Director Alex Liu in A Sexplanation | All photos courtesy Herra Productions

Putting the D in Doc: Alex Liu Talks A Sexplanation

A fun, informative, and sex-positive exploration of our natural urges

15 mins read

“Everyone should lead with the fact that sex is fun,” suggests Alex Liu. The director of A Sexplanation, speaking with POV ahead of the film’s premiere at Inside Out LGBTQ Film Festival, changes the narrative and tone when it comes to talking about sex. The film chronicles the director’s journey gaining comprehensive sexual education by building upon the conversations Liu didn’t have while coming out during his teenage years. A Sexplanation humorously plays with the elements of fun and self-discovery that are part of sex as Liu shifts sex ed from stigma and shame to pleasure and pride. As Liu proudly declares his love for penises before chomping down on a phallic frozen novelty, A Sexplanation unabashedly puts the “d” in doc.

Liu’s sexual adventure is a seven-years-in-the-making project that builds upon his work as a writer, researcher, and YouTuber. It’s something of an extension of his 2010s YouTube series The Science of Sin, which playfully explained biological functions of sexuality while synthesizing sex education for audiences. “The science helped me re-contextualize who I was as a biological creature and the videos hopefully add some funny, sexy bits that hopefully attract younger people to get into science education, something that I think is sorely lacking in this country,” explains the California-based filmmaker.

A Sexplanation takes Liu on a personal road trip of sorts as he enjoys frank discussions about sex with experts and everyday people, including his friends and parents. Nothing is too taboo and everything is on the table in open non-judgmental conversations. Porn, masturbation, anal sex, kinks, and orgasms are all fair game.

The film’s candid sex-positivity hits especially well a year-and-a-half into the pandemic when quarantine life means that sex is an unfed craving. Many people simply haven’t been able to date, hook up, meet new people, or have even been alienated from their partners while being in constant proximity. Liu situates the timeliness of the film with an observation he received from Vancouver-based sexpert Kristen Gilbert, which didn’t make the final cut of the film. “I asked her, ‘Is sex a want or a need?’” explains Liu. “She had a great answer from a scientific perspective: ‘We all need touch.’ Human beings are social animals and if you deprive a human being of touch, their health will deteriorate. I feel very strongly for single people during the pandemic because not having that skin to skin contact would be torture.”

Shifting from Shame

When Gilbert does appear in the film, she’s a highlight with her candid, forward-thinking outlook on intimacy. “The best part about this process for me was going to 20 to 25 experts and asking them about my deepest, darkest secrets, divulging what I’m ashamed about and sharing the difficulties I have in my sex life,” admits Liu. “Very quickly you realize that it’s typical to have these issues, and you learn not to be ashamed or fearful of these things.” Liu plays a version of himself in A Sexplanation, so audiences get to see an emotional arc as he provides a conduit through which they can confront their own hang-ups.

Liu’s film stresses that much of our anxieties relatesto the way people talk about sex. “For my lifetime, when we talk about sex in a public arena, it is always shrouded in risk; it’s taboo,” observes Liu. “I can’t think of any mainstream traditional media outlet that talks about how fun sex is. It’s always about the dangers of sex. That filters your experience, so we try to get to a more honest truth.” A Sexplanation features candid observations that slapping a child’s hand from his genitals, or even speaking about genitals with roundabout euphemisms, shapes one’s sexuality from an early age.

The Pleasure Principle

Enter the fact that sex is fun. A Sexplanation invites audiences to embrace the pleasure of sex through a semi-serious approach that mixes accessible science with a sausage fest of penis puns, playful graphics, and even an old-school science fair volcano that ejaculates enough baking soda and vinegar to merit consideration for the Guinness Book of Records. The method puts audiences at ease and makes them comfortably receptive to the information that comes next.

“If you don’t start with the framing of sex being fun, you lose credibility with the public,” notes Liu. “People know that sex is fun. The more that we hide that, or pretend that isn’t true, or don’t lead with that fact, the more damage we do in general.” Liu’s interviews might be more formal with some experts, but they also take the form of fun chats with people on the streets, or even anatomical games of spot-the-clitoris to illustrate how even sexually active adults need to educate themselves.

The Role of Parents

Just as the film emphasizes that sex is fun, it also recognizes that talking about sex can be awkward. Some friends and families are simply more open about it than others, which Liu admits by putting his own family under the microscope. The first-ever conversation about sex between the 36-year-old Liu and his parents happens on camera. The elder Lius are, initially, quite bashful. However, by the end of the film, they’re remarkably open about intimate details of their lives.

