Filmmaker Alex Liu on Sex Education and Shame
Growing up, Alex Liu didn't know it was okay to be queer. And although he's been out of the closet for decades, a shadow of shame around sex and sexual desires still follows him around.
He turned his own story and questions into a documentary: A Sexplanation. The documentary takes us "from neuroscience labs to church pews, [featuring] provocative conversations with psychologists, sex researchers—and even a Jesuit priest. With humor and grit, Alex takes audiences on a playful, heartfelt journey from a shame-filled past to a happier, healthier, sexier future." You can now rent or buy the documentary on Apple TV, Amazon, and more.
Alex’s passion for telling compelling stories that blend education, advocacy, and entertainment led him to found Herra Productions in 2012. Since then, he’s developed two award-winning YouTube channels focused on sex and drug education, totaling over five million views. After studying molecular toxicology at UC Berkeley and Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting at New York University, he produced video, radio, and print content for NOVA scienceNOW, CNN Health, and San Francisco NPR station KQED.
Learn more at herraproductions.com or follow Alex on Instagram @alexanderxliu.
Alex Liu 00:01
The one thing I learned the most in this whole process is if I want to be seen non judgmentally, and if I want to be heard and respected and loved for who I am, the only way I'll get that is if I give that to others. No matter what even if you are someone who I vehemently disagree with on most issues. To hear where they're coming from, to understand their path, and to listen. It's a skill that you need to hone and practice. And we don't do enough of and I think that's something that I'm just beginning to really understand.
Jera Brown 00:37
Writer director Alex Liu's work explores taboo topics like sex and drugs in order to broaden our understanding of science, morality, and how to negotiate a meaningful life. He's developed two award winning YouTube channels focused on sex and drug education, totaling over 5 million views. After studying Molecular Toxicology at UC Berkeley and science, health, and environmental reporting at New York University. He produced video radio and print content for Nova Science Now, CNN health in San Francisco NPR station KQED.
Jera Brown 01:12
So we are talking today about Alex's new documentary Sexplanation. Alex, I watched it thank you for sending it to me, but in your own words...
Alex Liu 01:24
Thanks for watching it.
Jera Brown 01:25
Yeah, totally. I'm super glad I did. Would you mind just telling us about it?
Alex Liu 01:31
Yeah. So, the logline for the film would be, you know, in an attempt to try to dismantle the shame I've learned in the first 36 years of my life, when it comes to sex, I'm finally going to try to get a good sex education by traveling US and Canada, talking to the premier sex researchers, thinkers, educators, no matter how awkward it gets and try to live a life that's more authentic and more sexually honest.
Jera Brown 01:59
So it came out in 2020 right?
Alex Liu 02:03
It came out in March, actually, the world pemier was March 2021, yeah at the Cinequest Film Festival, yeah, we've been on the film festival circuit for the whole year. And we're just finishing up.
Jera Brown 02:12
Nice. So tell tell folks, some of the awards or talk about how it was recieved.
Alex Liu 02:17
Yeah, I mean, I think as a first time filmmaker, and after making, you know, this is a, this has been a seven year journey to make this film from the first dollar raised to the first you know, audience screening, and you go through so much self doubt, and imposter syndrome, and you... by the time it screens, you've seen the film 200 times and you hate every frame, and you see every mistake, and you are just so insecure about whether or not the narrative you're telling will resonate, if it will connect, because it is also a very deeply personal story, which it didn't start out being but it ended up kind of having to be that way. And, yeah, it's been received in a way that just it's hard to process. But just been so rewarding in terms of how audiences have, of all different types, you know, I identify as queer, but you know, old, straight couples who've been together 50 years have told me about how, after watching the film, they've now had conversations about their childhood, about their sex lives, about their desires, that they've never had before, which has been exactly what we wanted to do. You know, we wanted to get people starting conversation and the fact that it's resonating beyond my little kind of, you know, identifier, community bubbles. It's been great. And so, yeah, we've won audience awards, a bunch of, you know, first film director awards across the country. And one in Canada actually, from queer film festivals, Asian Film Festivals, and just general kind of city film festivals. So it's been a... I did not expect it to get this far. Um, and the fact that we're even talking right now kind of still blows my mind.
