Sue Johanson believed informed sex was safe sex and she shared that message broadly, becoming one of the foremost TV sexperts in Canada and the United States when she was in her 60s.
Audience notions about her age made her straight talk about anal, oral and solo sex even more enthralling. She earned acclaim across Canada and the United States.
Johanson died in Toronto on Wednesday at age 93 after a long decline, her daughter Jane Johanson said in an interview Thursday.
People delighted in calling in to “The Sunday Night Sex Show” and its American counterpart “Talk Sex with Sue Johanson” with questions about obscure acts and fetishes in hopes of shocking the matronly nurse, Jane Johanson said.
The real appeal, though, was her answers.
“She really cared, earnestly and honestly. It wasn’t pretend she wasn’t putting on an act. She really cared,” Jane Johanson said.
“If people were uncomfortable with something, she tried to put them at ease. If she felt that it was a very sensitive topic that needed to be dealt with carefully and gently, she would sometimes put a call off until the end of the show and talk to people privately.”
Sue Johanson was not in it for the fame, her daughter said. It was all in service of a grander mission: destigmatizing sex.
She wrote three books on sexuality and toured around Canada to give talks at schools to spread that message.
Johanson made her name talking about sex on the radio and TV, but she got her start by setting up a birth control clinic in a Toronto high school in 1970.
In 1974, she started travelling to schools across Ontario to offer sex education and the radio show hit Toronto airwaves a decade later.
After the American version of her show started airing, she became a favourite on the American late-night talk show circuit.
During an appearance on David Letterman’s “The Late Show,” Johanson charmed the host while discussing the anatomy of female pleasure.
”What people don’t realize is that penis size does not matter, because the top two-thirds of the vagina has no nerve endings, there’s nobody home up there,” she said to a roar of audience approval.
In response, Letterman told “Late Show” band leader Paul Shaffer, also a Canadian, not to be embarrassed.
“There was no getting around the fact that she was good at what she did,” Jane Johanson said. “And when she realized that she didn’t revel in it. She didn’t demand applause. She just thought: I need to do more.”
But Jane Johanson said her mother eventually felt ready to retire.
“She was happy just to put her feet up to read, to be outside, to go up to the cottage. She just slowed down completely and let life, you know, rev up around her because she was such a fast-paced woman,” Jane Johanson said.
Now, a new generation of sex educators have taken up residence online instead of on TV, said Lisa Rideout, who directed the 2022 documentary “Sex with Sue.”
Many of them, she said, were directly inspired by Johanson.
“Sue paved the way for the way that we talk about sex right now. She had a huge influence on the sex educators that are now out in public, that are operating on social media,” Rideout said.
“She talked about sex as pleasurable, which right now maybe doesn’t sound radical, but it was at the time.”
It was a pre-internet era when parents had far more control over what their children understood about sex.
“What we were taught was that sex was either for reproduction, or don’t do it. Those were the two messages.”
Alex McKay, executive director of the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada, said Johanson started a public conversation that continues today.
“She was really the first person in Canada who gave people a sense of permission to talk about sex, and ask all those questions that they really wanted and needed to ask,” he said.
Now, he said, people are far more comfortable talking about sexuality and sexual experience.
“The momentum that she initiated is certainly very much with us today.”