Remembering Pioneering Canadian Sex Educator Sue Johanson

Sue Johanson, perhaps Canada’s most famous sex educator of all time, died in June at the age of 92. At the height of her popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Johanson hosted two back-to-back prime time shows on Sunday nights—one for Canadians and one for audiences in the United States—and was regularly featured on talk shows including Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, and Conan Obrien.

Born in 1930, Johanson started her career as a nurse. Her interest in sex education began when a peer of her eldest daughter got pregnant in a high school and then had an illegal abortion. Johanson felt that kids were having sex without their parents’ knowledge/consent and should be able to get birth control without their knowledge/consent as well. In 1970, she opened a birth control clinic at her daughter’s high school which she ran for two decades.

Her media career started in 1984 when she got a slot on Q107, a rock station in Toronto. For two hours each week she would answer sex questions from callers, and she gained a reputation for being honest and unshockable. This led to a television show called the Sunday Night Sex Show which ran from 1996 to 2005 and ultimately aired in 23 countries. In the early 2000s, the show would get 100,000 calls each Sunday with Sue talking to 10 or 12 callers on-air.

She believed that part of her popularity came from the fact that she was middle-aged by then and looked more like your great aunt or English teacher than a model. In a documentary made about her life last year, Johanson said: “I wasn’t young. I wasn’t beautiful. I didn’t have bodacious tatas. I was a mother with a load of information.”

Johanson was known for her clear advice and her sense of humor. When she was given a vibrator with a camera at the tip she joked, “It gives a whole new meaning to ‘I’m ready for my close up.’” Sue was also known for being frugal; she told callers that instead of buying a vibrator, they could just put their cell phone in their underwear and ask friends to call them, a lot. She also made her own low-tech vibrators. During an appearance on the Conan O’Brien Show, Johanson brought out a vibrator made from a tin can, Bubble Wrap, and a tube sock. O’Brien joked that she was a “perverted MacGyver.”

Johanson, who also wrote three books, was popular both in Canada and the U.S. and said she was struck by the differences between the two cultures. While Canadians would approach her on the subway or in the supermarket and ask sex questions, Americans who saw her in the real world would acknowledge her but be too shy to ask questions. She also described Americans as naïve and noted that U.S. callers often didn’t have the most basic information. As an example, she said she frequently got calls from young women who thought they could get pregnant from oral sex.

In 2000, she was awarded the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest civilian honors, for being “a strong, successful advocate for sex education in Canada over the last three decades.”

She is survived by two daughters, Jane Johanson and Carol Howard, two grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Jane served as the creative consultant on the documentary about her mother’s life. Sue’s husband Ejnor died in 2014, and she lost her son Eric in 2021.

Johanson’s show lasted 174 episodes before going off the air in Canada in 2005 and the U.S. in 2008. By then people were getting most of their sex advice from the internet and Sue felt that she couldn’t keep up. In many ways, however, Johnson was one of the very first sexual health influencers, and those who follow owe her for helping to normalize conversations about sex.

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