Jera Brown 04:02
Yeah, so some of the themes throughout it, talking to the audience now, Alex mentioned how, you know, not being able to well, correct me if I'm wrong, like you wrote somewhere you answered a question that your parents were always comfortable with like gay folks and yet there was something about your sexuality that caused you to become suicidal. Yeah, not to start off super heavy but I was like, this is one of the themes like because we're going to talk a lot about shame.
Alex Liu 04:34
Yeah, I think you know, a line in the movie that that really resonated strongly with me is silence is often speaks louder than words, right so I think for many progressive lefty liberal you know, non religious conservative families who will honestly don't have an issue with homosexuality, queerness all that stuff. They still are not raised in a culture, they were not raised in a way to talk openly and often about sex. And so for myself, and you know, it's gone through a lot of years of therapy and thinking about this, but, you know, in my upbringing, people who maybe didn't care if I were gay just were silent, and then the people who cared that I was gay were overly negative and and, you know, I think we might be the last generation that actually felt such such strong kind of really virulent, violent homosexual attitudes. You know, I think it was very commonplace to make jokes about violence against gay queer people, and it was totally fine. You could you could hear it on mainstream television. And so the idea of a life of meaning, which is, you know, I think at its basic, it's, you know, meaningful human connections just felt so impossible. And so you know,as a 13 year old who is not fully equipped yet to process, all of the new feelings that are flooding your brain and body during puberty, suicide seems like a much easier option than having to deal with it, especially if no one was around, or you don't feel comfortable saying the words I'm gay to anyone, especially the people who you love. You know, I of course, you know, if I could go back in time, I would have told my parents I was gay much earlier, because they had an amazing, perfect reaction to to me coming out. But when you grew up in, you know, 1900s...it was it's a, it's phenomenal to me how in 20 years, things have shifted just so much, because 20 years ago, I mean, we were, you know, that one of the most the biggest political battles we're having on whether or not gay people were worthy of marriage, which is kind of like its own weird, kind of like, the fact that we were fighting for this really antiquated system. But still, you know, I understand politically why that was our fight. But yeah, I think it's um, I think suicide is often a common experience for many queer people, especially queer people of a certain age, because you just don't see a life worth living being possible,
Jera Brown 07:09
Totally. So the nickname of this podcast is Dogus Interruptus, because they inturupt a lot, but I have to go let in my eight month old puppy.
Alex Liu 07:17
Please do. Please do.
Jera Brown 07:21
Murphy come here baby. Come on... Okay. So I mean, obviously, that's part of the origins of shame, right. And shame was just a huge topic throughout. It feels like a lot of things that came out, it was just that the need for a comprehensive sex education that people don't understand, like general anatomy, and there's a lot of hush hush around it. And one of the main things in that that hush hush leads to, besides lack of consent, and toxic ideas of what sex should be, is shame. And I, my guess is, that's why it resonated for so many people. It's just because we all have grown up with shame, in one way or another that we don't get rid of.
Alex Liu 08:06
Oh, yeah, I think it's so basic, right? I think it starts so young, before you even form memories, right? That mother's, father's, parents, that when they are say naming body parts, they skip over a whole part of your body, or it's so natural for, you know, even newborns to explore their body and explore what sensations feel good, and what don't. And I think there is a noticeable chill in the room for many parents. And when a baby starts playing their genitals because they didn't, no one talked to them about the fact that this happens. They don't know what it means. And then they freak out. And it's in that freaking out, even if these are parents who, you know, really do want their children to have fully, pleasurable, joyful sex lives in their adult life, don't have this basic understanding or acceptance or really comfortableness comfort around their body, you know, and you know, I think the most clearest example of this is how most girls probably don't hear the word clitoris till much later in life, you know, that, that word is somehow scary, which is, which is just so so tragic and depressing to me.
