Film Review: Does “Let’s Talk About Sex” Communicate the Right Messages to the Right Audiences?

The new film Let's Talk About Sex was created with the intention of sparking public dialogue about and family communication on teen sex and sexuality issues. Here's my take on whether the film is giving the right message to the right audiences.

Editor’s Note: The new documentary “Let’s Talk About Sex” aims to start a conversation about our society’s dysfunctional view of teen sexuality.  We’ve asked a few of our authors to join in that conversation and discuss their views of the film.

Someone like me is always going to be a tough customer for films like “Let’s Talk About Sex.”  I’m putting that out there right now because having seen the film, I’m critical about both its delivery and approach, although I very much appreciate its intent,

The film bills itself as taking “a revealing look at how American attitudes towards adolescent sexuality affect today’s teenagers.”

“We live in a society that uses sex to sell everything from lipstick to laptops. Yet fear and silence around sex and sexuality also permeate our culture. Teens are paying a terrible price for this confusion in unintended pregnancy, STDs, and even HIV. And American taxpayers are paying billions to treat these entirely preventable problems.”

Ultimately, the primary message of the film is that negative outcomes resulting from teen sexuality would be remedied if only parents and other adults would just talk more about sex and sexuality with young people, and do so with more openness; with more facts and less fear.

Working with young people directly both internationally and domestically in sex education for over 10 years, nothing in this film was news to me, and it’s impossible for me to view the issues brought up as only being about one nation, since I see them worldwide. Because I’ve worked with these issues and in this field in such an immersive and broad way for so long, the flaws in a piece like this are bound to be far more glaring to me than its attributes; because doing this work has instilled a high sensitivity and protectiveness on my part for young people and parents alike, and those things are always going to have an impact on how I experience and what I take away from a piece like this.

The film was produced in collaboration with Advocates for Youth, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that director James Houston is a fashion and beauty photographer, not a sex educator, nor a parent of teens (from what I can gather) or even someone who (probably) has worked with teens before this outside of the fashion industry. His viewpoints throughout the film make it clear that a lot of what he found out was a shocker to him, while for plenty of us, even people who don’t work in this area, little to none of this is big news, so the approach of the film as exposing facts and truths with a constant gasp of surprise may be lost on a lot of viewers.

For parents and adults who honestly don’t know they should be talking openly and factually with young people about sex and sexuality or don’t know how important that is, and to whom much of what the film explores is news, I think the film could be a good entry point, even with its flaws, and that’s no small thing.  I think it would be most ideal when viewed by adults AND youth, and discussed together by both (as opposed to being seen as something for adults discussed by adults).

For those just coming to the table, or better still, for those who are parents of or work with very young children who are years away from adolescence, the film provides good reality checks around the inaccuracies in abstinence-only sex education, some statistical information about health outcomes for young people with sex right now, and scenes which illustrate important and problematic dynamics that often come up in sex education and sexual communication with young people.

For instance, there’s a telling scene in which a teacher of exclusively pregnant teens is giving them a lesson on contraception which ultimately is anything but: instead, she insists to this group of pregnant young women that abstinence is the only real way to prevent pregnancy.  There’s another scene in which a young woman who took a virginity pledge that her father wanted makes clear that, while he thought it was meaningful for them both, she didn’t have any understanding of what she was agreeing to do or not to do.

I think much of what the young people in this film voice—more than the adults—is important for people to see and hear. I also don’t think you can miss the intentionality on the part of the filmmaker. While some of how he approaches this is, in my view, limited and in some ways strongly problematic, I think his good intent is clear and meaningful.

The film contains great calls to parents and adults to communicate with young people about sex and sexuality and to do so with more honesty, openness, factual information and a keener sense of reality, rather than their own ideals. There’s an excellent focus on the language often used around sex and sexuality—which I found to be one of the strongest parts of the film—and the impact language laced with fear or shame can have on how people experience, act on, and communicate about sex. The other portions of the film that I thought were very strong, and provided viewpoints less often heard, were those which involved religious leaders who viewed their faith communities as places in need of comprehensive and realistic sex education.  I also was glad to see discussion about how sex education and communication about sexuality needs to start well before a time when young people may start to become sexual with others.

