"A Sexplanation" streaming June 17-27 at the Frameline Film Festival, is Alex Liu's smart, lively, and thoughtful documentary about sex education — both his in particular and America's in general. Liu's goal is to talk honestly and even vulnerably, about sex, and he covers topics ranging from masturbation and pornography to taboo fantasies to demystify sex and the shame often associated with it. It is through his discussions with his own parents, as well as sex educators and researchers — and even a Catholic priest — that he normalizes dialogue about a topic most folks would prefer not to discuss.
"A Sexplanation" is certainly a conversation starter, and like the numerous interviewees, the ingratiating Liu treats the topic respectfully, and with a healthy curiosity, which is why it is so gratifying. The filmmaker, who has a background as a science and health reporter, spoke candidly with Salon about sex and his new documentary, "A Sexplanation."
You state in the opening moments of your documentary that you want to take away the shame and awkwardness about talking about sex. How did making this film enable you to be more comfortable about talking about sex and things that are culturally taboo?
The way I think about it now is the shame I have will always be there — it's just so deeply imprinted in who I am — but I am able to recognize it and process it much faster and think critically about how it serves me. The best part of doing this film was interviewing 25 people and asking them the same set of questions, divulging the same type of shame, secrets, and fears I had, and hearing the same answers over and over again. I realized that I'm quite typical and quite boring in many ways when it comes to how I process sex. And forcing myself to reveal things 25 times, it becomes normal. Coming out of the closet — the first time I did it was the most terrifying experience of my life. Now, I'm talking to customer service people about my husband, or talking to you now about sex is something that 18-year-old Alex would never have been able to do. It's taking whatever baby steps you can and pushing yourself in ways that are heathy for you. It's a slow, incremental process.
You first approach your parents about sex, and sex education, and later in the film about their sex lives. They are very open to the discussion. Not every family can be so open, but you show parents taking their pre-teenagers to sex ed classes. What do you think having that knowledge years ago may have done to help you in your life in general, or your sex life in particular?
I think about it all the time. If someone had told me when I was 10-13 that anal sex is a normal, pleasurable thing that many, many people do, my life could have been dramatically different. If someone had just told me "Your body is built for pleasure, and it's a gift that you should treasure as much as you can." Those two messages would have dramatically altered how I experience sex even today. If I had heard it from my parents, who have no problems with anal sex or masturbation — they just never grew up learning how to talk about it, so they never talked about it — but knowing that the people most important to me in my life at the time had no problem would have lifted a huge amount of shame and burden.
Let's talk about the shame. It's certainly something gay men experience more, but our cultural has started to change.
We didn't show it in the film, but we spent a whole week in Provo, Utah, which is 80-90% Mormon. Even talking to teens, it was very clear that through social media and the general exposure of how queer people presented, they don't have same stigma and shame around that. But the one thing I think that still does linger, is the communication about your own personal, sexual desires. You might not be ashamed to talk about how you are gay or queer, or genderfluid, but no one is talking about how to negotiate consent, your own fantasies, what feels good with another person — and because most people turn to porn for that instruction, on an individual, personal level, there is fear and shame about how to get what we want or need to have a healthy sex life.
I'm wondering how you quantify or qualify what a healthy sex life is?
It's totally subjective, and changes from moment to moment. But I think the measure is: Are you in an environment where you feel someone can listen to you nonjudgmentally about your experiences or thoughts, or are you still hiding parts of yourself for fear of judgment, violence or fear or repercussions? Health is a moving target. It's a constant process in someone's life, and to define that is very subjective.
That makes me think about power and control, and that people are afraid to admit having rape fantasies or enjoy BDSM. But your film indicates a rape fantasy doesn't mean you want to be raped, or be a rapist, or that one condones rape; it's just about power and control.
It's why we like rollercoasters. Playing with power and control is a fun way to play. But we code it in a sex realm; it is a scary risky thing when life is risky.
Yes, and I have turned down opportunities to be in sexual situations that scared me.
It's important to know yourself in that way. In San Francisco, I fell into the opposite trap. I overcorrected in many ways where I thought, "What's wrong with me that I don't want to be whipped or fisted?" But It's not what arouses me, or what I want to do. It's a continual process of learning who you are and knowing who you are.
