Tuesday, May 11

CIFF Documentary “A Sexplanation” Explores American Sex Education

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Do words like “penis” or “clitoris” make you uncomfortable? If so, you’re not alone.

Often focusing more on shame and abstinence, American sex education leaves a bit to be, ahem, desired. That’s why health and science reporter, Alex Liu, set out to talk to sexperts of all types to get insight on just why we’re rarely, if ever, educated on things like sexual or gender identity, masturbation, and other sex-related topics you don’t learn in school.

The result is his documentary, “A Sexplanation,” which he created with Leonardo Neri, and is screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival, through April 20th.

The Buckeye Flame talked to Liu about the film and what he learned about having a healthier relationship to sex.

How were you able to turn your personal experiences and struggles into this film?
Basically this movie is born out of the kind of lingering shame and frustration around sex that that I’ve felt for pretty much my entire adult life. I came out of the closet 20 years ago and I thought that would solve all my issues with sexual shame. And I thought that all of a sudden I would be this fully-expressed, authentic, sexual being, but looking back, it was really just the beginning of a lot of work.

Quite honestly, when I was having sexual experiences, it didn’t feel like I thought it should. I didn’t feel as connected to my body as I thought I should. I was so much in my head. I was so concerned and afraid and frankly, ashamed about, “Am I doing this right? Is this person enjoying it? Am I having a good connection?” When I started to talk to my friends about these feelings, I realized that many people, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation or background, they all have their own unspoken fears, concerns, and shame around sex.

Since my background is as a science and health reporter, my instinct is simply to go into the data and research, to ask, “Is my experience normal?” When I realized this was a common experience, that alone released a lot of shame for me knowing that I wasn’t alone in this. As I talked to more and more people, I started to think, “Well, why don’t we have these conversations earlier on?”

If someone had just told me at 12 or 13 it was totally normal and people have amazing, great lives and enjoy anal sex, and same-sex sexual encounters are a very common experience, that simple fact, I think, would have released a lot of shame for me growing up. But when you look at the whys, it’s very clear it’s very difficult for an elected school board member to campaign on the promise of “We’re going to normalize anal sex, we’re going to normalize same sex relationships, we’re going to normalize teaching women it’s okay to masturbate as much as they want.” These messages that are, frankly, true, but don’t get taught because it’s just too politically toxic.

I started to think, why don’t I try to as openly and as vulnerably as possible, kind of divulge my own deep, dark secrets, fantasies, and shames around sex to the smartest people who are doing the work around sex research and sex education, and see what they had to say. And see if maybe we could put together a story around how to think critically about your sexuality in a way that actually promotes your health, rather than causes stress or anxiety.

What did you learn about yourself along the way while working on this?
I think the biggest message I’ve learned is there’s no way you can compartmentalize your sexuality, that at every given point, in every human interaction, there is a sexual dimension. And I think it’s been hard for me to train myself out of this way of thinking, but just because it’s sexual doesn’t mean you want to get naked with someone and have intercourse. It’s just thinking about sex more as pleasurable human connections: a pat on the shoulder, telling someone they look good that day, all these different interactions we have in which we establish true connection.

That spark of being alive with someone is something that for so long I’ve trained myself to repress, to really de emphasize, to desexualize myself. And that in itself is harmful in ways that I’m still trying to unpack. So just seeing that I have two choices: that I’m always a sexual being, that there’s always a sexual component to who I am at all times, and I can either run away from it and hide it, or I can lean into it and embrace it and try to play with it. I’m realizing that I’m much happier and healthier with the latter. So that’s kind of where I am right now.

What did you learn about parents talking to their kids about LGBTQ+ identity? Why is that important?
It’s easy to demonize a lot of parents who are scared of sex education in school, but I think most parents do want to talk about these things. They just don’t know how, because none of us have really been given training around how to talk about these things. I know my parents, when I came out of the closet, they were loving, they put me in therapy, they met local gay people to show me that there was a life of meaning available to me. But they had never had training about how do you talk about these things? How do you actually make sure that you’re modeling behavior that de-shames queer identity?

I think most parents are hungry for it, but they just don’t know how. It is scary and uncomfortable to talk about these things. What I’m learning is that parents do want this information. They do want to be able to talk about these things, but they just need a little help from other parents and from educators. They need a little patience from their kids, maybe, that if we can help parents in any way possible, whether that’s through media, whether that’s through education, whether it’s through online resources, whatever it is, to give parents the models, the tools to be able to speak about these things without it being fraught is something that I think parents are actually hungry for and should we support them as best we can.

What do you hope the viewers will walk away from this film with?
I just want people to take whatever baby step, the smallest step that they can make possible to be a little more open and vulnerable and authentic about sex, sexuality, and a healthy sex life. I think we’re all in different places, we all have individual sexualities. The more and more I learned, it’s not that there are a handful of sexualities. There are 7 billion people on this planet and there are 7 billion distinct sexualities on this planet. And just knowing that you are normal.

The only thing that’s probably normal about people’s sexuality is that we’re all different. And so the more you can take those little steps to express something you’ve never expressed to a trusted loved one, to wear your hair the way you want to wear your hair, to do whatever it takes to feel a little more true to yourself. And that usually starts with just having conversations to actually reveal yourself in some way. Whatever baby steps you can take, I encourage my viewers to do. Hopefully after watching they’ll see why that’s just better for them and better for society if we move in that direction.🔥

Ignite Action:

  • Watch “A Sexplanation” at the 2021 Cleveland International Film Festival! Use the discount code “FLAME” when purchasing tickets at clevelandfilm.org (available 24 hours a day) to take $1.00 off of each ticket in your cart!

About Author

Ilona Westfall

Ilona Westfall is a Cleveland-based freelance writer. When she’s not penning articles for a variety of northeast Ohio publications, she’s roller skating with Burning River Roller Derby, rolling d20s with her D&D group, or getting muddy in the woods.

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