If you, like me, are a Canadian who had access to a television growing up in the ‘90s and 2000s, chances are that Sue Johanson was one of the first people to teach you about sex.
Sue’s ground-breaking radio and television show, the Sunday Night Sex Show, was a staple in Canadian homes (albeit sometimes surreptitiously, when viewed by coming-of-age teens) from the ‘80s until the sex educator retired in 2008. Sue literally taught us what sex was, how to have it safely and how to enjoy it.
Now, it’s our turn to talk about Sue — and how one woman’s willingness to listen, share and be open to uncomfortable conversations changed the way we communicate about sex and sexuality today.
In the new feature-length documentary Sex with Sue, director Lisa Rideout explores Sue Johansen’s prolific career as a nurse-turned sex educator, television host and trailblazer. Blending throwback footage from Sue’s career, insights from Canadian media personalities and sex educators and interviews with Sue herself, Sex with Sue shines a light on how our attitudes towards sex have evolved over the past few decades.
To learn more about Sex with Sue, passing the torch and the future of sex education, we chatted with Sue’s daughter, Jane Johanson (whose desire to document Sue’s story was the origin of the documentary) and director Lisa Rideout.
Sex with Sue premieres Monday, October 10 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on W Network and STACKTV.
It’s time to talk about Sue — and her impact on sex in Canada
While many of us feel like we “know” Sue Johanson, Sex with Sue is the first documentary made about the 92-year-old. The project began as a personal one for Sue’s daughter Jane, who initially started filming conversations with Sue in 2016, before connecting with Lisa to make the documentary.
“At the time I thought, there was not a documentary made about Sue, and I thought it was important that we make one about her, because she was such a trailblazer,” Jane told us.
“I just think it was time that we highlight and show this beautiful woman who broke ice and forged ahead with a topic that people had the tendency to be uncomfortable talking about,” she added.
Indeed, Sue’s work was truly groundbreaking at the time. Her live call-in show, which began as a radio show and turned into the Sunday Night Sex Show television show in the 1980s, gave people a place to ask questions about sex and sexuality. Because Sue came across as a non-judgmental and maternal figure to many, people found a space where they could feel comfortable talking about uncomfortable things. In an age without the instant, anonymous access to the internet, the ability to get answers and talk about sex without shame was unheard of. And this somewhat radical approach reached people — including Lisa.
“I grew up with the Sunday Night Sex Show, so I feel like the show and Sue were my meaningful form of sex education,” Lisa shared with us. “I grew up in Catholic school, and I was basically getting the message ‘Don’t do it! It happens between a man and woman after they’re married.’”
“So with Sue, I think like so many of us, I listened to her, or I watched her on TV with my girlfriends at a sleepover or, you know, you kind of did it behind closed doors, and Sue was really talking about sex in a way that nobody else was,” Lisa explained.
More than just offering answers to practical questions about the mechanics of safe sex (though, of course, these were important), Sue also opened the door for people to think about sex as something that could be fun and pleasure-centred.
“I think what was so incredible was that in school we were hearing ‘don’t do it,’ or we were learning about reproduction, and Sue was the first person to really introduce me to this idea of pleasure and that sex could be pleasurable. And she gave us the language to ask for what we want or figure out what we liked. And that was incredible for the time, and I think it’s still quite groundbreaking for right now as well,” Lisa said.
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Passing the torch
One of the most intriguing elements of the documentary is the inclusion of insights from modern-day sex educators like Dan Savage, Shan Boodram and Lorraine Hewitt. It’s clear that Sue’s work impacted the current and up-and-coming generation of sex educators — something that Jane says is important to her mother.
“I think my mom was able to pull sex out of the closet, get people talking about it. Creating an environment where people could realize that they could talk about it safely, they can be more creative sexually, they can be safe sexually, and then to pass the torch,” Jane told us.
That passing of the torch is key to Sue’s legacy. While the method of sex education has undoubtedly evolved from Sue’s call-in television show to more digital delivery, Sue walked through destigmatizing sex talk and uncomfortable conversations on her show so that today’s online and community-based educators could run.
As Lisa shared with us, highlighting this transition is an important part of Sue’s story and impact today. “When I dived into the film I thought, Sue is incredible, but Sue also had a show and radio [program] at a specific time period, and I think the way that we talk about sex and sexuality, the way we understand it now, has changed so radically from when Sue was on air. So it was really important for me to show the people that are the progressive sex educators today.”
“And I think what’s so incredible is that they grew up with Sue. So Sue taught them partially what they know and, you know, now it’s a different world. And they’re doing their thing in 2022, and I wanted people to see that. I wanted to see how her legacy is carried on today.”
Sriha Srinivasan, a sex educator and content creator, echoed this sentiment in the documentary: “Sue was and is a woman on television talking about sex, and that is exactly what I want to do. I want to create a show, albeit a little bit differently than what Sue did, but I want to create a show that’s putting sex education out there in an entertaining way, to keep people entertained and to educate at the same time.”
These insights from sex educators like Sriha showcase why, as Jane explained to us, her mom “is still happy to know that the torch has been passed to very capable people who are continuing on doing what she did, in their own way, in this new day and age. I think she’d be very proud of that, so I’m glad that we made this documentary about that.”
The future of sex education is growing
While the progress that society has made when it comes to sex and sexuality talk has been substantial, in large part to the work of trailblazers like Sue, there is still space to grow and progress.
“I think we obviously live in this complicated society where things are progressive,” Lisa shared with us, “…we understand sex I think in a very different way that’s not just binaries anymore.”
“But, we’re still in this society where there’s an attack on women’s rights, there’s a pushback on sexual identity and us having ownership over our bodies. So, you know, my hope is always that we push into a more progressive space and I think that has to happen on a multitude of levels. It’s not just sex educators bringing us the message, but it needs to be legislated. We need to have access to abortion, we need to be able to access birth control and all those things that create safe sex and sexual identities.
“I just hope we continue to move to a progressive space and that it happens in politics, it happens socially, it happens in all these different spaces.”
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‘If you’re not hurting anyone, go for it’
While the need to continue progressing in areas of openness, acceptance and equality is ongoing, Lisa brings us back to another factor that’s at the heart of the film — and perhaps of Sue’s work too: if you aren’t hurting anyone and you’re safe when it comes to sex, you’re okay.
As Lisa said, “there’s so much shame around sex, and Sue did such an incredible job at destigmatizing sex. And I learned, I think over and over and over again, that what people want to hear is that they’re ‘normal.’ Their desires are normal, who they are is okay, so I think even today – which was surprising to me when we can access information at the click of a button – that people really want individual sex educators answering their questions and really assuring them that nothing’s wrong with them.”
Lisa leaves us with a message that was key for Sue: “‘If you’re not hurting anyone, go for it.” And perhaps, as Lisa suggests, things can sometimes be that simple. “…go out there and have a good time. And it’s okay. Everything is okay.”
Sex with Sue premieres Monday, October 10 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on W Network and STACKTV.