By Michele Yeo
If you’re a Canadian of a certain age, chances are you got your sex education, not in health class, but from Sue Johanson. Sure, school gave us the basic info about things like periods and how babies are made, but no one talked sex like Sue. And while it may have been initially unsettling to hear a grandmother-type figure talk about things like queefing, anal beads, and cock rings, it didn’t take young audiences long to realize few adults were going to be as frank and honest as septuagenarian Sue. No topic too taboo or titillating, no question too kinky, viewers could count on Sue to give them straight (and gay) answers. Now, a new documentary, Sex With Sue, currently available on StackTV, celebrates the life and legacy of this trailblazing titan of sex talk.
Directed by filmmaker Lisa Rideout, the doc chronicles Sue’s beginnings and traces how she became the to go-to sexpert both North and South of the border. For Lisa, Sue was the perfect subject on which to base a documentary. “I’m interested in making films about badass woman who are sex positive,” she explains, “I also love making films that are both socially relevant while being funny and entertaining. This film was a great fit.” Lisa also has a personal reason for wanting to tell Sue’s story, “Like millions of Canadians, I grew up with the Sunday Night Sex Show and with Sue being my only meaningful source of sex education.”
The idea of a Sue Johanson documentary sparked in Lisa when she stumbled across an online video promoting Netflix’s Sex Education featuring the cast reacting to old clip of Sue talking sex toys. Lisa reached out and it just so happened Sue’s daughter Jane had already been conducting on camera interviews with her mother. “I was attending a 10-day silent retreat up north and the idea just burbled up inside,” explains Jane. ”So when I returned home, I bought a video camera and started getting mom on tape, asking her questions and filming family occasions. I wanted her to be remembered for all that she has done in her lifetime.”
What Sue, now in her nineties, has done in her lifetime cannot be measured. A nurse by trade, in 1972 Sue helped establish the Don Mills Birth Control Clinic at Don Mills Collegiate, Canada’s first birth control clinic inside a high school. She was inspired after a teen friend of one of her daughters found herself in need of an abortion after an unwanted pregnancy. Sue wanted to arm young people with the information and tools to avoid situations like that. “It was very traumatic for her,” explains Sue in an older interview in the doc, “and I just realized I do not want kids going through this ever again.”
From there, Sue hit the high school speakers circuit before getting her own radio show, The Sunday Night Sex Show, on Toronto’s Q107 where she discussed anal sex on her very first epsiode. The show eventually found its way to television.”No one talked about sex in the way that Sue did,” says Lisa. “ In school, the emphasis was on safe sex or reproduction. Sue was talking about how to have a pleasurable sex life, which was groundbreaking at the time. To give instructions about how to use this sex toy, or try this position, to answer questions about any and every sexual desire – literally every desire – was incredible.” Sue not only talked about sex in a revolutionary way, she did so from a shame-free place where callers felt comfortable asking her anything. “She did that from a non-judgmental place,” explains Lisa.”I know she helped millions understand sex and feel more comfortable with their sexuality.”
In 2002 Sue’s television show was picked up by the Oxygen network in the United States (her first episode garnered 100 thousand attempted calls) and her signature frank sex talk got her not only noticed by Americans but booked on shows like The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Tonight Show, and Late Night With Conan O’Brien including this iconic appearance. “That’s when I realized my mother was becoming famous,” explains Jane. “We could not walk down the street, eat in a restaurant, or go to the movies without being recognized.” While her mom’s newfound fame was sometimes awkward, “deep down I was so proud of my mom and how she handled it all.”
In 2001 Sue was awarded the prestigious Order of Canada for her work in sexual heath and in 2008, at 77-years-old, she retired from the airwaves. Since the proliferation of the internet, there’s no shortage of places and spaces to access frank sex information so it may be easy to forget the impact and importance of Sue’s groundbreaking work. But make no mistake, Sue’s significance cannot be understated. “She helped millions of us to feel more comfortable with sex and our sexuality and what a gift that was,” says Lisa. “ You say the words “sex with Sue and everyone knows who you are talking about,” adds Jane. “I would like the next generation of teenagers/young adults to get to know Sue and see what a beautiful pioneer she was.”