I confess, though, that I found more in the film that bothered me or disappointed me, and plenty of moments where it felt like something so-so could have become fantastic if this all hadn’t been so brand new to the filmmaker. I think if it hadn’t been so new to him the film would have had more nuance and sensitivity and less simplicity and black-and-white thinking than I found it to have. Ultimately, despite my strong desire to love this movie, I’ve got more critique to offer than waves of my proverbial pom-poms.

The Power of Peers

As an advocate for young people, I loved comments in the film about the power of having confidence in young people to engage in responsible sexual behavior, and I deeply appreciated attention paid to the ways in which parental or adult control, can contribute more to putting young people in danger than keeping them safe, especially when young people leave home, get freedom and autonomy, and then have a tough time managing because they’ve gone from almost-total external control to nearly none. But, there was also a very strong comment made by an adult in the film that peers can’t possibly provide each other with good mentoring or cross-education , a notion I found  adultist and also preposterous in a film which showed all the ways adults aren’t doing it either. In my experience, when peers fail to educate each other well, and adults fail to educate young people well, it’s for very similar, if not identical, reasons, most of which have little to nothing to do with age.

Suffice it to say, particularly given that I do much of my work online, the suggestion in the film that the internet is not a place where quality sex information and education can be found was frustrating. The film showed images only from sites like Cosmopolitan, not from sites like Scarleteen, Planned Parenthood, Brook, Options for Sexual Health, Sex, Etc., Go Ask Alice or Rewire, which often contain more comprehensive and factual sex information than any sex education class can, and which hundreds of thousands of young people find and use every day. After all, that girl talking about using Google to get her sex ed?  Chances are good that when she did, she landed on at least one of these sites.

The European Model

By design, this film is specifically about teen sexuality, sex education, and parent-teen sexual communication in America. It sets up a dichotomy between the U.S. and other countries that I found more optimistic than realistic. As  someone who works with international populations, I see common threads with sexual problems throughout nearly all nations.  By all means, some of the critiques were sound and fair, and I agree with them in some cases, such as when comparing the U.S. and the Netherlands.  Like the director, I’m on Team Netherlands when it comes to how sexuality tends to be culturally treated and approached there. (There, now I can wave those pom-poms after all.) However, the world is not divided into only two groups of cultures, those like the U.S. and those like the Netherlands. The Netherlands is a unique culture in this respect. There are few nations like it.

For example, despite what I felt was a pretty rosy picture painted of Australia by the director, I hear from young people in Australia who are having trouble with sexual and interpersonal violence, which is a big problem on that continent. I hear from teens having a very hard time accessing sexual health services there, and having other similar issues and problems with sex and sexuality young people have here. Indeed, their teen pregnancy rates are lower than ours (that’s a bit iffy, since there’s no mandatory reporting of abortion there, but their birth rate is around 18 per 1,000, compared to our 52). Their STI rates, however, are nothing to write home about and have also been increasing among young people. Regardless, I don’t think it’s even sound to base the overall sexual well-being of a nation or population, on those outcomes alone, something that happens all too often in commentaries on teen sexuality, and which I find to be part of the problem we face in understanding, evaluating and addressing teen sexuality well.

Lack of Inclusivity

The film gave an important nod to how sex education lacks inclusivity for queer youth, and I always love to see the brave and fantastic Max Siegel. But since the majority of the film itself wasn’t inclusive save that small nod, it felt like tokenism to me. It’s great to ask for better inclusion, but if you’re going to ask, you’ve got to model it, too, which I don’t feel the film itself did.

There were also some presentations of race and class I felt uncomfortable with in the film. For instance, it felt to me like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teen pregnancy were presented as issues mostly about people of color.  While there was explanation of why some STIs more heavily affect people of color , I came away feeling like that the issue wasn’t explained very well, nor did it address the ways in which institutionalized racism plays a large role in perpetuating poor health in communities of color.

The Role of Gender

One of the biggest issues I had with the film was around gender. In the film, there are five young people who disclose very personal things about their sex lives: two young men and their parents, two young women and their parents, and, sans parent or address of parental communication, Max, who has previously disclosed his story in very public venues before this film, so he’s in a different spot than the other four of this group.  

