Alex Liu is the director of A Sexplanation, a funny, heartfelt, and honest sex education documentary about the universal search for love, connection, and family acceptance. The week before the film became available on demand on iTunes, Google, Amazon, and Vimeo, he got on a video call with writer Frankie Huang to talk about the 7-year journey of making the film, the additional years it took him to arrive at a place of acceptance and love with his family, and the challenges that lay ahead for the future of sex education in America.
*The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
F: I loved your documentary so much, I would have loved watching it as a teenager. You know how Supersize Me ended up becoming part of many school curriculums for nutrition, and it's actually really biased? I feel like A Sexplanation is the opposite of that, while still being really entertaining and engaging.
A: Thank you for saying that. It's still kind of hard to process because it's been such a long journey. And like, by the end of it, you kind of hate everything you're putting out.
F: Let’s talk more about the 7-year journey of making this film: How did it start?
A: The main North star we always had was, “What would 13-year=old Alex need to hear in order to start feeling like a life of meaning was possible?”
I've had a very strong, deep anger towards the world for most of my teens and 20s. I was at the front line of every political march for gay rights. And, I thought that's what I needed to give my life meaning, to actually do something about this rage. By the time I entered my 30s, I realized that anger was just kind of like a defense mechanism for this deep, deep shame I still felt about my sexuality, that when it came to actually connecting with someone on a sexually intimate level, on a human-to-human level, I still wasn't able to fully let go in a way that was authentic and felt expressed. I was still performing.
It was like, in many ways, a political statement. I was just having sex with as many men as possible to show the Catholic Church, to show the Republicans, that I'm here.
While working as a science reporter, I had this YouTube channel called “The Science of Sin,” where I would do funny sketches about different sex research. And that’s how I got a little bit of notoriety, and that's how I met my documentary producer.
At first I tried to be this objective observer, and my main creative partner Leonardo Neri, another queer person of color, said to me, “What if, instead of going to the expert and asking them to tell us all the things the world needs to know about sex education, we just say, I have all these shames, fears, and secret desires that I've never told anybody. Help me process them.”
F: You made a very specific choice to put your story and your family into this documentary, even though you could have told a compelling story without doing so. This is a very vulnerable, very brave thing to do.
A: Oh, thank you. I think ultimately, this is something I've wanted to do for a very long time. My dad's first reaction was like, “I'm sorry, I just find two men being intimate really disgusting”, but his first instinct was not to ask me to change or ask me, “How do we fix this?” There was tons of late-night yelling and tons of misunderstandings and crying, and it was hard to get through. But we were willing to always come back and have these conversations.
Today, when a child comes out in an Asian immigrant family [in our community] and the parents don't know how to deal with it, my parents are the first people [the family will] get sent to to talk it out. There are so many different models for how families can deal with this, and it's been such an honor to be able to share my family with people.
“What if, instead of going to the expert and asking them to tell us all the things the world needs to know about sex education, we just say, I have all these shames, fears, and secret desires that I've never told anybody. Help me process them.”
F: It was refreshing to see your parents talk about sex with such frankness and humor. I think you made history, getting a Chinese American grandmother to talk about her wedding night, something so intimate and so private, with such candor and humor. Maybe other grandmothers will see this and think, “I can do this too.” Your documentary isn't just something for young people, it’s for the whole family.
A: After my parents saw the final cut of the documentary, my dad told me, “I understand why this is so important to you now, I understand why you think you need to do this.”
A lot of people ask, “Do you guys talk about sex all the time now?” And the answer is no, it’s still a very parent-child relationship. But it does feel like it's that last piece of the last 20 years we've been working toward, it's finally been lifted, and we're just so much lighter.
When children of Asian immigrants ask me, “How do I get this?” I say, “Oh, it's like a 20-year journey. You know, it's a lot of work. But it's achievable.
F: I think a lot of children of Asian parents tend to underestimate our parents and our elders.
A: The best part of this experience is I see not only my parents, but my entire extended family, much more as full human beings. Because for so long, I didn't listen to them. Especially when I was young, and especially when I didn’t know the culture. My dad spent the first 20 years he was in the United States feeling like he didn't understand the culture at all, and the safe thing for him was just to control me. The conditioning I took from that is, he is not a safe person to actually be myself around. It took a lot of time to really piece that together, to realize, of course he cares, he's just going through so much.
F: This actually leads to my next question, which is, I feel like there’s a push to make sex education direct and simple and easy to understand. But, what we've been talking about just now is actually how, cultural context, family history, and all of these things contribute to you and your family's understanding of sex, of intimacy. Is there a way to incorporate all these things into what's a fraught subject in the U.S.?
A: Including cultural competency is always going to be the biggest challenge because the way you teach it in order to get happy, healthy children who can maximize pleasure and minimize risk is going to be totally different if you are teaching in Pakistan or Sweden.
