What does an old lady like Sue Johanson know about sex toys?
“The answer? Plenty,” she tells the audience of Sunday Night Sex Show, a colourful spread of adult products on the desk before her.
The scene will be a familiar one to generations of Canadians who tuned in to hear the renowned sex expert hold forth about the birds, bees and beyond on Sunday nights. But this time, it appears in the new documentary, Sex With Sue, which looks back at the now 92-year-old Toronto-born nurse’s career and influence on sex education.
“I was older, I was never seen as a sex kitten, I had the gift of the gab,” Johanson explains in Sex With Sue, which premieres Monday on the W Network.
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The documentary features interviews with the beloved Canadian personality conducted between 2016 and 2018, as well as a legion of her admirers in media, comedy and the adult entertainment industry.
Since signing off from her TV shows in 2008, Johanson has passed the baton — she’s always loved a good phallic object — to a new generation of savvy sex educators, who are using podcasts and TikTok to deliver the goods.
CBC News spoke with the creators of Sex With Sue and a new generation of sex educators walking the path that Johanson blazed for them.
A grandma with a pottymouth
The project began when Johanson’s daughter, Jane, decided to capture her mother’s memories with a series of home interviews. When she realized that she wanted to professionalize their chats, she hired a director and a documentary crew.
“She was able to just educate in a way that had humour that would be a bit shocking,” said the younger Johanson, “so that people would then go, ‘Oh, what? Did she just say that word? Did she just do this with her hands? Did she just put that on a dildo with her mouth!?’ “
Johanson, a sprightly woman with a head of steely grey curls and glasses perched on her nose, was a curious figure on Canadian TV: a “grandma with a pottymouth,” as her daughter describes in an interview with CBC News.
On the live call-in program Sunday Night Sex Show that started as a radio show and transitioned to television, Johanson answered pressing questions from a curious audience, tested sex toys from her “pleasure chest” and spoke frankly about sex with no filter to viewers from across the country.
The show aired for nearly a decade, and an American spinoff, called Talk Sex With Sue Johanson, catapulted her from a quirky Canadian phenomenon to international fame.
WATCH | Sue Johanson talks sex toys with Conan O’Brien:
She became a frequent guest on late night U.S. talk shows, sharing her “gift of the gab” with the likes of Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman.
“I grew up with the Sunday Night Sex Show, and Sue was my only meaningful form of education,” Lisa Rideout, the Canadian director of Sex With Sue, told CBC News.
“You know, I was taught in school: ‘Don’t do it til you’re married.’ So I watched Sue with my girlfriends under the covers at sleepovers.”
‘Her age helped her openly talk about this’
A champion for a well-informed, sex positive public, Johanson covered topics and demographics usually ignored by mainstream sexual education in the 1990s and aughts.
While training to be a nurse in Winnipeg, Johanson was taught by nuns who didn’t speak about sex. That repression informed her approach in her later years, emboldening her to be open, honest and nonjudgmental.
She opened a birth control clinic at her daughter’s high school in the 1970s and ran it for almost two decades. Jane Johanson recalls that her friends felt more comfortable asking her mother their sex-related questions than she did.
“Sue approached everything as though it was just normal,” Nadine Thornhill, a Toronto sex educator, told CBC News. “Like, she said all of the words she said, all of the taboo sex words. She talks about penises and clitorises and orgasms.
“But she was just very matter of fact about it, and I don’t think I had ever heard anybody talk about sex in that way.”
She said all of the … taboo sex words. She talks about penises and clitorises and orgasms. But she was just very matter of fact about it.– Nadine Thornhill, Toronto sex educator
Like Rideout, Thornhill grew up listening to Johanson, hiding under the covers with her clock radio. She says Johanson was the first person she encountered who normalized talking about bodies and sex in a casual way that many now do.
Johanson was in her 70s and 80s when Sunday Night Sex Show aired, and according to Rideout, that was a key part of her appeal and ability to disarm her listeners.
“Her age helped her just openly talk about this and have no one really recoil or want to throw her off the air,” said the director.
Social media sexperts follow in Johanson’s footsteps
Sex With Sue also highlights Johanson’s successors — a new generation of sex educators using TikTok and Instagram to speak to teens and young adults frankly about sex.
“I think the way we understand sex, sexuality and the language around it has changed a lot since Sue was on the air. So it was really important for me to show who are the new suits, who’s doing the work, who’s pushing the boundaries and being progressive,” said Rideout.
Sex educators from all over the world — like Chantel Oten, Ericka Hart, Daniella Noël and Felicia Gisondi and Michelle Pound — are building online platforms to teach young people about sex.
Canadian TV shows like CBC’s About Sex and The Big Sex Talk with Shan Boodram are reinventing the subject for a new generation.
But navigating sex-ed on algorithmic social media platforms can be difficult, says Tess Vanderhaeghe, a sexual health educator based in Vancouver.
On TikTok, Vanderhaeghe posts informative videos about sex and sexual health — like how to put on a condom, how to stimulate the clitoris or where to place a menstrual pad.
“There is still a lot of censorship around sexuality education, even on these platforms,” she said, adding that other videos containing misinformation about sex are pushed into people’s feeds “more often than not.”
Thornhill agrees. “On the Internet, you don’t necessarily have people kind of vetting and curating information for us in the same way” that Johanson did on her shows.
As shown in Sex With Sue, Thornhill screens episodes of Sunday Night Sex Show to high school students, who respond with bemused admiration.
“Going public like this is easier than they think,” Johanson says in the documentary. “I’m not embarrassed, I’m not uptight. I’m not scared of it.”
Sex with Sue premieres Monday, October 10 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on W Network and STACKTV.