Only the young women disclose “sexual dishonesties” in the film. Something about that feels exploitative to me, as it is only the girls doing so, and they are sharing with viewers what they have not yet shared with parents, making them even more vulnerable than they already are.

Some adults in the film also voice and enable, seemingly without awareness, gender biases or simplifications, like the teacher who states, with a chuckle, that “13-year-old boys think about sex every five to ten seconds.” Still none of the adults in the film, including the film maker really address gender inequities, gender double standards, sexism, or the fact that one groups bears a far greater burden when it comes to pregnancy, sexual health, and social stigma.

I felt the different challenges in parent-teen sexual communication often experienced due to gender were completely dismissed within this group of four and the film as a whole.  In the film, conflicts were seen only in the interviews involving young women, while the glowingly positive scenarios involved young men.  This was not likely only around gender dynamics, but no doubt those dynamics played a large part.

In addition, sexual and interpersonal violence and abuse also come into play, which is often a gender issue. While victims of sexual abuse and assault can and do come in all genders and sexes, young women are victimized at much higher rates than young men. I’m not even sure one of the young women whose personal story was featured was describing consensual sex, as it was presented, and not a sexual abuse or assault. Despite voicing things that begged the question (not wanting her experience to happen the way it did, being drunk, having things “happen” rather than voicing being an active participant), the question of whether this sex was consensual wasn’t asked or, from what I can tell, even considered.  I find that deeply troubling. 

The Portrayal of Parents

Something about the way the four teens and their families were presented felt more reality TV than documentary film to me.  Both the positive and negative examples felt one-dimensional; as though the filmmaker was  dividing the four sets of parents into the “Aren’t-They-Awesome” group and the “Parents-Of-Fail,” when I feel sure that all of the parents involved probably had the best of intentions and all wanted to parent well.  Presenting the positive examples this  way doesn’t let the viewer see the processes through which those parents might have gone or the challenges with which they might have grappled en route to becoming good at communicating (which would have been valuable); likewise presenting the negative examples as uni-dimensional made me feel like both those parents and teens were kind of put in the public stacks.  Both presentations felt exploitative to me—especially for the two young women who disclosed incredibly difficult things in a highly public venue they had not yet even disclosed to parents. To me this showed a lack of sensitivity vital in treating people and sexuality with care and respect.  The presentation also failed to address the whys of poor (or less-than-great communication) when people really are trying to do it right.

That all said, I think perhaps the biggest issue with this film is its intended audience and what it feels that audience needs.  Parents who truly do not know that they should be communicating about sex and sexuality are a very small group, and one that does not include parents actively choosing not to communicate openly, which is a far larger group.  In my experience, the parents who most need to understand the importance of open, honest, factual, and flexible communication about sexuality with young people, and who aren’t trying to engage their children in such discussions, are usually choosing not to do so quite intentionally because they simply disagree the whole premise. Do I think this film will change the minds of most of those parents? No.  In fact, I can’t help but wonder if the film won’t just steel their resolve to continue to stay silent.  After all, for parents who choose to be silent, those who only talk about sex and sexuality as a fearful “no,” or those who urge things like virginity pledging, witnessing parents freely giving condoms to young people, allowing sexual partners to stay overnight, and seeing teens more comfortable with sex and sexuality is not something likely to be perceived as a wanted outcome.

And, for the parents who do realize that they should be talking more about sex and sexuality than they now are, or who feel they need to be doing so differently than they have been, I’m just not sure this film gives them information or assistance on where and how to get started. I find that to be the biggest missing piece for most parents and adults around these issues: not the why, but the how. While I very much appreciate the calls to action for parents and other adults to better and more honestly and openly communicate with young people about sex and sexuality, we have to recognize that just asking parents to do that, and supporting them in doing so, only gets us so far.

There is much more to say on this subject—how to get started with that communication and how to do it better than any of us probably learned how—than can be said in this piece.  In Part 2 of this commentary, to be published next week, I will focus in greater depth on how parents and other adults can better and more honestly communicate with young people about sex and sexuality.