Jera Brown 09:25
And I think one of the things that struck me in watching it just was that I feel like it's been my belief that I think is erroneous, that especially queer folks that have such a harder time coming out and finding community that by the time that we do, we've healed from a lot of the shame that we felt. And I mean, I run around with, you know, like folks that are blatantly kinky, you know, or other sex workers and stuff that have have done a lot of shame work, but then have a lot of clients that are... That's what we do. We do shame work. But it was a reminder that like, no matter how far along we get in our queer journey, or, you know, our journey to becoming our authentic selves, that we still carry a lot of things that we don't talk about,
Alex Liu 10:16
I'm often asked, So are you cured now? Like, are you cured of your shame? And my answer to that is, I think shame around sex is so strongly imprinted into who I am and my identity from such a young age, you never lose that initial imprinting, right? The trauma really, of of having to process this alone. And the fear and terror is just so deeply ingrained in my brain, it's who I am. And I think every day slowly, slowly, slowly, you get better at recognizing the shame because often it comes out in ways that don't immediately present as shame. Anger, you know, usually anger, and so you're getting very clear very quickly about the thoughts you have if they're fueled by shame. And then if that's actually serving you and if it's not learning how to clean up the actions and behaviors and how you deal with it. So yeah, it's like a it's like a family member now who you have to learn to live and deal with and eventually learn to love because it made you who you are and brought you to this place. So yeah, I think shame is something that you know, shame does not survive in the light so the more we can talk about and really get deep into it you know, like the shame about I'm talking about like the shame about your the way your asshole smells and you know, the shame about all these things that we all have that we all you know, the deeper you can get with it the freer you become, and it's not to get rid of it. It's just to acknowledge its presence with with other people and then it's always surprising how quickly it dissipates and how much you didn't realize how much of a burden it actually was in your life until it's gone.
Jera Brown 12:03
Totally. Okay, one more second. Hey! You can't be crazy. Come here. I really hope that this will get better the older she gets. It does.
Alex Liu 12:13
Is this your first puppy?
Jera Brown 12:15
No, actually, I've got a 150 pound Alaskan Malamute outside.
Alex Liu 12:19
Jera Brown 12:20
And he was super lonely and driving me crazy. So I got him a dog basically.
Alex Liu 12:27
A puppies a lot of work.
Jera Brown 12:28
Yeah, totally. Yeah, I was not ready cuz he was a puppy last summer. I was not ready to go through it again. But you know, you do what you need to do for the things you love. Um, so I feel like a success story when it comes to shame. I mean, I had such intense shame about like, I mean, I went to a conservative Christian College, like, I was the only person I knew that masturbated. And I say the only person I knew that masturbated because like, there was this board, in our bathroom in the dorm, where we would write like, I never statements, and somebody wrote, I've never, I've never kissed. And there were like, 12 other hashmarks representing me toos, like, there were conversations about how blow jobs were disgusting. And these were girls that were on their way of getting married at 20, 21. You know, and it's very possible that other people were masturbating. But like I was the only one that that I knew that was masturbating, and was so filled with intense shame about it, you know, about the need for it, that by the time I finally started having any sort of sexual encounter in my mid 20s, that I thought that I had, like, ruined myself for marriage that I took like this long break from dating and convinced myself that like, I was going to, like, get right with God, and that God would just like land a husband in my lap for... so that I wouldn't have to worry about, like sexual sin anymore. And like I told you before we started recording, like, I mean, I couldn't even admit to myself that like I was attracted to women. I didn't even know about like, trans and non binary folks, I didn't recognize that I felt like I was one of them until my mid 20s. So a life depicted by shame. But then when I finally realized that I didn't believe that there should be shame, and discovered the kink community and the queer community and the polyamorous polyamory community, like, I no longer feel any shame about sex at all. I do have shame around like, I have a lot of fears about like being a good partner, and like shame, or fear about being too much. And you know, these other sort of intrinsic things, but like, I feel like I've overcome shame related regarding my, like, my desires and need for sex and, and the sexual encounters that I've had. So I do I do think it's possible. I don't know, I hope that's, I hope that's like a hopeful thing to know anyway,
Alex Liu 15:24
That's great. That's great to hear. Yeah, I like to think of it as... It's like coming out of the closet, right, like saying, I'm gay, the first time you're on the verge of puking, you literally want to kill yourself before saying it. And then you do it, you know, 20,000 times, and then all of a sudden it doesn't matter, right? But every once in a while, you know, right before you talk to someone or you're unsure you put yourself in situation, you can feel that like that little, that little thing that's always gonna be there. And maybe it's like a dimmest, dimmest, kind of a fire, but to me at least, and this is just my experience. It's always there. And maybe that's just who I am. But it's, I now see it, and I recognize it. And it's not something that, for the most part doesn't hold me back. It's something I just have to acknowledge and deal with. And now I know how to.