Liu says the process of involving his parents in the doc has re-contextualized their relationship. “Our conversations now are so much richer. When we talk on the phone, before it was more, ‘How was your week? What’s the weather like? What’s coming up for you?’” explains the director. “We still maintain some healthy boundaries, but our conversations are more about the emotional quality of life. It’s melted away residual barriers I’ve held onto as a teenager.” Liu admits that making the film with his parents led him to realize that they’re actually much more communicative than he realized—he just never gave himself an opportunity to notice.

Moreover, by including mama and papa Liu in the film, A Sexplanation articulates how parents need an active role in sexual education. Liu notes that opponents for teaching sex ed at a younger age usually mistake the argument for a “how to” guide, rather than recognizing the importance of teaching kids the difference between good touch/bad touch, and informing them about the role of consent. “Kids who get this information really young are dramatically less likely to be abused by an adult,” notes Liu. But starting early also teaches the next generation to be more open-minded and inclusive.

Balance and Inclusivity

Liu draws upon his experience as a gay man as one angle to explore the need for more comprehensive sex education. He’s open that, like many queer people whose lives and experiences generally aren’t mentioned in curricula aside from references to AIDS or shame, his sexual education largely came from porn. However, the film balances discussions about queerness and sexuality, inviting conversations about the definition of sex itself—a question that stumps most experts.

The director candidly admits that balancing the diversity of sexual experiences is an inevitable facet of tackling sex ed in an 80 minute feature. “The sequel would have to be queer/kink because it could very well have been its own movie,” laughs Liu. “It became very clear at the beginning of the process that if we were to do queer issues and kink issues justice, it would require its own film. There’s just so much nuance and there’s a higher level of taboo or handholding. Doing a 10-minute segment on those topics would do injustice to that material.”

Liu adds that using himself as a guide for getting schooled streamlines the process. “It is my personal story and I identify as gay, but we to tried to make it as ‘neutra’ as possible—not in the sense of ‘neutered,’ but rather gender neutral and sexuality neutral,” explains Liu. “We bring in a segment about a diaper fetishist and we have a little thing about my love for penis, but our goal was to be specific when necessary to create a relatable story. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight—we’re all swimming in the same kind of shame soup.”

The Spirituality of Sex

For Liu, though, the most educational moment in the film arrived when he interviewed a Jesuit priest. The clergyman offers an unexpectedly pragmatic perspective from the Catholic Church. Liu says the interview with the priest shook him and inspired him to reflect upon his youth. “I learned that I probably over-corrected my youth when it came to the spiritual aspect of sex,” observes Liu.

While the oppressive teachings of the church can lead to long-term repression for some queer people, others, like Liu, say the religious right’s campaigns against same sex marriage and LGBTQ rights inspire them to act out. “My middle finger to that political environment was to just have sex with anyone I had an impulse with and wanted to have sex with me,” admits Liu. “Sex became a numbing experience in many ways, but when doing the movie, I realized I was still carrying a lot of that weight. I wasn’t thinking hard enough about whether a sexual encounter was healthy for my spirit and soul, or if I was making a connection with someone who would enhance my authentic self and shows new sides of me. In some ways, I’m a lot sluttier now in terms of the experiences I am open to, but in other ways I’m not in terms of the number of people I’m willing to experience it with. That’s been the best kind of change in my life that has just made sex so much better.” The film has an obvious sense of catharsis for Liu and participants—one that viewers who identify with aspects of the story will certainly share.

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

A lot of it, frankly, is learning to stop caring about what other people think, whether they’re a priest, a parent, or a pal. “Most of the sex we have is not to make a baby,” says Liu. “The more we are fluent in that language, the more that we are able to negotiate boundaries, the more we’re able to negotiate consent, and the better sex we’re all going to be having.”

It all comes back to communication, a point that Liu observes has created healthier relationships in his family, marriage, and personal life. “The more we talk about sex, the more we will dissolve some of the inequities of gender and sexuality. As queer people, especially, we all have to take a stand at one point in our lives and say, ‘Fuck you, this is who I am. I don’t care what you think.’ I’m going to stand for what I want, who I am, and take the steps I need towards happiness.”

A Sexplanation screens at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBTQ Film Festival May 27 to June 6.

Update: A Sexplanation will be released on TVOD on June 7, 2022.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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