Despite his degrees in molecular toxicology and environmental reporting, and some serious cred as health reporter, it took forever for writer/director Alex Liu to talk to his parents about sex. 36 years to be precise. And I totally get it. I still have not spoken to my parents about sex, and I’m almost a decade older than Liu. But as he discovers in his documentary A Sexplanation, it’s never too late to talk about sex. After years of not discussing it, Liu goes on a quest to figure out why we don’t talk about this fundamental part of being human—no matter how weird it gets.
And the doc gets plenty awkward, with those moments punctuated by Liu’s nervous laughter. (Again, totally relatable.) Nevertheless, fumbling through those clumsy conversations, infusing the exchanges with a generous dose of (often self-deprecating) humor and using his own experiences of desire, shame and guilt, Liu is able to feel positive about sex—as well as understand the role that nonjudgmental sex education plays in our development as humans.
Growing up as a gay kid in America in the ‘90s was tough for Liu, especially because all the adults in his life taught him that abstinence made him good. However, as a healthy teen, he also had desires that made him feel bad about himself. Now an adult, Liu still hadn’t been able to outgrow those hang-ups. This documentary, then, is a way for him to address the negative messaging he received, which comes into play in his life even today.
As a Gen Xer who spent her formative years growing up in India, my experience with sex education is similar to Liu’s. In fact, I’m sure many people will relate to the experience of never talking about sex, except to study the reproductive organs in biology class. Even then, the chapter was hurried over as embarrassed laughter filled the class. Now when confronted with images of the male or female sexual organs, there are few adults able to name the different parts that make them up, or what role they play—which makes for hilarious, but frankly disappointing, social media videos/memes. I am also an adult trying to unpack the unintended lessons I absorbed as a young person from popular culture about sex and relationships. As a parent of two young kids, it is especially important for me to be able to have healthy, nonjudgmental and informative discussions with my children.
Just like how I got my sex-ed lessons from romance novels, young people today are getting their information today from a variety of sources that includes porn. The internet and the prevalence of smartphones have made it easy to access this information—which means it’s all the more important for young people to understand what they are watching, rather than shaming them for it.
So much of what Liu has to say in A Sexplanation is not new information for me—because I have been actively seeking it out—but it is refreshing to hear the irreverence and humanity with which he engages with people, even those who do not share his views. One of the more instructive scenes for me was when Alex asked sex researchers to answer a simple question: What is sex?
Granted, there is some editing and background music involved in enhancing the scientists’ befuddled attempts to come up with an accurate response. You get the sense that this is complicated stuff. However, one of the experts does provide a correspondingly intricate answer: “Sexuality is who we are, how we define ourselves in every way, how we move through the world. How we laugh, how we wear our hair. How we’re bold and how we’re shy…Our sexuality is always being reworked and changed…It’s complex.” No matter how prepared you think you are for “the talk,” it can be awkward.
A Sexplanation also points out the researchers are united in their recommendation for comprehensive sex ed—even if some might want to view this from a lens of safety. Whether it’s to do away with unwanted pregnancies and STIs, or deal with issues of consent, they’re clear that sexual education can empower young people to make better decisions.
At the end of the documentary, Liu has another conversation with his parents: A frank chat about sex. I cringed at several moments on behalf of Liu (and his mom). I have to say, I am not sure that I will ever have this conversation with my parents. But I am happy that documentaries such as A Sexplanation give me even more opportunities to have these continued conversations with my own kids.
Director: Alex Liu
Writer: Leonardo Neri, Alex Liu
Release Date: June 6, 2022
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.