Jera Brown 16:21
And so one of the things that you talked about that a lot of us have shame around is just, it's not just like our sexual identity or orientation, but it's, it's the specific things we desire, like the things that we, the porn that we watch, and that kind of thing. Which is so common. And there's shame, there's a lot of moral questions around, like the things that we desire, because they're often taboo. I'm trying to think what I want to ask about this, like, well, okay, yeah, so I once again, think that this is a pretty common part of somebody's queer journey. Like, I know that there's a lot of straight people that like a lot of taboo sex. I mean, even just, you know, hearing like, what... good grief Murphy... what men and women like typically, like search for, on PornHub. Like, it's a lot of, it's a lot of taboos. But to me, there's part of like, there's part of being queer, that's about breaking the rules, like breaking down norms, and then that often leads to norm breaking in our sexual desire.
Alex Liu 17:25
Yeah I think once you've kind of said fuck you to society in a big way, then it becomes so much easier to set your own rules, boundaries, desires. And in a way now that I think about that, I actually kind of feel bad for straight couples who have never had to go through that process. Because I don't think many straight couples actually know who they are on a very deep fundamental level, because they've never had to transgress a societal boundary. And so yeah, once you do it once, then you come out, okay, and you realize people still love you. And you can have a life full of meaning. And if you're lucky enough to live in a place where you keep your job, I think, then you start thinking, well, well, shit, you know, this didn't matter. So what else doesn't matter? And that is one thing that we talked a lot about my co writer Leonardo Neri and I about this film, is to get people, all people to come out that there is, you know, I don't believe there is a prototypical traditional straight person. Like I think that's that is more weird and uncommon than like a queer person, right? Like, I think it's the norm, I think, is really that we're all kind of atypical queer, off the beaten path in some way. And what is actually strange and abnormal is if you actually follow some sort of, like, Christian ideal of what you should be sexually. So I think this was our attempt to kind of get people to think about okay, yeah, how am I actually, what am I repressing? Maybe I don't have to be, because I'm predominantly attracted to an opposite gender opposite sex, I don't have to make this big public declaration, but there's probably something that I've always repressed because I was scared how it would make me seem to my partner to my family, and maybe it's something that is a source of unhealthy behavior, unhealthy, kind of, or just poor mental health right. And so this was our argument that coming out, in all ways, just leads to such a more fun, fulfilled meaningful life and isn't that we all we all want.
Jera Brown 19:41
So, in this journey for yourself about being open to the things that you desire, like how has it changed you?
Alex Liu 19:50
I mean, the fact that I, you know, can talk about you know, my mom calls me a sloppy masturbator on camera, you know, it is yeah, it's It's hard to feel much shame anymore about my most, all of my sexual behaviors from my, I talk about my porn searches I talk about, you know, masturbating as a child all the fears all I mean, I've now talked to I mean just sitting in interviews before audiences even seen it, you talk to 30 people about your deepest darkest sexual fantasies, fears, desires, and they all basically come back with like, so what? And then you realize, yeah, so what you know. And so I think, I think in a way, it feels like I'm kind of brand new in many ways like that, that I now realize my thoughts, my patterns, my framing around sex in the past was not helpful, not healthy, not who I was. And now it's like discovering who you are. So it's, it's I often say that I feel like like a two or three year old spiritually now because now I can decide for myself, what does it mean to be healthy, moral, ethical, spiritual, sexual being, and I'm not sure really what it is yet, but it's more fun trying to play and, and think about this in a way that feels expansive, whereas in the past, it felt much more restrictive.
Jera Brown 21:22
Yeah, so you talk about play. Like, are there specific ways that you've started playing? Or like new questions that have arised?
