Film Review: Let’s Talk About Sex: A Starting Point

Along with the excellent “Daddy, I Do,” this film is part of a new generation of documentaries which looks at America’s dysfunctional relationship with teen sexuality.

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.

There’s no question that the film “Let’s Talk About Sex” is aesthetically compelling and well-made, directed by fashion photographer James Houston. And there’s no question that the subject matter it tackles is vital. Along with the excellent “Daddy, I Do,” this film is part of a new generation of documentaries which look at America’s dysfunctional relationship with teen sexuality as a subject as troublesome and worthy of investigation as the melting of the glaciers or the failed war on drugs.

“Living in America, you can’t help but notice how much sex is a part of the culture, especially youth culture,” Houston muses at the film’s outset, pointing out to viewers that we have “the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world” with some helpful footage of Bristol Palin thrown in for illustrative purposes. How do we reconcile that obsession with sex and that culture which would hail a teen mom as a spokesperson for abstinence?

For those of us interested in this subject, it’s 101-level stuff. But for a mainstream film, it breaks some interesting ground.

As our own Heather Corinna noted, much of the film’s focus was taken up with several themes: comparing American attitudes to those in Holland, particularly on interviewing parent-teen families in both countries and letting the juxtapositions speak for themselves, analyzing language related to sexuality, and illustrating the difficulty in bringing sex education in under the banner of sometimes-hostile religion.

In Holland, sex is “a normal part of daily life and conversation” and parents approve opposite-sex sleepovers because hey, better under their roofs than somewhere exposed, isolated or heaven forbid uncomfortable.

In America, however, we have purity vows instead. And even in “enlightened,” cosmopolitan New York, where purity rings are rarer, one Dutch teen who’d lived abroad noted there was nonetheless a stark difference in the level of taboo concerning sex.

Parental and social attitudes having been duly contrasted, one of the most troubling things uncovered by the filmmakers investigation was the result of these attitudes on teens behaviors. The differing attitudes towards carrying condoms was a single juxtaposition which distilled Americans’ dangerous prejudices. While the Dutch teens interviewed acknowledged that everyone carries condoms in their wallets: girls, boys, whoever, the Americans almost universally declared that a young man who carried condoms was “a pervert” not to be trusted, and a girl who carried condoms was assuredly “a slut.”

America: we’re so prudish that we tsk-tsk our way right into STDs and unintended pregnancies.

To me, this was the most powerful moment in the film, and it was further solidified when pop star gave a widely-circulated interview which underscored the same awful point about American culture: he said he wouldn’t date women who keep condoms handy, even discreetly in their top drawers because it’s “tacky.” I appreciated the film’s treatment of such attitudes as signifiers of something deeply awry.

Hand in hand with this twisted dichotomy was “Let’s Talk About Sex”’s tackling of the underlying discomfort found in American “language around sexuality.” Even the word “abstinence,” the film argued, contains “baggage.” “We’re putting sex in the same category as cocaine,” said a linguistic expert in an interview. “It’s threatening, scary, dangerous, compulsive.” We hear the words “filthy, dirty, polluting young minds.” Ultimately, the film argues, all this linguistic association paints sexuality as “an opponent who has needs, goals, that are different from our own…it’s a threat to us, we’re locked in a kind of struggle.”

Finally, the film only scratched the surface of the intra-religious struggle over sex ed, showing us one church leader determined to change things for the sake of kids’ health, and the entrenched attitudes he comes up against. This was fascinating but almost felt deserving of a film on its own.

This sort of content excellently lays out the fact that something is rotten in the state of American sex ed.  But after viewing, I was eagerly waiting our own sex educator Heather Corinna’s take on “Let’s Talk About Sex” because I watched much of the documentary with my jaw open, nodding along in outrage, my critical faculties suspended.

Why? Because I was rather taken in by the documentary’s crisis-style framing which painted the issue as a dire one, one in need of action by all of us–even if it’s obvious to those of us in the community. The lack of sex education in our country is indeed a crisis, and it spreads from parents to schools to community and church groups, as the documentary accurately acknowledged. And it felt like such a relief to hear it addressed it such.

Still, as the film came to a close and I personally felt some of the requisite outrage and inspiration, I had to ask whether if such a film were distributed on a widespread basis, it could actually inspire Americans to pay attention and turn this into a cause.

Yes, the film may be revolutionary because it uses a mainstream format to unabashedly acknowledge a problem without attempting to tell “both sides of the story” when so much of our pop culture about teens and sex hedges its bets.

But does the film’s analysis of the problem run deep enough to help Americans understand the root causes and take action that ends up being meaningful? And as Heather said, who exactly is it aimed at? Bourgeois parents horrified that they’re being lapped by their Dutch counterparts? Squeamish adults unaware that their squeamishness isn’t good for the youth?

And that’s where Heather’s commentary proved to be so invaluable for me. She said “I find that to be the biggest missing piece for most parents and adults around these issues: not the why, but the how.” And indeed, while the film makes our hang-ups obvious, the missing piece is guidance on exactly what it will take navigate and overcome those hang-ups for safety’s sake. If our cultural psychosis when it comes to sex is so deeply ingrained it’s evident in our language, in our everyday behavior, then as Heather says, mere outrage isn’t going to change things overnight.

I’d love to see this film paired with “Daddy, I Do,” and with a third film that actually offers advice to adults on talking about sex with teens and highlights the amazing people like Heather who are actually making strides in this direction. Then we’d be approaching something really useful.