A Sexplanation


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A Sexplanation
"The joy that Liu finds in the learning process is infectious and will itself give many viewers a new respective on the subject." | Photo: Courtesy of Inside Out

What were your first experiences of learning about sex? The UK is in a curious position, caught between US puritanism and European liberalism for much of its recent history, so answers to this question vary a lot. Across most of the world, sex is just a biological function - there's a time and a place for it, but talking about it is not a big deal. In the US it has been subject to ongoing moral panic, with the result that even well-meaning, well educated parents often have no idea how to talk to their kids about it. For Alex Liu, whose situation was compounded by his early awareness that he was gay, that meant years of shame and uncertainty, poor communication with partners and worry about his private fantasies. In this documentary, he sets out on a fact-finding mission, hoping to set that to rights.

Many YouTubers will already be familiar with Alex as a science communicator with a particular interest in topics where moral concerns can obscure the facts. He's known for being undaunted by social taboos but it's clear that this, his first cinematic venture, has strained the limits of his courage. Amongst other things, he takes on the challenge of talking to his own parents about sex for the first time, on camera. Despite his professional demeanour, one can see his fear - but surprisingly enough, his parents are also human beings, with their own thoughts on the subject. From their apologetic explanations of why they said so little when he was growing up to later scenes in which they reflect on their own relationship with gently combative humour, they break down barriers, and there's joy to be had in watching the family come closer together as a result.

This is the essence of the film. It's not designed to titillate, but to educate and to facilitate communication. The joy that Liu finds in the learning process is infectious and will itself give many viewers a new respective on the subject. His openness is reciprocated by many of his interviewees. A conservative politician comes across much more warmly than many would expect and is given room to make his case, while a Jesuit priest surprises Liu by talking about sexuality as an important part of what it means to be human.

For the most part, the film focuses on conversations with scientists, doctors and other experts who tackle myths about sex and pose new questions, inviting viewers to wonder exactly what we mean by the term in the first place and explaining the still poorly understood neurological complexity of orgasm. Whilst some viewers will be shocked by what others don't know, the film is neither boring nor patronising, and many will find their questions answered as well as learning surprising facts which has it never occurred to them to wonder about. The tone is upbeat and often humorous, and Brian Emerick's bright, engaging cinematography enhances this.

At a sociological level, the film explores a historical approach to sex educations focused on trying to terrify teenagers with images of diseased genital organs, and looks at how educators today are trying to move beyond the mechanics of coitus to talk about relationship skills and the importance of consent. There's some reflection on objections to sex education and on the purity movement, but debates around this are not allowed to dominate the film. Overall the message is that society is changing and has room to change further, making room for much healthier, happier experiences.

Reviewed on: 28 May 2021
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A Sexplanation packshot
To right the wrongs of his all-American sex education, a 36-year-old goes on a quest to uncover naked truths and hard facts - no matter how awkward it gets.

Director: Alex Liu

Writer: Alex Liu, Leonardo Neri

Starring: Alex Liu, Laurie Betito, Kristen Gilbert, Donal Godfrey, Barry Komisaruk

Year: 2021

Runtime: 76 minutes

Country: US


IO 2021

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