Is She the Most Shocking Woman on Television?

By Lise Funderburg

O the Oprah Magazine
January 2003

Eager fans line up outside the Mohawk College auditorium in Hamilton, Ontario. They’re in this year’s college uniform: baseball caps and exposed bellies, flip-flops and piercings, backpacks and bottled water. When the doors open, they pour in, filling the room’s 1,100 seats. The announcer asks them to give Sue Johanson a warm welcome, and they clap wildly. And whoop. And holler.

Johanson takes the stage, a lone, grandmotherly figure in creased navy shorts and a green linen button-down she bought at a yard sale. The curly hair she’s fought all her life is short and gray and just-combed. She’s sock-less, wearing lace-up Camper knockoffs that she bought in New York— shoes with a slightly corrective look. She’s propless but for the microphone clipped to her shirt, a stool in the middle of the stage, and a table next to it holding a show-and-tell tote bag filled with her favorite dildos and vibrators.

In the world of Canadian sex education, Johanson is a superstar. A registered nurse, she has been talking about how to make sex safe and pleasurable since 1970 —in high schools and colleges, on the radio, and, for the past seven years, on the television call-in program Sunday Night Sex Show. In January 2002, Oxygen TV began airing episodes of SNSS on cable and satellite stations in the United States. Then the network convinced Johanson to do an American version of the show (airs Sunday at midnight). “We have to cover more basic information,” she says. “Your sex ed isn’t as far along as ours.” Much of Canada’s progress on the subject is thanks to her—as was acknowledged in 2001 when she received her country’s equivalent of knighthood: an appointment to the Order of Canada.

Johanson spends summers at a lakeside cottage north of her Toronto base, but during the academic year she gives about four talks a week and tapes 30 episodes of SNSS, which airs to about 300,000 Canadian viewers each week. She talks to some audiences about HIV/AIDS and others about sex in one’s later years, but the college crowd is her core constituency. Johanson can’t call a cab without the dispatcher recognizing her voice (he loves her show); she can’t walk through a mall without a deluge of hugs and requests for advice; she can’t pass through the halls of Mohawk College without a ripple of turning heads and “Hi, Sue” and “Look, it’s Sue!” and “I love your show.”

“We’re going to spend the next hour talking about my favorite subject,” she says to the Mohawk students. “Sex.”

Collective scream.

“I said talk.” she clarifies. “Not have.”

For almost two hours, she gives a basic anatomy lecture, talks about penis size (doesn’t matter), sperm counts, orgasms (highly overrated), tampons, clitoral versus penile sensitivity (2 to 1!), and continuous birth control (taking a monophasic pill for three months nonstop, with no menstruation). She presents and describes her favorite sex toys, including price and battery requirements. Her delivery style is Lucille Ball crossed with C. Everett Koop, and when she imitates a man’s self-admiration session in the bathroom mirror, you can practically see the penis flopping about as she bounces, pelvis first, across the stage.

Her language is bawdy, which serves both to shock and entertain—a sleight of hand on her part to distract while she delivers solid, lifesaving information. “I’d love if you could learn about sex at home, as you were growing up,” she tells the audience. “That would be ideal. But I’m a mother. I can talk to anyone else about sex because I don’t give a f — what you do. But when it comes to my beautiful daughter, I don’t want her to be a slut, sleaze-bag, ho, the local bicycle—everyone gets a ride.”

Huge laugh. But they hear her. They’re listening.

People clearly feel comfortable opening up to Johanson. “My age makes it so much easier,” she says. “I’m older, married, have kids—I’ve been there, done this. I’m almost like Grandma, and because I’m a nurse, I’m comfortable with medical information. You tell me a sex fact and it sticks. Also, I always look slightly disheveled, and that suits me just fine. People say, ‘I don’t look so bad. Look at her: She’s got turkey neck, wrinkles, crow’s-feet. Hoary old broad, isn’t she?'”

Johanson won’t reveal her age beyond saying she grew up in Canada’s Dirty Thirties. For nearly ten years, a dust bowl-like drought plagued the nation and marked those who lived through it with a hard-scrabble attitude toward life. Johanson lost both her mother and stepmother early on and had a spirited but alcoholic father who couldn’t support the family. An unexpected inheritance changed her life; as a young wife and mother, Johanson became independently wealthy. Her earlier deprivations stayed with her, and to this day she is unrepentantly cheap. On her shows, she suggests less expensive homemade versions of sex toys (one involves bubble wrap and lubricant). Her bathroom is filled with not one but two baskets full of hotel toiletries, and when she has lunch after the Mohawk talk, the last, half-eaten piece of chicken on her KFC platter is carefully wrapped in napkins and dropped into her purse for later.

Wealth also didn’t take away Johanson’s drive to work, which she believes is prompted largely by ego. “People say, ‘You’re a savior.’ No. Work primarily meets my need for attention, which is not necessarily healthy, but as long as it is under control and provides a service to the world, it’s okay.”

Although Canada’s sex curricula have advanced since Johanson started, she still finds that most educational programs focus on anatomical facts, not sex. “I have never yet had a question about fallopian tubes or luteinizing hormones. I get: ‘Will it hurt the first time? How old do I have to be before I have sex? Is it okay to jerk off five times a day?'”

She’s virtually unflappable and as open to questions about how to get semen out of silk (“a good dry cleaner…and tell him to aim better”) as she is to whether Depo-Provera is harmful (“I worry about being on it for long periods, since it decreases the absorption of calcium”). When callers pose a problem, Johanson sits back in her chair, rests her chin on her hand, and knits her brow as she tries to come up with a solution. “Have you tried having her bend over the end of the couch?” she says to Jerry from Ottawa in the same voice you’d expect her to discuss unmolding Jell-O.

Johanson doesn’t always take a caller’s question at face value. Someone wonders about low sex drive and Johanson asks how the relationship is going. Another person complains that her boyfriend’s penis is too big; she advises the woman to use more lubrication, engage in more foreplay, and try being on top during sex. “You’re not powerless in this situation,” she encourages. “You can do this.”

At the end of the Mohawk talk, Johanson is besieged by autograph seekers, broadcast majors who beg for internships, and people who just want to be near her. Five high school girls from the nearby town of Guelph have skipped school to come hear Johanson, and they take pictures with her in rotation.

Johanson seems satisfied that the session went well. The college radio station begs 15 minutes more of her time, and station staff want photos, too. After the hourlong drive back home (in her sporty blue Celica), she is showing signs of wear. But she’ll get a good night’s rest and be back at it tomorrow. As flexible as she is about other people’s sex lives, she has rigidly assumed her own favorite position—the missionary.