New Documentary ‘A Sexplanation’ Explores the Sorry State of American Sex Ed
The best line in sex researcher and filmmaker Alex Liu’s conversational documentary A Sexplanation arrives early, prior to its credit sequence. While laying out the sorry state of sex education in the United States, Liu tells us in voiceover — after flashing a montage of cringe-inducing genitalia often paraded out to dissuade horny teens from acting on their impulses — that this societal shame when it comes to sexuality “literally scared the fuck out of me.”
Let that sink in for a minute. Liu’s documentary, currently available nationwide as part of the American Documentary Film Festival until April 4 and then as part of the Cleveland Film Festival until April 20, is a personal journey towards sexual well-being and an exposé of the competing political agendas behind what little sex education is provided to high schoolers; what is covered, on a state-by-state basis, and what is verboten in many (Masturbation? Homosexuality? Perish the thought!), and how that can seriously screw up an otherwise perfectly well-centered queer filmmaker in his 30s.
The shaming of pleasure is central to Liu’s work here. No doubt we all have our own versions of how that manifests, though Liu trusts his audience enough to simply let us conjecture from his own experience: the lack of frank sex talk in the home; the perfunctory education around the topic (just the basic facts, ma’am); media representation (admittedly better, but still a long way to go); our own warring desires that might feel taboo or dangerous (stepdad porn, rape fantasies).
He gets counsel from a cadre of professionals, including the groundbreaking researchers at the Kinsey Institute, and has a series of recorded interviews with his delightful parents that are awkward, illuminating and purifying, as well as a roundtable discussion of shared issues with a group of friends at dinner. It’s a breezy documentary that broaches difficult subject matter while firmly coming down on the side of sustainable, guiltless sexuality.
“I’m trying by putting out sex-ed content that focuses on the pleasure first,” he told Hornet in 2018. “But I’d imagine it would help if the first messages kids hear about gay male sex were positive and validating rather than fear-based and about HIV like it was for me and my generation. Personally, the more I recognize which of my sexual values are based on shaming pleasure, the easier it is for me to let go of my hang-ups and just give into feeling good. And from there my sex life just gets more and more pleasurable. Some amazing cognitive behavioral therapists helped too.”
Facts come in handy, too. No one would be surprised that the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country, with the numbers higher in poor or underserved communities. Or that more than 700,000 people — many of them kids — have been through conversion therapy. Or that nearly 75% of people who’ve experienced sexual assault do not report it. But what to do about it? That’s harder to answer.
“Culture and politics don’t change on their own,” Liu told Hornet. “Stop simply bitching on Facebook and Twitter. Go join a political organization you’re passionate about, organize a bunch of your friends to support a local school board member who doesn’t shy away from comprehensive sex education, or better yet, run for office!”
In other words, there’s still a lot of work to do, and Liu is a great guide: personable, self-effacing, actively curious and open to all points of view. He doesn’t hide his biases here. He’s upfront with his interviewees like a generous lover mapping out the rules of engagement. And he imbues the entire documentary with the tenets of pleasure he’s fought hard to embrace without shame.
Though there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of it becoming a reality, A Sexplanation should be required viewing, especially for those teens that are confused, marginalized, disenfranchised.