Alex Liu 21:32
I mean, to be honest, I've never I've never had sex with with a woman. That's something that now I'm like, thinking about. I feel like sex work, like the idea of being part of that economy. Now. I'm like, Well, you know, maybe, you know, I think there's a lot of reasons why it's, it shouldn't be taboo. I mean, I have a lot more empathy. Also, I want to be very clear that that there are some sexual desire sexual impulses, fantasies that are completely immoral, unethical, especially if you actually do inact it without people's consent. But I have a lot more empathy for people who have them and don't feel like they can talk about it. Because I think if our goal is to reduce sexual violence, the worst thing we can do is have these people not have a safe space and by safe space, I mean, like very controlled regular therapy. But not have a safe space to talk about these things. Because only in the talking about it, can you actually deal with it. Otherwise, you're bandaiding over a real big problem that is very difficult to deal with. So I have a lot more just kind of full acceptance of all different types of sexual desires than than I ever thought would be possible. And it's now very hard, I think, to faze me, you know, you can say a lot of things and I am there meeting you in the present, you know, the disgust reactions are pretty much gone, you know, the, or if they do come up, I'm able to hold them in a way that is much more productive than immediately kind of reacting, which is probably my prior reaction.
Jera Brown 23:22
Yeah, there's, I read a book from a chaplain an end of life chaplain that talked about... she defined chaplaincy in so many ways throughout the book, but one of the ways that she defined it was to sit there with somebody and not flinch. And not pull away.
Alex Liu 23:37
Jera Brown 23:39
Yeah. Which is, how you see them and how they feel seen, right? Which is so hard for some people.
Alex Liu 23:46
It is, and it's practice, and it's work, I think people often... I mean, I've been doing a lot of talking and I clearly like to talk I put myself in a movie, like I have an ego and narcissism to a certain degree. But I think the one thing I learned the most in this whole process is if I want to be seen non judgmentally and if I want to be heard and respected and loved for who I am. The only way I'll get that as if I give that to others. No matter what even if you are someone who I vehemently disagree on on most issues, to hear where they're coming from to understand their path and to listen, it's a skill that you need to hone and practice. And we don't do enough of and I think that's something that I'm just beginning to really understand.
Jera Brown 24:35
So you were raised Catholic and in the documentary, you talk to a priest who is pretty astonishing.
Alex Liu 24:42
Yeah. An outlier, an outlier.
Jera Brown 24:43
Yeah it's true. Um, yes. You should. You should look at my blog. I spoke to a Catholic professor about sexuality, and he talks about Catholic sex, the Catholic sex ed that we need. It's It's pretty wonderful, but they are the outliers for sure. Um, catch us up a little bit about like, his view of sexuality, like what he expressed.
Alex Liu 25:11
So this is Father, Donal Godfrey, he's out of University, San Francisco. He's kind of like the spiritual leader for staff and students there. He's a Jesuit so I think that's a big kind of part of why he is kind of an outlier. And on the more progressive end, or very progressive end of the Catholic Church. And yeah, so I think that he, being a Catholic priest during the AIDS crisis in San Francisco in the 80s. And 90s, I think was very crystallizing experience for him in terms of what is the Catholic Church's role really? And, and how are they actually helping people who need the most help. And so for him, it was very clear that the sexual values being promoted on a regular basis coming out of the Catholic Church was harmful, traumatic to to a huge population that needed the most help. And so, he is someone who is really trying to incorporate the erotic incorporate pleasure and sexuality into a spiritual teaching guidance path, that at its best sexuality is an intimate, vulnerable connection that is pleasurable. I mean, pleasure doesn't even begin to describe it. It is such an intimate, beautiful, like, you know, world affirming, life affirming experience, and how is that different than than what what most religions claim to be a spiritual path. And the fact that Catholic, the Catholic church often tries to cleave sexuality from what is godly is a huge disservice. So I think he's just trying to get people to think about that there is sexuality inherent in every human interaction, that you cannot divorce yourself from your sexuality, and if you try to, that's where the problems start. And so yeah, I, you know, I wish he was my priest growing up, because I think I would not have, it would have been, I probably wouldn't have as much I definitely wouldn't have as much shame I would probably come out earlier. I probably it was just, you know, that interview to me is kind of a moment in making the film that I think of my life before and after, because I have so strongly in kind of a equal and opposite reaction, I have numbed and cauterized this parts of myself, that had anything to do with spirituality because I was so angry at the church and and realizing, after that interview, how much of myself, I don't see, I don't know, I don't celebrate. Because I have that anger towards the Catholic Church. So yeah, I think the more we can think about sex sexuality as as a conduit as not like a tangential to or separate from but the key component of a true spiritually fulfilling life. I think, the happier we'll all be. And I think that's a big problem that across the world,
Jera Brown 28:20
So what's... where's this led for you? I mean, what's next?