One thing that I'm often asked is, “How do we get better comprehensive sex ed in schools?” And I think the one mistake that progressive liberals make is to try to divorce sex from cultural values, given that they're one and the same in many ways. So maybe you believe that masturbation is amazing and should be part of your healthy daily habits. That is a value that that I think you cannot say in a sex ed class. But you can say that people masturbate, or like gay people exist, trans people exist. These are facts, there’s no value judgment around that.
Schools really have to stress that sex education is not a tool to teach your kids all the things they need to know about sex, but works in partnership with families to have those difficult conversations. If you want good sex education in schools, it has to be very clear that parents are controlling the values.
F: I think that's really important, I was exposed to a lot of sex-positive messaging as a younger person, which was disguised as objectivity when it’s full of values, and this is how you introduce bias.
A: I'm so glad you said that. When I started this process, I would have been like, “You've never had anal sex, you’re a repressed Puritan prude.” Now I actually think the best way forward is a sex neutral stance, to move culture towards a safe place where people can process what they want. Because if you come in as negative or positive, people will shut down. And that's the worst thing that someone can do. Shutting down and being afraid to talk. Being ashamed of whatever your sexuality is and being pushed towards a certain lifestyle or so a certain way that you should be sexually.
F: I love the phrase “sex neutral” but it obviously doesn’t sell as well as “sex positive”.
Speaking of sex neutrality, I feel like your film is missing some asexual representation, which a lot of people think is just repression.
A: Yeah, there are so many brutal awful cuts we had to make.
There’s so much that people don't understand about love. Like an asexual person might not be interested in intercourse, but they still have a huge range of how they love to connect with people, the pleasure they find in their relationships. And that's something I really wish we could have brought out.
When I started this process, I would have been like, “You've never had anal sex, you’re a repressed Puritan prude.” Now I actually think the best way forward is a sex neutral stance, to move culture towards a safe place where people can process what they want.
F: You should do a documentary series.
A: That is the hope, yes.
F: You masturbated in an MRI machine for the documentary. Was that the craziest thing you did for the film?
A: Yeah, it definitely was. I think if I had time to think about it, I would not have done it. I was freaking out internally, it's not very erotic, you have no visual cues, because they needed the brain readings. And it's a lot of pressure, and you know, sex under pressure is never good sex.
For the next two or three days afterward, I was kind of in a shame hole. I was like, “Am I really going to put this out in the public, what would people think?” And as I thought through this, I realized I actually have a lot of deep shame, and my brain just refused to go there. Like how I hide my masturbation from my partner, which is like, nuts! Like we share bank accounts, but I'm not willing to share that.
That was when I realized I needed to go deeper. I actually need to understand how deep the sexual shame runs. And because when you think about it, it is crazy that one of the most, if not the most universal sexual acts, is the one we talk least about. I almost think we need an Everybody Poops” book, like Everybody Masturbates because it's one of the things.
F: That’s amazing.
A: It’s one of the first experiences you have, when it comes to your own sexuality and it makes me sad that it's done in secret, under the covers, in shame.
F: Shame and fear are great tools for control, and I think it’s why sex education is such a contentious issue in today's society, because it’s shame surrounding sex is such an effective tool for controlling people and building political power. How do we depoliticize this whole thing, which really should be a public health issue?
A: Yeah, this is a question I grappled with a lot. I think that your body, who you are, the relationships you form, the life that you decide to craft around those things is just such an inherently political thing. It's always going to be a battleground.
I didn't realize before how much this is focused on the parent-child relationship, and when that bond feels at all threatened, it's just a nonstarter. So when moderate parents, who never got a good sex education, but do want their kids to have a better one than they did, they just don't known what good sex education looks like. So when they hear certain things, it freaks them out, because they probably have not dealt with a lot of their own shame.
So, focusing primarily on protecting that bond and keeping that bond sacred, is first and foremost, how we should position things.
Ten years ago, I would have said, “Fuck the conservative parents who are anti-gay and anti-trans, those kids need to know these things, and school is the only place they can get that so they can escape their awful parents and, and live the life they need to live.” But as you can see, politically, that is like the worst argument you can make, because you're anti-family, and suddenly you are hitting one of the most primal fears a parent can have.
And now that I've gone through this process, I can see how an anti-gay, anti-trans, highly religious family can flip. It takes time and effort, but it can happen. And I get it, it's a life or death thing, and some kids don't have that time. It's complicated. Of course I have very strong emotions about how things should be.
F: But you can’t just swoop in and be a savior. You need to not give up on humanity.
A: Exactly. You have to see it and acknowledge it. With a lot of my interviews, like with the conservative state senator and the people at the anti-abortion rallies, if those had happened three years earlier, I would have gotten so antagonistic. It would have been a bad faith interview to show the world how awful they are as people, but because of all the processing I was doing, and because of the therapy I was getting, I realized that I want people to listen to me non-judgmentally, but I'm not willing to do the same, like how hypocritical. So, to me it is the only way forward, but I don't necessarily have the best answers.
Published on June 8, 2022