Sue Johanson | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Sue Johanson

Susan Avis Bayley Johanson (née Powell), CM, sex educator, broadcaster, nurse (born 29 July 1930 in Toronto, ON; died 28 June 2023 in Thornhill, ON). An iconic Canadian to generations of teenagers, Sue Johanson was a pioneer of sex-positive sex education. An advocate for birth control, safe sex and good sexual health, Johanson was well known for her frank, earnest and often humorous approach to sexuality. Her US TV program, Talk Sex with Sue Johanson (2002–08), was broadcast in 23 countries. She also hosted a radio call-in program and a TV program in Canada and wrote a newspaper column and three books.

Early Life and Education

Sue Johanson was born in Toronto in 1930. Her father was a decorated veteran of the First World War who served in the Royal Flying Corps and later in the Royal Air Force. Her mother was a homemaker from an affluent Irish-Protestant family. Johanson’s mother passed away when Sue was just 10 years old. She was mostly raised by an aunt.

She completed high school in Kenora, Ontario, and then went to Winnipeg to become a registered nurse. She studied under the direction of nuns at St. Boniface Hospital. Johanson later recounted that the nuns insisted sexual intercourse was only for procreation within a marriage.

She met Ejnor Karl Johanson, an electrician, shortly before beginning her nursing studies and married him shortly after graduating. She gave birth to three children at 10-month intervals. In the 1950s, the couple moved to Toronto to manage Johanson’s aunt’s real estate business.

Johanson was well known in her community as someone who was easy to talk to, particularly for teenagers and young adults. She found her calling after helping a neighbourhood girl, a peer of her eldest daughter, deal with an unexpected pregnancy and the subsequent illegal abortion. Johanson felt strongly that, so long as youth were having sex without their parents’ knowledge or consent, they should also be able to get birth control without their parents’ knowledge or consent.

Photo of a pack of birth control pills

Early Career

Sue Johanson’s life’s work as a sex educator began when she opened a sexual health clinic at a Toronto high school in 1970. This was just one year after birth control became legal in Canada. (Abortion remained illegal in Canada, unless approved by a panel of doctors, until 1988.) She went on to run the clinic for 18 years. It was effectively one of Toronto’s birth control clinics.

Johanson was alarmed by how many teens were having unprotected sex. She felt that better education would prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). She has related that she would frequently receive phone calls from distressed or irate parents, upset that their child was using birth control. Johanson noted that while parents were initially upset to know their children were sexually active, she reminded them that they were also intelligent and mature enough to plan ahead and protect themselves. Johanson noted that parents typically responded well to this.

Johanson always considered herself a sex educator first and foremost. She spent much of the 1970s and 1980s teaching sex ed in schools across Canada.

Career Highlights

In 1984, Sue Johanson began her broadcasting career with the launch of the Sunday Night Sex Show with Sue on Toronto rock radio station Q107. In 1985, Johanson started a separate show on Rogers community television in Toronto called Talking Sex with Sue. She worked on her radio and TV programs concurrently.

Johanson addressed topics, demographics and issues that were often ignored by mainstream sex education. In addition to her frank and open discussion about all aspects of sex, Johanson was well known for her comedic instincts and excellent timing. These attributes helped her defuse the tension that could accompany discussions of sex and sexuality.

From 2002 to 2005, Johanson was hosting two major sex education programs that aired back to back: the Sunday Night Sex Show in Canada and Talk Sex with Sue Johanson (2002–08) in the US. The latter program ran for 174 episodes and was broadcast in 23 countries. Her programs regularly fielded 100,000 questions about sex from the public, though typically only a dozen or so would make it to air. She was also a regular guest on TV talk shows in both Canada and the US. (She was reportedly one of David Letterman’s favourite guests.)

Johanson frequently said that she believed her popularity was due to the fact that she was, in her words, neither young nor beautiful. She didn’t have physical attributes people might find arousing or intimidating. She looked the part of an elder aunt or grandmother. But most importantly, she had the information people were looking for and a kind, approachable personality.

Johanson also received many free sex toys directly from manufacturers. Having received so many, she decided to give them to her assistants and production crew, asking for their feedback. She called it “the unofficial sex toy testing facility of Canada.” She would occasionally comment and critique the toys in her live appearances, pulling them out of her “hot stuff bag” — a tote bag with flames on it.

An iconic Canadian to generations of teenagers, Johanson played a fictionalized version of herself on Degrassi Junior High, and Degrassi: The Next Generation. She also authored three books: Talk Sex: Answers to Questions You Can’t Ask Your Parents (1988), Sex Is Perfectly Natural but Not Naturally Perfect (1991), and Sex, Sex and More Sex: 101 Questions and Answers (1995).

Honours and Awards

Sue Johanson was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2000. She was noted for her tireless advocacy for good sexual health, as well as her non-judgmental personality and candid demeanour.

The University of Toronto’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies awarded Johanson their Citizenship Award in 2010 for advancement and education of issues surrounding sexual education in Canada.

Johanson’s life and career was the subject of a 2022 documentary entitled Sex with Sue by Canadian filmmaker Lisa Rideout. It won the 2023 Canadian Screen Award for Best Documentary Program.

See also Sue Johanson (Profile).

Further Reading