be ashamed of. The only shame comes in how you treat other people. That’s kind of my long winded way of saying, you know, a starting point for how you deal with it.

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A Sexplanation is now available on Digital