It’s safe to say that for many people, high school sex education can lead to more confusion about sex, rather than answers. That was especially true for freelance science reporter Alex Liu, who grew up in the 1990s and later came out as gay. So, he went on a quest to learn about sex and its role in society. He captured it all in a new documentary called “A Sexplanation,” which he directed.
Liu says that at the core of the documentary is the desire to open up the conversation around sex and reduce the stigma and shame that can accompany the topic.
He says that in his own life, he didn’t learn that his sexual desires were natural until he got to college.
“Maybe things would have turned out differently for me. Maybe I would have had less shame,” Liu tells KCRW. “I was starting to think “Why isn't this just told to kids? It would alleviate so much pain and suffering.’ And I think a majority of parents probably do want to have these conversations, but they just don't know how, because they were never modeled.”
Liu explains that some of the most difficult conversations should start young, when much of the foundational knowledge can be taught. He uses the example of how he didn’t learn what the word ‘vulva’ meant until he started working on the documentary.
“The lack of conversation starts compounding and compounding. And so when you start to talk about ‘Why do people have sex? What does sex feel good? What kinds of sex are there?’ It just gets harder and harder and harder to have those conversations? So my advice is always just to start at the basics and build on that. And it gets easier and easier.”
Liu notes however that it’s hard to define exactly what sex is. During the documentary, different sex experts struggle with even explaining what it is. He wagers it’s difficult because sex can be much more than just intercourse.
“We’re learning more and more that sex and sexuality is such a core part of who we are. It's how we connect with each other. Intercourse is just one end of a really broad spectrum,” he says. “Any pleasurable human connection lives on the spectrum of sexuality. And the more we learn about sex, we learn that our definitions are have been limited in terms of how we think about sex.”
The relationship between religion and sexuality
Liu argues that religion plays a major role in how he formed his opinions on views sex and sexual orientation.
“The Catholic Church, and it's very strict rules about sex … has been huge in how I think about sex and huge in how my parents were not comfortable talking about sex and huge in how I thought about homosexuality,” Liu says. “Growing up, because I had such a negative reaction to the Catholic Church's teachings, my way to rebel was to act on every sexual impulse I had as kind of a middle finger to the Church.”
In the documentary, Liu speaks to Father Godfrey who teaches at the University of San Francisco, and he frames sexuality as an inherently natural part of all humans. Godfrey describes it as “what drives us out towards other people. It's that spark. … Everything we do is sexual, with a small ‘s’ in that sense. There's no part of us that isn't sexual.”
Liu says that after his conversation with Godrey, he began to reexamine his own relationship with sexuality and now considers it as a key component of his spirituality and his authentic self expression.
A hypersexualized society
Liu points out that while one part of society holds a puritanical view on sexuality, the hypersexulization of sex also exists. He explains that that double standard can lead to an unhealthy sex life.
“When it comes to social media, when it comes to advertising, when it comes to TV and film, it looks like we're a very confident, sexual culture. But when you get down to it, when you actually talk to people, how much are you willing to talk about with your partners you're supposed to love and trust the most about your real true deep sexual thoughts, fantasies, desires? I would guess that most people aren't,” Liu says.
Then, there’s the porn. Liu notes that although porn was where he first able to witness the normalization of gay sex, there’s also a dark side to how accessible it is. That’s due in part to its fictionalized nature.
“Porn is not an instruction manual. Before anyone sees their first frame of porn, we need to be really clear as a culture that we contextualize porn for that child. This is a fantasy. This is like watching Fast and the Furious,” Liu says. “We're missing out and doing our children a huge disservice by not talking about porn, and not talking about what real sex looks like. … If porn is the only place where people can see that and we're not talking about it, then we end up with a lot of confusion and suffering that in my view is needless.”
That being said, Liu says he doesn’t advocate for kids to watch porn. But he says it might be necessary to have a conversation with kids about porn to help them understand what they are watching and to be available if they have any questions.
Talking to family about sex
In the documentary, Liu sits down with his parents about sexuality and he took the opportunity to ask all the questions he was afraid to ask them when he was younger.
“At the beginning, I was blaming them for why I was 36 and still very uncomfortable talking about sex. But very quickly, I was dissuaded by that idea. Because you learn their upbringing, their background [and] it totally makes sense. And there's no real blame to go around.”
He says the line of questioning was uncomfortable, but helped him further understand and see his parents as full fledged humans.
“For so much of your life, you see your parents as these mythical godlike creatures. And now our relationship is changing and has changed to the point where we actually talk about maybe things with more meat. It doesn't even have to be about sex or sexuality, just like how we're actually doing on an emotional level.”
Liu even learned that his mom knew he was gay as a child, which in some ways, helped him come full circle.
“You don't realize how much of your childhood you still keep and carry along with you and how much you're just really trying to please your parents,” he says. “Knowing that [my sexuality] was nothing to be worried about, in surprising ways, has helped me become more buoyant and more honest and vulnerable in my own personal sex life.”