Sexpert Sue Johanson delivers a sex-ed lesson to UWindsor students
It’s Sunday night during Windsor Welcome Week and the Ambassador Auditorium is filled with an excited energy. The crowd is mostly silent, though often punctuated by a nervous giggle or hushed chatter. About 500 first-year students have their full attention devoted to a small, 82-year-old woman standing on stage.
She pulls a blue card out of a massive pile collected earlier in the night when the crowd was asked to scribble their questions about sex down. “Dear Sue, would you ever strip?” The audience bursts into gales of laughter. “That’s the funniest question yet!” she exclaimed. “But no.”
Sex educator Sue Johanson is a familiar face to Canadians who came of age during the early 21st century. Her TV show, The Sunday Night Sex Show, introduced viewers to frank sexual discussions from a woman who could very well be their grandmother.
“We’ve never given the kids the language [to talk about sex],” Johanson said over the phone, a few days prior to her presentation at the CAW Student Centre. She’s been working to demystify sex since her early days running a birth control clinic in a Toronto high school.
“They taught you anatomy and physiology,” she explained about her early days entering sex education. “Today, they talk much more implicitly but don’t talk about sex in a loving “ relationship or about making decisions with the person you want to be sexual with.”
In the Ambassador Auditorium, the questions are anything but anatomy questions. People want to know anything from how to tell if they’re gay, to where the G spot is located, to simply just how to make their partner feel comfortable naked. Nothing rattles Sue as she works her way through the questions.
While it’s clear she has a positive attitude towards sex, she’s also not afraid from shying away from some of the harder facts to swallow.
“One thing I have noticed lately is the dramatic increase in the questions about anal sex … from both genders,” she said. Johanson is happy advising people how to do it safely, but she notes discussion is key. “[In a relationship] we’ve got to be able to talk about, ‘I’m scared it’s going to hurt, I’m scared I’m going to get a disease, I’m scared it’s going to do damage.”
Another big question that comes up is now thanks to an unexpected phenomenon: the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy of erotic novels. “I’m sure there will be a 1,000 more questions about BDSM,” she laughed.
Despite criticism of the novels for what many consider an unhealthy portrayal of a subservient, sadomasochist relationship, Johanson is pleased that Fifty has brought sexual discussion into the mainstream. “I like the idea that people read this and suddenly realize that there is more to sex than having it Friday night after The National with Peter Mansbridge in the missionary position with the compulsory orgasm at the end.”
Big on her agenda Sunday night is making sure people are practicing safer sex to protect themselves from STI’s. Chlamydia― an STI that the Centre for Disease Control reports is the most commonly reported STI in the United States― is especially nefarious. As Johanson explains its symptoms, which include female infertility, to the crowd, the giggles stop and people listen. They’re taking this as seriously as she wants them to. Yet even on this serious subject she’s wholly approachable. “Practice safer sex,” she said. “There is no such thing as safe sex.”
Johanson’s career has spanned over a long 40 years. It was in the mid-80s that she became a celebrity in her own right. The original version of her popular show debuted on Toronto radio station Q107 and ran until the late 90s before making the jump to television. In 2002, Oprah Winfrey’s Oxygen Media group picked up her show and Johanson found herself broadcast to a new American audience.
The show was cancelled in 2008, but Johanson keeps up a healthy schedule of university and school appearances. Even this has taken its toll. “I love [speaking at the schools] but the traveling really got to me.”
Appearances mean long journeys by air, some made even longer by Homeland Security thanks to her popularity in the States (the sex educator travels with a “fun bag” of sex toys for her presentations that often earns added scrutiny from border guards).
Johanson is now planning to retire, despite still loving her work. “I’m finding it terribly hard to give up!”
It’s her dedication and commitment to be open about sexuality that may be the secret to Johanson’s popularity. She’s an educator not a teacher, a distinction that puts her on the same level as the people that she lectures to. She talks authoritatively but acts familiarly― it’s an approach that makes it easy for people of any age to come to her with questions that they feel self-conscious about.
At the end of the night, two young men wearing Sikh turbans approach Sue. “We learned so much; we don’t talk about this in our culture,” one said. “Thank you.”
When Johanson does retire, it’ll be a sad moment for those who received answers to all the embarrassing questions we ever had. But she’s given a generation the tools to put words to their sexuality and make choices― or as she would put it, “don’t ever let sex just happen.”