A Sexplanation

Written and directed by health reporter Alex Liu, A Sexplanation is both a personal portrait of Liu’s own relationship with sex and an examination of the current debate surrounding sex ed in the United States.

Through the inclusion of a wide selection of perspectives, A Sexplanation presents a nuanced view of the relationship between sex and shame in American culture.  Liu’s documentary combines personal reflection, interviews with researchers from top U.S. and Canadian universities, and public health educators.  While Liu clearly positions his own perspective early on (as a gay man he is decidedly sex positive), he also takes steps to include interviews with anti-choice protesters, republican politicians, and even a catholic priest. 

Yet the political never overshadows the personal.  At the heart of the film is Liu’s own sexuality, and the way his upbringing shaped his own feelings about sex — and his relationship with his parents. 

Liu’s interview with his parents is awkward, but it’s also insightful (and deeply relatable).  A Sexplanation argues, convincingly, that how we talk to kids about bodies and sexuality early on has a profound impact on their ability to connect with others and understand, and articulate, their desires.  Liu traces his own shame about sex through his parents and their upbringings, showing how shame and misinformation are passed down from generation to generation. 

In an effort to break this cycle, Liu searches for answers in labs and classrooms.  His journey reveals the complexity of sex and how little we really understand about human sexuality. 

Liu’s background as a health reporter means that there is a strong medical and scientific focus to his investigation.  But don’t expect any dry statistics or yawn-inducing data here.  Even the most technically dense parts of the film are tempered by Liu’s wit, humour, and charm.  He never takes himself, or his project, too seriously.  At several points, A Sexplanation is laugh-out-loud funny.  Yet the humour doesn’t take away from the gravity of the film’s arguments in favour of comprehensive sexual education.

My one gripe with Liu’s film is that it is pretty binary and essentialist when it comes to gender.  This is perhaps understandable, given the current political climate in North America and the discrimination that trans people face.  It may have seemed like too big a topic to shoehorn into such a short and tightly focused documentary.  But it does feel like a major oversight.  While trans people are mentioned, briefly, no openly trans or nonbinary folks are interviewed — and trans and nonbinary experiences of sex, shame, puberty, or bodies are not addressed directly.  Intersex folks are never even mentioned at all. 

Still, it’s careful balance of humour, heart, and hard-hitting research makes A Sexplanation a must-see.  Particularly for parents, who may be wondering how to talk to their kids about sex and puberty, but also for anyone who has ever felt shame about what, or who, they want (or how they want it).


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