Filmmaker Alex Liu's documentary about sex premieres at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival this week.
Liu's documentary "A Sexplanation" screens at this week's Seattle Asian American Film Festival. A Sexplanation

Look around. America still has deep problems when it comes to talking about sex. Too many people are sent into the big world of sexual exploration ill-prepared and uncertain about their bodies.

Filmmaker Alex Liu wants to change that. In his documentary A Sexplanation, which Liu has worked on since 2014 and is showing as part of this year's Seattle Asian American Film Festival, he tackles a whole host of these issues head-on. Liu's approach to the material is humorous and nakedly honest, covering his personal growth toward understanding his sexuality as a queer man and broader attempts to raise the public's consciousness around sex topics.

Before the documentary screens at the fest this week, I spoke with both Liu and his co-writer Leonardo Neri about why we're so fucking bad about talking about sex.

We've edited this interview for length and clarity.

HUTCHINSON: I wanted to start by talking about this being a deeply personal story while still hitting all of these broader ideas. The result is playful while also uncovering this deeper trauma and baggage. How did you find that balance?

LIU: Luckily, I think Leo and I have a somewhat dark sensibility as that was a great coping mechanism to get through a lot of the trauma. The core of all this is the very simple fact that sexual pleasure and sexual connection is good. It's a good thing for the world. That's a very simple message that never gets told at an early age. In fact, the message is often the opposite. It's scary; you should repress it as much as possible; it's something to fear.

NERI: Have sex and you'll die.

LIU: Yeah, and with that simple paradigm switch so much trauma, so much therapy could've been saved. We're very clear at the beginning that once you've got that basic message, this movie had to be fun. It had to feel fun because that's the message that we wanted as a kid. But we can't ignore the fact that it took a long time for us to get that. It's maybe a way for us to think through how this is uncomfortable for all of us, but the best way to release that tension is humor and comedy. Comedians, in my mind, are the ones who can say uncomfortable truths that get mass audiences to release that because it's something we're all feeling.

You're very insightful to see that it was probably a three or four-year writing process. You should see each of the drafts we had. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of raw vitriol come out first. Just a lot of demons and awful things. Starting from that place and then slowly crafting it so that it felt like that balance of not ignoring the truth but quickly shifting to the lighter, more humorous, more fun truth that is sex.

Yeah, and Leo, I think you chimed in about the outdated abstinence PSA where a kid asks about sex before marriage and is told, "Well, I guess you just have to be prepared to die." You laugh at that moment looking back, but if you were a kid watching that it would scare the shit out of you.

LIU: Yeah, it's so fucked up. [laughs]

NERI: It gets baked in there.

Now every time you feel desire, that would be over your shoulder — "Oh, I'm going to die."

NERI: Even well into adulthood as a queer man, in my mind it's like, "Oh, I'm going to die of AIDS." It's like the 2000s, but if I have sex I'm going to die of full-blown AIDS. That's just baked into your psyche, so there is so much guilt in any sexual act or impulse. That's such a fucked up thing, so dispelling it with humor and embracing the awkward was always core to the message and the work.

In the doc, there's one scene where, Alex, you talk to Utah Sen. Todd Weiler, who worked to declare porn a public health crisis and has since begun pushing to have porn filters placed on the internet. You use humor to disarm him in it—you ask him about porn he could get into with his wife. Did he have anything to say about that afterward? Do you think you got better answers out of him through that approach?

LIU: Totally better answers. I think that I've learned to state the elephant in the room as much as possible upfront, not tiptoeing around it and going there, in a way that feels respectful. I don't think I could have said that if I weren't clear that I was listening and responding to what he was saying. I think he's never been confronted with that. He was good-natured about it, but it was a very awkward moment for him, and he left very quickly afterward.

How did you select your voices and sources? Were there any that didn't make the cut?

NERI: So many. I think we started off the project where it was this all-encompassing documentary about sex. But then it's like, okay, what about sex? We started by a kind of spaghetti-at-the-wall, spray-and-pray situation, where we asked: What are the building blocks of sex? The mise en place, if we're cooking a meal; what is every ingredient we can possibly prepare so we can attack this subject? We went to everyone from scientists and neurologists to historians and psychologists.

All of these different perspectives—we interviewed trans health centers—had such rich stories that we didn't think we could give it the proper amount of attention and cram it into this film. We kind of had to pierce the surface enough to paint a broad macro picture of the issue, and we couldn't really drill into these more specific things that just deserve a lot more attention. We kept it broad enough so we could paint in large brush strokes versus getting really in there into the intimate details.

Especially during the porn section, did you talk with either adult film actors or sex workers?

LIU: We did. We didn't film them. We had introductory discussions with them, but that became very clear very quickly, like, oh man, there is so much baggage around this work, and so much that would have to be talked about and thought about. So we were like, let's just start with the very basic idea of: We all watch porn, and we all feel guilty or ashamed of it to some level. That's kind of the most pressing question for people.

But yeah, I think sex work and sex workers, it's a shame that they're probably some of the artists and performers that literally provide the most pleasure to the world and they're so mistreated and exploited. That's the big part where we were like, oh, the exploitation aspect that needs to be talked about but requires so much nuance.

Oh! A Sexplanation

There are all these barriers in place when talking about sex. Even in "liberal" Washington State, there are often concerted efforts to fight against comprehensive sex education. Do you think it's possible to change minds with your documentary? Do we need systemic change first?

LIU: This might be the pessimistic, cynical view, but I really think that for sex education advocates (which I consider myself one), the framing needs to shift dramatically. You have to start from the perspective that the fear, though maybe taken to irrational extremes, is valid and should be respected.

I'm not a parent, but I can imagine even the most progressive parents get nervous with someone they don't really know that well is telling their kids about one of the most pinnacle, spiritual moments of being a human being. I'm all for comprehensive sex education, and people should be taught all the things—to always protect themselves, and all the ways it's great, and how pleasure is good.

But the way it's framed is: We need to teach kids about sex—which, I think, even though maybe half of the population is all for that, the other half is going to be against it, and you can't do anything about that. I just feel like they're unmovable when you talk about these things. I would much rather the framing be around something like my movie or Great Conversations, which is based in Seattle. [I would much rather the framing be] around parents and children having difficult conversations about sex. That the role of the school, of the education system, is not to teach values. In fact, it should be valueless. But it's just to teach the facts, and parents should have access to them, know what they are; they should be able to be there if they want to.

To frame the education around: We're going to show this movie, like A Sexplanation, so that you can go home with your kids and have conversations that maybe you don't know how to broach. It can be a third party to talk about it. My mom after seeing the movie had said, "I wish I had this just for parents," like parents would spend a weekend taking the class that their kid is going to take. Maybe a better way to frame it is that it needs to be a community-based approach. That is kind of where I am in terms of where I see maybe an opening to get better sex education.

You can see A Sexplanation starting March 3 at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival.