Film Review: A Sexplanation

reviewed by Eric Hillis

Director Alex Liu opens his documentary with a quote from the actress Marlene Dietrich: “In America, sex is an obsession; in other parts of the world it’s a fact.” Over the following 80 minutes, Liu attempts to get to the heart of the great irony that America is obsessed with sex, yet many Americans still find it shameful.

As his film’s onscreen host and narrator, Liu begins by asking his Catholic Chinese-American parents the sort of questions he has long avoided. He’s surprised to find they’re a lot more open on the subject than he had anticipated, and it seems their conservative attitudes to sex are culturally inherited rather than personally formed. Liu is equally surprised when upon interrogating a Catholic priest on the church’s official line regarding sexuality he receives far more open-minded answers than he had prepared himself for.

One of the main conclusions Liu draws from speaking to ordinary Americans about sex is that it’s a subject still considered taboo by greater society, yet individually, Americans are generally fine with indulging in and speaking about sex. Liu even prompts a Republic politician from Utah to admit that he enjoys seeing his wife naked. That particular interaction is testament to Liu’s nonjudgmental approach to his subject. While he admits that as a gay man he has a liberal bias, Liu’s interactions with those who hold opposing views are never confrontational. As a result, he finds that certain views reach across the political aisle, such as how liberals and conservatives alike want to keep children safe from harmful content even if they may not agree on a definition of such.

Seeking some objective answers, Liu meets with various scientists and “sexperts,” and even allows himself to become a guinea pig in an experiment to map the effects of an orgasm on the brain. These interactions feel a little superficial, with Liu failing to interrogate the data he’s presented with on any satisfying level. We never get a look at the results of the aforementioned orgasm study. When an anonymous PornHub employee reads off the most searched terms on the site, Liu fumbles the opportunity to examine why such specific preferences might be popular among Americans.

What’s most frustrating about A Sexplanation is how Liu tells us early on that as a young gay man, he harbored suicidal thoughts. It’s something he never refers back to as his film adopts a light touch throughout. Liu is certainly a charismatic host and his doc is an easy watch, but you can’t help feel he’s only scratched the surface of his own relationship to sex.

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