Alex Liu 28:26
Yeah, well, we'll hopefully, as we come off the film festival circuit, it will be available, you know, to purchase to, and hopefully we'll get it onto some cable channels, or we'll see it. It's a tough, tough market. And it's tough to get out there. But yeah, I think ideally, we'll we'll see what happens with COVID. But we're planning, you know, some college tours, university tours, getting into libraries, that sort of thing. And yeah, I mean, I mean, we'll see what's next in terms of I mean this is only an 80 minute film, and over half the people we interviewed didn't make it into the film simply because sex is such a huge topic. And at the beginning, we didn't really know what the narrative was. So, you know, we talked to trans healthcare providers, they didn't make it in, we talked to, you know, queer youth activists, they didn't make it in. So there's a lot of material we joked that queer kink might be the sequel, because we just couldn't get into those issues. Because you can't do that justice in three minutes and get people to really understand what does it mean to be queer? What does it mean to be kinky? What does it mean to be trans? What is gender? Yeah, I think day by you know, kind of at this point in the process, it is kind of breath by breath, kind of putting one foot in front of the other, but I think we would love to, by we I mean, kind of the creative team that made this film we would love to continue. Maybe it's sex, maybe it's not maybe it's gender, maybe it's politics, religion, spirituality, but we would like to help people really understand that many of the thoughts feelings, ideas you have are not your own, that they were put there. Not necessarily intentionally, but they were put there by millennia of different forces, institutions people, for probably survival reasons, not happiness reasons, not health reasons. And that, that, how, and just getting people to not change their thoughts, but to think about if those thoughts still help still service them and, and get people to have difficult conversations that they've never had before. Because even though it's terrifying, my life has only been made more fulfilling and loving and wonderful, because of all the difficult conversations I've had in my life. And the more we can all be having them, I think, just the more worthwhile it is to be a human being. So that's kind of kind of where I am right now, in my movie making.
Jera Brown 30:46
That's awesome. Yeah, it was, um, it was inspiring, the conversations that you had with your parents on film, very brave, you know, and inspiring, you know, the thought that we can have those conversations with our parents, you know.
Alex Liu 31:03
I mean, I'm lucky to have my parents, it's not every, I mean, my parents are at a certain place, that many parents are not. I'm incredibly fortunate. A lot of the conversations that you want to have or scared to have, take it from someone who's come out of the closet, people are much more open than you might anticipate. I mean, be smart, you know, you know, the people in your life, find the most trustworthy person first baby steps, you can't, you know, it's just like real, you know, actual sex that you got to warm up to it. It is a process of trust. You know, it's, it's, you know, dumping a huge revelation on people is almost its own sense of kind of, like, you know, trauma in many ways, you know, you have to be smart about it. And, but like I said, and before, you know, coming saying I'm gay to a wide audience now is nothing but 20 years ago, it was, you know, I didn't know if I wanted to live. So I think finding those little baby steps finding those little ways to have these conversations, you'll be amazed how in one to 10 years how the community around you is something that you built to be part of your health and your mental health. And it's, it's something that I feel like we're not really well equipped for. And the more we can try to help people do that, the that's kind of how I see my life's mission.
Jera Brown 32:31
Where can people best find information about the film?
Alex Liu 32:34
If you follow us on social media Sexplanation all one word or sexplanation.com.. Stay tuned and you'll be able to see, maybe catch us in person or at least figure out how you can stream at home.
Jera Brown 32:46
Awesome. Thank you, Alex.
Alex Liu 32:48
Of course. Thank you for listening.
Jera Brown 32:50
Yeah, totally. I listened for 80 minutes. It was great. I mean before this. Yeah.