Let's initiate the discussion — call it foreplay — about the wonderful scene in your film where you and your friend talk candidly over brunch about sex. How can we get to a place where that kind of discussion is possible?
It's open consent — we set the stage, and people went into it knowing what they were getting into. I think people are looking for permission to talk about these things because there are so few outlets to be listened to nonjudgmentally, and it's an invigorating, affirming experience. I picked these people [in the film] because they inspire me and are open and think critically about these things. Part of the reason I became a reporter is to ask the questions and create a context where it's safe to do that.
You have to be willing yourself to be open and vulnerable. You can't establish trust without reciprocating. Listening is a huge part of it and being nonjudgmental, so people feel they are being heard and willing to talk more. It's about active listening and validating that person's experience and knowing your own biases well enough — and if they serve you or not — and then being able to check them when you need to. Because sex is still very taboo to talk about, people will clam up very quickly if they sense there is any unsafe space being created. Developing your listening skills will payoff big time if you want to have these more open conversations.
Many families are steeped in religion or culture, and there is an additional layer when homosexuality is involved. We want to work towards a world where there are no stigmas, or judgment about sex or sexuality, but there will always be puritans, and conservatives. What are your thoughts?
I have a lot of hope. I think things are changing. I did speak to that Utah state senator, and we have very different beliefs about all this. It might be trite, but I honestly think by letting those you are opposed to — you may never change their mind — feel they are being heard . . . There are some sociopaths who are just not worth your time. They are manipulating people for power and money, and stoking divisions, and we must do our best to minimize those voices.
It took 15 years of hearing my family's prejudices and understanding their beliefs are not based on knowing any queer people or diverse sexual expression, but it's their specific world view. But it's valid based on their life experience. My experience has opened people up to seeing me as a human and consider me a friend. For better or worse, queer people, minorities, disadvantaged communities, and the marginalized, it is the cross we have to bear. I wish it were different, but in many ways, I think we do have to be the better people and more patient and more forgiving. I was lucky and privileged in that I grew up in the Bay Area and my family is relatively progressive. People are willing to open up and if not, you're not going to change their mind.
You talk with adolescent psychologist, a Provost Professor of Public Health at the Kinsey Institute, scientists who study orgasm. I appreciate you met with both Todd Weiler, the Utah state senator who has some thoughts on pornography as a public health crisis, and a Catholic Priest whose views on sex surprised you. How did you find and select the sources you interviewed?
I started from my own personal experience. Porn and religion have probably been the two most influential forces of how I experienced sex and sexuality. Or growing up, how I conceptualized and processed sexuality. We had to do a big section on porn, and I reached out to them and asked them who are the sex educators you turn to? It took a while to find Father Godfrey, who critiqued how the Catholic Church is thinking about sexuality. Who was willing talk with me about sex? My background is more hard science/biological science, so it was knowing who is doing that sex research, and the folks at Rutgers are only doing fundamental brain research. Kinsey was a natural fit. They were the first people to consider sex was a worthwhile field of study.
You mentioned the Rutgers study, which allowed you to masturbate on camera for sex research and donate an orgasm for science. Can you describe what that was like?
It was the least erotic sexual experience in my life! [Laughs] It was very technical and very clinical. They need to accurately scan your brain, so they lock your head into a contraption so it can't move. You can't watch porn since that would interfere with the brain readings. They want the brain reading to be solely due to physical stimulation. You're strapped in, so you get about two inches of room to move your hand. They make you stick something in your urethra, which is horrible. And then you have eight minutes to reach orgasm, so it's very pressured. [Laughs] I got it in the last 30 seconds. I had to go real far back to the hottest sexual experiences in my life. It was a good experience for me to do that in front of a bunch of people and realize it was OK. My parents have seen it. The world has seen it. Really, masturbation should be celebrated as much as possible. It's one of the joys of life that is all yours.
Now I want to hear about the best experience you had — if that's appropriate to ask.
What can I say that will respect the boundaries between my husband and me?
You talk about pornography with a PornHub data scientist. What surprised you with his responses?
We asked questions about demographics of what people like to get wide range of responses. Like I say in the film, getting good data about sexual fantasies is hard because people are not honest when talking to a surveyor, but they are super honest when you search for porn. Whatever fantasy you have, there are thousands of other people who have searched that term. We all have that one atypical fantasy. It underlined for me that there is an infinite world in terms of sex fantasy, and we shouldn't be ashamed of any of it.
I am actually not big into PornHub right now. Maybe it's my last gasp to hang on to my youth, but I'm watching a lot of porn from the early 2000s/late 1990s, when the porn stars had the most power in the industry. Now I pay for all my porn. This process has taught me how much porn has warped how I think about sex. When I first watched porn, it was the first time I saw two men having sex without shame. It was a celebration. It answered my questions about how men can have sex, and what is out there. It cemented to me that I was gay. Most porn produced in America is either two white men or plays on racial stereotypes. I think I internalized a lot of that. Now I look for more with more Asian men. Or porn that has better acting.
I've actually never been on PornHub. I just find that porn doesn't give me an emotional connection.
In a weird way, doing this movie, I am realizing how much I've disconnected from a spiritual aspect of sex. Because I felt the world was so against me having sex with men, I overcorrected, and acted on every sexual impulse I had without thinking of how much it affected me. How much is the sex I'm having serving my health and well-being? If there isn't that spiritual aspect to me, it isn't worth my time.
Why do you think there is so much fear and curiosity with fantasies and porn literacy? In the film, you meet with professors at the University of British Columbia and a psychologist at the West Coast Centre for Sex Therapy who demystify porn and emphasize pleasure.
There are a lot of reasons. I think it's gauging a baseline — am I weird myself? If we hear from everyone else, we can feel OK about our own interior fantasy lives. But it's human nature. We're attracted to taboo. We're fascinated with what gets people off. That's why we love murder shows. It helps us process our fears and concerns, and why we turn our heads when we see a car crash. We're attracted to thrill, excitement, and taboo.
Let me ask you a question you ask in the film: How do you define sex?
I think the definition for me is always shifting a little. I think of intercourse now as one extreme end of the spectrum. Even this conversation, which is pleasurable and fun, and you're opening my mind to different ways of thinking, is on the other end of the spectrum. That sense when you are able to feel connected to a person in a way that opens your mind to the beauty of the experience of love and connection, rather than pleasure and genitals, which is how I conceived of sex before. Physical touch — a pat on shoulder or back, or complimenting someone on how they look, or reminding someone of the love they have shown in the past — that's all sexual to me now. Every day, the definition expands and feels more truthful and honest. The flip side of sex is that the second it becomes unsafe or nonconsensual, it is one of the worst experiences a person can have. That's the risk and it is something we need to talk about.
I appreciate that you want us to learn how fun our bodies are. What is fun about your body?
It's funny, because I almost feel that now — I guess maybe I did in the past — but I almost find more intimacy with someone holding their hand, or cuddling with them, than I do being fully penetrated. Without that spiritual connection or true vulnerability and intimacy, your body — my body at least — is something that can serve that. If every hole is stuffed, and tons of tongues are on me, and I am not feeling safe, or I'm feeling I'm not having a connection with people, it's not a fun experience. I'm grappling with that right now. In a way I didn't anticipate, I've had more intimate experiences just having a real deep, open, honest conversation cuddling in bed with someone or holding someone's hand with clothes not coming off, and that slight touch of our hands has been one of the most intense, overwhelmingly pleasurable experiences I've had.
I also want to mention filming the naked montage in "A Sexplanation." It is rare in this country, as opposed to Asia and Europe, to be nude in public. Nude beaches and spas, not bathhouses, are not big here, but being nude in non-sexual space had a huge impact on my being OK with my body and seeing it as something to play with and not be ashamed of. In a way, I'm now more comfortable being a bottom than ever before in my life. I'm more comfortable with my penis and how it looks, and its size, than I ever have in my life. As long as we talk about it before, I'm pretty much now open to anything, as long as I feel I have control over the situation. It's fun to play with your body in a new way. My relationship with my body has been completely transformed. Before, it was a maybe a source of shame for many reasons, it is now a great tool to have some of the most connected pleasurable and memorable experiences in my life.
For more info about the film, including additional screenings, visit: www.asexplanation.com